Monday, August 1, 2011

Righteous Among the Nations – Luis Martins de Souza Dantas

This is Getúlio Vargas, the dictator of Brazil between 1930 and 1945.

And this is Luis Martins de Souza Dantas, Brazil’s wartime ambassador to France. Souza Dantas was already serving in Paris when Vargas came to power.

And he was still there in May of 1940, when Hitler invaded the country.

In July of that year, the French government, under the new leadership of Marshall Petain, moved to Vichy.

Souza Dantas moved with it, and it was there, in March of 1943, that the Nazis broke into his office and arrested him.

But, in the intervening, 34 months, Souza Dantas, challenging two dictators at once, was able to save an estimated 800 people from extermination.

Here’s the story:

Vargas’s dictatorship, although nowhere near as brutal as that of Hitler’s, had a strict immigration policy. Diplomats had instructions not to issue visas to “undesirables”. And those “undesirables”, it was specifically stated, included Jews, Communists and Homosexuals.
Souza Dantas issued visas to them anyway.

And he instructed the Brazilian consuls in Cadiz, Casablanca, Paris, Marseilles and Lyon, all of whom reported to him, to do likewise.

When Jews started showing up in Brazilian ports in unprecedented numbers, Souza Dantas was severely reprimanded. He ignored the reprimand and continued to issue the visas.
But he began issuing them in his own hand, so as not to bring down the wrath of the authorities on any member of his staff.
On the 12th of December, 1940, when the flow of refugees still hadn’t stopped, he was ordered to stop issuing visas. Period. He got around that by backdating them, and he was still backdating them when the Nazis arrested him.   

I expect that, before you read this post, you’d never heard of Luis Martins de Souza Dantas.
You won’t find his name in any schoolbooks, even here in Brazil.
But there are many who owe their lives, and the lives of their offspring, to his courageous actions.
His reward? After the war, he was made to resign for insubordination.

On a personal note, Souza Dantas was the great uncle of Elisa Dormoy, my wife’s closest friend.
If he had lived long enough, I would have had the opportunity to shake his hand.
And one of the frustrations of my life is that he died before I got the chance to do it.

Leighton - Monday  


  1. A light of hope in a sea of misery.

  2. What a good post. There are always good people, no matter what was/is going on.

    Thanks for this information.

    My own government had quotas and acted in a totally uncaring manner about what was being done to the Jewish people prior to and during WWII.

  3. A heartwarming post. There were good people working in very difficult circumstances, who tried their best to save lives during that terrible period.

  4. There's a movie or a documentary film in this. Just look at the photos. Imagine each of them as a frame in a scene. Leighton scores again with a piece of fascinating history we otherwise would never know.

  5. Wonderful post! About an even more wonderful life. You are right. I had never heard of him. I have to wonder how many more unknown people risked or gave their lives with such actions.

  6. Leighton, your post reminds me of what took place on the Greek Ionian island of Zakynthos during the Nazi occupation. The German appointed governor demanded that the town leaders deliver the names of all Jews. On the appointed day Zakynthos' Mayor Loukas Karrer and Greek Orthodox Bishop Chrisostomos showed up and presented the Officer with the list. The only names on the list were the mayor's and the bishop's. That ended that effort to round up the Jews of Zakynthos.

    The names of Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrisostomos were honored by Yad Vashem (the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Israel) with the title, "Righteous among the Nations."

    It seems appropriate to me that Elisa Dormoy's great uncle should be similarly honored--if he's not already.


  7. Jeff, Souza Dantas is already honoured on the Yad Vashem website.

    Thanks for your story about Zakynthos. Some people are incredibly brave even in the face of brutal terror.

  8. But at least you have written a tribute to him today!

    No, I´d never heard about him before. What I ´knew´ about Brazil & Nazism is from reading Ira Levin´s "The Boys from Brazil" several years ago.

  9. Thanks for the story about Zaknythos.

    I wish all of the stories of heroism, courage --and just plain, intelligent thinking and empathy for people -- could be put into a few volumes.

    Whenever I hear people get cynical about so-called evil, selfish humans, I think about the self-sacrificing, humane people who helped Jews and others who were under such huge attack in WWII and before.

    I think of Irene Sandler, who with others, saved 2500 Polish Jewish children, of people who hit Jews in their homes, of the French grandmother who brought home newspapers to Jews hiding in her farmhouse basement, of the Resistance fighters, etc.

    The two in Zakynthos and Souza Dantas are added on to this growing list.

  10. Incredibly moving-about people who set aside their own needs to help others. At least, these people are being remembered today. It seems that there are always a group who rise up to do good works. Inspiring in these days of political cynicism.

  11. Henri de Souza Dantas DormoyAugust 1, 2011 at 9:49 PM

    Great post Leighton! My mother Elisa, has told me this story many times, but was often taken for granted. Once I saw Luis Martins de Souza Dantas portrait in a museum, I started to realize his impact on others. His actions, beliefs and courage saved unmeasurable amount of lives. I greatly appreciate his actions and his much deserved acknowledgement!