The best & worst of human behavior

This column originally was published by ECM publications.

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Does the name Aristides de Sousa Mendes mean anything to you? How about a huge, historic picture named “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso? I ask because they represent perhaps the best and worst of humanity and because I encountered both on a recent visit to Spain and Portugal.

Let’s start with the best. We went on a Lisbon tour with a remarkable historian and college teacher named Paulo Scheffer. He showed us around the city, giving us information I had never read or heard before. He’s writing a book about the history of Jews in Portugal. He’s a passionate, fascinating historian.

One of the people he mentioned was Aristides de Sousa Mendes. Scheffer said it’s too bad that a movie like “Schindler’s List” has not been made about Mendes. After hearing the story and reading more from other sources, I agree.

Paulo Scheffer gives tourists a history lesson  in Portugal.  (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Paulo Scheffer gives tourists a history lesson in Portugal. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Mendes represented Portugal in Bordeaux, France, during World War II. Ignoring the orders of Antonio Salazar, the Portuguese dictator, Mendes provided exit visas, thus saving the lives of 20,000 to 30,000 people.

Scheffer told us that one of the people who toured with him was a descendent of a person Mendes saved. This person brought a linen napkin, which Mendes had used for visas when he ran out of paper. The world needs more courage and compassion like this.

Thanks to Scheffer, who shared the story of this remarkable man. De Sousa Mendes deserves to be much more widely known. More information about him is available at and

Mendes is an example of humanity’s best.

Two days earlier, I saw the original of a painting depicting humanity at its worst. In 1937, Nazi and fascist military in airplanes bombed the Spanish town of Guernica, killing thousands of civilians. It was a horrifying, cowardly act. Sadly, in our own time, we are witnessing similar civilian bombings.

Picasso’s depiction of Guernica is one of the world’s most famous paintings. I’d seen copies of the picture before.

But the original is huge, more than 11 feet high and 25 feet long. It’s housed at a modern art museum in Madrid, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Adjoining galleries at the museum provide more information about the Spanish Civil War. More information about the painting can be found here:

Last week I wrote about remarkable buildings that I’ve seen on this trip. Today I’ve described some of the best and worst of human behavior

People like Scheffer help us think about our own choices in life. Most of us will not be faced with life-and-death decisions about thousands of people like Aristides de Sousa Mendes or military leaders. But we do have opportunities to make a difference.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is co- director at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at

One Response to Joe Nathan column: Learning about humans at their best and worst

  1. Dear Joe, Thank you for bringing attention to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, Righteous Among the Nations. The Sousa Mendes Foundation, which I direct, is dedicated to perpetuating this man’s memory. Our most urgent priority is a project called “Visas to Freedom: Stories of Rescue.” For more information please go to or Our message to young people is that one person can make a difference.