Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story is a gripping docu-drama showcasing at this year’s Jewish Film Festival in Sarasota. SRQ Backlot had the pleasure of meeting with Robert Jacobvitz founder of the International Committee to Commemorate Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, and currently the State of Florida representative of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, to tell us more about how the foundation and film came to be.
“It’s been a 28-year journey to arrive here,” says Jacobvitz. “That’s how long it’s been since I first heard the name Aristides de Sousa Mendes.” He recalls the date, March 17, 1986, on which he read about Sousa Mendes in a local newspaper. At the time Jacobvitz lived in Oakland, California and was the executive director of the JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council.) The article was written by one of Sousa Mendes’ sons, John Paul Abranches, who wrote the story in an effort to reclaim his father’s honor.
In 1938 Sousa Mendes was appointed Consul-General of Bordeaux France, giving him jurisdiction over all of southwest France during World War II. During this period millions of refugees flooded the city of Bordeaux in hopes of acquiring a visa to escape from the Germans during their invasion of France. Though Sousa Mendes had instructions from the Portuguese government not to issue any visas to “inconvenient or dangerous” war refugees under the Circular 14, ordered on November 11, 1939, Sousa Mendes believed he had a greater obligation to save innocent lives. Despite the threat of the stringent dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, he began to issue visas to as many refugees as he could, more than 30,000 (an estimated 10,000 being Jewish refugees.) This lead to Sousa Mendes being striped of his title and ultimately erased from Portuguese history, in accordance with Salazar’s demands.
Aristides De Sousa Mendes died in relative poverty without a title or recognition for his heroic acts. Jacobvitz read of Sousa Mendes’ story and felt compelled to make his name known. “He saved more Jewish lives than any other single person during the Nazi terror,” he stresses. John Paul Abranches’ plea to have his father honored touched Jacobvitz and he began the International Committee to Commemorate Dr. Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
“We began lobbying congress to little avail until contacting Tony Coelho, who was majority whip at the time,” Jacobvitz explains, “he became an advocate for the recognition of Sousa Mendes.”
Coelho is of Portuguese decent and he was outraged with the Portuguese government for their blacklisting of Sousa Mendes and refusal to acknowledge him.
Finally, after working with Collette Avital, Israeli diplomat and politician, Portugal decided to issue a long-overdue apology. Mário Soares, who served as the 17th President of Portugal, publically apologized to the Sousa Mendes’ family and descendants as well as the Jewish community on behalf of the Portuguese government. Sousa Mendes was posthumously reinstated in the diplomatic corps and was even promoted and issued the Cross of Merit.
Currently, Jacobvitz works with the Foundation to continue to locate those who were saved thanks to Sousa Mendes efforts; so far they have identified 6,000. Though this is Jacobvitz third appearance with the Committee at a Jewish Film Festival, he previously attended the Palm Beach and Broward Jewish Film Festivals, he’s still moved to meet those who are here as a direct result of Sousa Mendes.
At last night’s screening of Disobedience at Temple Sinai, Jacobvitz met two women both of whose family was saved by Sousa Mendes, Claudia Friedman Segal and Madeline Abidean. “So many of us wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Sousa Mendes,” Jacobvitz says, “This is why this is such a powerful film.”