As a girl growing up in Scarsdale, Olivia Mattis heard her grandmother speak often and with passion about how a Portuguese diplomat saved their family after Hitler invaded Belgium in 1940.
Mattis' father, Daniel, was 7 years old when he and his parents, Joseph and Lucie Matuzewitz, and his 17-year-old sister, Blanche, narrowly escaped the bombing of Brussels as German troops advanced. Daniel's parents, who were Jewish, knew they needed to find a safe haven and headed toward the south of France.
"There were no open doors for them -- they only knew that the Nazis were behind them," recalled Mattis, 50, a musicologist who lives in Greenlawn.
Visas to escape the Nazis
Her grandfather learned that the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux was issuing visas to refugees. Daniel's father obtained the papers for himself and his family and they escaped to Portugal, eventually making their way to the United States via Brazil, before the end of the war. Only later did they learn that by granting the visas, the diplomat was defying the orders of Portugal's dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
It was a family story told many times, always without identifying the man who had saved them. "We knew the story, but my grandmother didn't know the man's name," said Mattis, whose paternal grandfather died when she was 6 years old.
Learning who saved them
The mystery ended in April 2010, when her father, who changed his last name to Mattis after World War II, called her from his home in Salt Lake City. Daniel Mattis, now 80, told her he had seen a docudrama on French satellite TV about Aristides de Sousa Mendes -- a father of 15 children and the Portuguese consul who is credited with saving an estimated 30,000 refugees, including 10,000 Jews, at great consequence to himself and his family.
"After my parents came across this film, they realized this was the story of the man who had saved our family," she said, Learning the name of the diplomat and the extent of his heroism led Olivia Mattis to embark on a mission to get recognition for his deeds.
Mattis contacted Sousa Mendes' grandchildren on Facebook for more details about him. They told her of the harsh punishment he and his family endured for years because he had followed his conscience and helped the refugees: Sousa Mendes was fired from the diplomatic post and disbarred from practicing law; his children were exiled, and he died destitute in 1954.
"It took hold of me," Mattis said of Sousa Mendes' hardships. "Up until that point, I hadn't realized how much Sousa Mendes and his family had suffered so my family and other families like mine could live."
There are 60 living descendants of the 12 members of Mattis' father's family who eventually received visas.
Sousa Mendes family dream
A grandson of Sousa Mendes told Mattis about his family's dream to restore their grandfather's home as a museum and humanitarian center. It became the catalyst to establish the Sousa Mendes Foundation (sousamendesfoundation .org). Mattis co-founded the organization in September 2010 in partnership with Sousa Mendes' U.S. descendants, visa recipient families, and individuals in the Portuguese-American community.
The nonprofit hopes to raise $5 million for the restoration of the ancestral home, the Casa do Passal, in northern Portugal and to sponsor U.S. projects that will publicize the deeds of Sousa Mendes, including screenings of the 2009 docudrama seen by Daniel Mattis, Joel Santoni's "Disobedience: The Sousa Mendes Story."
Sousa Mendes has received recognition posthumously from Portugal and other countries but he "is not as well known as he ought to be," Mattis said. "Historical facts are important to me. Here we have an incredible opportunity to right a historical wrong simply in an act of remembrance."
Adelio Simoes, 58, of Smithtown, a foundation adviser, agrees.
"For me Sousa Mendes is a great hero," he said. "He sacrificed all to save these people -- this is a story that needs to be told."
John Crisostomo, 68, of Woodside, Queens, an activist in the Portuguese-American community, added, "It is important to let our youth be part of and know about Sousa Mendes on many occasions."
Searching for the saved
In January, a global search to identify Sousa Mendes' visa recipients was launched by the foundation. Using multiple sources, including the visa registry list from Bordeaux, passenger ship lists and research databases, the nine-member research team has identified 3,000 recipients.
"Sousa Mendes is an important person and touched many lives," said foundation researcher Paul Freudman, 57, of Great Neck, who discovered that his maternal uncle Lucien Goldmuntz and three branches of his family received the visas. In June, Freudman also identified Ruth Charchat, 76, of Great Neck, and her cousin Georgette Standish, 93, of East Hills as visa recipients.
"I was in shock," recalled Charchat. Neither she nor Standish had ever heard of Sousa Mendes.
Mattis calls the search for Sousa Mendes visa recipients "a race against mortality" as the youngest survivors, who were children during the war, are now in their early 70s.
Although many saved refugees have been grateful to learn the name of the man responsible for the survival of their families, others Freudman contacted were not responsive.
"As researchers, we look at the facts, but people have a lot more depth. Some people don't want to look back, to relive this," he said.
Mattis is organizing a reunion in Europe for visa recipients that will retrace the steps refugees took 72 years ago.
"I think we always need inspiring stories," she said. "Young people today need stories of courage and inspiration -- not only to reclaim the name of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who was wronged by history, but to know that moral courage is important to the human race."
Sousa Medes beneficiaries
'Many people Sousa Mendes saved became prominent in their fields -- imagine if they had never been saved -- the ripple effect is unbelievable," says Sousa Foundation co-founder Olivia Mattis.
According to LIU Post historian Kenneth Mensing, the duchess and the royal family spent part of their exile on Long Island as the guests of Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in Brookville, site of the college campus.
-- LISA SCHIFFMAN