Envoys from Portugal, Japan and Poland relayed stories of their diplomats’ Holocaust heroism to the London Jewish Cultural Centre’s HMD ceremony at its Golders Green premises.
The Portuguese ambassador, Joao de Vallera, told a packed house — including many survivors — about the help to Jews given by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, his country’s consul-general in Bordeaux in late 1940. Mendes defied explicit instructions from his government not to issue transit visas for Jewish refugees under any circumstances, signing-off on tens of thousands of visas before the arrival of the Nazi forces.
After being expelled from the Portuguese diplomatic service, Mendes died destitute in 1954 but, through the efforts of one of his daughters, was subsequently recognised as one of the “righteous among the nations” by Yad Vashem. In 1995, Portugal awarded him the Great Cross of the Order of Christ, one of the highest and most ancient of its decorations.
Japanese ambassador Keiichi Hayashi talked about Chiune Sugihara, a diplomat serving in Lithuania who saved the lives of thousands of Jews by also issuing transit visas securing their safe passage out of Nazi-occupied territory. Sugihara was also honoured by Yad Vashem.
And deputy Polish ambassador Dariusz Laska discussed Jan Kozielewski (later Karski), who joined one of the first anti-Nazi resistance movements in Europe, smuggling himself into the Warsaw Ghetto at great personal risk as part of his mission to bring the first reports of the Holocaust to Britain and the US. Karski was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian award, by Barack Obama in 2012.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Laska said that participating in the LJCC event was “not only an obligation but an honour for me. It’s an obligation because we must always remember what happened over 70 years ago, but we must also educate the younger generations to ensure something like this never happens again.”
Diplomats from Germany, Austria and Romania also attended, as did Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer, who spoke passionately about why Holocaust remembrance resonated so strongly with him.
“People often say to me, particularly in Parliament: ‘Mike, obviously you fight for Jewish issues because you are Jewish.’ Actually I’m not. Then they say it’s because I represent a large Jewish community. That may be true, but that’s not the reason I do it.
“If the Holocaust happened today, I may not have been on the transport [trains] wearing a yellow star, but I would have been there wearing a pink triangle [for homosexuals]. It’s important to remember that the Holocaust affected a range of people and those of us who are not Jewish share the pain and the history. Because like the Jewish community, many of us would not have survived either.”
LJCC chair Michael Marx said the diplomats’ stories showed that the “capacity to show true humanity is not owned by any one race, religion or nationality.
“Their example is the standard we must strive for. That in similar circumstances we would rise to the challenge of defying authority, sacrificing our own safety to protect the vulnerable men, women and children unable to protect themselves.”