Lessons from Henry Morgentaler and Carlos de Sousa Mendes

Yesterday, a full auditorium at the Montreal Jewish Public Library watched the film about Aristide de Sousa Mendes, Disobedience. Afterwards, we all listened to the moving panel discussion that includes Louis Philippe Mendes, the grandson of Aristide Sousa de Mendes. He grew up in and happened to live in Montreal.

As Louis-Philippe reminded us last night: Aristides de Sousa Mendes’ act of conscience consisted of defying the direct orders of his government and exhibiting courage, moral rectitude, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice by issuing visas to all refugees regardless of nationality, race, religion or political opinions.

The movie shows how he did his heroic work with the help of his male secretary and Rabbi Kruger. Aristide de Sousa Mendes was the father of 14 children, and his mistress was also expecting at that very time.

A moving and gripping story that is a lesson for all humanity and for all time.

The same day, I listened to the Gian Gomeshi interview with Dr. Abraham Morgentaler, son of the late abortion rights advocate Dr. Henry Morgentaler, following his father’s recent death at the age of ninety.

The outpouring of interviews and reviews unleashed by the death of Dr. Henry Morgentaler was intense and worldwide, but hearing about him from his son was special. As his son explained, Henry Morgentaler grew up in Lodz, Poland, where he experienced local antisemitism. At the age of eighteen, he endured the Nazi invasion, which led him and his family to a ghetto and then to Auschwitz. After losing both his parents and surviving a slave labour camp, Henry arrived in Montreal, became a doctor, married and had children, and in the course of his work championed medical abortions for women in Quebec and Canada, at a time when the Church considered that sinful, and the laws of the land supported that stance. He went to jail more than once for upholding his values, and eventually won for women the legal right to safe medical abortion in Canada.

Two stories that Abraham Morgentaler, the son, shared struck me as poignant. He was perhaps nine years old at the time. He and his friends were arguing about who was the best hockey player in the world, “Rocket Richard or Richard Beliveau”. Eventually, all the kids ganged up on him: one kid said, “We all believe that it’s Rocket Richard, so you are wrong!” He was telling his father about this when his father was putting him to bed, and he recalls his father saying very clearly, “It is possible for everyone in the world to say that you are wrong and for you still to be right.”

The other beautiful image was Gian Gomeshi asking Abraham Morgentaler his favourite memory of his father. He responded that he would always remember his Dad, at family celebrations addressing the family, and then singing either a Yiddish song or one of his favourite Edith Piaf songs. And I am thinking perhaps, “Rien de rien, je ne regrette rien”?

Although Aristides de Sousa Mendes died in poverty, his heirs have banded together with community members to share his story. You can read all about it on the site of the Sousa Mendes Foundation. The movie premiered at many Jewish Film Festivals and private screenings.

Currently, you can only see the movie by contacting the Sousa Mendes Foundation.