Some were lucky enough to reach the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux, where the consul general, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, was granting life-saving transit visas to Portugal,
contravening his government's orders.
Earlier this month, the Portuguese parliament unanimously voted to honor Sousa Mendes, who was dismissed from his post and punished for his activities, by creating a monument for him at the National Pantheon.
His actions and legacy carry an important moral message for our times, as racism and anti-immigration rhetoric remains very present throughout the world.
Under the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal would only permit holders of visas to other countries to stay in Portugal temporarily. While Portugal had allowed fairly free entry before the war, the imposition of new restrictions, a document known as "Circular 14,"
issued on November 11, 1939, specifically excluded Jews and other refugees.
What motivated the Portuguese consul to deliberately ignore that policy, jeopardize his career and issue visas to countless refugees gathered in throngs outside the consulate?
Sousa Mendes had struck up a friendship with a rabbi, Chaim Kruger, a refugee from Belgium. The consul offered the rabbi and his immediate family refuge in the consulate and safe passage to Portugal. The rabbi refused, saying he couldn't abandon the thousands of other Jewish refugees in Bordeaux. Sousa Mendes, confronted with a severe moral dilemma, retreated to his bed for three days
. When he emerged, he was determined to help the refugees.
Starting on June 17, 1940, working day and night, and mobilizing his sons and volunteer staff among the refugees, he signed thousands
(no one knows the exact number) of visas, a life-saving document. He then went to nearby Bayonne, also under his jurisdiction, to issue many more visas. Those who could not afford to pay received them at no charge.
It is "perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust" says Israeli Holocaust historian, Professor Yehuda Bauer.
Word soon reached Salazar about the diplomat's violation of instructions. On June 24, he ordered Sousa Mendes to cease issuing visas and return to Lisbon.
But even on his way home, he stopped in Hendaye, near the Spanish border, where he signed visas and passports for more refugees.
When he returned to Lisbon, he was stripped of his diplomatic position and denied his pension. His 15 children were blacklisted from employment
in the public sector. Only with the assistance of a Jewish welfare group were they able to survive.
Sousa Mendes died in 1954 in obscurity, a pauper and disgraced man in Portugal. He explained his actions
: "If thousands of Jews are suffering because of one Christian (Hitler), surely one Christian may suffer for so many Jews."
It was thanks to the testimony of survivors -- among them members of the Rothschild family, art dealer Paul Rosenberg, and numerous academics and artists -- that Sousa Mendes began to receive credit for his courageous actions.
In 1966, Israel honored him as Righteous Among the Nations,
an award reserved to those who risked their lives saving Jews during the Holocaust.
In 1986, the US Congress gave recognition to his heroism
. Only after the end of Portugal's dictatorship did he finally gain redemption in his own country. In 1987, he was posthumously awarded the prestigious Order of Liberty medal
by the government.
The following year, charges were dismissed against him and he was reinstated in the diplomatic corps.
In 1995, then Portuguese President Mário Soares declared Sousa Mendes to be "Portugal's greatest hero of the twentieth century."
The decision taken by the Portuguese parliament this month was an initiative of a legislator, Joacine Katar Moreira,
a champion of immigration reform -- who was born in Guinea Bissau, a former Portuguese colony.
Sousa Mendes' monument in the National Pantheon
, where some of the country's most notable and revered figures are buried, is a fitting recognition of his heroic actions.
The story of Sousa Mendes raises the question of why many other diplomats didn't rise to the moment of placing conscience over career. Sadly, few American diplomats challenged their own government's restrictive immigration policy
to provide desperate refugees with a passage to freedom instead of what for many was a one-way trip to Auschwitz.
Sousa Mendes' actions carry an important lesson for today. In a world where racism is all too common and cruel anti-immigration policies are in force against refugees, the actions of an individual -- willing to risk career or more to save innocent people or to stand up to injustice whatever the price -- is a powerful message.