As we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, it is crucial to remember the unsung heroes who risked everything to save the lives of others during one of the darkest periods in human history. One such hero, radiating courage and bravery that knows no bounds, is Jose Arturo Castellanos - the Latin "Oskar Schindler" from El Salvador, a name you should all know.
The courageous and selfless actions of Castellanos, a military man and diplomat serving as Consul General in Geneva, were a lifeline for thousands of Jews when the Nazi regime threatened their lives. His friendship with George Mendel, a Jewish businessman, was the starting point for one of the most heroic and remarkable stories of rescue during the Holocaust. When Mendel confided in Castellanos the dire situation he and his family were facing, Castellanos sprang into action. He provided his friend false documents of Salvadoran citizenship and even invented an official role for Mendel at the consulate as first secretary, thus saving his life.
Together, the two friends turned Castellanos' house, which also served as the Salvadoran consulate in Switzerland, into a "factory" for producing fake Salvadoran citizenship certificates. The consulate became a beacon of hope for thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, with long lines of desperate people forming outside. Despite being noticed by local authorities, Castellanos continued to relentlessly produce documents, knowing that every false document saved an entire family. His work extended beyond Switzerland, saving over 40,000 Jews in countries afflicted by the Holocaust, such as Hungary, Poland, Holland, Belgium, France, Czechoslovakia, Greece, and Romania, making him one of the most remarkable heroes of rescue during the holocaust.
Castellanos' actions were not only brave, but truly inspiring. He risked everything, including his own life and that of his family, to save thousands of innocent lives. For years, his story remained untold, a secret hero of the Holocaust. Decades later, Jewish survivors began visiting the El Salvador embassy in Israel to express their gratitude, their tears of appreciation a testament to the profound impact of his actions. With each visit, his incredible story was slowly revealed, until in 2010, 33 years after his death, Yad Vashem recognized him as a "Righteous Among the Nations."
As we remember the atrocities of the Holocaust, it's essential to also remember the heroes who shone a light in the darkness. Castellanos' actions were nothing short of a miracle, and his legacy continues to inspire. Castellanos showed us that we can always choose to make a positive difference in the world, no matter our circumstances. His selfless acts of kindness and heroism represent the deep and unbreakable bond of friendship between El Salvador and Israel, a bond that will forever be etched in history.
Yossi Abadi is the honorary consul of El Salvador in Israel.
This article was written in cooperation with elsalvadorinisrael.com