Washington Jewish Week / September 22, 2010
By Larry Luxner
Fewer than 100 Jews today live among the seven million people of El Salvador, a small Central American nation far removed from the horrors of the Holocaust. But during World War II, untold thousands of European Jews suddenly became citizens of El Salvador — thanks to official-looking but fake documents that ultimately saved their lives.
On Monday night, Washington’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum remembered the two men behind that plan: Col. José Arturo Castellanos, El Salvador’s consul-general in Switzerland from 1941 to 1945, and George Mandel-Mantello, a Romanian Jew who served as first secretary at El Salvador’s consulate in Geneva.
“As the representative of the State of Israel here in Washington, and as a Jew whose family perished in Theresienstadt, I’m proud to be here tonight to honor two individuals who acted to save my brethren,” said Israeli Embassy spokesman Jonathan Peled, a former Israeli ambassador to El Salvador.
“They were among the distinct few who made the right choices. Like distant lights shimmering in the darkest nights, both men restored a sense of humanity,” said Peled. “The actions of José Arturo Castellanos further serve as the foundation for the special bond between El Salvador and the Jewish people, and by extension, Israel.”
Some 200 people, including diplomats, religious leaders, members of Congress and a handful of Holocaust survivors and their families, watched as Cantor Josh C. Perlman of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville chanted “Eli, Eli” — a song whose lyrics were written by Hanna Szenes, a Jewish volunteer from Palestine who parachuted into German-occupied Europe in 1944 and was killed by the Nazis.
Museum director Sara J. Bloomfield then presented certificates of appreciation to Frida Castellanos de Garcia, the daughter of José Arturo Castellanos, and to Enrico Mandel-Mantello, the son of George Mandel-Mantello.
“These two men met in the 1930s and became friends. After Castellanos assumed the post of El Salvador’s consul-general, he brought Mantello to Switzerland and appointed him as his first secretary, a new position he created expressly for him in 1942,” said Bloomfield, speaking from a podium as black-and-white photographs of the two long-deceased heroes were displayed on a projector behind her.
“Mantello launched a bold and ingenious rescue operation, using the stationery and seals of the Salvadoran consulate. He distributed thousands of Salvadoran citizenship papers to desperate Jews all over Europe. In Budapest, these papers spared the recipients from deportation,” she said, noting that some of the 1,000 original certificates donated by the Mandel-Mantello family are currently on display at the museum.
“We also know the certificates worked in Belgium and the Netherlands. Anyone holding these papers could not be deported. Several Dutch Jews who received Salvadoran certificates were sent to a special camp and were thus spared deportation to Auschwitz. However, in other countries the Germans paid no attention to the certificates and treated the bearers just as they did any other Jew.”
Castellanos was an opponent of El Salvador’s military dictatorship at the time, and was severely punished for his actions after the war was over.
“Five days after coming back to El Salvador, he was asked to accompany two gentlemen dressed as policemen to the border with Guatemala and told not to come back,” recalled his daughter Frida. “He was later exiled to Mexico, and our government kept him in Europe until he was old enough to no longer be a threat. In 1992, El Salvador became a democracy, but my father didn’t live to see that.”
For a long time, said Ricardo Moran Ferracuti, a Foreign Ministry official at the ceremony, “the noble acts performed by these diplomats remained forgotten. Than, just over five years ago, the government of El Salvador began a project to rescue this chapter of Salvadoran history from oblivion.”
Those efforts paid off. Last May, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem bestowed upon Castellanos the title of “Righteous Gentile” — marking only the fourth time a Latin American has won the award, and the first time the distinction has been given to someone specifically from Central America.
“I owe my life to Col. Castellanos and to El Salvador,” said Enrico Mandel-Mantello, reciting the Hebrew “shehechiyahu” prayer before speaking. “This is a happy moment in my life. We had to wait 65 years for it, but now finally, it’s done.”
Even so, Frida Castellanos thinks that both men — not only her father — should have been commemorated by Yad Vashem.
“This was the endeavor of two friends, one who needed help and the other who had the power to help,” she said. “Both carried this out together, and they should have been recognized together. I understand that Yad Vashem has this rule that a Jew who saves another Jew cannot be recognized, but in this case there should have been an exception.”