José Arturo Castellanos Contreras (San Vicente, El Salvador, December 23, 1893 — San Salvador, June 18, 1977) was a Salvadoran army colonel and diplomat who, while working as El Salvador’s Consul General for Geneva during WWII, and in conjunction with a Jewish-Hungarian businessman named György Mandl (George Mandel), helped save up to 40,000 Central European Jews from Nazi persecution by providing them with false papers of Salvadoran nationality.
Colonel Castellanos was born in the provincial city of San Vicente to General Adelino Castellanos and Isabel Contreras de Castellanos. Beginning in 1910, when he entered the Escuela Politécnica Militar (Military Polytechnic School), Coronel Castellanos would spend over 26 active years in the Salvadoran military, eventually achieving the rank of Second Chief of the General Staff of the Army of the Republic. Subsequently he would serve as Salvadoran Consul General in the following locations: Liverpool, England, 1937; Hamburg, Germany, 1938; Geneva, Switzerland, 1941-45.
It was during his time as consul in neutral Switzerland that Colonel Castellanos was approached by a Transylvanian-born Jewish businessman named György Mandl who reiterated to him the grave situation in which he, his family, and countless of his coreligionists found themselves. Castellanos, moved to help Mandl, makes him an honorary diplomat and had papers of Salvadoran nationality prepared for him and his family. Following a close call with the Gestapo in which the faux position and papers saved the family (who now bore the name of Mantello, to give it a more Latin ring) from being sent to Auschwitz.
In 1942, Castellanos became the Salvadoran General Consul in Geneva and appointed Mandel-Mantello the consulate’s “First Secretary,” a ficticious title that does not exist in the Salvadoran diplomatic hierarchy.
Mandel-Mantello proposed to Castellanos that they issue Salvadoran documents to help save Jews. They charged little or nothing, whereas the papers from some other Latin American countries are being sold for high prices. What starts as a relatively small-scale distribution of Salvadoran visas, mushrooms by mid-1944 into the mass production of nationality certificates. They proceeded to secretly issue at least 13,000 “certificates of Salvadoran citizenship” to Central European Jews. The documents granted the bearers the right to seek and receive the protection of the International Red Cross and, eventually, of the Swiss Consul in Budapest; these guarantees, in effect, saved thousands of “Salvadorans” of Bulgarian, Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian extraction from Nazi depredations.
The Nazis, strangely legalistic and bureaucratic in their own way, seem willing to accept the proposition that foreign citizens, even Jews, could be exempt from anti-Jewish edicts. After their invasion of Hungary in 1944, the Nazis stepped up the systematic slaughter of Jews, deporting hundreds of thousands from the countryside to death camps, then focusing on the hundreds of thousands remaining in Budapest. Typists in Geneva churned out the Salvadoran papers. They shipped them via couriers into Budapest. When photos or biographical information were unavailable, they sent pre-signed papers for Jews to fill in themselves.
The Salvadoran government asked the Swiss, as neutral representatives in Budapest, to protect the new Salvadoran citizens. In international safe houses - such as the famous Glass House, a former glass factory - the Swiss harbored thousands of Jews who possessed Salvadoran papers or similar documents. The Swedish Raoul Wallenberg’s parallel effort was underway in Budapest at this time, while the Swiss program was directed by Carl Lutz, both recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Gentiles.”
Colonel Castellanos’s efforts on behalf of the Jews of Central Europe have been recognized at various times by the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the group Visas For Life. In 1999, the Jerusalem City Council honored Castellanos’s granddaughter on the occasion of the inauguration of El Salvador Street in the neighborhood of Givat Masua. In 1995, President Bill Clinton, in a letter to the Anti-Defamation League, paid tribute to Col. Castellanos and other members of the Salvadoran diplomatic corps, for their efforts in saving thousands from Nazi extermination. Castellanos, who hardly ever spoke of his role as rescuer during the war, was interviewed by writer Leon Uris on the subject in 1972. More recently, the Isreali Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Community of El Salvador have both asked Yad Vashem (the “Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority”) to confer the title of “Righteous Gentile” on José Arturo Castellanos Contreras.
Colonel Castellanos married Maria Schürmann, a native of Switzerland, with whom he had three daughters: Frieda, Yvone, and Blanca Luz Castellanos. After the war, Castellanos was posted to London, and then retired. After returning to El Salvador, Castellanos faded into obscurity and died in San Salvador in 1977.
A celebration honoring Castellanos was held in Germany in May 2016, and was attended by El Salvador's ambassador to Germany. The tribute, hosted by the German Ministry of Foreign Relations and the Berlin Jewish Center, featured a screening of “The Rescue,” a film about Castellano's heroic efforts. Sandra Witte, who represented the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum at the ceremony, stated that Castellanos was, “a distinguished icon among all saviors.”