José Arturo Castellanos was a Catholic from El Salvador who during the Second World War was sent as a diplomat to the city of Geneva, Switzerland. But after his requests to his country to rescue Jews who began to face massive persecution at the hands of the Nazis were denied, he took matters in his own hands.
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” 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 lay persons who saved Jews at that time.
In July 2016 Pope Francis had an encounter at the Auschwitz concentration camp located in Poland with the representatives of some “Righteous Among the Nations” who had already died.
José Arturo 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 Colonel Castellanos was sent as a diplomat to England and in 1938 assigned to Germany. There he witnessed the persecution of the Jews by the Nazi regime.
In face of this 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 and 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. 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 one of the sides that fought during the Second World War.
Castellanos made the issuance of more than 13,000 Salvadoran documents to be 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.
The Yad Vashem institution 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 the Jews in places like Hungary and provided support for Castellanos in his rescue mission. Currently thousands of these certificates which 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 work. After his death, several institutions began to hold tributes in memory of Colonel 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 José Arturo Castellanos.
A video was also shown there of the testimony of a Jewish man who obtained Salvadoran citizenship and was able to escape with his family. In a press release announcing this event posted on the website of Diplomatic Missions of Israel in the World, noted that Catellanos “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.”