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The forgotten hero who saved hundreds of lives from the Nazis

LUIZ MARTINS DE SOUZA DANTAS
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The Wallenberg Foundation announces a monument and a documentary in honor of Brazilian ambassador Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas.

“Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.” This conviction led Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas (1876-1954), Brazilian ambassador to France during World War II, to risk his career to save people who were being persecuted by the Nazis.

But what that diplomat — who, according to some estimates, saved 800 people from death, including 475 Jews — could never imagine, is that one of the people who benefited from his work would later save New York from bankruptcy in 1975.

The person in question is Felix Rohatyn, who has publicly acknowledged that “if it weren’t for Souza Dantas, instead of being here, looking at the Statue of Liberty, I would have ended up burned to ashes in Auschwitz.”

On January 27, named International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations, sources at the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation announced that a monument will be built in honor of Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas, and that the foundation participated in the production of a documentary about him called Dear Ambassador, directed by Brazilian film director Luis Fernando Goulart.

The film, which will premiere soon, includes (among other things) an interview with Rohatyn, who turns 90 on May 29.

Rohatyn, an investment banker, achieved what few thought possible in 1975: successful mediation between the city of New York, drowning in overwhelming debt, and its creditors and unions, thus avoiding a bankruptcy which would have had serious consequences for thousands of people.

Later, Rohatyn was named ambassador of the United States to France, thus closing a curious virtuous circle.

Felix Rohatyn’s conference in honor of Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas, organized in 2005 by the Wallenberg Foundation and the consulates of Portugal and Brazil in New York.

The person who saved his life, Souza Dantas, was sent as the ambassador of Brazil to France in 1922. Starting in June of 1940, he was a direct witness to the massive flight of Jews and other refugees seeking to escape the horror of Nazism.

Forgotten hero

The laws in Brazil at the time prohibited Jewish immigrants from entering the country. However, this did not deter Ambassador Souza Dantas’ creativity; he used a very generous interpretation of a restrictive permission in order to grant visas to hundreds of Jews and other refugees, thus saving them from persecution.

Among the people saved by Souza Dantas is another person who had a great influence on the history of American culture in the 20th century: art collector and merchant Leo Castelli (born in Trieste, Italy, in 1907, and died in New York in 1999), whose gallery represented many of the greatest modern artists working in America in the 1900s.

The voice of Souza Dantas tried to awaken the world to the nightmare of Nazism. In 1942, he sent a letter to the Brazilian Minister or Foreign Affairs, Oswaldo Aranha, in which he describes the Nazi concentration camps, comparing them to Dante’s Inferno.

His work saving people persecuted by the Nazis resulted in his being recalled and accused of breaking Brazilian immigration policy, in a disciplinary hearing opened by Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas himself in October 1941. Souza Dantas was found guilty, but escaped punishment because the case against him had not yet been concluded when Nazi Germany and Brazil broke off diplomatic relations. President Vargas then decided to let the case go.

After this difficult experience, when the war ended, Luiz Martins de Souza Dantas returned to Paris, where he died in obscurity on April 14, 1954.

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