Around 2005, a woman found a mysterious suitcase in her basement in Geneva, Switzerland. Inside the suitcase were more than one thousand World War II-era certificates bearing the official seal of the Consulate of El Salvador. The certificates also featured the photographs of men, women, and children. What were these documents? Why were the decades-old official papers of a Central American nation lying forgotten in a Swiss basement? How many of these documents reached their intended recipients? Their history reveals one of the largest scale, yet least known, rescue attempts of the Holocaust.
George Mandel was a Hungarian Jewish businessman who befriended a Salvadoran diplomat, Colonel José Arturo Castellanos, in the years leading up to World War II. After Castellanos was named El Salvador’s Consul General in Geneva, he appointed Mandel, who had assumed a Spanish-sounding version of his last name, “Mantello,” to serve as the Consulate’s first secretary. Even in Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews who were citizens of or held official documents from other countries were often able to escape deportation. With the consent of Castellanos, George Mandel-Mantello used his diplomatic position to issue documents identifying thousands of European Jews as citizens of El Salvador. He sent notarized copies of these certificates into occupied Europe, in the hope of saving the holders from the Nazis.
Enrico Mandel-Mantello, the son of George Mandel-Mantello, donated the original certificates to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum after they were found.
Each certificate tells the unique history of one survivor or victim of the Holocaust. We want to learn as much as possible about the thousands of recipients of Salvadoran certificates. If you or someone you know received a Salvadoran citizenship certificate, please contact Judith Cohen at email@example.com.
In 1942, Jewish friends in Switzerland began to ask Mandel-Mantello if he could produce a Salvadoran citizenship paper for their relatives. Word then spread among representatives of various Jewish organizations, who also approached Mandel-Mantello, each providing data and photographs of the people they wanted to try to save.
Copies of the certificates were sent by diplomatic courier throughout wartime Europe. They were sent to almost every country in occupied Europe, some even to French internment camps, Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, and Auschwitz in Poland. After the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, the production of certificates accelerated. In total, Mandel-Mantello may have issued as many as five thousand certificates, many with the names and photographs of several family members. Enrico Mandel-Mantello has donated more than one thousand originals to the Museum. He also donated to the Museum a copy of the Auschwitz Protocol.
Many people who received certificates survived. Some went to Switzerland; others were sent to a special camp in Bergen-Belsen for foreign nationals. Some certificates spared the holders from deportation. However, certificates frequently arrived too late, including those sent to Mandel-Mantello’s own parents. In other cases the Germans did not accept them. The Museum hopes through continued research to learn exactly how many people were saved through these certificates.
After printing each “official” certificate of citizenship, Mandel-Mantello made a notarized copy (Photostat) that he sent into occupied Europe by diplomatic pouch or the underground Jewish courier system. The originals remained with him in Switzerland, accounting for their near pristine condition.
In April 1944, two Slovakian Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz and wrote a report providing some of the first reliable eyewitness accounts of the camp. Romanian diplomat Florian Manoliu, who was assisting Mandel-Mantello in his rescue efforts, received a copy of the Protocol and immediately gave it to Mandel-Mantello in June. Recognizing the Protocol’s importance, Mandel-Mantello recopied it, translated it, distributed it to Swiss Protestant clergy, and launched a worldwide press campaign condemning Nazi atrocities.
View the Auschwitz Protocol »