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Heroic Salvadoran Diplomat

Saved 40,000+ lives

José Arturo Castellanos Contreras was a Salvadoran diplomat in Switzerland who saved thousands of lives by working with a Jewish businessman to create false citizenship papers for 40,000 Central European Jews.

Born in 1893 in San Vicente, José Arturo’s father was a general in the Salvadoran Army. José Arturo entered military school at age 17, and went on to serve 26 years as an active military officer. After retiring from the army as a Colonel, José Arturo became a diplomat, serving as Salvadoran Consul General in Liverpool, England (1937); Hamburg, Germany (1938), and Geneva, Switzerland (1941-5.)

In 1942, José Arturo was approached by Gyorgy Mandl, a Jewish businessman originally from Transylvania (modern-day Romania.) José Arturo and Gyorgy had met years earlier in Bucharest, and now Gyorgy was a refugee who had just escaped from Nazi-occupied Romania with his family, a harrowing ordeal. Gyorgy told José Arturo how dire the situation was for Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. Thousands of people were being arrested or murdered every day, with the numbers continually rising. Terrified on behalf of his Jewish brethren, Gyorgy begged his old friend to use his diplomatic position to save Jews.

José Arturo knew that the Nazis were persecuting Jews, but had no idea just bad it was. He immediately created a new position “First Secretary to the Consul” and hired Gyorgy to work at the embassy. José Arturo directed his staff to prepare papers of Salvadoran citizenship for Gyorgy and his family. Gyorgy was given the Hispanic-sounding name Jorge Mantello. Soon after, Gyorgy was detained by the Gestapo, but his Salvadoran papers saved him, even though he spoke no Spanish!

Together, José Arturo and Gyorgy/Jorge embarked on a project to create fake Salvadoran citizenship documents for as many Jews as possible. Working day and night, they partnered  with the Swiss consul in Budapest Carl Lutz to secretly issue over 13,000 “certificates of Salvadoran citizenship” [previously profiled: The Swiss Savior]. These false documents, some of which covered entire families saved the lives of approximately 40,000 Jews from Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Poland. The rescue mission continued, at great risk to everyone involved, until Germany’s defeat in 1945.

After the war, José Arturo did not speak of his heroic acts. American author Leon Uris heard about what he’d done, and he tracked down the retired diplomat in 1972 and interviewed him. It was the first time his daughter Frieda heard her father’s inspiring story. She asked him why he’d never told anybody, and he said, “I only did what anyone would have done in my place.” The interview was discovered by the Salvadoran media, and in 1976 José Arturo gave another interview, but the story did not receive much attention and he died in 1977, his heroism largely unknown.

In the early 2000’s, the small Jewish community in El Salvador worked with José Arturo’s family to submit evidence of his heroism to Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem. José Arturo was honored by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” in 2010. Matty Cohen, Israel’s ambassador to El Salvador, organized a ceremony in capital city San Salvador to honor José Arturo. Many of his family members attended, and Matty Cohen said, “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.”

For saving thousands of Central European Jews during the Holocaust, we honor José Arturo Castellanos Contreras as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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