The battle against anti-Semitism has been waged in the classroom and the courtroom, on screens large and small, in doctoral theses and children’s books. Now, it’s being taken to the sides of buildings.
A mural painted in the northern Portuguese city of Vila Nova de Gaia is the pilot piece in the Righteous Among the Nations Global Mural Project, launched by Artists 4 Israel. The mural, created by renowned street artist Mr. Dheo, depicts the late Portuguese diplomat Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who saved thousands of European Jews during the Holocaust.
It’s the start of a project that organizers hope to take to cities big and small around the world to honor the Righteous Among the Nations, an honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis and their helpers.
“The idea is that we want to educate and prevent another Holocaust. We want to do it in a positive way. We want to show these countries and these communities that they did good,” Craig Dershowitz, Artists 4 Israel CEO, told The Media Line.
“There were so many people that stood up for righteousness, for justice, and who stood in protecting the Jewish people. And so we’re looking to come to them and say, ‘Here are your role models. Let’s remember that. And thank you for doing that for us,’” Dershowitz said. “It’s a better way than constantly pointing a finger or talking about what may or may not come. It’s a better place to come from a sense of friendship, of ally building, of relationship building.”
He told The Media Line the idea for the project came from artists who were looking to contribute to Artists 4 Israel in their own countries, unable to travel to Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic. It sparked the idea to honor heroes in their own countries.
“The artists that come to us are predominantly non-Jewish. In fact, I don’t know if there are any Jewish artists so far in the murals that we have planned. That’s the idea, right? The idea is to get non-Jewish people to be on our side,” Dershowitz said.
“I’ve been just sending them the list from Yad Vashem of the people from their particular country and then they’re going through and they’re finding who most resonates with that. So it’s a beautiful kind of circle of aid and assistance where they come to us, I suggest some people, they do some research and they end up telling me more about the person than I even knew, because they have access to local information,” he said.
“They have access perhaps to that person’s family at times. And so, it’s great because it’s really a collaborative effort. And it’s exactly what we’re talking about when it comes to relationship building,” Dershowitz said.
Many know the names and stories of the likes of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, but with over 27,000 people bestowed with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, the project is setting out to tell of some of the lesser-known figures. Yad Vashem is assisting with information and archival access.
Sousa Mendes was Portugal’s consul general in Bordeaux, in southwestern France. At the time, crossing France’s border into Spain and then onward to Portugal was the only avenue of escape from the German occupation. While holders of visas for overseas travel were permitted to transit through Portugal, those without visas were denied refuge by Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.
Sousa Mendes, a devout Catholic, defied his government’s orders, setting up an improvised office at the consulate to provide transit permits free of charge.
Upon finding out about his operation, the Portuguese government summoned Sousa Mendes to Lisbon and dismissed him from the Foreign Service. He died penniless in 1954, unable to support his large family. In 1966, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, recognized Sousa Mendes, the first diplomat to be so honored, as a Righteous Among the Nations.
Mr. Dheo, from Porto, near Vila Nova de Gaia, has worked with Artists 4 Israel twice before, including painting a mural on a building damaged in a terrorist attack in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv.
“The thing is, Mr. Dheo doesn’t have any real connection to the Holocaust or to Jewish history. But what’s interesting is that, through the process, he has kind of dove in and got a real understanding,” Jeremy Goldscheider, an American filmmaker who is producing a documentary on the project, told The Media Line.
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Goldscheider has also produced a film, Lost Town, that incorporated animation to retell a Holocaust tale, and said he got involved with this new project as he looks for creative ways to engage younger audiences on Holocaust education.
“People in Porto know who he [Mr. Dheo] is, but the mural opened up conversations with his community and his family about the Holocaust, which is really the intention of the project. Mr. Dheo also has a very robust following, as many of the artists do. He’s posting on his social media feeds the work that he’s doing and it really opens us up to a new audience, and that’s what’s exciting about it for us,” said Goldscheider.
Mr. Dheo says he enthusiastically accepted the assignment and hit the books to learn more about his countryman.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t know much about [Sousa Mendes] before. I knew part of the story, but I didn’t know the dimension of what he did,” Mr. Dheo told The Media Line.
“And I remember as soon as I spoke with my father about this project, straightaway he mentioned Sousa Mendes as a hero and he told me that everybody here – it’s going to be unanimous − everybody will like the project, will like the wall, especially the older generations. They know what he did,” he said.
“So obviously, I went to study his story and, I think that in an era where our idols are the football players and the musicians, we tend to forget those who actually did a lot for our country, like him. So it’s an honor now to have him in my portfolio and it was a real pleasure to know his story in full detail and to know now what he did and what a hero he was,” said Mr. Dheo.
While street artists never seem to find creativity and inspiration in short supply, there is one massive challenge in a project like this: finding a wall large enough to serve as a canvas, in an area where a large number of people will see it, and doing it legally.
“We’re just starting a kind of a grassroots effort to reach out and to find locations. You can’t just do an eight-story mural on any wall. You have to go through buildings and governments and a lot of red tape. For some buildings, you need to get permission from all the residents, so it’s challenging and there’s a lot of aspects to it. But we’re excited to make it happen,” said Goldscheider.
“This may sound strange, but as an artist, I’m constantly looking for walls and constantly imagining how my work could fit into certain walls that I see all over the city. So, I’m driving and I see blank canvases everywhere. This wall in particular was an old dream of mine. It’s right in the city center. It’s big, a lot of people pass by it every day and being an ambassador of the youth in Gaia, it was actually a little bit easier to get the permission to paint it. I think it was the perfect wall at the perfect time for the perfect project,” said Mr. Dheo.
The process from conception of the artwork to completing it took three-to-four weeks, from doing the research to getting the permission from City Hall to securing a scaffold lift and then the actual painting, according to Mr. Dheo.
“My expectation is the young kids will pass by and ask their mom or their dad or their grandparents who that guy is. They will also learn about his history, and they will also be proud that he was a Portuguese who contributed to a cause that helped a lot of people,” he said.
While no locations have been finalized for the next set of murals, the project’s organizers plan to blanket the US and Europe.
Dershowitz said Holocaust education has largely been relegated to museums that people no longer go to and textbooks that are no longer read.
“This project brings it to the people. It makes this automatically seen by the public. We’re bringing it to you and then you’re bringing it across your social media to the rest of the world. And so it’s in your face constantly and you can’t but be educated about the Holocaust this way. And this is what we want to do. We want people to see what’s possible in the right way to do things,” Dershowitz said.