Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Easter as Celebration of Heroic Life

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Easter as Celebration of Heroic Life

Article excerpt

Easter commemorates the culmination of the heroic life and death of Jesus, the son of man, who continues to inspire many a heroic deed.

Fifty years ago, the world marked the last Easter of World War II. That war produced many heroes, humble and sublime. Two of the largely unsung ones took great risks to protect Jesus' own people, the Jews.

During World War II, as the Nazis closed in on Paris, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, issued visas to 30,000 fleeing Jews, Poles, French resistance fighters and refugees. Aristides de Sousa Mendes did that during a 72-hour blitz of action and despite the explicit command of Portugal's dictator that visas were not to be issued "to opponents of the Nazi government."

Sousa Mendes and his two sons issued 10,000 visas for Jewish families. He even issued 500 visas from the window of the train that was to carry him home in the custody of the Portuguese secret police. Stopping in Bayonne and still in presumed authority, he ordered the Portuguese consul there to grant visas to everyone waiting in the long line.

Back home, Sousa Mendes was fired, deprived of his pension and severance benefits and forced to flee with his family of 13 children into exile and poverty. He later explained, "If thousands of Jews can suffer because of one Catholic (Hitler), then surely it is permitted for one Catholic to suffer for so many Jews."

Chiune Sugihara, Japanese counsel general in Lithuania, likewise disobeyed orders from Tokyo and issued thousands of visas to fleeing Jews, including 350 Talmudic scholars and 70 rabbis from Poland. The pitying plea of his own 5-year-old son helped convince his conscience. After the war (during which he held a risky post in Berlin and was imprisoned by the Soviets), Sugihara was dismissed from his position and had to struggle to make a living. Sugihara later explained, "What I did might have been wrong for a diplomat, but I could not leave so many lives to fate. …

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