Here is the article that came out on the Canadian Jewish News while we were busy filming in Israel this past spring. We made some great connections as a result of the article... Thanks CJN!
In 1972, Jose Arturo Castellanos was living the quiet life of a retired diplomat when acclaimed novelist Leon Uris came knocking on his door. Uris wanted to speak to him about World War II and Castellanos’ role in it – specifically how he used his position as a diplomat to save Jews.
A native of El Salvador, Castellanos shared his countrymen’s modesty and didn’t particularly like to blow his own horn, said two of his grandchildren, Alvaro and Boris Castellanos. Their grandfather’s exploits were not widely known at the time outside of family circles.
That was about to change, as Uris’ subsequent interview drew widespread attention to Castellanos’ key role in drawing up citizenship papers that saved the lives of an estimated 40,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
Castellanos was subsequently named as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, taking his place alongside war- time heroes like Raul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler.
Today, the Castellanos brothers live in Toronto. Their grandfather is long dead, but the two are hoping to keep his memory alive through two films they are making about him. The first, a 15-minute doc- umentary, is already complete. They will present it on April 29, two days after Yom Hashoah, at the House of Quality Jerusalem, a centre for artists and cultural life in the Holy City. A three-minute trailer for the film can be viewed at castellanosmovie.com
They are currently working on a full- length, 90-minute film that they hope to complete in a year or two, if they can get the funding for it. The brothers travelled to Israel last year to interview survivors. They’ve also met their grandfather’s diplomatic colleagues, and they’ve talked to historians.
They think there may be a Canadian connection to the story. Given that many of the Jews their grandfather helped were from Hungary, and there is a substantial Hungarian Jewish population in Toronto, the brothers are hoping that anyone with a tale to tell will come forward, and per- haps be included in the film.
“We were thinking, what are the chances that someone in Canada was saved by one of these documents?” Boris said.
For the brothers, their grandfather’s deeds have particular meaning, and not just because they are proud he saved many lives. “We are Salvadorans rescued by Canada from a very bloody civil war,” said Al- varo. “To have a Canadian angle to the story, by people who have been rescued, is very important to us.”
“That is a powerful part of the film,” added Boris. Not only are they reaching out to survivors who personally benefited from the documents their grandfather provided, they are asking survivors’ children to come forward with their stories, or perhaps with the original wartime documents they may have come across in their parents’ files. These could be a compelling visual representation of his exploits, they said.
When Castellanos was assigned to the El Salvadoran diplomatic corps in the late 1930s, there was little to suggest he would play an important role in saving so many lives. He had been a bit of a trouble maker back in El Salvador, advocating democracy, so the fascist regime dispatched him to Europe in 1937, where they thought he couldn’t cause much trouble, Alvaro said.
He was first assigned as part of a weapons procurement team, but was later appointed consul general in Liverpool, England.
In 1941, Castellanos was assigned to Hamburg, Germany, where he issued visas to Jews to enable them to leave the country. Later he named George Mandel- Mantello as first secretary, a fictitious post that didn’t exist in the Salvadoran foreign service. Mandel was a Hungarian Jewish businessman whom Castellanos had met earlier in his career. To make his name more Spanish, Mandel changed it to Mantello.
In issuing citizenship documents to European Jews, Castellanos was violating instructions from his government. Later, he would tell his family, “Anybody else would do the same. It was part of my job,” Alvaro recalled.
Clearly, his Salvadoran modesty played a role in downplaying his achievements, but his flouting of the rules could have gotten him into deep trouble. Their grandfather, however, was disaffected with the country’s dictatorship, so his reaction was “to say screw you, Fascists,” Alvaro explained.
For the next two to three years, after being reassigned to Geneva, he and Mandel-Mantello issued life-saving documents to Jews facing deportation and death.
Jews in Budapest in possession of the papers could find refuge in international safe houses, such as the Glass House, a former glass factory in which the Swiss government harboured thousands of Jews who possessed Salvadoran papers and those of other countries.
“Granddad arranged the documents, and Mantello found Jews to be helped,” Alvaro said.
After the war, Castellanos returned to El Salvador but was exiled to Mexico for advocating democracy. In 1950, he was reappointed to the diplomatic corps. He retired in 1956 and died in 1977 at age 86.
Alvaro conceived of the documentary 12 years ago, based on the stories the boys had heard since childhood. The project was put on hold after their mother suffered a stroke, but it was revived thanks in part to the encouragement of their Jewish friends and clients.
“Our Jewish friends and clients who found out we were in research for our documentary really encouraged us to go to Israel and start our film project,” Alvaro said.
“For me, that brought the whole thing back,” Boris said. “Some Jewish friends are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.”
Now, the brothers, filmmakers and artists, have put their event planning business on hold – though they still do work for longstanding clients like ORT Toronto and Ve’ahavta – and they’re focusing their attention on their film project
If they succeed in getting the funds to complete the full-length documentary, their grandfather’s remarkable story will reach an even larger audience, Salvadoran modesty or no modesty.
Survivors and their family members are asked to contact Boris at: 647-780-2674, or send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org