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Castellano's list: New school brings to light a little-known hero of the Holocaust


Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A photo of José A. Castellanos, displayed at the new charter school

A new charter elementary school in West Adams is being named for a scarcely-known hero with a story as dramatic as that of Oskar Schindler: José A. Castellanos, El Salvador's consul in Geneva, Switzerland during the Holocaust, who helped save the lives of tens of thousands of European Jews by issuing them fake Salvadoran citizenship certificates. Really.

The story behind the namesake of the new José A. Castellanos Charter School goes like this: While stationed as the consul in Geneva in the early 1940s, former Salvadoran army colonel José Arturo Castellanos Contreras was approached by George Mandel, a Romanian-born Jewish businessman, who told him about the imminent danger that his family and others were in.

Castellanos appointed Mandel to a diplomatic post and prepared Salvadoran documents for him and his family; afterward, the two men worked together to prepare Salvadoran papers for thousands of others, allowing them to escape the Nazis and seek protection granted to foreign citizens.

By some estimates, as many as 40,000 people were saved. More than a thousand of the Salvadoran citizenship certificates were discovered in a suitcase in a Geneva basement in 2005.

Castellanos' granddaughter, Ana Velasquez, attended an inaugural event at the school this morning. She said that her grandfather, who eventually returned to El Salvador and died there in 1977, kept mum about his role during the Holocaust until a journalist tracked him down shortly before his death.

"We asked him why he hadn't told us," said Velasquez, 57, who lives in Ventura. "He said, 'Anyone in my place would have done the same.' "

She added: "But many others were in his place, and they didn't do the same."