Gissot's role in the Sousa Mendes affair

In 1940, Emile Gissot was 58 years old, probably retired from government foreign service and living again in his home city of Toulouse. To supplement his income and keep his hand in the game, he takes a position as honorary vice-consul in Toulouse for the government of Portugal. It is not unusual for foreign governments to staff consulate offices with non-national local citizens. That is why his title was "honorary." The reason it was "vice-consul" was because he did not have full consular responsibilities but reported to a regional chief consul stationed 130 miles away in Bordeaux.

That consul was Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a distinguished Portuguese diplomat who was charged with representing Portugal in Bordeaux and southwest France and who would soon change history. By late May of 1940, following the German invasion of France and the Low Countries several weeks earlier, the urban centers of southwest France were overflowing with the waves of refugees coming from the north. Many of them were trying to get to Portugal, seen as one of the few viable escape routes from the insanity in Europe.

Sousa Mendes and Gissot in their respective Portuguese consulates were under siege by poor unfortunates with no place to go. Sousa Mendes instructs Gissot by telephone to keep referring supplicants to Bordeaux. For now, the vice-consul has no signing authority. Then, on June 17, after spending time with a Rabbi Kruger and his family, Sousa Mendes has his moment of conscience and commences his campaign to issue visas to any and all who need one. He gives new instructions to Gissot, giving him authority to issue visas in Toulouse, but only for those who already having destination visas from a third country. The Sousa Mendes Foundation has in its files a number of these Gissot visas signed in June while Sousa Mendes remained active.

This isn't the place to recount his heroic actions, but to summarize in the next 10 days Sousa Mendes issued as many as 30,000 visas to refugees of all types, including 10,000 Jews, before being shut down by the Salazar government. He was recalled to Lisbon to be harshly disciplined for his actions.

Now it was July and Sousa Mendes' spree had ended, yet the surge of visa supplicants continued unabated at Gissot's office. He must now have been given new instructions from Lisbon, probably to issue no more visas for any reason. Here I am going to move into speculation a little. I imagine that Gissot knows and socializes with consular officials from other countries in Toulouse. It is natural they would talk about the refugees and some of them might sympathize with their plight.

The Dutch consulate is manned by a local representative of the Philips company, an A.J. van Dobben, who has also seen an influx of Dutch Jewish refugees at his door at the Chanchellerie du Consulate des Pays-Bas. We actually have an address for his office, 8 Rue Strassbourg, courtesy of the memoir of escaping ex-Nazi Otto Strasser, who also benefited from the actions of Gissot and van Dobben. See our earlier article for more on Strasser's account. Keep in mind, too, that van Dobben's office remains open even though Germany has occupied the Dutch capital for the last six weeks.

I speculate that Gissot and van Dobben devise a cooperative plan to help some of the refugees. Gissot says that he can still issue Portuguese transit visas to holders of third-nation destination visas. Van Dobben says that he can issue tourist visas to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. Beginning probably on July 11, they put the plan into effect. The Dutch consulate begins issuing Curacao visas and Gissot just as quickly signs off on those for transit through Portugal. Our family gets both visas on July 11, then based on these gets a Spanish transit visa the next day. They leave France by train from Perpignan on July 23.

We don't know how many beneficiaries there are of what I am calling the Curacao exception. We know that it operated at least a week, from July 11 to July 19, when Strasser got his visas and observed dozens of Jewish refugees doing the same. I believe it will be possible to look more closely at already collected stories at the Sousa Mendes foundation and elsewhere to see if those dates can be extended in either direction, and to get a sense of the volume of cases.

I will leave off there for the moment but will return with a further dimension to the story.