A Salvadoran Diplomat in Nazi Europe Lent His Nation's Protection to Hungarian Jews

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

From San Salvador to Budapest to Washington: The tides of memory and forgetting swept into the El Salvador Embassy on 16th Street NW the other day, transporting ghosts.

Mounted on the walls, their faces peer from postcards of a desperate time -- identity papers, manually typed in great haste, accompanied by glued-on family snapshots, all scanned and enlarged like inscrutable posters for our inspection 64 years later.

One incongruity stands out. You can't help wondering if some Nazi officer noticed it, too, back in Budapest of 1944, pounding on the door of an apartment, babies crying, hands trembling, the trains being loaded for Auschwitz:

The papers say the bearers are citizens of El Salvador, "with all the rights and duties inherent with this nationality." That included the right not to be shipped to an extermination camp.

Yet the names on these "Certificates of Nationality" sure don't ring Salvadoran: Rabbi Jehudah Glasner, with wife Deborah and son Moses. Leiba, Sara and Elijas Javneris. Abraham, Malka and Rifka Perelman.

It was amazing how, just when Hitler began applying the final solution to the last major Jewish community in Europe, there suddenly appeared in Budapest, by some estimates, thousands of Salvadorans who happened to be Jewish. They were scared but now clinging to hope, down by the Rio Danube.

In Spanish, " salvador" means "savior."

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World War II doesn't occupy a central part of the national narratives of most Latin American countries, including El Salvador. When we think of the war and that part of the world, we think of Nazi officers hiding out in Argentina or Chile, and that's about it.

But the memory of the Holocaust has a way of making the world feel smaller. People of different nations can imagine they share a single human drama. Salvadorans have been as surprised as anybody to rediscover their part in it. To have been on the side of the angels at one of the darkest moments in history, when other countries stood by, is something a small, relatively poor, geopolitically minor nation can be proud of.

The Salvadorans have launched a campaign to gain wider recognition for this obscure story. The display of evidence at the embassy has been part of it. Diplomats and researchers have been scouring archives on two continents for three years to document the facts of the case.

In May, President Elías Antonio Saca González recalled the history in a speech to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding. Later this month, the diplomats and researchers will journey to Jerusalem and present their findings. For the second time in a year, they will visit Yad Vashem, the Israeli institute and museum dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust. They will press their petition to Yad Vashem for formal recognition of the key Salvadoran player in the drama -- the late Col. José Arturo Castellanos, the man on whose authority all those Hungarian Jewish Salvadoran citizens were freshly minted in their hour of need.

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