We just begun a new year, new decade and as so many others I took a retrospective over the past year, 2019. I scanned the year through my mind and memory awareness field but it was only when I looked through the images in my photo gallery I remembered an experience that touched me very deeply.
In June while working as a Cruise Director on the Douro river, when one of my guests (let’s call her Sue), a beautiful lady approached my desk holding a very old document and a big book in her arms. She laid the book down looked me in the eye and asked: “Do you know this book?” The title read: Vilar Formoso – Frontier of Peace by Margarida de Magalhães Ramalho. I had never heard of the book let alone seen it, I told Sue.
She opened it to a side she obviously had marked with a post-it and showed me a family portrait of a couple with two little girls. The caption explained it was a photo from 1940. “Look the little one, that’s me and my family in Portugal whilst we were waiting for our tickets to leave Europe”. I understood immediately. Looking at the picture in this book and then at her again my eyes instantly filled with tears. She then held up the old document, in fact a passport and I could see a visa issued by the Consul of Bordeaux. I almost forgot to breathe and my skin turned into a field of goosebumps. This woman and her family escaped the Holocaust and now she and her sister, the same as on that very picture, were here on my cruise to revisit Portugal for the first time almost 80 years later.
“Could we go there?” Before I continue with my reaction to her request, let me go back in history and see why Sue and her family arrived here during WW II. Portugal was neutral during the war but nevertheless ran under a dictatorship by a man called Salazar. In 1938 Salazar appointed one of his diplomats, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, as Consul of Bordeaux in France and this is the beginning of a story that meant life and the possibility to live it for so many. The Consul, disobeying Salazar’s orders not to issue papers for anyone trying to escape Hitlers sanguine hands, in fact went on to save as many lives as he possibly could, signing around 30.000 visas, hence enabling these people to travel safely through Spain and enter Portugal, where in most cases they were able to board a ship bringing them to the USA. Most likely he would have helped many more, but Salazar finding out about his doings stopped and subsequently punished de Sousa Mendes with a year of inactivity after which he was forced to retire. Apparently, in 1954 by the time of his death he was completely impoverished.
In 1940 Sue’s parents had managed to get the family of 4 from Eastern Europe to Bordeaux where they were able to obtain one of those visas. After transiting through Spain they arrived in Portugal and found a first refuge in the little town of Vilar Formoso, a border town between Spain and Portugal. After some time they eventually managed to get 4 tickets and continue their escape on a ship to the USA. For details unknown to me they weren’t able to emigrate into the country. Continuing their journey first to Asia, where they lived for around a year in a camp by Hong Kong their odyssey eventually found its final destination in Australia, where they built a new life and future.
In 2017 a museum was opened in Vilar Formoso to remember and honour the flight corridor created through the Consul’s unwillingness to close his eyes. The above mentioned book is a compilation of the people he helped and their stories, in which the author also mentions Sue’s family. After an odyssey of its own kind to find them, she then made sure Sue and her sister would get a copy of this publication dedicated to them and all the others that passed through this place.
Now coming back to the request, I explained that it was not on our schedule and I was unable to deviate from the established program but I promised to try finding a way to get them there and back to our ship. She then told me she had already contacted the museum and they knew of them possibly coming for a visit during the month of June, but after all they hadn’t been helpful. I started to research, make phone calls and after contacting the museum and the town’s mayor myself, a car was arranged to pick them up in Barca D’Alva, the closest place we docked and a 70 minutes drive away from Vilar Formoso. All the while me joining the rest of the cruise on a day trip to Salamanca. After our return later that day, Sue and her sister were already standing at the reception excited to tell me how the visit had gone. They were radiant. The mayor and director of the museum welcomed the sisters with a little reception, lots of pictures were taken and of course they were shown through the museum filled with all the background knowledge they had been too young to remember.
Sue and her sister hugged me strongly with tears in their eyes, thanking me and saying they would never forget this day and that this trip had surpassed anything they thought would be possible. And I never felt so grateful, happy and rewarded for having put in all that extra work to sort it all out for them. I too shall never forget that day. When reading or hearing about the Consul, I have always been moved by this man’s courage and acts, but now for the first time I would meet someone he saved in person!