A Tribute to an Unsung Hero

The worth of a human being lies in the ability to extend oneself, to go outside oneself, to exist in and for other people.” Milan Kundera

History is littered with the forgotten deeds of unsung heroes. For every Mandela, every Martin Luther King, every Edward Snowden, there are countless other people whose endeavours to make this world a better place are, for whatever reason, left by the wayside of collective memory. This is the story of one of them, a man who until his death in 1995, at the ripe age of 102, went by the name of Gilberto Bosques Saldívar.

You’d be forgiven for not recognising his name; most people don’t. Even in his home country, Mexico, Don Gilberto’s name continues to draw a blank — despite the fact that he is estimated to have saved the lives of 40,000 people during one of the darkest chapters of human history.

Thankfully, the release in 2010 of Visa al Paraiso (Visa to Paradise), Lilian Lieberman’s superlative documentary film about his life, has gone at least some way to redressing this situation.

However, beyond Mexican borders Don Gilberto’s life remains a closely guarded secret. Even in Spain, the country from which many of the people he saved were forced to flee, his name is still a mystery. And it is for that reason that I have decided to dedicate this article in his memory. I also believe that his rare example of brave leadership should be a source of inspiration in a world where good leaders are thinner on the ground than ever before.

A Child of Revolution in Pre-War Europe

In many ways Gilberto Bosques was a child of revolution. Having come of age and won his spurs during Mexico’s bloody, decade-long civil war (1910-1920), he was able to overcome his humble beginnings to rise the ranks as a respected journalist and university professor.

In the late ’30s Bosques joined Mexico’s diplomatic corps. His first assignment was as the country’s consul in France. Upon his arrival in Paris, he encountered a city on tenterhooks. The Belle Époque had long ended, economic crisis was biting and, once again, the unmistakable aroma of approaching war hung in the air.

Already millions of people were on the move across the old continent. As Hitler’s empire trundled eastward to annexe Austria and part of Czechoslovakia, European Jews with the wherewithal to see the writing on the wall began upping sticks and moving in the opposite direction. Many wound up in France, where they were joined by political dissidents of all persuasions and from across all corners of German-occupied territory.

By far the biggest exodus of the time, however, was from war-ravaged Spain, where hundreds of thousands of conflict-fatigued republicans were desperately fleeing from Franco’s advancing forces. Many of those that didn’t make it were summarily executed en route, their bodies left to gather dust and flies in the newly liberated territory. For those that did make it, the passage onto French soil signalled not the end of tragedy, but merely the beginning of a new one.

Many were immediately corralled into open, makeshift internship camps offering scant shelter from the harsh wintry elements. They included one Sixto Úbeda, a former member of the foreign legion, who left the following account:

When we arrived at the camp of Saint-Cyprien, there were no lodgings to house us, and we had to sleep on the sand, and those among us who had a blanket, we were lucky to be able to sleep… There, those who were over the age of 55 died, because they were unable to bear the unhappiness, the ups and downs, the storms, the cold… Each day we buried a number of them…

El Ultimo Amigo

If anyone was ennured to hardship, it was Spain’s Republicans. For two-and-a-half long years they had held their own against an altogether better trained, better disciplined, better funded, better armed fighting force.

Out of fear of proxy war, the UK, France and other European powers had refused to intervene on either side of the war. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy had no such qualms, however, and happily channeled funding, arms and personnel Franco’s way. For Hitler Spain’s civil war offered the perfect testing ground for the lightning war he would later unleash across Europe.

By contrast, the Spanish Republic was more or less ostrasized on the world stage, and could count on the overt support of just two countries. One was the Soviet Union whose legacy, as George Orwell recounts in Homage to Catalonia, was ultimately to sow deadly division and strife in Republican ranks.

The other was Mexico, which remained a faithful friend to the bitter end. Even as Franco ordered the final “cleansing” of the last remaining dregs of leftist resistance from Spain, Mexico’s commitment to its Republican allies stayed firm. In 1939 the country’s reformist president, Lázaro Cardenas, allegedly under pressure from Bosques himself, issued express orders to his ambassadors and envoys in Europe to grant safe haven and protection to as many exiles as they could.

As Mexico’s consul in France, Bosques was on the front line of this effort. However, given the sheer scale of the exodus – by the Spring of 1939 more than half a million Republicans had crossed the border into France – and the chaos it was causing France’s border regions, he had his work seriously cut out. Matters were complicated further when, in June 1940, a woefully unprepared French army buckled under Germany’s fierce onslaught.

Fleeing the German occupation of Paris, Bosques was instructed by his government to quickly set up a consulate to represent Mexico in Vichy France, which he duly did, in the coastal city of Marseilles. Time was of the utmost essence — after all, now that the Nazis were firmly installed in Paris and the collaborationist Vichy Regime in Southern France, the deportations of wanted political or social “deviates” back to Germany or Spain would soon begin in earnest.

Visa To Paradise

Don Gilberto’s first task was to find recruits. To do that, he and his consulate staff visited many of the concentration camps, where they found thousands of people from across Europe and beyond languishing in the most deplorable conditions. They had not the slightest hope of leaving France without an exit visa.

As Lillian Lieberman, the director of Visa Al Paraíso, explained in a recent interview, on some occasions Bosques would arrive at a camp and begin shouting into a megaphone: “Visas to Mexico, Visas to Mexico. Who wants to go to Mexico?” Soon, as word got round, hundreds and then thousands of people wanted to go — and not just Spanish Republicans! Lebanese and Jewish refugees, exiled political dissidents from Austrian, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Italy… suddenly all of them wanted a Mexican visa.

Indeed, so great was the demand that Bosques decided to rent two local castles (Reynarde and Montgrand) and have them converted into asylum centres. Around 800 refugees were housed in one of the castles, and another 500 women and children in the other.

This was just the first stage of the immense logistics challenge Bosques faced. He and his team also had to interview candidates as well as organize all their paper work. They had to feed and clothe the new residents and they even provided schooling and other activities for the children. They also had to rent steamer boats to transport the refugees from Marseille to one of a number of African ports, from which they would later be shipped to the relative safety of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, the U.S. or some other American country.

In the space of just two years an estimated 40,000 people made this voyage. Not all of them would end up in Mexico, and not all of them were Spanish republicans. Many were Jews, others were political dissidents from any one of the manifold European countries Hitler had invaded. Even North Africans and Middle Easterners found their way on to Bosques’ boats.

A High Price For Morality

In essence, Bosques’ story is that of a man who set out to save one tribe of people, but ended up saving them all, often in direct contravention of his own orders. Jews, for example, were not officially given asylum in Mexico, though thanks to Don Gilberto’s endeavours, between 2,000 and 6,000 were eventually granted residence there.

And all of this was undertaken at huge personal risk, and never for money — Bosques refused to accept any bribes. Everything he and his staff did was in the face of direct hostility from the pro-German French authorities and under the constant surveillance of the Gestapo, the Franco government and the Japanese diplomatic delegation, which had its offices in the same building as the Mexican delegation.

In 1943, however, Don Gilberto’s luck finally ran out. Following Mexico’s decision to break off all diplomatic ties with the Vichy regime, the consulate was stormed by Gestapo troops. All the funds for the operation were seized and Bosques, his family (his wife María Luisa Manjarrez and their three children Laura María, María Teresa and Gilberto Froylán) and 43 consular employees were deported — in direct contravention of diplomatic treaties — to the German village of Bad Godesberg, where they were kept in a prison reserved for “special detainees”.

A year later all of them were released as part of a prisoner exchange with the Mexican government. Finally, after three long years of skirting the laws of one of the most repressive regimes in history, Bosques was free to make his final voyage home. His work done, he could now embark on the same transatlantic voyage on which he had dispatched 40,000 lost souls to paradise.

At the risk of what may sound like a Hollywood cliché but is, I assure you, quite true, Bosques was met on his arrival at Mexico City’s central train station by a huge welcome party. Thousands of Spanish and Jewish refugees had turned out to greet him. Bosques was swept up and carried aloft upon their shoulders, like a triumphant bullfighter, out onto the bustling streets of his country’s capital. Not once did his feet touch the ground.

Epilogue

Once finally back on home soil, Bosques did what came naturally to him: he went back to work. In the ensuing years he would serve as Ambassador of Mexico in Portugal, Finland, Sweden and Cuba. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, he would once again play a vital role in world history. As a trusted go-between between the U.S., the Soviet Union and Cuba, Bosques helped facilitate communications between the disputants and bring Cuba into agreement with the “face-saving” agreements worked out between the two nuclear powers.

Not once did he sell his story to the news, nor did he glorify his deeds in published memoirs. There were no awards, no recognition. He simply went about his work.

In this new age of extreme moral relativism and contaminated leadership, we desperately need positive examples of great, yet humble, leaders like Bosques — people who not only just go about their work but, to paraphrase the German philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt, “make up their minds to be good”; people who are not cowed into obedience but are able to see the difference between right and wrong and act accordingly.

As Arendt said in one of her many speeches defending her book on Adolf Eichmann, A Report on the Banality of Evil, the horrors of the Second World War were made possible by people who, like Eichmann, “surrender that single most defining human quality — that of being able to think… Consequently they are not able to make moral judgments.”

The result is a world — very much like our own — dominated by “yes men” and “yes women”. Out of fear of the consequences of disobeying orders (career atrophy, loss of job, social ostracism, imprisonment…) and/or seduced by the financial benefits and status offered by a life of unquestioning obedience, too many of us are all too often cowed into submission.

Our only hope is that when our own souls are tested by the fast-approaching new age of technocracy, and we ourselves are given our own choice between “thinking” or “unthinkingly obeying”, we take a leaf out of Don Gilberto’s unwritten, unpublished book and choose the former.

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