Representatives of the Chinese, El Salvadorian and Albanian governments gathered at the American Jewish Committee office in Jerusalem on Monday to discuss responses among members of the diplomatic community to the Holocaust, highlighting the role of consuls and ambassadors who took it upon themselves to save Jews despite orders to the contrary.
In July 1938, representatives of thirty-two countries met Evian-les-Bains, France to discuss the looming threat against German Jewry. Increasingly stringent anti-Semitic laws, pogroms and repression had brought many around the world to the table to discuss how to handle the refugees fleeing the Nazis, but despite the severity of the issue, no resolution was reached.
All of those represented, including the United States, declined to open up immigration. Only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept any refugees at all, ultimately saving several thousand souls.
In the coming years, however, several diplomats stationed in Europe broke ranks with their capitals, issuing visas for those frantic to escape the European furnace despite having received either no instructions or being forbidden to intervene.
And while many have heard of Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg and Japan’s Chiune Sugihara, there are others who did just as much but who have been all but forgotten by history.
One of those was Col. Arturo Castellanos, an El Salvadorian soldier and diplomat who, as Consul General in Geneva, issued more than thirteen thousand citizenship certificates, visas and passports to Hungarian Jews. According to El Salvador, almost forty thousand Jews were saved by his actions.
Some have theorized that Castellanos’ actions were in response to the suppression of a peasant rebellion in El Salvador in 1932, in which numerous civilians were massacred by the army but what is certain is that the proximate cause of his actions was the urging of his close friend George Mandel, a Hungarian Jew who he appointed as his First Secretary.
Speaking at a pre-Holocaust Remembrance Day gathering organized by the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem on Monday, El Salvador’s Ambassador to Israel Werner Romero told The Media Line that Castellanos initially took up his mission against orders by San Salvador at the urging of a Hungarian Jewish friend but that he later received government backing as the war progressed.
“I think a lot of the people and the diplomats then didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Obviously, they had been approached by a lot of Jewish people seeking visas or ways to get out of their countries but I think a lot of diplomats in a lot of countries gave Hitler a chance or they just didn’t know how the whole thing was going to progress. But very quickly, I think most realized that something was wrong.”
As part of his initiative, Castellanos shipped identity papers to Jews in Budapest and established safe houses through the aid of allies in the Swiss government.
While initially rebuffed by his country’s then-fascist government, which had initially been sympathetic to Germany before joining the allied cause, Castellanos later obtained permission to grant documents on a case-by-case basis, permission which he used to massively expand his operation.
“By the time he wanted to consult it would be too late and started on his own,” said Romero, who asserted that his government later confirmed the legitimacy of many of the documents, in effect making them “an expression of policy.”
A similar case occurred with China’s Consul General in Vienna, Feng-Shan Ho, who went against explicit instructions to issue thousands of visas to Shanghai.
“Drawing lessons from history does not mean being obsessed with history but rather by doing so we aim to create a better future and pass along the torch from generation to generation,” a Chinese official at the event asserted, stating that his countryman had become the “only hope” for many Jews.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many nations whose Jewish populations were nearly wiped out during the war have sought to reframe the historical narrative by emphasizing their heroes while playing down civilian and government complicity in Nazi crimes.
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was recently reported to have instructed a senior government historian to “create our own Ukrainian standards criteria for righteous of the world in order to enlarge this number” while officials in Lithuania and Hungary stand accused of engaging in deliberate obfuscation of the role of their countrymen in the Holocaust.
And while Poland has long been regarded as a role model in facing up to its past, last year a Polish ministerial nominee claimed that there was some truth in the iconic anti-Semitic Protocols of Elders of Zion.
Asked about the efficacy of focusing on rescuers rather than discussing the cost of indifference and collaboration, AJC Israel director Avital Leibovich, a former IDF spokeswoman, said that the idea was to look at positive aspects of history during a period when anti-Semitism is again on the march.
“The idea was to really put behind us those anti-Semitic voices and for one night give a place to moderate voices and positive notions that took place in our history among those countries whose stories are not known enough,” she said.
Despite rising levels of anti-Semitic violence in Europe, Israelis can sometimes be “overcritical,” she continued, asserting that Jewish organizations have managed to “raise our voice loud and clear on the issue of anti-Semitism.”
Citing the recent suspensions of British Labor Party members over anti-Semitic comments, she defended such advocacy work, calling awareness of the issues “really high.”
“I think a big part of it is about educating the young generation,” she averred.
One country that agrees is Albania, which is now working on a new curriculum in conjunction with Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust documentation center, to both teach about the horrors of the Holocaust and its own role in mitigating the extent of the genocide.
While the number of Jews saved is relatively small in comparison with the immense dimensions of the overall slaughter -- Yad Vashem estimating between 600-1800 refugees entering the country during the war -- Albania has nevertheless been praised as one of the only countries whose government and citizens provided active support for efforts to hide the persecuted.
While there were Albanians who actively supported the Nazi cause, even going so far as to join the SS, Hitler’s Stormtroopers, for the most part, Albanians went out of their way to save Jews as part of their national ethical code of “Besa,” which means “keeping promises.”
Both representatives abroad and the government at home made it a matter of policy to help, Ambassador Dr. Bardhyl Canaj said in an interview.
After the Nazi occupation, he said, even the “quisling” collaborationist government refused to turn over the names of Jews and people, both Christians and Muslims, hidden by their neighbors.
“We are working to educate [our students] to know the contribution of our people [and are] working with Yad Vashem to put in our educational system all the issues of the Holocaust through the view of [their] specialists.”
While it is important to hold up the righteous as examples, however, it is important not to lose focus on those who committed the crimes, Simon Wiesenthal Center Nazi Hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff, who was not affiliated with the event, told The Media Line.
The heroes “should be held up as models but there are other things to talk about as well. The focus should obviously be on the [perpetrators] and to bring them to justice and relatively little has been done in that field,” he said.
Calling the Holocaust a man-made disaster that did not have to happen, Zuroff said that two approaches are necessary: holding up those rare individuals and nations who broke ranks and saved Jews; and at the same time going after those remaining perpetrators.
“You want to create models,” he said. “The model of punishment is to deter and the model of honoring the righteous is to hope that other people will do the same in the future.”
Asked if the international community has learned anything from the Holocaust, former Israeli Ambassador to Poland Mordechai Palzur, a Holocaust survivor and former senior member of Israel’s diplomatic community, told The Media Line that he is unsure if anything has really changed.
“I’m not sure that there is any improvement because we see that hundreds of thousands of peo-ple are being murdered and they are showing how they cut off the heads and so on and nothing happens,” he said, citing recent mass killings perpetrated by both the Islamic State and the Syrian government. “I would not generalize and say that there has been a change, but altogether from what we see today the people who were cruel then they are cruel today.”