Last Exit from Europe
While at the Radcliffe Institute, I plan—among other things—to work on my book of creative nonfiction, “Last Exit from Europe: How One Man Defied a Dictatorship, Outsmarted the Nazis, and Saved 30,000 Refugees.” With its focus on dictatorships, immigrants, and refugees, this book will tell a compelling story that has parallels to, and much to say about, the current political situation.
“Last Exit from Europe” centers around Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France at the onset of World War II. In an extraordinary act of moral courage rooted in his devout Catholicism, Sousa Mendes defied the dictatorship in Lisbon (which had effectively banned life-saving visas for Jews and others Hitler deemed undesirable) and issued some 30,000 visas to refugees fleeing the Nazis as their war machine rumbled south through France. Without documents from Sousa Mendes, all of these people—bottlenecked in Bordeaux as the Germans advanced—faced near-certain deportation to concentration camps. Among those thus spared were Salvador Dali, H.A. Rey (author of the Curious George series), Archduke Otto von Habsburg (a primary architect of post-war European integration), Robert Montgomery (an Oscar-nominated actor), Barons Maurice, Edward, and Eugene de Rothschild, and hundreds more academics, actors, directors, and playwrights. Sousa Mendes himself was a wealthy aristocrat—son of a judge on the Portuguese equivalent of the Supreme Court. And yet, after his act of conscience, he was recalled to Portugal, fired, and disbarred—leaving him, his wife, and his 12 children utterly destitute. In short order his wife died and he suffered two debilitating strokes. At the time of his death, Sousa Mendes was living in abject poverty, hacking apart his furniture for fuel and taking his meals at a synagogue soup kitchen in Lisbon. Indeed, because undertakers could find no decent clothes among his effects, he was buried in a monk’s habit provided by a local hospital.
I would very much like to work with two research partners—a French speaker and a Portuguese speaker, ideally (although language skills are not required). Much of the research for this book, like my last book, involves work with old documents: letters, government reports, investigations, books—that, taken together, tell the story of this remarkable man. In addition to some general research into Portugal and France during the Second World War, I would like assistance translating documents and interviews from French and Portuguese into English. This work would not only be interesting for anyone interested in World War II, Europe, the Holocaust, or history more generally; but would be excellent research experience for students considering careers in academia, journalism, translation, or writing.