Forgotten heroes

Forgotten heroes

How El Salvador saved thousands from Nazi death camps

By Randy Jurado Ertll 12/17/2013

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We usually only see negative stories focused on the Salvadoran-American community, especially when it comes to issues related to gangs and violence, leading to stigmatization and negative profiling of an entire community. Many young Salvadorans sometimes do not feel comfortable sharing or stating their national roots, especially since not many books related to the Salvadoran-American experience exist in the United States.   

Shining new light on forgotten historical facts helps to create more knowledge and cultural pride, as well as a sense of importance and belonging for people struggling for recognition and acceptance. One way to accomplish these goals is by teaching our young students historical stories that they can be proud of — stories that have either been forgotten or ignored by the mainstream media.

Many of our current students in public, private and charter schools do not know much about World War II and its significance. Specifically, the great majority of these students also likely do not know the critical role that El Salvador played during the war in saving thousands of lives.

With this in mind, I felt compelled to share a story that has great significance to me, my family and my community, and it is one that I think our students will find fascinating. This story also provides an opportunity for teachers to share some historical facts that are usually omitted from the adopted history curriculum. 

In 1944, the Allies had turned the tide against Hitler’s evil Nazi forces in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Unfortunately, by then millions of Jews throughout Europe had already been systematically murdered, with many more yet to die before the war ended.

As we remember the valiant battle against Hitler, we should also note an amazing act of courage which has not received the attention it deserves; how the government of El Salvador saved the lives of more than 40,000 Hungarian Jews.

Working through its consular office in Geneva, Switzerland, the Salvadoran government came up with a creative plan. It decided to issue Salvadoran citizenship papers to Hungarian Jews who would otherwise have been sent to Nazi death camps.

The authors of this plan were Salvadoran Consul Colonel José Arturo Castellanos and First Secretary/Honorary Consul George Mantello, who was of Jewish ancestry.

Mantello, whose birth name was Mandl, spoke no Spanish and had never set foot in El Salvador. But he had assisted Castellanos in business, and Castellanos more than returned the favor.

He gave Mantello his honorary position at the embassy, which Mantello was using to publicize Nazi atrocities when he came up with the idea of offering citizenship to Hungarian Jews. Castellanos embraced Mantello’s efforts and then persuaded the Salvadoran government to give these destitute people citizenship papers and a way of escaping deportation to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Salvadoran government officials then formally asked the Swiss government to accept this agreement and to obtain approval from the Hungarian government, which it did.

In Budapest, tens of thousands of Hungarians Jews were able to obtain Salvadoran citizenship papers free of charge. 
Thanks to Castellanos and Mantello, El Salvador was the only country that offered nationality rights to Hungarian Jews on a massive scale during the war. 

Castellanos and Mantello deserve to be remembered as heroes. And yes, one person can make a difference. But this is a great example that the courage, friendship and trust of two individuals can help make miracles a reality. Indeed, it takes a community to uplift and protect each other. 

Let us follow their example by assisting those within our own country who face deportation or oppression. We must always be humanitarians — not just during the holidays. Let us strive to be humane and compassionate to each other on a daily basis.  

Of course, immigrants in the United States facing deportation are not nearly in the same kind of situation that Jews were in during World War II. But this example of reaching across nationalities and religions to assist fellow human beings in need is one that we can all take to heart. n

Randy Jurado Ertll is the author of “Hope in Times of Darkness: A Salvadoran American Experience” and “The Life of an Activist: In the Frontlines 24/7.” Both books are available at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. His Web site is randyjurado.com.

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