For John Prins of Rockville Center, an event this weekend at the Mineola Memorial Library honoring a holocaust hero hit very close to home.
Prins, 71, and his family were just a few of the 30,000 refugees that were issued visas by Portugal Counsel-General Aristides de Sousa Mendes in Nazi-occupied France in 1940. In doing so, Mendes disregarded a policy set by Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, a Adolf Hitler sympathizer. Mendes was found guilty of “disobeying higher orders during service,” and later descended into poverty.
But 57 years after his death, generations of families understand that they would not be around if it wasn’t for Sousa Mendes’ bravery.
“He was the only man who stood up and said ‘I have a conscience,'” said Prins, who left France as a child. He wasn’t aware until just recently that his life was changed because of the actions of one man.
Prins was invited by Olivia Mattis, another child of refugees who put together the exhibit in honor of Mendes. Twenty panels lined the walls in the library, each signifying an important chapter in what led to the Portuguese ambassador to issue those 30,000 visas.
The event was intended to help bring attention to the Sousa Mendes Foundation, which hopes to raise money for a museum and to honor the memory of Mendes.
The four-hour memorial featured the film The Counsul of Bordeaux, which told Mendes’ story. Over 50 children of Portuguese descent also attended the memorial to learn about the man who rescued thousands of children in 1940.
Before the event, Prins stood in front of a panel that had the names of hundreds of the refugees who were issued visas. As he talked about his family’s history, Prins leaned over to the panel of names and pointed to his family, and friends that left France.
“It’s stupefying,” he said. “I’m here to pay my respects to him.”
Each panel told a story of the Holocaust, Mendes and refugees who made it out of France. In the briefcase of two refugees, Margaret and Hans Rey, was the manuscript of Curious George. The first book was published in New York in 1941, one year after they were issued visas to leave France.
Mattis said Mendes was honored in 1966 as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”–a distinction given to a select few non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the World War II.
“It’s something I have great respect for,” Prins said. “It is to think independently and do what you think is right, and the hell with everybody saying, and the hell with the quote law, and all the rest of it.”
When Mendes was on trial for disobeying direct orders he defended his decision to help because he was “obeying the dictates of humanity, that distinguish between neither race nor nationality.”
He said in his Aug. 12, 1940 defendants response: “It was indeed my aim to save all those people whose suffering was indescribable: some had lost their spouses, others had no news of missing children, others had seen their loved ones succumb to German bombings which occurred every day and did not spare the terrified refugees,” says Mendes in one of the panels created by Mattis.
A grandchild of Mendes told Mattis that he did not expect the degree of punishment that he was handed. “He kept having hopes of being rehabilitated,” Mattis said.
His family later lost everything, including their family home.
But through a foundation created in Portugal, in 2001 the home was reacquired by the Mendes family. Now, the family is trying to turn the home into a museum with the help of The Sousa Mendes Foundation, which was founded last year.
As for Prins, he will never forget the man who helped his family to make it to New York.
“How do you say thank you because you’re alive?” Prins asked.
“Well I have a motto,” he said, “I shall not forget.”
Visit the foundation website at: www.sousamendesfoundation.org/