The Incredible Salvadoran Plot That Saved Thousands of Jews During the Holocaust

Two men – one a diplomat from El Salvador, the other a Romanian-Jewish businessman – hatched a plan that kept many Jews out of Auschwitz, yet their story is only known today thanks to a Central American beauty pageant in the 1970s

George Mantello, left, and José Arturo Castellanos.
Yad Vashem

José Arturo Castellanos and George Mantello were not a pair one might have imagined teaming up to outsmart both the genocidal Nazis and an indifferent world. Yet once circumstances brought the two men together for a business deal in 1939, a relationship ensued that over the next five years resulted in their devising and carrying out a plan that saved thousands of Jews otherwise fated to die in Auschwitz.

Born György Mandl in Transylvania (a Hungarian-speaking part of Romania) in 1901, George Mantello grew up in a well-off Orthodox Jewish  family. His secular education included attending military school during World War I, before he entered the business world. A true cosmopolitan, he moved with ease from one European capital to another, while working simultaneously in several different commercial fields – finance, textiles, international trade. And though he mixed comfortably with non-Jewish society, he identified strongly with Revisionist Zionism.

José Castellanos was born in San Vicente, El Salvador, in 1893. He too came from a well-off family, and he too attended military academy, beginning in 1910, from which he emerged to begin a long career in his country’s army. By 1936 he was a colonel and member of the army’s General Staff when, according to Castellanos’ daughter, Frieda Castellanos, the country’s military dictator Gen. Maximiliano Hernández Martínez decided to remove this charismatic rival from the scene by sending him overseas.

A posting as El Salvador’s consul general in Liverpool was followed by consular positions in Hamburg and, finally, in 1941, Geneva.

It was in an earlier posting, as an army business agent in Europe, that Castellanos first met Mandl – who now called himself George Mandel, and eventually eliminated any Jewish hint from his name by becoming Mantello – who brokered a deal for the Salvadoran to purchase weapons and supplies for his country from Czechoslovakia in 1939.

An El Salvador citizenship certificate issued by the consulate in Geneva, December 1943.
Yad Vashem

In his 2000 book “The Man Who Stopped the Trains to Auschwitz: George Mantello, El Salvador, and Switzerland’s Finest Hour,” David Kranzler writes that Mantello “had been in Vienna when the Germans marched into that city in 1938; in Prague when the Germans overran it in 1939; and in Belgrade when the Germans invaded in 1941.” He had no illusions about Hitler’s intentions and so in 1942 sold off his assets in Romania and relocated to Switzerland. Before leaving Bucharest, he purchased 60 trainloads of cotton, which he then shipped to Switzerland and resold at a pretty profit.

In addition to financial security, Mantello acquired additional protection when Castellanos gave him a Salvadoran diplomatic appointment. In 1939, the non-Spanish-speaking, Central European Jew became the honorary attaché of El Salvador in Bucharest, and honorary consul in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

These were not simply titles: Even today it’s not unusual for small countries to be represented by local, nonprofessional diplomats in states where they can’t afford a full-time staff. At the same time, however, serving as a Salvadoran diplomat meant that Mantello and his immediate family – his wife Irene and their son Enrico – held diplomatic passports, which if nothing else protected them from deportation by the Germans.

Their finest hour

Already while he was serving in the United Kingdom and Germany, and encouraged by his friend, Castellanos had issued a small number of visas to Jews in occupied countries that also enabled them to escape deportation by the Nazis.

After Kristallnacht in November 1938, Castellanos requested permission from El Salvador’s foreign minister to do that on a larger scale. His request was turned down. Although El Salvador, like other Latin American states, would be officially neutral at the start of World War II, its president, Martínez, was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler.

After the United States entered the war in December 1941, El Salvador threw in its lot with the Allies, but it wasn’t until Martínez stepped down in 1944 that the country became an active (if not combatant) ally.

After Mantello moved to Switzerland in 1942, Castellanos – by now the Salvadoran consul general – created a new title for him: first secretary of the Geneva consulate. Together, they took it upon themselves to create a new “official” document: A certificate of Salvadoran citizenship, which they proceeded to distribute to Jews in a number of countries in Europe, including France and other occupied countries. Both the position of first secretary and the citizenship certificate were ad hoc creations cooked up by Castellanos and Mantello.

Frieda Castellanos Garcia, daughter of José Arturo Castellanos, in the Garden of the Righteous, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, February 2013.
Yad Vashem

The duo’s finest hour came in 1944 and was precipitated by a number of events. In March that year, the Germans occupied Hungary, where the country’s Jewish population had reached 800,000. Previously they had been subject to persecution; now they were candidates for deportation. Indeed, in a little over two months, beginning in May 1944, most of the Jewish population in the country outside of Budapest – some 425,000 people – was rounded up and sent to death camps. Then, the deportations stopped.

Earlier that spring, several reports had emerged from Auschwitz regarding the murders that were taking place there. At the request of George Mantello, Florian Manoliu – a Romanian diplomat and former business partner of George’s brother, Josef – journeyed into Romania and Hungary, and brought back confirmation of the dire news. (He also visited Bistrice to deliver Salvadoran papers to George Mantello’s extended family, only to learn that they had been deported several days earlier.)

After Manoliu’s return to the Romanian Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, George Mantello and his brother began a campaign to get the news out – to that country’s newspapers, to the international diplomatic community and the International Red Cross, to religious and political leaders.

Overnight, hundreds of Swiss newspapers bucked censorship and reported on the mass murder taking place within the Third Reich. The Swiss government was forced to rescind its policy of refusing entry to Jews who reached its borders requesting asylum. The International Red Cross, too, was pressured to take an active role in rescuing Jews. Similarly, the Hungarian premier, Miklós Horthy, decided to stop the deportations that July.

In El Salvador, Gen. Martínez resigned from office and fled the country in May 1944. A new, democratic government replaced his regime and decided to throw its support behind Castellanos’ rescue plan.

By then, Mantello had succeeded in smuggling some 10,000 Salvadoran citizenship documents into Budapest, with the help of the Swiss consular office there, and distributed them at no charge. Each one was good for an entire family. A wave of political pressure – belated for sure, but still valuable – was brought to bear on the Swiss government, which now agreed to recognize the Salvadoran certificates.

In Budapest, diplomats like Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden and Carl Lutz  from Switzerland – both neutral countries – worked tirelessly to distribute these and similar documents to Jews in the capital. Even though it was now nearly impossible for Jews to depart Hungary, the Germans for the most part honored the papers of these newly minted “Salvadoran” Jews and kept their hands off them.

By the time the Russians liberated Budapest in early 1945, the Germans had deposed Horthy and resumed the arrests of Jews. Nonetheless, thanks in large part to the Salvadoran papers, there were still some 145,000 Jews alive in the capital, out of some 250,000 Hungarian Jewish survivors.

Israel's then-ambassador to El Salvador, Matty Cohen, left,  presenting the Righteous Among the Nations certificate from Yad Vashem to Frieda Castellanos Garcia, daughter of José Arturo Castellanos, in San Salvador, 2010. Then-Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez is at right.
Courtesy of Matty Cohen

There are no precise figures for the numbers of people whose lives were saved by the efforts of Castellanos and Mantello. Many sources suggest 20,000 to 40,000. Dr. Joel Zisenwine, director of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations department, prefers to stick to the more conservative “thousands.” 

Belated recognition

Despite their heroism and resourcefulness, it would be decades before either Castellanos or Mantello would receive credit for their rescue work. In the case of Mantello, political enemies in Switzerland accused him of profiting from his efforts. He successfully defended himself from the charges, but it would take a while before historians acknowledged his achievements. He died in Rome in 1992 and was buried in Israel.

Castellanos returned to El Salvador in 1945, retiring from the diplomatic service in 1956. Frieda Castellanos tells Haaretz by phone from San Salvador it was only when she was 22, in 1974, that she learned of her father’s rescue work during the war. El Salvador hosted a beauty pageant that year, and the writer Leon Uris (“Exodus”) served as a judge. On arriving in San Salvador, Uris expressed an interest in meeting Castellanos, and when he visited him there was a flurry of stories in the local press about the Salvadoran.

According to Castellanos Garcia, “That was the first time I ever heard about it.” She says that when she asked her father why he had never revealed that chapter in his life, he said: “I only did what anyone would have done in my place.”

José Arturo Castellanos died in 1977. It would be another 23 years before the tiny Jewish community of San Salvador, the Salvadoran government and the Castellanos family joined forces to assemble a file that could be submitted to Yad Vashem, hoping it would recognize the late diplomat as a Righteous Among the Nations. And it was not until 2007 that the material was submitted to the Holocaust museum and research institution in Jerusalem. By then, Israel’s ambassador to El Salvador was Matty Cohen.

In 2008, while the file was still being examined by Yad Vashem, Cohen says he prevailed upon Israel’s Foreign Ministry to issue a formal thank you to El Salvador for its efforts to save Jews in the Holocaust. “That may have been the catalyst for Yad Vashem,” he suggests.

In 2010, Castellanos was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations and Cohen, who today is Israel’s ambassador to Honduras and Guatemala, arranged for the ceremony to be held in the Salvadoran capital, so that Castellanos’ large family – as well as government officials and representatives of international Jewish organizations – could attend. “There were some 300 people present, and it was for me one of the most emotional events I have had in my life as a diplomat,” recalls Cohen.