While the heroic efforts of saviors in Europe have increasingly come to light in the years since World War II, El Salvador which when translated into English means ‘the savior’ is receiving increased attention for the role it plays in saving tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
On November 22, 1995, former U.S. President, Bill Clinton, in a letter to the Anti Defamation League, wrote: ”The Salvadoran government showed compassion in the face of injustice. Their courage in Nazi occupied Hungary, serves as an example of selflessness. I am confident their actions will remain an inspiration for generations to come.”
El Salvador is the smallest of the Central American republics, with a population of 2 million. Between 30,000-50,000 Hungarian Jews were saved, during the Holocaust, in what was known as the ”El Salvador Action.”
The men who made this possible were Colonel Jose Arturo Castellanos, El Salvador’s Consul-General in Geneva, and his First Secretary of the Consulate, George Mantello, a Hungarian Orthodox Jew from Beszterce, Transylvania.
After escaping from the Nazis in Yugoslavia in 1941, Mantello fled to Switzerland, where a year later he began his career in the Salvadoran Consulate.
He had been a textile manufacturer in Bucharest when he met Consul Castellanos in the 1930s. During Mantello’s business trips to Europe he received reports of Jews who had escaped from Auschwitz. He decided to help as many of them as possible to emigrate to Hungary and Romania, and from there to Palestine, England and the U.S.
Having secured his connections in Romania and Hungary, Mantello spoke to Castellanos about extending Salvadorian citizenship certificates to Jews in Europe to avoid deportation.
On Castellanos’s suggestion, in 1942 the Salvadoran Consulate issued thousands of ”citizenship certificates” to Jews from different parts of Europe. Holders of certificates were considered citizens of El Salvador, and protected by the International Red Cross.
Florian Manoliu, Counselor of the Rumanian Legation in Bern, who traveled between Switzerland and Rumania, distributed the ”passports” to Hungarian Jews. Printed in Geneva, but not valid without the holder’s personal information, the passports arrived by courier and then went to Consul Lutz for distribution to Jews at the Swiss Consulate.
Castellanos convinced the Swiss government in Hungary to look after individuals with certificates of Salvadorian citizenry. In 1944, Julio Enrique, Salvadorian Foreign Relations Minister, formalized the request with the Swiss. The Hungarian government approved the bilateral agreement.
When the Swiss Government took over protection of the Salvadoran papers, they instructed their Consul in Budapest, Charles Lutz, to offer protection to anyone carrying the documents. ”Distribution of passports was a death sentence for people who didn’t receive one,” according to Lutz, but they turned out to be the most valuable protective papers of all.
Mantello was also responsible for another rescue effort. First he instigated a press campaign to inform the press about the fate of Jews in German-occupied countries, and requesting that the Allies publish the news around the world. Although even Jewish organizations didn’t believe what was happening in Hungary, the press campaign led to the end of the deportations to Auschwitz from Budapest by 1944.
Help came from two young Slovak-born Jewish inmates of Auschwitz Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg, who had escaped with the help of the underground in Auschwitz, and wanted desperately to tell the world about the atrocities in the Polish death camp.
They had witnessed preparations in gas chambers for the extermination of the one million Jews still living in Hungary under Fascist Regent Admiral Horthy. Jews had been safe until Germany’s barbarity and the Hungarian government’s complicity led the Germans to occupy Hungary in 1944.
Wetzler and Rosenberg worked at the Auschwitz registry, and memorized a lot of pertinent data. Once they joined the Jewish underground in Slovakia, they provided a 30-page report, which became know as the Auschwitz Protocols.
When the Protocols reached Switzerland, Jewish organizations brought them to the U.S. Consulate in Geneva. But the Allies put the reports in their ”official” wastebaskets and did nothing, as 12,000 Jews a day were killed by the Nazi death factory at Auschwitz.
Mantello found the Protocols when he sent Florian Manoliu, to Transylvania to rescue his family, a mission that was undertaken too late, because his parents had already been shipped to Auschwitz.
In May, 1944, Mantello created 1,000 citizenship papers pre-signed and ready for anyone to place their data and photos on them. Manoliu gave the certificates to Moshe Krausz, who left him with an abbreviated copy of the Protocols, which covered the gassing of 1,765,000 Jews through April, 1944.
”Publish these reports, so that the world may learn of the cruelties committed in the Twentieth Century, in so-called civilized countries,” Mantello said. Thousands of copies were circulated to politicians, Members of Parliament and other prominent people, telling them to spread the news.
Despite protests by the Hungarian and German embassies in Switzerland, 400 newspapers carried the story about the 12,000 Jews being killed every day, often with front-page coverage. This led to the suspension of deportations by the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, in July 1944.
Within days after the cables were sent, U.S. President Franklyn Roosevelt sent a warning to Hungary through Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, to stop the deportation, as did Pope Pius XII and King Gustav of Sweden.
The rescue operation succeeded because of Mantello’s Salvadoran supporters: Colonel Castellanos, and the Salvadoran government and Josef Gustavo, a former president of El Salvador and former judge at the Hague, who was then residing in Geneva and offered Mantello moral support.
As a diplomat George Mantello used his political and business contacts to devote time and money to assisting Jews. He was aided by his brother Josef Mandel. Having brought their fortune to Switzerland to invest in the rescue, they never took money to support their rescue efforts.
El Salvador was the only country offering passports to Jews. They were sent to thousands of Jews in occupied countries across Europe, free of charge, in the midst of the lucrative black market for false papers. After the war, Colonel Castellanos had been the El Salvador Minister in London.
The Anti-Defamation League honored the Salvadoran diplomats, George Mantello, Colonel Jose Arturo Castellanos and Julio Avila, whose actions led to the rescue of thousands of Jews during World War II. In1999 Israel honored the granddaughter of Colonel Castellanos, by naming El Salvador Street in the neighborhood of Givat Mesua.
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