WASHINGTON, D.C. – 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 in the world – the other was Costa Rica – that still maintained an embassy in Jerusalem.
And 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 may have rescued more than 25,000 European Jews from the Nazi death camps.
Between 1942 and 1945, Col. José 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.
Last month, both men were remembered at an event hosted by the Embassy of El Salvador in Washington, D.C. Present were René León, the country’s longtime ambassador to the United States; Claudio Kahn, past president of El Salvador’s Jewish community, and a number of other U.S. and Latin American dignitaries.
“We are 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 Morán, coordinator for historical research at El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “This is the story of Col. Castellanos, a man with great courage who stood up against the system.”
In 1938, Castellanos was sent to Germany to open El Salvador’s new consulate in Hamburg. Four years later, after he had been reassigned to Switzerland for his own safety, Mandel paid him a visit and asked for his help in evading the Nazis back home. So Castellanos appointed him first secretary of El Salvador’s consulate in Geneva.
Immediately upon receiving his Salvadoran passport, the wealthy Romanian added “Mantello” to his last name in order to sound Latin.
Inspired by other rescue efforts, Mandel-Mantello suggested that Salvadoran passports be issued to rescue other 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, vice consul at the Swiss Legation in Budapest, which already represented 12 other countries, including the United States and Great Britain.
Even though none of the Jews who received the official-looking, notarized documents ever immigrated to El Salvador, the bogus papers gave them protection in Hungary, Poland and other countries where they resided.
Thanks to word of mouth, the not-sosecret operation eventually grew so large that Lutz moved it to a glass factory in Budapest known locally as “the glass house.”
Between the Swiss Legation and Mantello’s personal efforts, some 10,000 certificates were eventually handed out, each one saving the lives of an entire family.
The little-known story recently inspired California filmmaker Brad Marlowe and his Salvadoran wife Leonor Avila de Marlowe to put together a documentary about Castellanos and Mandel-Mantello entitled “Glass House.” The 78-minute film was publicly shown for the first time June 12 at the Washington Hebrew Congregation.
“At its core, these were two diplomats issuing paperwork which allowed Jews to gain safe passage,” explained 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. 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, the American Jewish Committee’s director for Latino and Latin American affairs, said she feels a personal 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 Col. 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,” she added.
El Salvador also hopes to solidify its ties with the American Jewish Committee, which in the past has lobbied hard in favor of issues important to that country, such as 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 (CAFTA) in 2005.
In researching their film, Leonor Avila Marlowe became friends with Frieda Garcia, the daughter of Castellanos, and Enrico Mandel-Mantello, the son of George Mandel-Mantello – both of whom appear in the documentary.
“The Nazis didn’t really care much if someone was a foreign citizen,” said Mandel-Mantello, 78, noting that the papers were extremely convincing. “They didn’t have to kill all the Jews in the world. A few could survive, and El Salvador was a beautiful excuse.
The Nazis had a certain respect for Latin American states, and El Salvador was neutral at that stage.”
García, 59, who works as a translator for El Salvador’s current president, Tony Saca, said 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. People say our president at that time was pro-Nazi,” she said. “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.”