How an El Salvadoran Rescued 40,000 Jews From the Holocaust

José Arturo Castellanos ‘opposed an absolute evil in order to save the lives of thousands of Jews.’

José Arturo Castellanos
José Arturo Castellanos (photo: Public domain via Wikipedia)

LIMA, Peru — José Arturo Castellanos was a Catholic from El Salvador who, during the Second World War, was sent as a diplomat to Europe.  

Through courage and cunning, Castellanos helped save 40,000 Jewish people from the Holocaust.

His actions resulted in his being posthumously granted in July 2010 the title of “Righteous Among the Nations,” which is awarded to non-Jews by Yad Vashem, an institution of the Israeli government constituted to honor the memory of the martyrs and heroes of the Holocaust. This title has been conferred on priests, religious and other laypersons who saved Jews at that time. In July 2016, Pope Francis met with the representatives of some “Righteous Among the Nations” who had already died at the Nazi’s Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

Castellanos was born in 1893 in El Salvador to a Catholic and military family. In his youth, he decided to join the army like his father and began to develop a brilliant career. In 1930, he traveled to Europe to complete his education.

A biography of him published on the Yad Vashem website states that, at the age of 44, Col. Castellanos was sent as a diplomat to England. In 1938, he was assigned to Germany.

There he witnessed the persecution of the Jews by the Nazi regime. So he asked his superiors if he could grant them visas so they could escape the country, but this request was denied.

However, Castellanos did not give up. In 1939 he sent a letter to the minister of foreign affairs of El Salvador, in which he described the situation of the Jews and asked for his help. This petition was also denied to him.

The website of the documentary Castellanos Movie — set up by his grandsons Alvaro and Boris Castellanos — says that the colonel disobeyed the orders received from his country’s government and began to extend visas and Salvadoran nationality to Jews to prevent them from being sent by the Nazis to the concentration camps, where they were made to do forced labor in inhumane conditions or were killed.

In 1942, Castellanos was appointed El Salvador’s consul in Geneva, Switzerland. There, he named George Mandel-Mantello, a Jewish refugee from Romania who was a friend of his, as first secretary of the consulate to implement the “Salvadoran action.”

The colonel authorized Mandel-Mantello to secretly deliver passports and certificates of Salvadoran citizenship to the Jews. The Yad Veshem institution explained that those that obtained these benefits were saved because El Salvador was considered a neutral country for not supporting any sides during the Second World War.

Castellanos made the issuance of more than 13,000 Salvadoran documents, done without any charge. These papers were sent through his contacts to Jews who resided in France, Hungary, Germany, Holland, Slovakia and Romania.

According to the Castellanos Movie website, the issuance of just one document was enough to save a whole family.

Through this work — carried out between the years 1942 and 1945 — Castellanos succeeded in saving about 40,000 Jews. Yad Vashem noted that, after the 1944 elections, the new president of El Salvador, Salvador Castaneda Castro, unlike his predecessor, had his country get involved in the protection of Jews in places like Hungary and provided support for Castellanos in his rescue mission.

Currently, thousands of these certificates that granted Salvadoran nationality to Jews in Europe are exhibited in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Castellanos married Maria Schürmann of Switzerland, and the couple had three children. When the Second World War was over in 1945, he was sent to London and retired in 1972 at the age of 79.

He returned to El Salvador, where he led a quiet life until he died in 1977, without having been awarded any recognition for his heroic work during his lifetime.

After his death, several institutions began to hold tributes in memory of Col. Castellanos.

In 2010, when it was announced that he would be awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations,” the El Salvador minister of foreign relations, Hugo Martinez, said that the Salvadoran diplomat “stood out for his humanism and for his work in aiding a people which in their time was persecuted and whose existence was threatened.”

The ambassador of Israel in the Central American country, Mattanya Cohen, said that Castellanos is the fourth Latin American to receive this tribute.

In late June 2017, the embassies of Israel and El Salvador to the Holy See held an event in Rome to honor the memory and the work of Castellanos. A video was shown of the testimony of a Jewish man who obtained Salvadoran citizenship and was able to escape with his family.

A press release announcing the event posted on the website of the Diplomatic Missions of Israel in the World, noted that, “in a time when many remained indifferent to human suffering, he was one of the few heroes who opposed an absolute evil in order to save the lives of thousands of Jews.”