Col. Jose Arturo Castellanos defied his government by issuing thousands of visas and fake documents to as many as 40,000 Jews, helping many escape death at the hands of the Nazis.
Castellanos was the first Salvadoran to be added to the Yad Vashem memorial's list of "Righteous Among the Nations."
Castellanos, who died in 1977, served as El Salvador's consul general in Geneva in the 1940s. He and a Jewish colleague, George Mantello, often doled out the lifesaving documents without the knowledge of the Salvadoran government.
In the aftermath of World War II, in which the Nazis and their collaborators murdered six million Jews, many survivors fled to Israel. Three Jews who were aided by Castellanos joined dozens of Salvadorans bearing their nation's flag for Tuesday's ceremony in Jerusalem.
Yitzhak Mayer, 83, was a Jewish teenager in Hungary when he and his family were given El Salvador citizenship papers. Amid oppression, the documents gave him a feeling of safety.
"Police would stop you, and if you were hiding, you were afraid that you will be detected and have to identify yourself," Mayer said. "If you have a very official diplomatic document, it always helps."
Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez, who was in Israel on an official trip, said he was emotional and proud to meet people who might have been saved by his countryman.
"This is something that not only Col. Castellanos but the country of El Salvador has contributed to humanity," he said.
The granting of the Israeli memorial's highest honor for non-Jews to a Salvadorian citizen focuses attention on ties between the two small nations on opposite sides of the globe.
In recent months a number of Latin American nations have unilaterally recognized a Palestinian state – a move that Israel rejects. Although El Salvador says it is committed to peace through negotiations, the Palestinian Authority has said it is in discussions with El Salvador over possible recognition.
Still, El Salvador is one of the only countries in the world with an embassy in Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital but most of the international community does not recognize.
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