Giorgio Perlasca, the Italian who saved 5.218 Hungarian Jews

On the International Holocaust Remembrance Day we want to remember the Italian Giorgio Perlasca, who, in the winter of 1944-1945 in Budapest, almost alone, was able to save thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi extermination, pretending to be the Spanish Consul. Giorgio Perlasca was born in Como and grew up in Maserà near Padua. In the 20s, like many Italians, he adhered to fascism with enthusiasm. In the 30s he fought as a volunteer soldier in Eastern Africa and then in the Spanish civil war on the side of General Franco. Later he abandoned fascism, disagreeing with the alliance with Hitler’s Germany and the racial laws introduced by the Fascist regime in 1938. During the World War II he was sent to Eastern Europe  as an official delegate of the Italian government with diplomatic status with the mission of buying meat for the Italian army fighting on the Russian front. On 8 September 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allied forces. Mussolini founded the Italian Social Republic and in Italy civil war broke out between fascists loyal to Mussolini, and anti-fascists, supported by legitimate government appointed by the king, who fought alongside the Allies.  In October 1944 the Germans seized power in Hungary and entrusted the government to the fascist Arrow Cross Party. The Hungarian fascists began the persecution and deportation of Hungarian Jews to the Nazi death camps. Giorgio Perlasca was in Budapest.

Perlasca bust in Budapest
Perlasca bust in Budapest

Giorgio Perlasca was arrested because he refused to join the Italian Social Republic, staying loyal to the king. He was confined to a castle reserved for diplomats, but  he managed to escape by hiding in Spanish Embassy. He took advantage of His status as a veteran of the Spanish war and he obtained a fictitious Spanish citizenship and a passport. By the name of Jorge Perlasca, he became a free man, because Spain was a neutral country in the war. Together with the Spanish Ambassador Sanz Briz, Giorgio Perlasca saved many Hungarian Jews from Nazi persecution,  furnishing ‘protection cards’ which placed Jews under the guardianship of Spain, as other embassies of neutral countries did. In late November 1944 Sanz Briz had to leave Budapest and Hungary because Spain refused to recognize the Hungarian government of the Nazi Szálasi. The day after, the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior ordered the Spanish Embassy building and the extraterritorial houses where the Jews took refuge to be cleared out. Giorgio Perlasca decided to organize a masquerade against the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior. He said that Sanz Briz had gone to Berne to communicate more easily with Madrid, and  he had been appointed his deputy for him. Perlasca wrote his appointment on the letterhead of the Spanish Embassy and using authentic stamps and handed it to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry who welcomed his credentials.  In the role of Spanish diplomat managed alone the Spanish Embassy for 45 days, being able to protect, save and feed thousands of Hungarian Jews in the Spanish Embassy and in the Spanish safe houses. He arranged for the use of safe conduct passes on the basis of a Spanish law passed in 1924 and promoted by Miguel Primo de Rivera that granted citizenship to Jews of Sephardi origin (descendants of Iberian Jews expelled from Spain in the late 15th century by Queen Isabella the Catholic). Giorgio Perlasca with this trick could save 5218 Hungarian Jews.

Shoes on the Danube Bank in Budapest
Shoes on the Danube Bank in Budapest

After the entry of the Red Army in Budapest, Giorgio Perlasca was taken prisoner. He was released after a few days, and after a long and adventurous journey through the Balkans and Turkey, he finally returned to Italy. After the war he did not tell anyone his story, not even to his family, because he believed he had only done his duty. But in the late 80s some Hungarian Jewish women saved by him, published in a newspaper a request for information about a Spanish diplomat, Jorge Perlasca, who saved many Jews from Nazi deportation. They discovered that in fact the Spanish diplomat was the Italian Giorgio Perlasca. He has been designated by the State of Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. The story of Giorgio Perlasca shows that every individual can make alternative choices, according to justice and human compassion even in the worst situations, in which the murder is a state law and the genocide is part of a political project. When he was asked why he had done it, he answered simply: “seeing men, women and children killed for no reason except to hatred and violence, what would you have done, being able to do something?”. Giorgio Perlasca died on August 15, 1992 for a heart attack. He is buried in the cemetery of Maserà a few kilometers from Padova. He wanted on his grave the words ” Righteous Among the Nations ” in the Hebrew language.

One thought on “Giorgio Perlasca, the Italian who saved 5.218 Hungarian Jews

  • August 12, 2017 at 3:17 pm
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    When his story was told, Perlasca was awarded decorations from the Italian, Hungarian and Spanish governments.

    Reply

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