Germany’s Foreign Office and the Centrum Judaicum Berlin held an event in the German capital in honor of José Arturo Castellanos Contreras, El Salvador’s consul-general in Geneva who during World War II helped to save tens of thousands of Jews from Central Europe from Nazi persecution.
Felix Klein, special representative of the Foreign Office for relations with Jewish organizations, and José Atilio Benitez Parada, El Salvador’s ambassador in Germany, were present at the tribute, which included the screening of the film ‘The Rescue’ by Alvaro and Boris Castellanos. It documents their grandfather’s little-known but heroic acts during the Holocaust.
José Arturo Castellanos Contreras was a Salvadoran army colonel and diplomat who, while working as El Salvador’s Consul General for Geneva during World War II, and in conjunction with a Jewish-Hungarian businessman named György Mandl (George Mandel), helped save up to thousands of Jews from Nazi persecution by providing them with false papers of Salvadoran nationality.
Castellanos was born in 1893 the provincial city of San Vicente. After passing Military Polytechnic School Castellanos spent over 26 active years in the El Salvador’s military, eventually achieving the rank of Second Chief of the General Staff of the Army of the Republic. Subsequently he would serve as Salvadoran Consul General in Liverpool, England, Hamburg, Germany, and Geneva, Switzerland, from 1941 to 1945.
It was during his time as consul in neutral Switzerland that Castellanos was approached by a Transylvanian-born Jewish businessman named György Mandel. Castellanos, moved to help Mandel, made him an honorary diplomat and had papers of Salvadoran nationality prepared for him and his family.
In 1942, Castellanos became the Salvadoran consul-general in Geneva and appointed Mandel the consulate’s ‘first secretary’, a post that did not exist in reality. Mandel proposed to Castellanos that they issue Salvadoran documents to help save Jews, charging little or nothing, whereas the papers from some other Latin American countries are being sold for high prices. What started as a relatively small-scale distribution of Salvadoran visas, by mid-1944 became a mass production of nationality certificates.
The two men proceeded to secretly issue at least 13,000 "certificates of citizenship" to Central European Jews. The documents granted the bearers the right to seek and receive the protection of the International Red Cross and, eventually, of the Swiss consul in Budapest. These guarantees, in effect, saved thousands of Jews from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania from deportation to the Nazi death camps.
In international safe houses, the Swiss, acting on behalf of El Salvador, harbored thousands of Jews in possession of Salvadoran citizenship papers, or similar documents. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s parallel effort was underway in Budapest at this time, while the Swiss program was directed by Carl Lutz.
After the war, Castellanos was posted to London, and then retired. After returning to El Salvador, he died in the country’s capital San Salvador in 1977. He was recognized posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in 2010.