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Utah men uncover special connection to WWII

By Anne Forester | Posted - Aug. 19, 2010 at 10:12 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A Portuguese diplomat risked everything to save the lives of thousands of people during World War II. One of those lives was that of an 8-year-old boy who now calls Utah his home, and he finally got a chance to express his gratitude 70 years later.

Daniel Mattis was only 8 years old when a Portuguese diplomat risked everything to save his life, and the lives of thousands of others, during World War II.

In 1940, an unstable Europe was falling into the hands of Adolf Hitler's armies. Daniel Mattis was just 8-years-old and living in Belgium. He and his family were among the thousands of Jews and refugees desperately trying to flee.

"There were crowds of people who were trying to escape," Mattis recalled. "We were always ahead of the invading armies."

In the spring, the Nazis invaded Belgium. Mattis and his family narrowly escaped.

"The Germans bombed Brussels; and the 10th of May we took a train, and it turned out to be the last train to go to Paris," Mattis said.

The family traveled south to Bordeaux, an unoccupied zone in France. It wouldn't be long until the German armies would follow, but the family would need visas to travel further -- something nearly impossible to get for thousands of refugees.

Then: a glimmer of hope. Rumors spread that a Portuguese consul stationed in France could issue the needed papers.

"My father met somebody in the streets who told him to go to the Portuguese Embassy because they were giving out visas," Mattis said.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes

The family now had a way out of France, not knowing who had helped them leave the country.

Aristides Mendes didn't know his grandfather, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, but knows the stories.

"Some people were even opposed in the family to what he did, but eventually they all decided it was the right thing to do," Aristides Mendes said.

Aristides Mendes' grandfather was the man responsible for saving the lives of thousands of people. In three days, Sousa Mendes issued some 30,000 visas, disobeying strict government orders.

"What he decided to do is break the law and help everyone: ‘From now on, no more rules. These are people's lives we're talking about. Let's just help everyone,'" Aristides Mendes said.

The diplomat risked everything to help people he didn't even know.

"What he decided to do is break the law and help everyone: ‘From now on, no more rules. These are people's lives we're talking about. Let's just help everyone.'" Aristides Mendes, grandson of Sousa Mendes

"He knew he could have been killed, shot, executed back then," Aristides Mendes said.

His grandson says he did it because he knew it was right, but his extraordinary act cost him. Sousa Mendes was banned from working for the government and died in disgrace and poverty in 1954.

Mattis never had the chance to meet Sousa Mendes. He didn't even know about him until about 20 years ago.

By pure coincidence, Mattis and Sousa Mendes' grandson live in Utah. The Mattis family found Aristides Mendes online and arranged for the two to meet.

That day, they shared stories from their past. Now the two share a bond neither one will ever forget.

"One doesn't expect things that are that far back, that are buried in your memory, to suddenly become alive," Mattis said.

"It's just unexpected. It's a thrill, and it's generations later," Aristides Mendes said.


Anne Forester

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