On June 15, 1940, a tall diamond cutter and chess champion stood in line with hundreds of other Jews waiting for a ticket out of the death trap that was France. After many hours, the righteous gentile he had been waiting to see gave him the visa that would save his life. Three days later, a young woman stood in that same line, securing the papers that would prevent her and her family from being deported to Auschwitz.
Unbeknownst to both of them at the time, their descendants—the man’s grandson and the woman’s great-granddaughter—would marry each other 68 years later in Baltimore, Maryland. The young couple had grown up only three blocks from each other.
My husband’s grandfather, Ide Lajb (Yehuda Aryeh) Mondzioch, z”l, was born in 1904. At the age of 17, he escaped what he correctly perceived as an increase in Polish anti-Semitism, leaving his home in the city of Sosnowiec and making his way to Belgium, where he lived with a married sister. Almost 20 years later, after Belgium was invaded by the Nazis, he was able to bribe his way to freedom, eventually leaving Europe through France, Spain and Portugal before traveling to pre-Castro Cuba and then immigrating to the United States.
Of his nine siblings, most of whom were married and had large families of their own, only he and two others survived the war. Everyone else, including his parents, was deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
Yaakov and Henny (née Schaja) Wieden, z”l, were my maternal great-grandparents; my oldest son is named Yaakov in his memory. I remember going to visit Bubby in her apartment off Main Street in Queens shortly after her 103rd birthday. I was newly married, and my sentimental husband decided that we should drive the four hours to pay her a visit and ask her about her life. Unfortunately, by then her mind wasn’t what it once was. She didn’t quite get who we were, but oh, how she remembered her youth!
My great-grandfather had been born in Bobov, Poland, and was close with the Bobover Rebbe. After marrying my great-grandmother, the couple moved to Cologne, Germany, in the 1930s, where they raised their three daughters, Hilda, Chaya and Rivka (my grandmother). Zaidy owned an apartment building and lived on the top floor with his wife and children. It was said that when Zaidy sang zemiros with his family on Friday night the entire building reverberated, much to his tenants’ chagrin. His strong will and passion for life are what enabled him to survive the Holocaust together with his family—but not without the help of the Portuguese consul general who was stationed in the French city of Bordeaux, a man named Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
From what I was told as a child, Bubby was tall and thin, and with her blonde hair and blue eyes could pass for Aryan. When Hitler rose to power, Zaidy recognized the impending threat and started consolidating his jewelry and other assets to be used as bribes. His concern extended beyond his own family, and he took many other relatives and friends along with him, cleverly sneaking an entire group of people out of Germany by bus and bringing them to France in April of 1940. He was simply unwilling to leave behind anybody he knew and loved. When they reached France, he succeeded in renting a single apartment where everyone lived together. Unfortunately, their respite was brief. Just weeks after their arrival, the Germans conquered France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Jews were now just as endangered in France as they had been in Germany.
As June approached, it seemed inevitable that the group of refugees was going to be deported. As my great-grandmother told the story, one day in the middle of June she was overwhelmed by emotion and left the cramped apartment for the beautiful park down below. It was very ironic, she recalled, sitting amidst such tranquility while facing impending doom. She was sitting and davening on a bench when all of a sudden she looked up to see a priest. “My dear,” he said, “why are you crying so bitterly?” “I am a Jew,” she answered him bluntly. “My family and I have been trying to escape Hitler’s wrath, but with the defeat of France, it is obvious that there is no longer any hope,” she said through her tears. “It just so happens that I can help you,” the priest replied. “I have a friend who is a very special man. He works for the Portuguese government and has taken it upon himself to sign as many visas as he can to allow Jewish refugees into Portugal. Go to him in Bordeaux and ignore the long line. Go right to the front and tell him that I sent you, and he will honor your request for a visa.”
While I had heard this story many times as a child, I never knew the name of the Portuguese consul.
To many, Aristides de Sousa Mendes was one of the greatest heroes of World War II. When a flood of refugees began to descend on the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux begging to escape the horrors of Hitler, the father of 13 children defied his government’s orders. Driven by his strong conscience, he ignored the potential consequences of his actions and issued visas to everyone in need, whether or not they could pay for them.
The story of how he came to grant these visas is miraculous in itself. It was all due to the inspiration of his first Jewish friend, a refugee named Rabbi Chaim Krieger, who had escaped to Bordeaux with his family from Brussels. What started as an attempt to save the Krieger family ultimately turned into a massive effort that saved thousands more. As word spread, the lines grew longer and his government ordered him to stop, but he steadfastly refused.
On the verge of being shut down, Sousa Mendes toiled non-stop issuing visas and refusing to eat for three days and three nights until he was physically dragged away. In the course of a few days in June he issued a total of 1,575 visas; the grand total of Jews estimated to have been saved by Sousa Mendes is 10,000. As Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer once put it, his efforts were “perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
But the Portuguese government was not forgiving. In October 1940, Sousa Mendes was dismissed from his position and sent back to Portugal by order of the prime minister. His entire family, once prominent and wealthy, was socially shunned, stripped of every source of income and all dignity. Forced to sell his belongings and property he was left penniless, his only source of sustenance for his large brood a Jewish soup kitchen. For the rest of his life he lived in poverty, and he passed away in 1954.
My great-grandmother, knowing only at the time that there was a chance for salvation, ran back upstairs to the crowded apartment and told her husband what the priest had said. When she asked him if he thought it was a trap, he replied in no uncertain terms, “Don’t walk—run! Hashem has sent him to us as His messenger.” He then handed her a bag containing everyone’s passports, not just those belonging to their family but everyone else’s in the apartment, for her to have stamped.
My Bubby wasted no time. She ran to the location the priest had specified and walked confidently up to the front of the line, where she told Sousa Mendes that the priest had sent her with a personal request to grant her a visa. Sousa Mendes immediately agreed, at which point my Bubby emptied the large bag of passports onto his desk. He took one look and said, “Madam, I can certainly give you a visa, but I don’t know all these people, and if they aren’t here, I cannot help them.” She put the passports back in her bag and said, “You either help all of us or none of us, and I will leave empty-handed.”
She had a very special charm and saw immense kindness in his eyes; she forever claimed to have known that he would not refuse. Indeed, he stamped every single passport so they could all escape to freedom.
As I said, I never knew the identity of this righteous gentile. It was only a year ago that I learned the rest of the story, not by investigating my own family but in an effort to investigate my husband’s.
In May of 2019 my husband, Yehuda, and I were cleaning the kitchen on a Motzaei Shabbos. Having just read an intriguing piece in Ami Magazine about genealogy and tracing your family’s history, my interest was piqued. I asked my husband what his original last name was before it was changed to Mond when his grandfather arrived in the United States after the Holocaust. “Mondzioch,” he replied, whereupon we sat down at the computer and did a quick Google search. The first thing that popped up was the official website honoring Aristides de Sousa Mendes, which contained a list of thousands of families that had been saved by his efforts. This was the first time that either of us had ever heard that name. We scrolled down and saw a few choices. We could search by country, by name or by ship. We clicked on “Search by Name” and proceeded to discover some facts that would astound us.
We had always been told that my husband’s grandfather escaped by bribing his way to freedom, but he was a man of few words and didn’t talk much about the war years. After searching alphabetically and clicking on “M,” we scrolled down to the name “Mondzioch,” where my husband’s grandfather Ide Lejb Mondzioch was listed. Attached to the file was a picture of his visa, signed by someone named Sousa Mendes. Yehuda Aryeh Mondzioch, 36 years old, had been given Visa #1661 to Portugal in Bordeaux, France, on June 15, 1940. At this point we didn’t know that Sousa Mendes was the name of the righteous gentile who had saved my own family as well.
Then, out of curiosity, I searched for my great-grandparents’ name, Weiden, on the website. “I might as well,” I said, not expecting to find anything. But when the results came up our jaws dropped. There on the list was Jacob Weiden, my great-grandfather, along with his wife, Henny Schaja. Next to be named was my grandmother Frimit Rivka, and her two sisters, Hilda and Chaya Sarah (may they live to be 120), along with other relatives’ names. A black-and-white picture of one of them was also posted. My great-grandfather, 37 years old at the time, had received Visa #2212 in Bordeaux on June 18, 1940—just three days after my husband’s grandfather!
This amazing website, run by a woman named Olivia Mattis of the Sousa Mendes Foundation, contains all of the authentic documentation and actual visa lists preserved and signed by Sousa Mendes himself. In my great-grandparents’ case, it included a two-page spread listing all of the people under my Bubby’s name, including aunts, uncles, cousins and friends—all of whom were saved on the day the priest found her crying at the park. Some of the last names on this list included known relatives like Fischel and Frid, as well as others that were unfamiliar to us, such as Hollander, Blatt, Eisler, Feldmann, Wiessing and Blum.
What were the odds that the same shaliach had been instrumental in saving the lives of both my husband’s and my ancestors? A zillion thoughts raced through our minds. Was there more to the story? Had they been friends? Had they traveled to Portugal together? We may never know those details. What we do know is that neither of us, nor our families, would be here today if not for this one man’s kindness during the darkest period in our history. Hashem had ordained that they both be saved and that their descendants would find and marry each other decades later.
Who would have thought that a simple Google search could reveal the Hand of Hashem and open the doors to an intertwined family history we had no idea existed?