WASHINGTON (JTA) – El Salvador is home to only 120 Jews, but this small Central American nation of 7 million has long portrayed itself as a solid friend of Israel and the Jewish people.
For years, the Salvadoran government has condemned anti-Zionist resolutions at the United Nations, and until August 2006 it was one of only two countries – the other was Costa Rica – that still maintained an embassy in Jerusalem.
Now, with the help of the American Jewish Committee and a Los Angeles filmmaker, El Salvador is trying to win global recognition for an obscure diplomat whose actions during World War II helped rescue at least 25,000 European Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps.
From 1942 to 1945, Col. Jose Arturo Castellanos, El Salvador’s consul general in Geneva, issued official papers to thousands of Hungarian, Polish, French, German and Czech Jewish families certifying that they were bona fide citizens of El Salvador.
The scheme – at first disavowed but later approved by his superiors back home – was carried out in secret by Castellanos’ deputy and friend, a Romanian Jewish businessman named George Mandel-Mantello.
On Wednesday, both men were remembered posthumously at an event hosted by the Embassy of El Salvador in Washington. Among those on hand were Rene Leon, the country’s longtime ambassador to the United States; Claudio Kahn, the past president of El Salvador’s Jewish community; and a number of other U.S. and Latin American dignitaries.
“We are here to present the story of a great man who conducted an operation from Switzerland that saved thousands of innocent Jewish people who would have otherwise died at the hands of the criminal Nazis,” said Ricardo Moran Ferracuti, the coordinator for historical research at El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “This is the story of Colonel Castellanos, a man with great courage who stood up against the system.”
Moran for three years has tried to persuade Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum to recognize Castellanos as Righteous Among the Nations, but he says the museum’s authorities are very strict.
“The requirements are that the person was not Jewish, that he or she didn’t make any profit, and that he risked his life and his job,” he explained. “Unfortunately we cannot obtain this recognition for Mr. Mantello because he was a Jew. But without Mantello, Castellanos couldn’t have done anything. It was a team operation.”
Irena Steinfeldt, the director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations Department, in an e-mail to JTA said Yad Vashem has asked the Foreign Ministry of El Salvador to search its archives for documents showing that Castellanos acted against his superiors’ orders.
“Should we receive such documents, we will submit the case to the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, which will then have to evaluate Castellanos’ role in the rescue operation and the risks he took,” Steinfeldt wrote.
In 1938, Castellanos was sent to Germany to open El Salvador’s consulate in Hamburg. Four years later Mandel, his original name, visited Castellanos in Geneva, where the diplomat had been reassigned for his safety. Mandel asked for help in evading the Nazis in Romania.
Castellanos appointed Mandel as first secretary of El Salvador’s consulate in Geneva.
Immediately upon receiving his Salvadoran passport, the wealthy Romanian added “Mantello” to his name in order to sound Latin. Inspired by other rescue efforts, Mantello suggested that Salvadoran passports be issued to rescue Jews.
Castellanos declined, citing the increased scrutiny of foreign passports. Instead he suggested issuing certificates of Salvadoran citizenship.
In 1944, Mantello and Castellanos asked the Swiss government to represent its interests in Hungary. Specifically they sought protection of all the new “citizens” of El Salvador.
Following a series of bureaucratic delays, Switzerland finally agreed thanks to the intervention of Carl Lutz, the vice consul at the Swiss Legation in Budapest, which already represented 12 other countries, including the United States and Great Britain.
None of the Jews who received the official-looking, notarized documents ever immigrated to El Salvador, but the bogus papers gave them protection in Hungary, Poland and other countries where they resided.
By word of mouth, the not-so-secret operation eventually grew so large that Lutz moved it to a glass factory in Budapest, which became known locally as “the glass house.”
Between the Swiss Legation and Mantello’s efforts, some 10,000 certificates were handed out. Each one saved the lives of individuals and entire families.
The little-known story inspired California filmmaker Brad Marlowe and his Salvadoran wife, Leonor Avila de Marlowe, to produce a documentary about Castellanos and Mantello titled “Glass House.” The 78-minute film was shown publicly for the first time Thursday evening at the Washington Hebrew Congregation.
“At its core, these were two diplomats issuing paperwork which allowed Jews to gain safe passage,” said Marlowe, who is not Jewish.
“It really wasn’t that complicated. They didn’t know if they could help, but they were willing to try, and that’s what ultimately inspired me to make this film,” Marlowe said. “With ‘Glass House,’ we want to say to our children that you can’t just sit by and watch atrocities unfold hoping someone else will put a stop to them.”
Dina Siegel Vann, AJC’s director for Latino and Latin American affairs, says she feels a debt to El Salvador.
“As Jews, we are commanded to exercise our historical memory, and we are filled with eternal gratitude for El Salvador and Colonel Castellanos, who saved thousands of Jewish lives while the rest of the world remained indifferent to the plight of European Jewry,” she said. “By retelling the story of his life, we can hopefully translate this into relevant themes related to present-day challenges.”
For its part, El Salvador also hopes to solidify its ties with the AJC and the American Jewish community, which in the past has lobbied hard in favor of issues important to that country. These include humanitarian aid following the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, temporary protective status for hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States and passage of the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005.
In researching the film, Leonor Avila Marlowe became friends with Castellano’s daughter, Frieda Garcia, and Mantello’s son, Enrico Mandel-Mantello. Both appear in the documentary.
Garcia, 59, a translator for El Salvador’s President Tony Saca, says her father never talked much about his wartime rescue effort and died in 1977 in relative obscurity.
“My father started giving these documents out long before the government of El Salvador told him to stop,” she said.
“People say our president at that time was pro-Nazi. Later, after a new president took office, they were able to mass produce and distribute the papers. But whenever I asked him, he would say that he didn’t do anything another person in his place wouldn’t have done.”