Bordeaux 24-June-2010

Voyage en hommage à Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Day 4

Exhausted as I was last night, I stayed up until nearly 5:00AM writing (and then re-writing) my journal entry. I dressed hurriedly this morning, and took a very quick breakfast in the hotel, as I had a special side-trip to make before our first reception.

I boarded the tram with the representatives of the Habsburg Foundation, and Eva Demmerle asked me if I was going to visit the house of my grandparents -- I had mentioned yesterday that I had the address and wanted to see it.

My father's 'fragmentary chronology' said he lived at 6 Rue de La Croix Blanche, and in fact I have two original utility bills (electric and gas) from 1939-40 showing this address.


Based on the dates of the visa issued by the Spanish consulate in Bordeaux (14-September-1939) and the visa granted by Aristides de Sousa Mendes (17-May-1940) I now know that the Oesterreichers lived here in Bordeaux for at least eight months.

Program for 24 June



I hopped off the tram by the église Saint-Bruno and the Cemetery de la Chartreuse, and walked through the morning sunlight along Rue de Lachassaigne, then turned left when I got to Rue de La Croix Blanche, arriving at the house a little after 10:00AM.

Beside the door to the apartment house, was a café table – the café was, rather ironically I thought, called Pain Viennoiserie (a Viennese bakery beside the former house of the Oesterreichers!) – after taking photos of the house I ordered a coffee. I sat beside the door and gazed across the street, and looked at a view that must have been quite familiar to my father as young boy. The sensation of walking in his footsteps was profound.

The people working in the café wondered aloud why I was taking such photos, and with my poor command of French I explained that my father and grandparents came here from Vienna and lived in the house in 1940. The cashier obligingly took my photo beside the door.

I then walked along the rue Judaique (Jewish Road) into the city center, and was just on time for our first reception at the Prefecture of the Aquitaine Region. I told my story to a young Frenchman who is about to attend Cornell University, before the welcoming remarks of Dominique Schmitt, Prefect of the region.

We enjoyed such delicacies as quail eggs and caviar at the buffet, and then toured the beautiful salons where historic events took place, featured in the film we saw last night: "Juin 1940: la République meurt à Bordeaux"– effectively the site of the death of the old French republic and the establishment of the Vichy government.

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The second reception was at the Hôtel de Ville de Bordeaux, hosted by Alain Juppé, former Prime Minister of France, and mayor of Bordeaux. After the M. Juppé and Manuel Dias spoke, my new and dear friend Sebastian Michael Mendes took the podium. He spoke about his father Sebastiao’s remembrance of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, and told of his participation in the invasion of Normandy with the US Army. It was a touching story, and we could all empathize with Sebastian as he was nearly overcome with emotion.

Eric Lebreton needed to depart after this meeting, and I asked him to sign my copy of his book, "Des Visas Pour La Vie" -- he wrote a very nice dedication, in French -- roughly translated, the last line reads,
"if we are united in our love for Aristides, so are we united in our love of Neil Young!" Needless to say, I liked Eric very much!


There was a general strike today, a protest against the raising of the national retirement age from 60 to 62. Since the trams were not running, we walked through the historic city center to le Jardin Publique where we enjoyed a brief lunch at a restaurant overlooking the gardens. In honor of my grandfather, I ordered Salade de Saint Jacques: sea scallops, lettuce and pancetta.

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We then paid a brief visit to the Goethe Institute to have a peek at their documentary exhibit on Aristides de Sousa Mendes – as it is the same exhibit which we will see in Bayonne, and we are soon due at the Portuguese Consulate, we stay only a very short while.

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Manuela Caldas Faria received us at the Portuguese Consulate, and had a joyful reunion with the members of the Sousa Mendes family, and was genuinely pleased to meet me and the Jarvik family as well. Aristides Sousa Mendes made a speech in English and Portuguese which was translated into French by Louis Philippe. This was another very moving speech, as Aristides made it a point to explain that his grandfather’s wife Angelina also played an important role, and knowingly made a tremendous sacrifice, in saving the refugees in Bordeaux. Consul Faria was visibly moved by this.

Once again we were treated to Portuguese specialties: custard pastries, and truly exquisite vin vert and port wines. It was a beautiful afternoon spent in the salon and courtyard of the consulate, and many members of the delegation shared that this was an especially peaceful and lovely day. Myself, I felt increasingly comfortable, acclimated, and well loved by the family of Sousa Mendes and the rest of the delegation.

Consul Faria shared that this was a great pleasure for her as well – she is returning to Lisbon and has had a busy schedule preparing to turn the Consulate over to her successor, and conducting many meetings of a more business-like nature. She expressed great interest in looking at the original documents from 1939-40 which I brought, and was eager to also show them to one of the consular employees who worked with Aristides de Sousa Mendes’ assistant (José Seabra?) in his last two years at the old consulate.





Patricia Stenger made a very touching remark while she was translating my comments for a journalist who wanted to interview me. She said it was as if the family of the descendants of Sousa Mendes and the descendants of the refugees he helped save were becoming one extended family, and if we could find all of those descendants, it could be the biggest family in the world! (It is estimated that Sousa Mendes saved well over 35,000 people -- their descendants would now number in the 100s of thousands.)

Hellen, Kevin, Armand, the Finks, Jerry Jarvik and I took our time walking to the Synagogue for the evening reception and concert. We toured the contemporary art museum (Entrepôt Lainé or Laine’s Warehouse) and had mixed feelings about the multimedia exhibition, “Left Behind” by Jim Shaw.

We walked along the river bank, and although there was a wine festival taking place along the promenade, we did not stop to drink any as we have been treated to excellent wine continuously since arriving in Bordeaux. Instead we stopped for refreshing cold beverages (plus one hot caffeinated one for Hellen). It was very warm and sunny, and I enjoyed the opportunity to get a greater sense of this lovely city.



We arrived at le Consistoire of the Jewish Cultural Association of the Gironde, its offices attached to le Grande Synagogue de Bordeaux. Georges Bouhana made an impressive speech about the moral lesson and example of righteousness set by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, reminding us that racism and intolerance are still a present threat, and that this history must be transmitted to future generations.

We heard a magnificent performance of traditional Portuguese music (Fado) by the choral group O Sol de Portugal, which Manuel Diaz sings in regularly. The music and the feelings I was experiencing moved me to tears yet again.

After this lovely interlude, there was another opportunity to refresh ourselves and enjoy some hors d'œuvres before "Le Concert pour Les Justes" in the Grand Synagogue.






We entered the gorgeous synagogue and took seats for the special program, an operatic and chorale performance dedicated to the memory of Aristides de Sousa Mendes. It was an immense performance by the musicians, the choir, baritone Mickaël Guedj, and a wonderful child prodigy. This outstanding cultural performance brought me tears of joy, and probably also to everyone else in the completely full synagogue.

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After the concert we bid farewell to actor Armand Eloi who returns to Paris tomorrow. Ms. Michael Fink remarked that he has the same bearing as Gerard Depardieu, a fitting comparison -- Armand is a very charming and kind hearted man.




We returned en masse to the Hotel Alton, and proceeded to form a little ‘after party’ in the garden. We shared a few bottles of the excellent Medoc which were given to us each as a gift from the committee (Chateau Preuillac 1999). In the end, it was four of the Americans and the representatives of the Habsburg Foundation discussing global politics and history – a fascinating discussion and a most interesting end to our time with these distinguished and lovely people. Gerhard Dressler, Eva Demmerle, and her mother return to Germany tomorrow, but I intend to keep in touch with them.

Today I really felt a lot of love coming and going in all directions, and was so very happy to feel part of something so monumental, so inspiring, and so historically and ethically significant.