Lisbon escape route

Who was Emile Gissot?

Yesterday, as a result of our contact with Olivia Mattis at the Aristides de Sousa Mendes Foundation, we learned the identity of the Portuguese consular official in Toulouse who issued a Portugal transit visa to Elly and Helga Ruby on July 11, 1940. Here is that visa. Notice the signature in two places of one Emile Gissot. Gissot was known to the people at the Mendes Foundation as one of several vice-consuls in cities near to Bordeaux who cooperated with the actions of Sousa Mendes during his campaign of mercy. The foundation has several records in its files of families with Gissot visas from Toulouse. They had been working from the assumption that the vice-consuls in Bayonne and Toulouse had acted under instructions from Sousa Mendes, the senior consular official in the region. But in at least one of their cases, and now with our new Ringel instance, some Gissot visas date from a week or more after the Sousa Mendes campaign had ended in his summary recall to Lisbon. So who was Emile Gissot? You don't have to go far to find out, since he has a wonderfully google-able name and a fair number of notable achievements. More in the next post.

Rua de Gloria 41-28

Before returning to Mssr. Gissot, we'll skip ahead a month or so to when our intrepid travelers have reached the promised city of Lisbon. Several years ago, Walter's friend Valery Bazarov, who was the house historian for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, searched the HIAS files for information about our family members. He discovered two important bits of information, as is described in the blog at the time. One piece was a scrap of notepaper with the names of Elly and Helga Ringel and an address in Lisbon. When Joanne was in Lisbon last summer, she and Bill located Rua de Gloria 41-28 on the map not very far from their hotel on the Rossio. Here are Joanne's photos of the building exterior and front door closeup. It is not hard to imagine the same scene in the summer and fall of 1940.

More on Emile Gissot

Usually, when you google a historical name of someone who was not particularly famous, you don't expect to find much. With Emile Gissot, we hit a veritable gold mine of information. First, there is this biographical sketch of him on a city web site for the Toulouse region. There he is a portrait in full French military regalia. We learn from the article that he was born in 1882 in the village of Fleurance. He was a brilliant student and was well educated in Parisian schools. After graduation, he accepted a foreign service position in Chile, and distinguished himself during the 1906 Valparaiso earthquake. The following year, he authored an report on the economy of Chile, which is still available on the Internet today.

After returning to France, he was appointed as a career consular official, and was posted again to Chile, as well as later to Athens and other outposts. In 1917, he was arrested in Salamanca, Spain, for associating with an early band of Spanish Republicans. He also played in politics, running but losing in Parliamentary elections in 1919. Between 1928 and 1932, he advised French Interior minister Albert Smock. The article then skips over to his death in Toulouse in November 1958, omitting any mention of his role in the 1940 refugee crisis.

We'll set that aside for the moment, too, as we consider the inventory of Internet sightings. Most deliciously, that portrait from the biography article, showed up as a physical postcard available for sale on several Internet memorabilia sites. Evidently he had the cards made for himself and used them as stationery. This one is hand-inscribed to a correspondent in 1916, so the photo shows him perhaps in his early to mid 30s. Note that same distinctive signature we will see on visas 24 years later. After I tipped off Olivia at the Sousa Mendes Foundation about the card, I'm pleased to say she purchased it online for the foundation's collection.

The next thing of note that turns up is that Chilean economic report,, available for download as a PDF. Finally, there are a number of citations and references to his activities as Portugal's honorary vice consul in Toulouse, including from several French Sousa Mendes tribute sites. Most intriguing is this listing in the index of archived records of Antonio Salazar, Portugal's longtime strongman leader, of a report about an inquiry into irregularities involving the activities of Emile Gissot in Portugal's Toulouse consulate.

The report is not available online or evidently physically in the archive, since the documentation is said to have mysteriously disappeared. Now on to what might actually have happened in the next post.

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.


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