How diplomat's paperwork saved lives in Holocaust
Sunday, February 28, 2010; 12:01 AM
NEW YORK -- It took Ina Polak 35 years to discover the dusty piece of paper that probably saved her and her family in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
It wasn't until she was cleaning her mother's New York City apartment following her death in 1980 that she discovered the document listing her, her sister and parents. It was a Salvadoran citizenship certificate.
"My first reaction was 'Oh, now I understand!'" said Polak, who is 87.
She and her family were Dutch Jews, with nothing to connect them with the distant Central American country of El Salvador. Yet the certificate dated 1944 became their lifeline, thanks to a man named George Mantello.
Mantello, a Jew born in what is now Romania, was one of a handful of diplomats who during World War II saved thousands of Jews and others on the run from the Nazis by giving them visas or citizenships, often without their governments' knowledge.
They were men such as Hiram Bingham IV, a U.S. consular official in Marseille, France who issued visas and other travel documents that are credited with helping to rescue about 2,000 people; or Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese envoy in Lithuania, thought to have saved 3,500; or Dr. Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese consul in Vienna whose visas got 18,000 Jews to safety in Shanghai.
Best known of all is Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, whose efforts probably contributed to saving 90,000 Jewish lives in Hungary before he vanished in what became an abiding mystery of the Holocaust.
Now the work of Mantello is getting fresh attention as scholars dig into newly released files and piece together the lives he saved by gaming the diplomatic bureaucracy.
Working as first secretary in the Salvadoran consulate in Geneva, Switzerland, Mantello used a network of contacts to issue papers to Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe between 1942 and 1944 -up to 10,000 documents, according to his son, Enrico Mantello.
The same figure is given by historian David Kranzler, who published a book about the diplomat in 2000 called "The Man who Stopped the Trains to Auschwitz" that also describes Mantello's critical role in publicizing the so-called Auschwitz Protocol, a description of the Nazis' biggest death camp by two escaped inmates.
It is not known how many lives were saved by Mantello's documents - "definitively, hundreds," says Mordecai Paldiel, a Holocaust studies professor at Yeshiva University in New York. A letter from Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat who worked with Mantello, speaks of "thousands" saved.
Without the Salvadoran certificate, Polak and her family would likely have been worked to death in Bergen-Belsen or sent to other camps or the salt mines. Instead they were moved to a small camp enclosure full of Jews with Latin American documents, and finally put on a train out of Bergen-Belsen along with 2,400 people and were rescued by US troops in April 1945.