An Unheralded Hero: The Story of George Mantello

George Mantello
George Mantello

Most of the thousands of Jews he rescued during the Holocaust never even knew his name. They never knew that a Jew named George (Mandel) Mantello, an honorary first secretary to the consul of El Salvador, a South American country he had never visited and whose language he didn’t speak, was their heroic benefactor.

They never knew of the days and nights he spent agonizing over the fate of his people, or that while most of the world stood by silent and indifferent, he devoted all his resources and considerable talents to saving Jews.

George Mantello, a descendant of a prominent Rabbinical family, was an unusual choice to become a Salvadoran diplomat. The wealthy Romanian businessman had established a business relationship with Jose Castellanos, the Salvadoran consul general in Germany. In 1939, Castellanos appointed him the honorary consul of El Salvador for Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania.

After the Latin American countries declared war on Germany in January 1942, Castellanos, by then the Salvadoran consul in Geneva, appointed him first secretary to the Salvadoran Consulate in Geneva. This meant that he was a fully accredited diplomat, with the privileges of a diplomatic passport as well as diplomatic immunity. Yet when he tried to escape from Romania to Switzerland, he was arrested by the Nazis near Zagreb at the Swiss-Italian-Yugoslavian border. They suspected him of being a French Jewish minister named George Mandel, and while he was allowed to check into a local hotel, he was kept under house arrest.

After being held for several months, he made a daring escape. Disguised as a copilot, he flew out of Zagreb to Belgrade and from there to Budapest. He then donned the garb of a Romanian army officer; using false papers, he endured a harrowing train ride across Yugoslavia and Italy, until he finally reached the safety of Switzerland. He could have rested in comfort there, but instead he immediately threw himself into trying to help his brethren in Nazi-occupied countries.

Tragically, divisions within the various Jewish organizations in Switzerland stymied his initial rescue efforts. He soon devised the idea of creating Salvadoran citizenship papers for Jews under Nazi rule, an effort that saved the lives of thousands. The Jews who received these papers certainly didn’t look Salvadoran, and besides, El Salvador was on the Allied side in the war. Yet because the Nazis hoped to exchange foreign nationals for Germans imprisoned by the citizenship-issuing countries, these documents helped protect their holders from deportation to the death camps.

In an interview with Hamodia, George Mantello’s son Enrico (Tzvi) Mandel-Mantello, shares part of his heroic father’s incredible story.

George Mantello
Two certificates of nationality created to save Jewish lives. (L) For Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, (R) for Rabbi Avraham Dov Shapira, Chief Rabbi of Kovno.

How did your father first become involved in issuing Salvadoran citizenship papers?

Maitre Matthieu Muller, a leader of the French division of Agudas Yisrael, approached my father for money, and my father gave [it to] him. When he came again, my father asked him, “Why do you need all this money?” He told my father that they were buying South American passports and sending them to Jews in Nazi-occupied countries.

So my father said, “Maybe I can help you.” My father was practically the only Jewish diplomat in Europe at the time. He wasn’t a real diplomat, but he had the status of one. He broke all the rules and he issued all these [technically illegal] papers.

[What he did was] make a certificate out of what was really just a [plain] sheet of consulate stationery, stating that “this-and-this family” were citizens of El Salvador. The consul closed his eyes to it and said, “I know that this is for saving people, but you sign them.” So my father signed each certificate. But the clever thing they thought up was that they made a copy of the document and had it translated into French or Hungarian and notarized.

Now, in Switzerland the profession of notary is a guarded one, with an [official] notary for every three thousand inhabitants. It isn’t like in America, where you have a notary in a pharmacy. After the documents were notarized, the state Chancellery, which was an official state organ, certified them as being true translated copies and put a stamp on them. So you had all these Swiss stamps on them, and these “hechsherim” impressed the Germans. A copy was put into an official-looking file — it looked like a real-estate deed. The papers were all predated by two years; otherwise the Germans would have become too suspicious.

There wasn’t ever a real question of these people going to El Salvador. These documents were important because when the prisoners were put in camps, the citizens of Latin American countries were placed in special barracks. In Bergen-Belsen there was a special section for Salvadoran citizens, all of whom survived the war. They were given more food and generally treated more favorably than the other inmates. [These papers] also helped French Jews cross the border into Switzerland.

To which countries did your father send these certificates?

To virtually every country that was occupied by the Nazis, starting with France, Belgium, and Holland, and even Poland and Lithuania. Eventually he sent [documents] to nearly fifteen countries.

John Winant, the American ambassador to England, later pointed out that my father was the only [diplomat] who didn’t take money [in exchange] for the papers. Out of his own pocket he financed the entire visible and invisible costs of this vast operation.

How many Jewish lives did your father save with these documents?

We can’t know for certain; we believe a minimum of ten to twelve thousand souls. [He considered it] one of the greatest honors he ever had that the papers he created were later recopied for hundreds of additional people. They imitated his signature, in essence forging [new copies of already] fake certificates, which [is] quite an achievement.

I don’t know how effective the papers were all the time, but they were effective a high percentage of the time.

He didn’t keep track of how many papers he sent out. Copies were made only of those that were translated and notarized. His own archives dwindled because he donated a few hundred to various institutions, and writers who came to talk to him took some as well. So we really don’t know how many he actually issued.

I found 1,500 certificates myself. Each one was for an entire family of four, five, or six people. These copies alone [accounted for] about 8,000 people.

Where did your father get the names from?

He couldn’t invent the names — and particularly not the photographs. So there were various organizations that sent him requests. He received wads of telegraphs — cables fifty pages long — with lists of names, addresses, and birth dates. Later they also sent photographs.

After the news came of the deportations in Hungary, they began manufacturing them like in a factory. There were eight individuals typing them — mostly gentile Hungarian students living in Geneva. There were no [electric typewriters or computers] in those days and each letter had to be typed separately. There were no Xerox machines either, so to make a copy the document had to be photographed.

Your father escaped Romania in 1942, but you first got out in December 1943. How did you manage to get out of Hungary?

My father sent a Portuguese diplomat to take me out. He managed to procure a Hungarian passport for me that didn’t have the “J” stamp on it. The German ambassador agreed to give a transit visa [for me] to travel to Switzerland via Vienna, where I spent a night. When I reached the border, the Swiss confiscated the passport because it was forged. I never got [it] back.

George Mantello
A photo of the Satmar Rebbe, with George Mantello (in white coat), arguing for his entry into Switzerland. (From the collection of the USHMM in Washington, D.C.)

Tell us about your father’s relationship with the Satmar Rebbe.

In December of 1944, the Kastner train, with some 1,300 Jews who had been “bought” from the SS, arrived at the Swiss border. The low-level border guards hadn’t received any orders about these arrivals and were unwilling to let the Jews in.

Someone called my father, and he came to the border and put up a fight. I recently discovered a photograph which shows my father making a scene at the border. He played up his role as a diplomat and had his lawyers and his friends come down [to help]. If [the Jews on the train] had not been allowed into Switzerland, they would have been re-deported and would have been killed. Eventually the orders came [through] from Berne, and they were allowed into Switzerland.

[My father] took the Rebbe off the train and brought him to a hotel. Three days later my father took me [to meet the Rebbe]. I kissed his hand and he bentched me. The Rebbe was very grateful to my father and gave him a silver becher as a gift. His Rebbetzin even wrote about my father in an article in one of the Jewish organizations’ newspapers. zM

Sources: Interview with Enrico Mantello; The Man Who Stopped the Trains, by David Kranzler; and Project Witness.

STOPPING THE TRAINS TO AUSCHWITZ

When prominent Holocaust historian and noted author Professor David Kranzler, z”l, first met George Mantello, he found his story hard to believe, for he hadn’t seen his name mentioned in any previously published literature. He conducted more than eighty hours of interviews with Mantello and spent more than fifteen years researching, documenting, and substantiating the Mantello story.

In 2000 Dr. Kranzler, who passed away two years ago, published a comprehensive book on Mantello entitled The Man Who Stopped The Trains to Auschwitz. In this scrupulously researched book, he not only traces the history of the Salvadoran papers but also focuses on Mantello’s successful press campaign, which he credits with saving as many as 140,000 Hungarian Jews.

***

On April 7, 1944, two Slovakian Jews, Walter Rosenberg and Alfred Wetzler, did what the Nazis had thought impossible — they escaped from Auschwitz. These men, two of the very few who successfully escaped that particular inferno, took the assumed names of Rudolf Vrba and Josef Lanik. They joined the famed Slovakian Working Group, also known as the Vaad Hamistater (Hidden Committee). This group, which included the legendary Harav Michoel Dov Weissmandl, zt”l, defied all odds in its heroic and untiring efforts to save as many Jews as possible.

The two escapees vividly described the full scope of the annihilation process in a detailed pamphlet known as the Auschwitz Protocols — the first report about what was transpiring behind the barbed wire to be widely disseminated in the Western press. It was the most comprehensive effort to alert the world to the fate of Jews in Auschwitz in general, and Hungarian Jews in particular. Harav Weissmandl prepared a five-page summary of the Protocols and sent it off to various organizations, along with a letter begging them to urge the Allies to bomb Auschwitz and prevent the Germans from deporting Hungarian Jews to their deaths.

While some of these reports reached Jewish organizations in Switzerland and the American Legation there, no one shared it with Mantello. Desperate for authentic information about the fate of Hungarian Jewry, Mantello asked a longtime business associate of his brother, Dr. Florian Manoliu, commercial attache of the Romanian Consulate in Berne, to travel to Hungary. He handed him one thousand signed and stamped Salvadoran citizenship papers, with the names left blank, to be filled in later. One hundred of these papers were supposed to be used for his parents, extended family, and other Jews residing in the town of Bistrice. He was also given a sum of money and medicine to distribute.

The Germans, aware of Manoliu’s anti-Nazi leanings, delayed his trip and even arrested him during his travels, releasing him only after forceful intervention by Romanian officials. At great personal risk, Manoliu made his way to Bistrice, where he was told that the town was Judenrein; all its Jews had been deported to death camps.

He then traveled to Budapest, where he delivered the blank certificates to Swiss Consul Carl Lutz, a righteous gentile credited with saving thousands of Jewish lives. Lutz took him to the hideout of Moshe Krausz, head of the Palestine Certificate Office. Krausz sent with Manoliu a copy of a five-page summary of the Auschwitz Protocols, which is thought to have been written by Harav Weissmandl.

When Manoliu returned to Switzerland, he met with George Mantello and gave him the devastating news. Mantello’s deep anguish over the fate of his parents inspired him to mount an aggressive campaign to publicize the facts about Auschwitz and its gas chambers, hoping to create sufficient international pressure to halt the annihilation.

The campaign he initiated had a profound influence on public opinion. Leading Swiss pastors delivered sermons calling for aid to the Jews, and dozens of articles describing the horrors of Auschwitz and calling for an end to the deportations were published in Swiss newspapers throughout the month of June 1944.

On July 7, 1944, Clara Nef, leader of the Federation of Swiss Women’s Organizations, cabled the wife of Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy with a stirring plea on behalf of Hungarian Jewry. Pressure from the pope, King Gustav V of Sweden, and President Roosevelt culminated in Regent Horthy’s announcement that same day that the deportations would end.

Mantello’s press campaign also helped reverse restrictive Swiss refugee and aid policies, and contributed to the temporary suspension of deportations from Budapest.

By the Numbers

Since other copies of the Auschwitz report were being disseminated even prior to Mantello’s press campaign, it is noteworthy that Dr. David Kranzler, z”l, was able to trace Mantello’s efforts in spreading the heartrending news through the media.

In his frantic hurry to get the news out, Mantello assigned a number of Hungarian students to translate the documents. In their rush, they left out mention of the 50,000 Lithuanian Jews who were killed in Auschwitz. Thus, the list that Mantello publicized had a total (up until that time) of 1,715,000 killed, while the number on the original summary was 1,765,000. Dr. Kranzler notes that it is the lower number that consistently appeared in contemporary media accounts around the globe, confirming the extensive reach of Mantello’s effort.

This article appeared in the November 25, 2009 edition of Hamodia Magazine.