In the final years of World War II, Italian businessman Giorgio Perlasca (1910–1992) risked his life by posing as a Spanish diplomat in order to save more than 5,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. Perlasca, a non-Jew, has been honored for his heroism, courage, and compassion by several nations, including Israel, Hungary, Italy, Spain, and the United States.
"He was a stranger in a strange country . . . He could have let the whole thing pass him by without taking risks, and like the rest of the world stood idly by. He chose not to do that," said Miles Lerman, United States Holocaust Council.
Fought for Italy and Fascism
Giorgio Perlasca was born on January 31st, 1910, in Como, northern Italy. Raised in a Catholic family, he and his five siblings were taught to believe that all men are "more or less" equal, noted a Washington Post article.
In the 1920s, Perlasca, like many other young Italians, was swept up in Mussolini's fascist movement. He volunteered to serve in the Italian army in the 1930s in two campaigns, noted Mordecai Paldiel in his book Saving the Jews: Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in the Abyssinian war of 1935-1936, and the Spanish Civil War, fighting for fascist leader Francisco Franco, in 1936-1937.
Broke with Fascist Party
When he returned to Italy, however, he no longer supported fascism after learning of his country's alliance with Germany, which Italy had fought just 20 years earlier. He was also openly opposed to the 1938 anti-Semitic racial laws. Many of Perlasca's friends were Jewish and he became increasingly horrified and outraged by the Nazis' campaign of brutality against Jews. It was this new, virulent wave of Fascism sweeping through Europe that caused Perlasca to break with the Fascist party.
Life Took Unexpected Turn
By 1940, Perlasca was working for a meat-importing business in Italy. He was sent to eastern Europe to buy meat for the Italian army about the time World War II broke out. Perlasca was in Budapest in September, 1943, when Italy signed an armistice with the alliance. German forces in Hungary ordered all Italians to return home, but, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous website noted, "Perlasca refused to go to a German-ruled Italian puppet state. As Perlasca said, 'I was neither a fascist nor an anti-fascist, but I was anti-Nazi."'
Perlasca was interned, although well-treated in a facility reserved for diplomats. He managed to escape and took refuge at the Spanish Embassy, presenting a certificate he had received at the end of the Spanish Civil War as a token of gratitude, which promised Spain's protection should he ever need it. Eventually, Angel Sanz-Briz, the ambassador whom Perlasca had befriended, issued him a Spanish passport, changing his name to the Spanish variation, Jorge Perlasca, and granted him citizenship.
In October, 1944, the Germans removed Hungary's ruler, Admiral Horthy, and installed the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross leader, Ferencz Szálasi, a fanatical anti-Semite. A "reign of terror was unleashed on the streets of Budapest against the city's Jews," commented Saving the Jews, which noted that 440,000 Jews from Hungary's provinces had already been deported to Auschwitz. The remaining 200,000 Jews, living in Budapest, now feared for their lives.
"A Truly Magnificent Impostor"
The Spanish consul had been working to save as many Jews as possible. Perlasca decided to help Sanz-Briz and his small staff. As noted in Contemporary Heros and Heroines, "Together, they worked to extend Spanish legal protection to Jews and met with officials to thwart deportation efforts. The situation in Budapest grew more dangerous as Soviet troops approached, and in November 1944 Sanz-Briz fled the country. Rather than abandon his rescue efforts, Perlasca decided to pose as the new Spanish ambassador."
He issued safe-conduct passes, using the Rivera law passed in 1924, which, according to the Perlasca website, ". . . recognised Spanish citizenship to all Jews with 'sefardita' ancestry (of old Spanish origin, driven away hundreds of years ago by Queen Isabella la Cattolica)." Perlasca gave these passes to all Jews, Sephardic or not.
Contemporary Heros and Heroines commented on Perlasca's success: "Thanks in part to his distinguished appearance and fluency in Spanish, he proved to be a convincing diplomat when negotiating with Hungarian and German officials. During one meeting, he convinced the Minister of Internal Affairs that the Spanish government would retaliate against Hungarian citizens living in Spain if the minister didn't allow Jews to remain under Spanish protection."
Over the next two months, a Commonweal article noted, Perlasca and a small group of collaborators from the [Spanish] embassy staff handed out, ". . . thousands of false documents, setting up and defending eight 'safe houses' under Spanish jurisdiction, finding food and medicine on the black market . . . Through it all, Perlasca showed himself to be an ingenious organizer, a convincing 'diplomat,' and a truly magnificent impostor."
One of Perlasca's most vivid memories was the time he was standing by the loading dock, watching German soldiers and Hungarian police push long lines of men, women, and children toward freight cars waiting to deliver them to the death camps. As described by Commonweal, "Suddenly [Perlasca] rushes forward, grabs two young boys by the collar, drags them back down the platform, and throws them into the back seat of his car." At that point, a German soldier ran over, pulled out his revolver, and motioned to the man to return the boys. Perlasca refused, shouting. "'This car is foreign territory. The boys are under Spanish jurisdiction and you'll be violating international law if you so much as touch them.' The two men begin to scuffle," Commonweal continued, "and a German lieutenant colonel comes over to investigate. He tells the soldier to leave the man and the boys alone. 'Go ahead and take them,' he says to [Perlasca] . . . 'Their time will come."'
Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews during the war, had been watching this dispute. He walked up to Perlasca and told him the colonel was none other than Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the "Final Solution" and responsible for the murder of millions of Jews in the death camps of Europe during the war.
Budapest was now caught up in "a desperate tug of war," noted a U.S. News & World Report article, "with Eichmann on one end and Perlasca and the diplomatic representatives of four other neutral states – Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the Vatican – on the other. '[Wallenberg] and I would go to the train station and bluff until we got Jews away by claiming they were our nationals,"' recalled Perlasca.
The city collapsed into chaos as the Soviet army advanced. Saving the Jews noted that groups of the Arrow Cross militia, frustrated and angered by the Russian shelling of their city, "wildly roamed the streets . . . [exacting] vengeance on countless Jews, whom they indiscriminately shot and dumped their bodies in the Danube river."
The Washington Post recounted an incident that took place in December, 1944. One morning, following a night filled with screaming and gunfire, a young survivor was handed over to Perlasca's care – "a Jewish girl naked except for an army overcoat." She told him that the Nazis had tied the Jews together, in pairs, with barbed wire, and forced them to walk naked through the snow from the ghetto to the Danube. The German soldiers made the Jews kneel at the edge of the river and began to shoot them. By chance, the barbed wire tying the girl to her sister had come loose. Realizing they had a chance to escape, the sisters agreed that they would fall into the river when the first shots rang out. "Somehow, [one sister] swam to a bridge, climbed out, and hid under a tree, where she was found by a member of the Hungarian military, who covered her and handed her over to Perlasca, a known protector of Jews."
In Saving the Jews, one Jewish survivor, Edith Weiss, recalled Perlasca's amazing influence and presence. As Weiss' group was being led to the Danube, ". . . suddenly Perlasca appeared on the scene. 'He was mesmerizing. In this forceful, powerful way of his, he told them to go away and leave us alone . . . Perlasca had such authority, he was so strong, that there was no way anyone could contradict him. They simply went away."'
In January, 1945, as Perlasca was making his final rounds to the safe-houses, the Toronto Star reported that he told the Jews, "The Russians are in the city. You don't have to be afraid. You don't need me any more."
In April, as Perlasca was preparing to leave Hungary for the long journey back to Italy, noted the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous website, he was handed a letter from Dr. Hugo Dukesz, one of the Jews saved by Perlasca, who wrote, "On this occasion we want to express the affection and gratitude of the several thousand Jews who survived, thanks to your protection. There are not enough words to praise the tenderness with which you fed us and with which you cared for the old and the sick among us. You encouraged us when we were close to despair, and your name will never be omitted from our prayers. May the Almighty grant you your reward."
Discovered a Righteous Man
When Perlasca returned home, he found that few people were interested in his experiences; no one believed his stories. Like most European nations, Italy did not want to acknowledge or be reminded of its responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust. For the next 43 years, Perlasca's heroic exploits went unheard, and they–and he–were forgotten.
Then in 1987, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Remembrance Museum in Jerusalem, received a letter from Dr. Eveline Blitstein Willinger, a woman living in Berlin. She and a group of Jewish survivors had located the now 79-year-old man living with his wife in an apartment in Padua, Italy. As noted in Saving the Jews, she wrote, "To my astonishment, nobody knows his name, nobody thanks him for what he did . . . We are asking you to honor this great man with a noble soul, before it's too late."
Honors and Tributes
Once Giorgio Perlasca's story came to light, people from all corners of the world were speaking his name. Between 1989 and 1992, heads of state, associations, and citizens from several countries honored Perlasca for his courageous and selfless work, for the 5,000 lives he saved–and their children and grandchildren.
In 1989, Israel awarded Perlasca an honorary citizenship, and Yad Vashem presented him with the Righteous Among the Nations of the World award. According to the Giorgio Perlasca website, the Jerusalem museum defines "the righteous" as those men and women "who have identified evil and have risked their own lives to save others threatened by a totalitarian, political, social or religious project."
That same year, Hungary awarded Perlasca the Star of Merit, its highest honor. In 1990, Perlasca attended a ceremony in Washington, D.C., to receive the Medal of Remembrance, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council's highest honor. Perlasca also received distinctive awards from Italy and Spain.
The early 1990s saw the emergence of books, films, and newspaper and magazine articles that paid tribute to Perlasca. Enrico Deaglio wrote about Perlasca's activities in La Banalità del bene (The Banality of Goodness, translated into English by Gregory Conti). Mordecai Paldiel included a chapter on Perlasca in Saving the Jews: Amazing Stories of Men and Women Who Defied the "Final Solution." Perlasca told his own story in his memoirs, L'Impostore (The Impostor). Many people learned about Perlasca's exploits from the Italian film, Perlasca – an Italian Hero, and a four-hour French documentary, Tzedek (Righteousness).
During these years, Perlasca was asked the same question, over and over–why did he risk his life to save Jews in another country? A modest man, he always replied that he didn't think he was a hero and would explain, "Because I couldn't stand the sight of people being branded like animals . . . I couldn't stand seeing children being killed. I did what I had to do ...AsfarasIwas concerned, I was sure of the rightness of what I was doing."
Perlasca died on August 15, 1992, at his home in Padua, Italy
Contemporary Heros and Heroines, Book VI, Gale Group, 2000.
Paldiel, Mordecai, Saving the Jews: Amazing Stories of Men and Women Who Defied the "Final Solution," Schreiber Publishing, 2000.
Commonweal, December 3, 1999.
Toronto Star, April 10, 2004.
U.S. News & World Report, March 21, 1994.
Washington Post, September 6, 1990.
Georgio Perlasca website,http://www.giorgioperlasca.it/inglese/intro.html (December 24, 2004).
"Giorgio Perlasca," Jewish Foundation for the Righteous website,http://www.jfr.org/content/default.asp?artid=15 (December 25, 2004).