April 19, 1994

El Salvador and Schindler’s List

(A valid comparison)

There are chapters in history where our country, through the deeds of her diplomatic functionaries, have caused great feats in the world that disgracefully are unbeknownst by the majority of Salvadorians, but never-the-less they deserve to be rescued from the archives. I will narrate for you today one of the most brilliant examples, not only because of its historical value, but because of its humanitarian character, not even mentioning its undoubtedly heroic quality.

Last Sunday I had the opportunity of viewing the film ”Schindler’s List”, which was awarded an Oscar for Best Movie this year, and was also nominated for honors in various other categories. Dealing with the historical account of a passage during the Holocaust (World War II), it left a strong impression on me, not only because after these crimes against humanity took place my wife’s paternal grandfather, Jorge Garcia Granados, was one of the members of the Commission at the United Nations which recommended the creation of the State of Israel to the General Assembly in 1947, but because a great part of my wife’s maternal family was murdered in the Holocaust. The aforementioned made us remember the history of the functionaries of the Salvadorian Foreign Office who played a pivotal role in the lives of many Jews but have been denied the credit they so deserve.

During the last years of the war, when the trains full of deportees ran the route between Budapest and Auschwitz, El Salvador, through the Ministry of Foreign Relations and the Consul in Geneva, Switzerland, collaborated so that approximately 40,000 Hungarian Jews would be rescued from those and other death camps.

It all began when the first secretary of our Consulate in Geneva, George Mantello, of Jewish ancestry, with connections in Romania and Hungary, suggested to our General Consul of that same city, Colonel Jose Arturo Castellanos, the possibility of extending Salvadorian citizenship certificates to Jews throughout Europe in order to avoid their deportation to concentration camps. Consul Castellanos approved the suggestion and the said certificates were put into production shortly thereafter. These certificates claimed that the holder of this document was a recognized citizen of El Salvador, giving the holder the right of being protected by the International Red Cross instead of being treated as legal enemy of the Third Reich.

This entire scheme suffered drastic changes as a result of the German occupation of Hungary in 1944. During that same year, the Salvadorian government, acting through Colonel Castellanos solicited the Swiss government representatives in Hungary with the goal of looking after those individuals who held certificates of Salvadorian citizenry. The Swiss government responded by saying that it would carry out the request if the Salvadorian government would formally recognize the identity documents expedited by the Consulate in Geneva. On July 4, 1944, Dr. Julio Enrique, the Salvadorian Foreign Relations Minister, formalized the said request to the Swiss government, which proceeded to accept this arrangement on the 13th of that month, and five days thereafter the Hungarian government gave its approval to the bilateral agreement. After all that was made official, the Swiss government instructed its Consul in Budapest, Charles Lutz to offer protection to whomever carried documents that identified themselves as a citizen of El Salvador.

During the month of June, George Mantello had received reports from the Palestinian Office Agent in Budapest about the first testimonies being given by witnesses that had managed to escape from Auschwitz informing him of the horrific occurrences at that death camp.

The method of distributing these passports had to be changed due to the increased urgency. A Romanian diplomat named Florian Manoliou who frequently traveled between Geneva and Romania via Budapest was given the task. In Geneva, hundreds of passports were printed in a place that had the capacity to produce only a few dozen. This was not an easy task since the documents were not valid until they had all the holder’s personal information. Once the information was received, the passports were prepared and sent to the Swiss Consul in Budapest for distribution where large numbers of Jews were waiting outside the Consulate in order to receive the document that literally, meant the difference between life and death. According to statements made by Consul Lutz to one of the authors of an article that I used to research this topic, the distribution of the passports was the single most dramatic episode he had ever experienced since it was almost like sentencing to death those unfortunate people who did not receive these documents.

Mantello took it upon himself to get the support of Switzerland’s religious leaders in order to let the press know the fate that Jews were facing in countries occupied by the German army. The effort was partially successful given that as a result of this unprecedented coverage reaching over to other Allied countries, but finding no repudiation, possibly because many found it hard to believe. Still, the pressure exerted by the press coverage caused the suspension of the deportations by the Hungarian Regent in July 1944.

It is interesting to note is that El Salvador was the only country that extended passports to Jews. Countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal, Turkey, Argentina, the Dominican Republic and the Vatican handed out travel documents that promised entry into the pertaining country but without conceding nationality upon the holder. It is also worth noting that according to documents at the Embassy of El Salvador in Israel, the Salvadorian Consulate in Geneva never received any money nor solicited anything in return for the delivery of these passports.

The efforts of Colonel Castellanos, George Mantello and Florian Manoliou resulted in a rather strange situation in Hungary at the end of 1944 when suddenly there were more Salvadorian ”citizens” than all the other nationalities combined. Logically, all these ”Salvadorians” were the Jews who received the passports, of who only a small minority spoke Spanish or even knew El Salvador’s exact geographic location on the map.

Currently, the Ministry of Foreign Relations continues to search for information regarding the deeds presented in this brief and incomplete speech, with the only desire being making known the efforts undertaken by members of our country’s Foreign Service for the cause of an exemplary humanitarian cause.

In a letter sent on March 24, 1991 by our Ambassador in Israel, Mr. Enrique Guttfreund, directed to the Anti Defamation League- B’Nai Brith of Israel, we drew attention to the aforementioned recount, whose validity has been confirmed by that organization, assuring us, by means of a reply signed on July 2 of that same year by Rabbi Morton M. Rosenthal, that an act of acknowledgement is currently under consideration to Mr. Mantello and the government of El Salvador.

On April 13 I had the opportunity of conversing on the telephone with Dr. David Kranzler, a historian who lives in Brooklyn, New York who is about to finish a book on the topic. We hope this book will shed more light on the matter briefly touched on in this discourse thereby giving well-deserved recognition to these heroes who have, up until today, remained anonymous.

* Architect Alfaro is the Vice Minister of Foreign Relations. He holds in his possession the documents that were utilized for the development of this article.