Ina (Catharina) Polak did not know until 20 years ago that an honorary El Salvadoran diplomat, George Mandel Montello, had saved her family from almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis by issuing them Salvadoran visas.
Until last week, one of Montello’s son, Enrico, had never met any of the thousands of Jews his father saved.
When the two met at a UN reception honoring righteous diplomats, Montello was nearly moved to tears as he heard Polak’s story and saw the actual visa his father had signed for her, her sister and their parents.
“He kissed me goodbye,” said Polak. “It was very emotional.”
Adding to the poignancy of the moment was the presence of Jan Karski, a Polish diplomat who secretly crossed Nazi-occupied Europe four times to provide the Allies with some of the first eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities.
Karski, 86, and now living in Chevy Chase, Md., was the only one of the four surviving envoys honored to attend the event marking the UN opening of an exhibit recognizing the heroism of 65 diplomats from 22 countries.
The envoys cited in “Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats” are credited with saving more than 300,000 Jews by issuing them visas and safe passes. The exhibit will be on display at the United Nations through April 28.
“I wanted to be helpful to the Jews, the oppressed people,” Karski said later in a phone interview. [“I was very young, idealistic and religious, and I wanted to do as much as I could.] I saw terrible, terrible things happening to the Jews. There was poverty, despair — the Jews were treated worse than cattle. They could not travel or walk the streets but were confined to ghettos and concentration camps.”
He said that when he first started working for the Polish Foreign Office, “I was strong and knew Europe. That’s why the Polish Jewish underground used me as a courier, taking messages to the Western Allies, begging them to intervene, to stop the destruction of the Jews.”
Karski said he told them what he saw at the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi transit camp Izbica, where Jews were forced to leave their valuables before being placed on trains bound for concentration camps and death camps. Karski said he entered the camp posing as a Ukrainian and accompanying someone with credentials.
“I was there no longer than 15 or 20 minutes,” he said. “I couldn’t take anymore. I saw terrible things — people, including children, pushed into cattle trains.”
With the help of the Jewish underground, Karski made his way to Paris, Spain and finally to London, where he arrived on Nov. 25, 1942 — 21 days after he left Warsaw. He carried with him a 30-page report that was reduced to microfilm and concealed in a key. He reported to four members of the British war cabinet, including Anthony Eden, who was foreign secretary at the time.
Karski said that during one of his secret missions from Poland to France, he was arrested by the Nazis in Slovakia and tortured before escaping two weeks later with the help of a Polish doctor.
In 1943, the Polish government-in-exile in London flew Karski to the United States to inform the American government about the situation.
“On July 28, I was summoned to the White House by President [Franklin] Roosevelt and I told him as much as I was able,” Jarski said. “He asked me questions on all subjects and I tried to make the point that a distinction had to be made — that the Nazis wanted to make the Poles a nation of slaves and that they wanted to destroy all the Jews. …“President Roosevelt was one of the greatest men in the 20th century, but he was not a Jewish or a Polish president, he was an American president [who looked out] for American interests.”
[Karski’s meeting with Roosevelt was arranged by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who expressed doubt about Karski’s report, saying: “I didn’t say that he was lying; I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.”]
Polak said the American 9th Army liberated her while she traveled on a train in Germany one day after Roosevelt died, April 13, 1945. She said her family was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in late 1944 from their home in Holland.
“We were originally saved because the Nazis were planning to set up a diamond business at the camp, and they put my family and all of the other diamond workers in one barracks,” she said. “We were not allowed to work because our hands had to be saved for the diamonds. But in February 1945, the Nazis realized they were losing the war so they sent the diamond workers to Buchenwald or to work in salt mines — all but the Polaks and another family.
Polak said she believes it was the visa from Montello that saved her family. They were sent to a small compound in Bergen-Belsen with others who had foreign papers from South America. She, her sister and her parents all survived the war. But it wasn’t until her mother died in 1980 that she found the visa and realized how it had saved them. She said it all became clearer when she read Montello’s obituary 10 years later.
Montello, born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Romania, was appointed honorary consul of El Salvador and Hungary in 1939. He began issuing Salvadoran citizenship papers in 1942 from his office in Geneva.
Polak said his son told her that “all of the papers were typed by hand and that he wrote thousands of them. He had about 20 volunteers — Jews and non-Jews — working with him. They worked day and night. Most of the visas were written for Hungarian Jews. Our paper was signed in May 1944."
The honor for Montello, Polak said, “was long overdue.”