SALT LAKE CITY — Daniel Mattis was just 7 years old when he and his family fled their home in Belgium, just as the Nazis were bombing Brussels in 1940. Their train was the last to leave the station before the tracks were destroyed.
The Mattis family had obtained visas to Brazil, but their escape seemed impossible.
Spain, then the only maritime gateway to the Americas and beyond, had closed its borders to all without transit visas to Portugal, and Portugal’s president, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, had issued Circular 14, a document forbidding the issuance of visas to most refugees.
“It was a very scary time,” Mattis recalled. “To get to Brazil, you had to be at a port, and to get to a port, you had to cross Spain because Vichy France occupied the south of France.”
Mattis’ life was spared thanks to a Portuguese consul named Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who defied Salazar’s orders and issued some 30,000 visas to refugees including the Mattis family over the course of just a few days.
Sousa Mendes was later arrested and severely punished for issuing the visas. But his actions had saved Mattis’ life, along with that of many other refugees including Hans Augusto and Margret Rey, the authors of “Curious George,” and Spanish painter Salvador Dali.
“I would rather stand with God against man than with man against God,” Sousa Mendes declared, according to the Sousa Mendes Foundation, an organization that honors the Portuguese consul’s legacy.
Nearly 80 years later, Sousa Mendes’ heroic act will be commemorated with an oratorio performance at the Salt Lake City Tabernacle on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“It makes you feel good that there are heroes and that there are people who will stand up, even if the governments don’t,” Mattis said.
The oratorio, titled “Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides,” tells the story of Sousa Mendes’ life and this heroic act during World War II. The Salt Lake City performance of the oratorio will feature the the Utah Youth Orchestras and Ensembles, University of Utah Chamber Choir, the University of Utah A Cappella Choir, seven Utah high school choirs from across Utah, several vocal soloists and narrator Michel Gill, the descendant of a recipient of one of Sousa Mendes’ life-saving visas. Barlow Bradford will guest conduct the one night-only performance, which is part of the Temple Square Concert Series.
Composer Neely Bruce said it took him just seconds to agree to write the oratorio upon request from Mattis’ daughter Olivia, the director of the Sousa Mendes Foundation.
The inspiration for Bruce’s oratorio came from reading all that he could about Sousa Mendes and traveling to Europe to visit some of the places Sousa Mendes’ story took place. Bruce said getting to know the music, landscape and people there influenced his composition of the oratorio.
“I think that was one of the first times I got the feeling that I was getting very close to this man personally and getting to know him, getting to see where he was, and not only as a place that I had been before but a place where he had actually been doing this heroic thing that he did,” Bruce said.
The composer said Olivia Mattis had originally requested that Bruce write an opera about Sousa Mendes’ story, but it was decided that a dramatic oratorio would be the best format for the piece.
“Oratorios have a certain drama in them anyway, but a dramatic oratorio is something very interesting,” Bruce said. “My model was ‘The Damnation of Faust’ by Hector Berlioz, which is a piece that I am extremely fond of, and that is a very, very dramatic piece indeed.”
Like Berlioz’ piece, Bruce’s oratorio can be performed in its original concert version or could easily be converted into a staged performance in the future if the oratorio gets many performances, the composer said.
The oratorio has previously been performed in Los Angeles, and there are noises of its being performed in New York and Washington, D.C., in the future, according to Daniel Mattis.
Bruce said he hopes those who attend the performance in Salt Lake City will learn from Sousa Mendes’ example.
“He was a brave man who did the right thing, and that can be a model for all of us,” Bruce said. “Obedience is something that we’re taught; it’s a strong value. But sometimes you have to be disobedient to do the right thing.”
If you go …
What: “Circular 14: The Apotheosis of Aristides”
Where: Salt Lake City Tabernacle, 50 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City
When: Saturday, Jan. 27, 7 p.m.
How Much: Free, but tickets required
What: Congregation Kol Ami will host a discussion with Daniel Mattis and a screening of "Disobedience," a documentary about the life of Aristides de Sousa Mendes as part of Salt Lake Interfaith Month.
Where: 2425 Heritage Way
When: Sunday, Feb. 4, 9:30 a.m.
How much: Free