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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; C01

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."

* * *

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.

The Salvadorans want Yad Vashem to bestow upon Castellanos the designation "Righteous Among the Nations." He would join an honor roll of non-Jews who took personal risks, for no personal gain, to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

Most of the more than 21,000 righteous gentiles named so far -- including Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg -- came from Europe. There are two Brazilians and one Chileno, but no Salvadorans.

"Most unfortunately, El Salvador has been in the news for bad things," says Ricardo Morán Ferracuti, who has been leading the research effort. "It's the guerrillas, it's the gangs, it's deporting of the illegals. We also have to show the world that we have good people who did good things to humankind.

"It will be an honor for us to have a picture of Colonel Castellanos in Yad Vashem. . . . It's a matter of pride for El Salvador."

A Partnership to Save Lives

At the center of the story is a friendship.

There are pictures of the friends, now deceased, on the wall of the embassy in Washington, too: Castellanos -- short, plump, with thick lips and a warm smile -- and a Hungarian Jewish businessman named George Mandel-Mantello -- thin, intense, haunted.

The broad outlines of the endeavor that grew from that friendship are not much in dispute -- as compiled by the Salvadoran researchers, supported by some documentary evidence and witness testimony, corroborated by a recent documentary called "Glass House" and by the research of some independent historians.

However, some details remain murky, lost in the fog of history. Yad Vashem has yet to judge the larger claim that Castellanos's work rises to the level of Righteous.

The story goes like this:

On government business in Europe before the war, Castellanos meets George Mandel. The war starts. Castellanos is posted to a succession of European cities as a diplomat. With Nazi tanks overrunning the continent, Mandel, as a Jew, knows he's in peril and turns to his friend. Castellanos makes Mandel an honorary Salvadoran diplomat and gives him a Salvadoran passport. Mandel changes his name to Mandel-Mantello, to give it a more Latin ring. Castellanos issues Salvadoran visas to other European Jews.

By 1942, Castellanos becomes the Salvadoran General Consul in Geneva and appoints Mandel-Mantello the consulate's "first secretary," a fictitious title that does not exist in the Salvadoran diplomatic hierarchy.

Mandel-Mantello proposes to Castellanos that they issue Salvadoran documents to help Jews survive. They charge little or nothing, whereas the papers from some other Latin American countries are being sold for high prices.

What starts as a relatively small-scale distribution of Salvadoran visas (against the wishes of Castellanos's own government), mushrooms by mid-1944 into the mass production of nationality certificates. The Nazis, strangely legalistic and bureaucratic in their own way, seem willing to accept the proposition that foreign citizens, even Jews, could be exempt from anti-Jewish edicts.

After their invasion of Hungary in 1944, the Nazis step up the systematic slaughter of Jews, deporting hundreds of thousands from the countryside to death camps, then focusing on the hundreds of thousands remaining in Budapest. Typists in Geneva churn out the Salvadoran papers. They ship them via couriers into Budapest. When photos or biographical information are unavailable, they send pre-signed papers for Jews to fill in themselves.

The Salvadoran government asks the Swiss, as neutral representatives in Budapest, to protect the new Salvadoran citizens. In international safe houses -- such as the famous Glass House, a former glass factory -- the Swiss harbor thousands of Jews who possess Salvadoran papers or similar documents. The Swedish Wallenberg's parallel effort is underway in Budapest at this time, while the Swiss program is directed by Carl Lutz, also subsequently recognized as a Righteous gentile.

"It's one of those exceptionally chaotic situations when I think maverick actors can do important things," says Tim Cole, a Holocaust scholar at the University of Bristol in Great Britain.

Before the Salvadoran researchers started digging into the history, one of the few thorough accounts of the Salvadoran action was David Kranzler's 2000 volume, "The Man Who Stopped the Trains to Auschwitz." Kranzler portrayed Mandel-Mantello as the inspiration behind the operation but credited Castellanos as the authority without whom it would not have been born.

Kranzler estimated that as many as 9,000-10,000 Salvadoran nationality papers were issued. Ferracuti, the Salvadoran diplomat-researcher, cites a document found in Holocaust archives in Haifa that reports more than 13,000 certificates were issued. Since each document could cover a family, Kranzler has guessed that 30,000 or more Jews could have been covered by the papers.

A Righteous Reunion

After the war, few if any of the new citizens actually emigrated to El Salvador. That was never the point, anyway. They resumed their old nationalities, or settled in Israel.

Castellanos was posted to London, retired and died in relative obscurity in San Salvador in 1977, his role in the story all but forgotten.

Mandel-Mantello continued as a philanthropist and businessman after the war. His deeds were better known, and he had received some international recognition by the time he died in Rome in 1992.

But Mandel-Mantello was forever haunted by one thing: Just as the Jews of Hungary were late in realizing the Nazis would come after them, so, too, was Mandel-Mantello late in recognizing that his parents and dozens of relatives in the Hungarian countryside were in danger. They were killed at Auschwitz.

"He reproached himself," says Enrico Mandel-Mantello, 78, George's son, who was spirited to Geneva thanks to a Salvadoran passport, and who as a teenager witnessed the production of the Salvadoran papers in Geneva. "He missed by one week. And they would have survived with those papers."

Enrico Mandel-Mantello and Frieda C. de Garcia, one of Castellanos's daughters, had a reunion recently at the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington. They embraced, and Mandel-Mantello reminded the assembled guests that Garcia's "father saved my life. It's a moment to express my gratitude."

Garcia, 59, now an official translator for Saca, the president, says her father never spoke of his role. By chance she heard of it shortly before he died. "Why didn't you ever tell us that story?" she asked. "And his answer was, 'Because anybody in my position would have done the same thing.' "

As historical drama, what the story lacks is the on-the-scene heroism of a doomed Wallenberg or a shrewd Schindler. Castellanos and Mandel-Mantello operated from the remove of Geneva, devising a bureaucratic response to meet the threat of bureaucratic butchers.

And yet the story has power. It sets an example for conduct.

"As human beings, we love seeing the little person doing big things," says Leonor Marlowe, a native Salvadoran who made the documentary "Glass House" with her husband, Los Angeles filmmaker Brad Marlowe.

She first heard about the story in the mid-1990s: "My single proudest moment as a Salvadoran." They have yet to find a distributor for the film and in the meantime are preparing to sell it themselves through a Web site.

An audience of several hundred saw "Glass House" recently at Washington Hebrew Congregation.

"People were incredibly moved," says M. Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi at Washington Hebrew. "In our day and age, when we face the crisis in Darfur, when people are left on the fringe of society, the callousness that goes on, we find there are people who stepped forward."

Lustig says his congregation plans to write letters in support of the Salvadorans' petition to Yad Vashem. "They were no superpower, but what they did was extraordinary."

Extraordinary -- but Righteous, too?

Unknown is how many Jews were actually saved by the papers. But the success of a rescue operation is not the test of its righteousness, says Irena Steinfeldt, director of the department for the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. "The test is the nature of the deed."

"We have proof that [Castellanos] did issue all kinds of protective papers," she says. "Sometimes this paper could make the difference between being taken now, or surviving another three or four weeks until the Russians arrive in Budapest."

However, Steinfeldt says, lacking so far is proof that Castellanos risked, if not his life, then his position, by trying to save Jews. It's a key criterion of righteousness.

"In order to submit the case, I need to have some kind of proof that Castellanos was acting against Salvadoran instructions," Steinfeldt says.

Ferracuti, the Salvadoran diplomat-researcher, says he has assembled evidence to show that in the early part of the war, when El Salvador's president was sympathetic to Germany, Castellanos did act against his government's policy. Only in mid-1944, when a new president took power, did the country formally sanction Castellanos's and Mandel-Mantello's efforts.

He will present his research during his upcoming mission to Yad Vashem. Then, like all Righteous petitions, the case will be considered by a special Israeli commission, presided over by a supreme court justice. Steinfeldt declines to estimate how long a decision might take.

If Castellanos -- and El Salvador -- earn the coveted recognition, the Salvadoran who helped designate so many new citizens of El Salvador will posthumously earn the right to be declared an honorary citizen of Israel. And Yad Vashem will present to Castellanos's family a specially minted medal. It will bear an inscription:

"Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe."

The makers of the documentary "Glass House," about Castellanos and Mandel-Mantello's efforts have posted a trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXbxkP95VPU.

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