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1992: A Fake Diplomat Who Saved 5,200 Jews Dies

Businessman Girogio Perlasca used a letter he received from a thankful Franco to gain diplomatic immunity while operating in Budapest.

David Green
David B. Green
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Giorgio Perlasca memorial in Budapest.
Giorgio Perlasca memorial in Budapest.Credit: Wikipedia
David Green
David B. Green

On August 15, 1992, Italian businessman Giorgio Perlasca, the man who used his largely bogus credentials as a Spanish diplomat to save the lives of some 5,200 Jews during World War II, died.

Giorgio Perlasca was born January 31, 1910, in the northern Italian town of Como. He grew up in Padua, to its east, in a family that boasted civil servants and army officers. Perlasca was attracted to Italian fascism, and volunteered to join his country’s forces when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. Later, he joined the Corps of Volunteer Troops, an Italian force sent to Spain to assist the rebel forces of Francisco Franco in that country’s civil war of 1936-1939. In gratitude for his service in the artillery, before he left, Perlasca received from Franco’s victorious new government a letter commanding the Spanish foreign service to come to his aid if he ever was in need of diplomatic assistance.

Back home, Perlasca encountered a country that had aligned itself with Hitler’s Third Reich, and that had introduced its own racial laws, in 1938. Perlesca had many Jewish friends from Padua and from his army service, and he strongly disapproved of anti-Semitism. Describing his sentiments frankly some years later, he explained that “I was neither fascist, nor anti-fascist; I was anti-Nazi.” From then on, he reserved his loyalty for the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III.

In the early days of World War II, Perlasca managed to avoid being called up by working as a procuring agent for the Italian army in the Balkans. His job of buying meat saw him sent to Zagreb and Belgrade, and required him to travel in Eastern Europe, where he witnessed Axis massacres of Jews and Serbs.

In 1942, he was assigned to Budapest. The Hungarian capital, he later reported approvingly, was “'hedonistic and full of life, where nothing was lacking and the restaurants and theaters were full of seemingly carefree people, many of them Jews.”

Flowers laid on cast iron shoes, parts of a memorial to Holocaust victims, on the quay of the River Danube in 2006. Girogio Perlasca saved thousands from a similar fate. Credit: AP

In September 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allies, and the country split into those who aligned themselves to Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic and those who supported the king, who joined up with the Allies. Perlasca, still in Budapest, was arrested as an enemy alien and interned in a camp near the Austrian border. Escaping from there in October 1943, he made his way back to Budapest.

This is when Perlasca’s Spanish credentials proved handy. He made his way to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest, and was rewarded with Spanish citizenship, and became “Jorge.” At the time, the embassy was overwhelmed with requests from stateless Jews who were seeking asylum in a neutral country – as Spain was - or safe passage out of Europe.

Perlasca volunteered to work with the charge d’affaires Angel Sanz Briz to deal with the Jewish files. He worked out a system by which Jews would be issued with certificates of protection that put them under the sponsorship of Spain and other neutral states. (Spain had passed a law in 1924 offering citizenship to any Jew who could prove descent from Sephardi ancestors.) Until they could be smuggled out of Europe, they were given safe residence in houses that had been given extraterritorial status.

In November 1944, Angel Sanz Briz fled to Switzerland, after the Germans deposed Admiral Horthy and replaced him with a puppet government. The new regime was now threatening to invade the homes where many Jews had been given refuge. Sanz Briz had left Perlasca a note inviting him to join him in Switzerland, but Perlasca had other ideas. He announced that he was replacing his colleague as charge d’affaires, and began to use the official Spanish seal left behind to continue issuing documents for those in need.

Perlasca later described his situation thus: "At first, I didn't know what to do, but then I began to feel like a fish in water. I continued giving out protective passes and looked after the Jews in the 'safe houses' flying the Spanish flag. As the proverb says, 'Opportunity makes the thief.'"

He issued papers for thousands of Jews, and continued to make available to them eight safe houses, which he constantly patrolled to ensure they were not overrun by Hungarian Nazis. At one point, he went to the train station and began arguing with a German officer, demanding that he release twin Jewish boys who had been put on a train for deportation to Auschwitz. Also present was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who was performing the same sort of acts of salvation in the name of his country.

“A young SS major pulled out his pistol, pointing it at me,” Perlasca later described the scene. “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.'”

From November 1944 until January 1945, Perlasca worked with Wallenberg, as well as with Friedrich Born, from the International Red Cross, and Angelo Rotta, a Vatican diplomat in Budapest, in issuing protective passes. The text of the passes informed officials that ”The relatives of all Spaniards in Hungary require their presence in Spain. Until we are able to reestablish communications and the journey back is possible, they will remain here under the protection of the government of Spain.” Perlasca is credited with saving some 5,200 Jews in this way.

When Soviet troops entered Budapest, in February 1945, Perlasca returned to Italy, by way of Istanbul. When he told his wife of his exploits, he recalled, she “didn’t say outright she didn’t believe me. But I was sure she was not convinced.” So, he stopped talking about his work in Budapest. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that Hungarian survivors began to make an effort to gather testimony about their savior and to track him down.

Perlasca was honored by the Hungarian parliament, and was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. In Italy he became the subject of a book and a feature film. The Spanish king awarded him the Order of Isabella the Catholic. He died of a heart attack on this day in 1992, at the age of 82.

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