Saviour from Salvador

How in the Budapest of 1944, there suddenly appeared thousands of Salvadorans who happened to be Jewish

From San Salvador to Budapest to Washington: the tides of memory and forgetting swept into the El Salvador Embassy in Washington recently, transporting ghosts.

Mounted on the walls, their faces peer from postcards of a desperate time—identity papers, manually typed in great haste, with glued-on family snapshots, enlarged like inscrutable posters 64 years later. One incongruity stands out. You wonder if Nazis noticed it too back in the Budapest of 1944: 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" don't ring Salvadoran: Rabbi Jehudah Glasner, wife Deborah and son Moses. Leiba, Sara and Elijas Javneris. Just when Hitler began applying the final solution to the last major Jewish community in Europe, there suddenly appeared in Budapest thousands of Salvadorans who happened to be Jewish.

In Spanish, "salvador" means "saviour". The Salvadorans have launched a research campaign to gain wider recognition for this obscure story of one saviour—the late Col Jose Arturo Castellanos, on whose authority all those Hungarian Jewish Salvadoran citizens were freshly minted in their hour of need.

At the centre of the story is a friendship. There are pictures of the friends, now deceased, on the wall of the Washington embassy: Castellanos and Hungarian Jewish businessman George Mandel-Mantello. The broad outlines of the endeavour that grew from that friendship have been corroborated by a recent documentary called Glass House. The story goes like this: On government business in Europe before the war, Castellanos meets Mandel. The war starts. Castellanos is posted to a succession of European cities as a diplomat. Mandel, as a Jew, turns to his friend. Castellanos makes Mandel an honorary Salvadoran diplomat, gives him a Salvadoran passport. Mandel changes his name to Mandel-Mantello, to give it a more Latin ring.

By 1942, Castellanos as Salvadoran General Consul in Geneva appoints Mandel-Mantello the consulate's "first secretary". Mandel-Mantello proposes to Castellanos that they issue Salvadoran documents to help Jews survive. What starts as a relatively small-scale operation mushrooms by mid-1944 into the mass production of nationality certificates. The Salvadoran government asks the Swiss, as neutral representatives in Budapest, to protect its new citizens. In international safe houses—such as the Glass House, a former glass factory—the Swiss harbour thousands of Jews with Salvadoran papers.

David Kranzler in his 2000 volume, The Man Who Stopped the Trains to Auschwitz, portrayed Mandel-Mantello as the inspiration behind the operation and Castellanos as the authority without whom it would not have been born. Kranzler estimated that up to 10,000 Salvadoran nationality papers 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. After the war, few if any of the new citizens actually emigrated to El Salvador. They resumed their old nationalities, or settled in Israel.

Castellanos retired and died in relative obscurity in San Salvador in 1977. Mandel-Mantello died in 1992. George's son, Enrico Mandel-Mantello and Frieda de Garcia, one of Castellanos's daughters, reunited recently at the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington. Garcia, 59, says she heard of the story only by chance shortly before her father died. "Why didn't you ever tell us that story?" she asked him. "And his answer was, 'Because anybody in my position would have done the same thing.'"
-David Montgomery (LATWP)

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