A Forgotten Suitcase: The Mantello Rescue Mission
Many certificates were sent to Jews who themselves took active roles in rescue and resistance operations in occupied Europe. This certificate was sent to Julien and Vivette Samuel, leaders of the Children’s Aid Society (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants; OSE) in France. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Enrico Mandel-Mantello
Many certificates were sent to Jews already interned in concentration camps. This certificate was sent to Anna Sprei in Birkenau in December 1943. Almost exactly six months later, Mandel-Mantello launched a press campaign which leaked the Auschwitz Protocol, a clandestine report written by two escapees that testified that over 1,700,000 Jews had been killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Enrico Mandel-Mantello
Most Dutch Jews were sent to either the Auschwitz or Sobibor death camps. However, many with Salvadoran certificates, such as Alfred, Edith, and Isi Van der Horst, were instead sent to a special camp for foreign nationals in Bergen-Belsen. Alfred Van der Horst died of disease in Bergen-Belsen, Edith died in April shortly before liberation. Their eight-year-old son Isi (Isaac) survived the Holocaust. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Enrico Mandel-Mantello
Paul Fisch, a college student in Zurich, arranged for a certificate to be sent to his parents and brother in Hungary. The certificate arrived too late to help his brother Robert who was already in a forced labor brigade, but his parents received it. One day, his father left their apartment without the paper and was arrested. His mother however survived in hiding with the certificate. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Enrico Mandel-Mantello
Staff of the Swiss embassy in Budapest. Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice-consul in Budapest, Hungary, sheltered Mantello’s wife Iren, helped Mandel-Mantello distribute certificates in Hungary, and represented Salvadoran interests in Hungary. US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Portrait of George Mandel-Mantello. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eric Saul
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, Director of Photographic Reference Collection, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When did George Mandel-Mantello begin distributing the certificates?
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.
Where were the certificates sent?
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.
Did everyone who received a certificate survive?
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.
How did the certificates survive?
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.
What is the connection between Mandel-Mantello and the Auschwitz Protocol?
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.