By Salim Bachi
Sample translation by Gretchen Schmid
I disobeyed in front of God and in front of men and I don’t know which of these sins was harder to bear, even though both were committed in the name of love.
It’s a long time now that I’ve been atoning for my sins, and it seems to me that God, after having tormented me, is finally deigning to forgive me.
Here at the Franciscan Hospital da Ordem Terceira, in the lively neighborhood of Chiado, I will once again don the habit of Saint François, that long and heavy tunic admired so long ago in Florence, in the Santa Croce church, on one of those bright and clear days that seemed like a promise of peace and infinite joy: the church that I entered with Angelina, my first wife, God rest her soul, and where I admired the fresco in which Saint François, surrounded by his disciples, lay resting on his catafalque.
Ever since, the figure of the saintly man has not left my thoughts. He appeared to me in a distressing vision during the weeks of June 1940 in Bordeaux, when Germany was preparing to occupy France. This simple image stayed with me all through the days and the nights that signified my Calvary, my disgrace and my joy.
Now that I’m about to die, my body halfway useless and surrounded by cold darkness, I find myself kneeling in front of the reclining figure painted by the great Giotto, like a shadow among the praying monks. I dream, it goes without saying, my sweet Andrée, but it’s a dream that seems real, and when I touch the habit of the officiants, I can feel the grain, the rough cloth, I extend my hand towards the clean-shaven and lifeless face of the poor man, I’m crying, and then I awaken.
A man’s life is sketched first by hand, the artist fills in the blank spaces, refines a feature, gives dimension to a flat surface by adding shadow or color, he gives life to a form with a little bit of soul; the drawing is then finished, it will never be erased from this large sheet of paper, you have to throw it away in order to make another, my beautiful Andrée. In the same way, for me, the drawing is finished, and now it is time for me to bid adieu to the world.
I’m not sad, for I’ve done my duty as a man. I’ve lived, started a family, raised my twelve children. I saw two of them die. I wouldn’t wish this ordeal on anyone. I attended to my wife Angelina until her last breath. Poor woman, she had experienced both glory and downfall at my side. I met you in Bordeaux. We loved each other like birds in the trees.
A heavy burden, Andrée, to live in sin and dishonesty, it made my hair grow white, and you didn’t want to leave me. You were young yet, the age of Pedro Nuño, my son. Then you became pregnant, I couldn’t hide it anymore, I confessed, I told Angelina.
I’m not stupid, I know that a woman never forgives this type of thing, never, but she tolerated it; and when the time of atonement came, she stayed at my side, accepting everything, defeat and poverty as though she had wanted to share the ultimate test with me: the disintegration of our social life, the disappearance of me that kept us apart from that ardent heart of infinite love that God spills every day on each man and woman, every speck of dust, on the ants, bees, flowers, trees, on every animal, from the smallest to the largest, from the vertebrates to the formless, on the fields of wheat blowing in the wind, when the golden grain dances with the light, on the murky and restless sea, on the oceans and the frozen poles, on every continent, from Africa to America, from Asia to old Europe, on the streets of France where so many are dead, trapped in an absurd and thankless war, pushed in front of enemy cannons by the insane, much more insane than us.
I broke apart slowly, my dear Andrée, a little like the atomic bomb: that diabolic creation, feeding itself with its own energy, a backwards sun, concentrated on one glowing point in infinite space. God’s love destroys you in order to better cleanse you of impurities. We are a mass of desires, of madness, of atoms that we must burn to reach true faith, true love. That’s what I accomplished by disobeying, all those saved lives. It was only the beginning of the purification, the spark of ignition before reaching critical mass, the first fission, the one that would set off the chain reaction.
Angelina wasn’t obliged to accept it, she could have left with our youngest children, wrapped in the dignity of a scorned woman, and Salazar would have rewarded her to weaken me further.
Earthworm, madman of a consul whose decisions were annulled, dismissed without explanation, reduced to a quarter of his salary, forced into retirement, stripped of his rights, rejected by society, while splendid Portugal came out of the Second World War haloed with immense prestige: homeland of political exiles, land and refuge of great tragedy, a great lie believed by America and England, and of course Salazar taking credit for my work while I – Aristides de Sousa Mendes – disappeared.
I’m recounting this obscure part of history so as not to tarnish the saintly image of Portugal with Salazar, friend of refugees from all nations and races, a forgery, a worldwide swindle, constructed from my ruin and my forced disappearance, my exile, illness and misery, and finally my death.
Angelina stayed at my side, stoic, even though she knew about us, about our daughter, whom in a certain sense she accepted. Perhaps she wasn’t sure about God’s chastisement in the case of divorce – she didn’t want to lose everything, her husband and her faith, her life and her soul – but at the bottom of her heart, she must have hated me. She was a woman, Andrée, she knew that she had lost a battle and she could never win again except by remaining with me, becoming my remorse and my punishment. She pushed me to redeem myself every day out of fear of God’s chastisement, to act for the good of all, my children, the living and the dead, all the victims of this shameful war.
We opened our offices at 8am and we worked without stopping until the evening, signing hundreds of visas in only one day.
The task was enormous, formidable, beyond my powers, beyond all our powers: my wife, my son, my daughter Isabelle, her husband, Rabbi Kruger and José Seabra. We would have needed even more help to take care of all of those who were filling the consulate, the waiting rooms, sleeping on the stairs, under the entry porch, in front of the sidewalk, on the dock of the Garonne river that snakes somber, brown, like the rivers of Brazil, like the Amazon I had seen in Guyana, but on a more human scale; even though the Garonne also seemed infinite to me, like a story peddled from port to port, from city to city, ever since my birth to the tides like a potbellied Poseidon: I imagined him like that, this ancient god, belligerent, ruler of waves and storms.
I was helped especially by José and by Rabbi Kruger, who had left behind his kippa so that he could move more quickly in the street, hurtling down the stairs empty-handed and returning with dozens of passports that he seemed to pull out of his large black beard.
We had to work fast and we didn’t even look at the papers presented to us anymore, signing them in a frenzy; and if sometimes José, cautious as usual, came to ask me a question about a case that seemed strange or suspect to him, I looked at him as though I didn’t understand, tore the passport from his hands and signed it without so much as a glance, delivering a visa to one more stranger who would become one more survivor.
My only fear was that these visas would be, at one moment or another, denounced by the Portuguese government or refused by other countries: Francoist Spain especially, careful to not oppose Germany which had helped it to defeat the republicans, and Salazar as well who walked the tightrope between England and the Nazis, between the Allies and the Axis powers.
During that time, my dear Andrée, there was great confusion. France was wavering but hadn’t fallen, even if Paul Reynaud had been compelled to resign at the end of that first day when I signed a considerable number of visas. General de Gaulle had returned from London to propose a joint government with the English and was jeered at to the point that he had had to return to where he had come from. This confusion was opportune for the evacuation of a maximum number of refugees, before the blinds were drawn on the greatest tragedy of the century.
I was ignorant of these French dealings, I received some cables and telephone calls that kept me informed of the tragi-comedy of Bordeaux and of the advance of the German army, but I didn’t doubt that the most horrible was still to come, even if the atrocities in Poland and in Belgium were already innumerable. If darkness had fallen in Europe, the wolves hadn’t yet thrown themselves on the prey.
How great was my shock after the war – all of our shock – when we discovered the extent of the massacre, and when we saw, horrified, the camps where millions of Jews were put to death, not only Jews but also Communists, Gypsies, their allies; all this humanity that had presented itself at the consulate of Bordeaux that day and the following days, and that would have perished in these death factories if I hadn’t been there, if my children and me, helped by a rabbi without a kippa, hadn’t provided an extraordinary amount of help.