Film: El Salvador’s Role of Aiding Jewish in WW II Finally Told

During World War II, more than 25,000 European Jews became citizens of El Salvador, a country most had never visited and few ever would.

The country, roughly the size of Israel, would come to justify its Spanish name as “the savior” thanks to bogus certificates that made thousands of Jews citizens of El Salvador and kept them from being deported to concentration camps.

The signature on nearly all the certificates was that of George Mandel-Mantello, a Romanian Jewish refugee who in the early 1940s sought help from a Salvadoran acquaintance in Switzerland.

The El Salvador consul general in Geneva, Col. Jose Castellanos, appointed Mantello to the made-up position of first secretary, securing him a diplomat’s passport.

The name Mantello was added to make his name sound more Latin.

The operation Mantello and Castellanos arranged to have blank nationality certificates with Mantello’s signature taken to consulates in various countries of Geneva, where they received additional stamps.

The text stated that the holders were citizens of the Republic of El Salvador, which extended its protection to the holders and their families.

Other diplomats then smuggled the certificates to various locations in Europe ? primarily Hungary ? where they were filled out with the Jewish people’s information.

Most of Mantello’s and Castellanos’ papers were smuggled to Budapest and issued by Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice-consul there, who was helping Jews obtain papers at his “Glass House,” an abandoned glass factory he rented on behalf of the Swiss government, which became a safe haven for thousands of Jews.

After more than six decades, the story of how Mantello and Castellanos saved thousands of European Jews is coming to light.

Telling the story

A new documentary film, The Glass House, tells their story. The film’s director and producer, Brad and Leonor Marlowe, said they hope that promoting the film at various museums and universities across the country will spread the word about El Salvador’s unknown involvement in saving thousands of Jews.

Although El Salvador had declared war on Germany and was on the side of the Allies, neither Castellanos nor Mantello had the authority to issue the certificates.

El Salvador’s government later played a role in the scheme when, in July 1944, its foreign minister contacted the Swiss government to officially request full protection and representation for the Salvadoran citizens in Hungary.

Although the certificates themselves granted some form of protection, Castellanos and Mantello had to convince the Swiss and Hungarian governments to extend protection to the new Salvadoran “citizens” in Hungary.

Suspicious of the arrangement, the Swiss government conducted a lengthy investigation during which Castellanos repeatedly claimed Mantello was a legitimate official. He wasn’t, according to a recent news release the government of El Salvador prepared.

In the beginning, Mantello, with Castellanos’ full support, issued citizenship certificates only to people he knew and involving names provided by Jewish organizations.

`A man with great courage’

In the midst of their operation, Mantello learned that his entire family, whom he believed to be living in relatively safe Hungary, except for his son living with him in Switzerland, had been deported and sent to concentration camps. None survived.

“This is the story of a man with great courage who stood up against a system,” said Ricardo Moran Ferracuti, a Salvadoran official who has been pushing the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem to confer the title “Righteous Gentile” on Castellanos. Mantello cannot receive the award because he was Jewish.

A Righteous Gentile is a non-Jewish person who risked life, freedom and safety to rescue one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation without exacting compensation or other rewards, according to the museum’s Web site.

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