Saving 40,000 ‘Salvadorans’ from the Holocaust

Stand for Israel  |  July 31, 2023

Jose Castellanos Contreras, Righteous Gentile from El Salvador
(Photo: Yad Vashem)

Jose Castellanos Contreras, a Salvadoran civil servant, is the hero of the Holocaust who we’ll take a closer look at this week.

A Life of Service to El Salvador

Born the son of a general in the army of El Salvador, Jose Castellanos Contreras followed in his father’s footsteps, serving in the Salvadoran army for 26 years, ultimately reaching the position of Second Chief of the General Staff.

After his military career ended, Colonel Contreras continued to serve his country as Consul General in England, Germany, and Switzerland. And it was in Switzerland where Contreras would perform the greatest service of his life.

Serving God’s People

In Geneva, Contreras met a Jewish man from Transylvania named Gyorgy Mandl. Mandl explained the danger which Europe’s Jews were in, as they were being murdered by the Nazis in the millions. Contreras was moved by Mandl’s plight and had Salvadoran identification papers made for the entire Jewish family. The false papers would be lifesaving.

The Gestapo stopped the Mandl family and prepared to send them to the Auschwitz death camp. But the papers – which said the family had an Italian name, Mantello – saved their lives.

Gyorgy Mandl realized the same ploy might save other Jews from certain death in the Nazi camps. With Contreras’ help, Mandl began issuing thousands of false Salvadoran citizenship documents to European Jews. By the time their work was done, some 40,000 Jews from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania had been saved from the Nazis.

A Humble Hero

After the war, Contreras lived a quiet life in El Salvador. He didn’t speak of his heroism, calling no attention to the lives he had saved. In 1972, the American writer Leon Uris (whose 1958 novel Exodus told the story of the founding of Israel) tracked the aging Contreras down. This interview, as well as another in 1976, brought Contreras’ actions to the world’s attention.

Contreras would pass away in 1977, but was at last named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 2010. Jose Castellanos Contreras’ name would no longer be anonymous, but synonymous with those who allied with and advocated for God’s children when they needed it the most.

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