During World War II, José Arturo Castellanos Contreras worked at the Embassy of El Salvador in Switzerland. He drew up official-looking papers to give Jewish families in Occupied Europe the rights of Salvadoran citizens so they could avoid the death camps.
Castellanos was born in 1893. His family was military, and he reached the rank of Colonel. In 1937, he was sent to Europe to buy arms. Since the government in San Salvador of Dictator Hernández Martínez considered him a rival, they asked the Colonel stay in Europe as a diplomat. Castellanos’ first post was in England, his second in Germany in 1938.
In Germany, he met a Romanian Jewish businessman named György Mandl. Mandl told Castellanos in detail how the Jews were suffering in Europe. When Castellanos’ post moved to Switzerland in 1941, he aided George Mandl’s family, changing their last name to the more Latin sounding Mantello, giving them Salvadoran papers and offering George a diplomatic appointment.
Castellano wanted to help more Jews. He asked his government and was denied permission to issue visas. Nevertheless, he and Mantello worked together producing fake Salvadoran citizenship certificates for Jewish families. The Nationality Certificates had photos of the family members on the left hand side, used Consulado General de la República de el Salvador letterhead and official circular stamps reading “Consulado de El Salvador en Ginebra” (Geneva). George Mantello signed them as First Secretary of the General Consulate.
These certificates saved Jews in Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary. Mantello snuck 10,000 Salvadoran citizenship papers into Budapest when the Nazis invaded. Salvadoran nationality papers protected thousands of Hungarian Jewish families; tragically Mantello arrived too late to save his own parents.
The risk for both men was high. Had the Nazis known more about El Salvador or had a less legalistic approach to paperwork, the documents would have landed the Mantello and Castellanos’ families in Auschwitz. After the war, Castellanos talked very little about his humanitarian efforts. His own children knew almost nothing until an interview with a writer in the 1970’s. The Colonel maintained, “I only did what anyone would have done in my place.” He died in 1977, long before he received international recognition.
In 2005, a mysterious suitcase bursting with Salvadoran nationality certificates turned up in a woman’s basement in Geneva. A thousand documents, with photos of families from the 1940s began to tell the larger story of how many people these two men had rescued. Castellanos is referred to a the Salvadoran Schindler.
In 2010, Yad Vashem recognized Castellanos as Righteous Among the Nations; an award to a Gentile who saved the lives of Jews during a time of persecution, an honor given to 7 people in Latin America and to no one else in Central America. His daughter, Frieda Castellanos de García, was in attendance for the garden ceremony.
Grandsons Álvaro and Boris Castellanos made a 60-minute movie honoring him, called The Rescue, a Film Concerto. Click on the title to see a preview. Although no one knows the exact number of lives Castellanos and Mantello saved, it is between 30,000 and 40,000. A beautiful tribute to what two people can do.
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