Perlasca, livestock agent and businessman, born Como 31
January 1910, died Padua 15 August 1992.
PERLASCA was one of Europe's great unsung heroes. An Italian
former Fascist and livestock agent who fought for Franco
during the Spanish Civil War, Perlasca - posing as the
Spanish charge d'affaires in Nazi-occupied Budapest in
1944-45 - saved at least 5,500 Jews from the gas chambers,
constantly risking his life in doing so. Evidence is now
emerging that he may have played a leading role in saving
a further 60,000 people from a massacre planned by the
Hungarian Nazis in the Budapest ghetto just before the
Russians took over the city.
with penetrating blue eyes and closely cropped white hair,
Perlasca still exuded in old age the charm and authority
which allowed him to bully and cajole Budapest's Nazi
establishment into helping him save 'his' Jews while posing
as a completely bogus Spanish representative.
story only became known in 1989 when he was tracked down
in Padua by a group of Hungarian women related to people
whom he had saved. Since then he has been honoured by
Israel as one of the Righteous of the Nations, a rare
honour given to those few non- Jews who risked everything
to save Hitler's victims from the gas ovens. He also received
the highest honours from Hungary, Sweden and Spain, whose
king recently awarded him the Order of Isabella the Catholic.
was born in the northern Italian town of Como in 1910
but was brought up and lived most of his life in and around
Padua. He came from a family of civil servants, judges
and army officers. He fell under the spell of Mussolini
while still at school and volunteered to fight in Mussolini's
Abyssinian war of conquest and later, as a Fascist volunteer,
in the Spanish Civil War.
by 1938 Perlasca was disillusioned with Mussolini. He
detested Italy's alignment with Nazi Germany and abhorred
the Italian race laws of 1936 against the Jews. Many of
his friends, both in Padua and in the Italian army were,
in fact, Jews.
the outbreak of the Second World War Perlasca managed
to avoid military service by working in a strategic job
as a livestock agent supplying meat to the Italian armed
services. In 1940 he was sent in this capacity to Zagreb
and Belgrade, from where he travelled widely in Eastern
Europe. Here he observed dreadful massacres of Jews, Serbs
and other minorities.
1942 he was sent to work in Budapest, which he described
as 'hedonistic and full of life, where nothing was lacking
and the restaurants and theatres were full of seemingly
carefree people, many of them Jews'. Perlasca, in great
demand because of his Italian charm, threw himself into
this life with shameless gusto.
the good life in Budapest ended with the fall of Mussolini
in July 1943. Perlasca was immediately interned as an
enemy alien in a camp near the Austrian border from which
he escaped (back to Budapest) on 13 October 1943, just
three days before a Nazi- backed puppet government overthrew
the right-wing leader Admiral Horthy, who had managed
to keep at least some distance from his ally Hitler.
that he had the right to Spanish protection, as a former
pro-Franco soldier, he went to the Spanish embassy where,
within a day, he was given Spanish citizenship, and a
new Christian name - Jorge. Outside the embassy he had
noticed thousands of people milling around. He was told
that they were Jews pleading for the so-called 'letters
of protection' which Spain, together with other neutral
governments, including Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden and
the Vatican, was issuing to protect Jews from deportation
to the Auschwitz gas chambers. The Spanish embassy officials
said they were so understaffed that they could not cope
with the problem.
volunteered for the job and was accepted. He set to work,
making essential contacts in various key Nazi ministries
and bribing, blackmailing and charming officials and police
into helping him, or at least turning a blind eye to his
November 1944, with the Russians approaching Budapest,
the last remaining Spanish diplomat fled the capital,
leaving the embassy officially closed down. But the diplomat
had forgotten to take the embassy seal with him and Perlasca
set to work stamping documents which proved not only that
the Spanish Embassy was still open and functioning, but
that he was the last remaining charge d'affaires.
also used the seal to issue thousands more letters of
protection to Hungarian Jews whom he housed in eight rented
apartment houses which he made sure flew the Spanish flag
and therefore, Perlasca argued, enjoyed diplomatic protection.
The bluff worked, although he had to patrol the houses
night and day to make sure that roving bands of Hungarian
Nazis did not break in and murder or kidnap the protected
happened only once, when 300 people under Spanish protection
were carted off to the Budapest goods yards for deportation
to Auschwitz. And it was here, in the presence of the
heroic Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, that Perlasca's
life was saved by Adolf Eichmann during a violent row
with an SS officer over two young Jewish children whom
Perlasca insisted on taking away in the Spanish diplomatic
young SS major pulled out his pistol, pointing it at me.
Wallenberg, who was standing nearby, shouted that he could
not treat a Spanish diplomatic representative like this.
Then, at a certain moment, an SS lieutenant- colonel arrived
and asked what was happening. He listened, then ordered
the major coldly to do nothing more because, 'Sooner or
later', he said, 'we'll get the children anyway.' They
went away and it was then that Wallenberg told me that
the SS colonel was the notorious Adolf Eichmann.'
stories of the Holocaust Saviors had two important things
in common. They all resisted to get into the terror band,
by risking what they were and had. None, in any way, was
exempted from the high price that the noblest actions
carry in certain periods.
was really passionate of this stories of solidarity and
courage is to find and know the paths that each of these
heroes followed and the details of each deed.
us take the case of Giorgio Perlasca ( Como , 1910), Spanish
“Consul” to Budapest between December 1944 and January
to his condition of sympathizer of Gabriele D’ Annnzio’s
nationalistic ideas, he offered as a volunteer to fight
on Francisco Franco’s side on the Spanish Civil War. At
the end of the conflict he came back to Italy where he
was caught by the beginning of the Second World War and
the alliance between Mussolini and Hitler. That was the
moment when Perlasca leaves fascism and decides to stay
loyal only to King Victor Emmanuel III . The old resentment
towards Germany , country against which Italy had fought
during the First World War and 1935 German racial laws
set a limit to an exacerbated patriotism. “I was not fascist
or anti-fascist; I was anti Nazi”, he would say some time
1943 autumn surprises him as official delegate of the
Italian government with diplomatic status. He had been
sent to the Eastern Europe countries with the mission
of buying meat for the Italian army. On October 8, the
American general Dwight Eisenhower announces the unconditional
surrender of Italy to the allied forces. Then, Perlasca
makes public his oath to the Italian monarch that costs
him his freedom. The Hungarian government, threatened
by Germany , takes him as prisoner and confines him in
a castle reserved for diplomats. After a few months he
took advantage of a medical pass that allowed him to travel
within Bulgaria to get away and request political asylum
at the Spanish Embassy, the country of his juvenile adventures.
Suddenly Giorgio became “Jorge” with the same rights than
a Spanish citizen.
short he started to collaborate with the rescue actions
of Jews that carried out Angel Sanz Briz, the consul in
charge of the legation, in close collaboration with other
diplomatic legations such as Switzerland , Sweden , Portugal
and the Vatican .
Sanz Briz was forced to leave Hungary at the end of 1944
not to recognize the new pro-Nazi government of Ferenc
Szalasi, the authorities had the chance to advance over
the Spanish houses of protection. Immediately, and to
avoid the worst, Perlasca made the Ministry of the Interior
believe that Sanz Briz had appointed his successor.
appointed himself as Spanish Ambassador and on a piece
of paper with official letterhead he wrote his designation
as representative of Franco’s government. He gave this
document to the authorities of the Hungarian State Department
and they took it as legal. Immediately after, he put under
his custody thousands of refugees hidden in Spanish houses
and, like Raoul Wallenberg, he negotiated with the Nazi
bloodhounds to lower the greatest amount of people condemned
to death in the extermination camps.
” The relatives of the Spanish people in Hungary request
your presence in Spain . Until communications are reestablished
and the journey is possible, you will stay here under
the protection of the Spanish government,” said the letters
of protection based on a 1924 law by which Spanish citizenship
was given to all Sephardi Jews.
the Red Army in Budapest and the certainty that about
5,200 Jews were safe, Perlasca initiated a long return
to Italy .
kept in secret his incredible adventure for more than
30 years, until a group of women of the Jewish community
in Hungary started to track the Spanish diplomat who had
saved their lives.
he died on August 15, 1992 in Padova, where he had gown
up, Perlasca gave his valuable testimony to the memory
of the nations.
to the film “Perlasca, an Italian Hero”, and to the books
such as the one belonging to the journalist Enrico Deaglio,
“La Banalita del Bene. Storia di Giorgio Perlasca”, the
world knows today the story of this Holocaust savior.
Baruch Tenembaum is Founder of The International Raoul
for Italy and Fascism
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.
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.
with Fascist Party
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.
Took Unexpected Turn
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."'
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.
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.
Truly Magnificent Impostor"
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."
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.
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."
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."
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."'
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.
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.
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."
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
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."'
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."
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."
a Righteous Man
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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).
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."
died on August 15, 1992, at his home in Padua, Italy
Heros and Heroines, Book VI, Gale Group, 2000.
Mordecai, Saving the Jews: Amazing Stories of Men and
Women Who Defied the "Final Solution," Schreiber
December 3, 1999.
Star, April 10, 2004.
News & World Report, March 21, 1994.
Post, September 6, 1990.
Perlasca website, http://www.giorgioperlasca.it/inglese/intro.html
(December 24, 2004).
Perlasca," Jewish Foundation for the Righteous website,
(December 25, 2004).