By Olivia Maccioni
On March 14, 2019, the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust welcomed filmmakers Boris and Alvaro Castellanos for the U.S. premiere of The Rescue–A Live Film-Concerto. This 70-minute documentary film performed with a live Latin chamber orchestra tells the story of Colonel Jose Arturo Castellanos, a lesser-known rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust and grandfather to the project’s creators Boris and Alvaro.
In 1942 Colonel Castellanos, the Salvadoran Consul General in Switzerland, led the movement to save thousands of European Jews during the Holocaust by creating and distributing more than 13,000 Salvadoran citizenship papers. The Rescue–A Live Film-Concerto is the first comprehensive project to tell the story of Colonel Castellanos, who in 2010 was named and honored at Yad Vashem as a member of the Righteous Among the Nations, wherein he joined the venerable list of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust from Nazi persecution.
When asked why he believes his grandfather’s story remained untold for so long, Boris Castellanos noted the clandestine nature of the documents shortly after the war. Many families that the brothers spoke to shared that fleeing the war with the help of Colonel Castellanos involved an immigration process that had shaky roots after the war, and thus, many often attempted to either destroy, “lose,” or—most of all— not discuss the evidence and stories until many years later.
Such complex and weighted histories are notably difficult to explore in solely a 70-minute film, and for the Castellano brothers, music arose as the solution. Live music became an integral part of the project early on to help fill the gaps left by not only such a constriction of cinematic time, but even more, a constriction of language itself. Boris shared, “Every reverent occasion in my life is accompanied by music, and every time I speak of my grandfather, it is too a reverent moment that must be accompanied by music. . . . Music does a lot of the explaining for us. It gives you the flavor of the character and uniqueness of this person and story.” As such, music not only became a way to speak of the unspeakable, but furthermore, created a context wherein viewers could be immersed in the complex, yet vibrant, milieu of Colonel Castellanos. “My grandfather did something different and therefore this presentation has to be different,” said Boris.
Choosing New York City as the site of the film-concerto’s U.S. premiere was an obvious choice for Boris as he noted the importance of the city throughout his time researching and learning about Latin American music. The Castellano brothers, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, were honored to welcome many local NYC Latin musicians who comprised the six-piece chamber orchestra, including Grammy-award winning percussionist Luisito Quintero. In addition, special guest Felix Klein, Germany’s inaugural Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, also performed in the band.
With the help of Battery Park City Authority, student groups from neighboring Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) such as the CREAR Futuros group, whose purpose is to empower Hispanic/Latino students through mentorship programs, were also able to gain special access to the program and meet directly with the filmmakers. That Friday, the brothers visited Professor Maria Alvarez’s English 101 class at BMCC to discuss not only their documentary, but also share their experiences with the process of writing, editing, and seeing a creative project through to its end. Professor Alvarez noted the lesson to be “extremely helpful in giving the students a real-life account about the writing process, research and developing one’s opinion [to create] a writer’s voice.”
Boris and Alvaro shared that this particular class visit also focused on the theme of forgiveness; a theme many students were exploring directly in their writing in English 101. For the Castellano brothers, forgiveness played a large role in their creation of The Rescue–A Live Film-Concerto as it was through such an artistic creative process that they were able to work through a lot of personal issues forgiving their father and grandfather for being absent in their lives. They found this to be a story that moved many of the students who shared similar experiences and left the visit feeling that it was a collaborative and moving experience to discuss with students how writing and finding one’s own artistic voice can not only tell a story compellingly, but also act as emotional catharsis.
For the Castellano brothers, The Rescue–A Live Film-Concerto, is a personal project that connects some of the most important facets of their life; family, music, and a passion for human rights and social justice. For those who saw the performance at the Museum, as well as heard Boris and Alvaro speak in their classrooms, the stories too transcended generations to teach lessons of hope, forgiveness, and the power of human agency to fight the forces of hate.
Olivia Maccioni is Outreach & Visitor Engagement Coordinator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust