John Paul Abranches was a quiet man who lived a quiet East Bay life. But when it came to restoring the reputation of his father, a Portuguese diplomat who saved thousands of Holocaust-era Jews, Abranches was anything but quiet.
Abranches died at his Antioch home Feb. 5 at the age of 78, leaving behind a legacy of relentless determination to see justice done.
“He and his siblings were driven because of their sense of honor,” says Robert Jacobvitz, former executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the East Bay and a friend of the Abranches family. “Their life was consumed with the need for the world to understand what his father did.”
Abranches’ father, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, served as Portuguese consul in Bordeaux in 1940, when the German army tightened its noose around France. Jews and others tried to escape into neutral Spain, but the Spanish authorities would not allow refugees to enter Spain without a Portuguese visa.
Against the orders of Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar, who had directed that no Jews or other “undesirables” be allowed visas, in June 1940 Sousa Mendes issued Portuguese visas around the clock to as many refugees as possible without regard to nationality or religion.
He is credited with saving the lives of 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews.
As a result Sousa Mendes was dismissed from the diplomatic corps. He died a pauper in Lisbon in 1954.
In 1967, Sousa Mendes was named a Righteous Gentile by the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. But in his homeland, the late diplomat remained a non-person.
Overturning that became the mission of Sousa Mendes’ 14th and youngest child, John Paul Abranches, who moved to the United States in the early 1950s.
In 1987, Sousa Mendes was posthumously awarded his nation’s Order of Liberty Medal. In 1995, he was granted Portugal’s highest honor and inducted into the Order of Christ. A memorial for the diplomat was erected in Lisbon.
“[My father] did not want to disobey orders,” Abranches told a Massachusetts newspaper in 1987, “but he could not endure the thought of closing his eyes to the approaching tragedy. The danger was obvious.”