Perlasca, the great pretender

The 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.

What 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.

Let us take the case of Giorgio Perlasca ( Como , 1910), Spanish “Consul” to Budapest between December 1944 and January 1945.

Loyal 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 later.

The 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.

At 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 .

When 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.

He 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.

With the Red Army in Budapest and the certainty that about 5,200 Jews were safe, Perlasca initiated a long return to Italy .

“Jorge” 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.

Before he died on August 15, 1992 in Padova, where he had gown up, Perlasca gave his valuable testimony to the memory of the nations.

Thanks 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 Wallenberg Foundation