Giorgio Perlasca was an Italian fascist and emissary of Benito Mussolini who had a change of heart and used his diplomatic status to save 5,218 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis.
Born in Como, Italy in 1910, as a young man Georgio became a fervent believer in fascism, believing it was the best system for achieving societal safety and prosperity. Dedicated to fascist ideology, he joined the Italian army to fight prime minister Benito Mussollini’s war of aggression against Ethoipia (the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-37). Italy invaded Ethiopia and sent leader Haile Selassie into exile in 1937. Still a committed fascist, Giorgio pivoted straight from Ethiopia to Spain, where he fought on the side of Franco’s Nationalists against the defenders of the Spanish Republic.
Giorgio went back to Italy in 1938, and that’s when his world was rocked and his personal belief system made a 180 degree turn. Just as he was returning to his native land, the Nazi-allied fascist government adopted the Italian Racial Laws, which persecuted and segregated Italian Jews and African immigrants from the Italian colonial empire. The first law banned Jews from working with the public or attending college. Books by Jewish authors were burned. The next set of laws confiscated Jewish property, prohibited them from traveling, and finally arrested and imprisoned them. Italian newspapers were filled with vicious anti-Jewish propaganda and hideous caricatures.
Giorgio Perlasca, the man who’d spent the last decade fighting for fascism, was horrified. Perhaps he’d been in north Africa and Spain for so long, he wasn’t aware of the extent of Nazi persecution of the Jews. He’d joined the fascists because, young and naive, he thought they had answers to societal problems. But he never signed up for the Nazis’ “final solution.” He believed in human rights, freedom and tolerance and therefore realized he had to reject fascism.
Ironically, just as he was rejecting Mussolini’s ideology, he was rewarded for his service by being granted diplomatic status and sent to Budapest to represent the interests of the Italian government. As an emissary, Giorgio’s most urgent mission was traveling throughout Eastern Europe to purchase large quantities of meat for Italian army soldiers fighting on the Russian front. Despite his political shift, he remained committed to what he felt was honorable work procuring food for Italians who’d been drafted into the army.
On September 8, 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allied forces. Diplomats like Giorgio had a choice to make: pledge allegiance to Mussolini, or join the Allies. Giorgio switched sides and instead of returning to Italy he was arrested and detained with other diplomats sympathetic to the Allies. After several months in captivity, he used a medical pass to leave the facility. He went straight to the Spanish embassy, which was being run by Angel Sanz Briz*, a diplomat who was secretly saving Hungarian Jews. Sanz Briz enabled Giorgio to claim asylum as a veteran of the Spanish war. Giorgio called himself “Jorge” (the Spanish version of Giorgio) and as a nominal Spaniard, was untouchable by the Nazi-allied Hungarian authorities since Spain was officially a neutral country.
Giorgio immediately teamed up with Sanz Briz to save Jews from the Nazi death machine, which was systematically massacring the Jews of Hungary at shocking speed. He later said, “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.” Giorgio convinced diplomats from neutral countries to shelter Jews in their embassies and homes. He created “protection cards” that identified Jews as being under diplomatic guardianship and therefore impossible to arrest. In November 1944, Sanz Briz was transferred from Hungary to Switzerland, and he urged Giorgio to go with him. However, instead of traveling to a safe country, Giorgio put his own life at risk by staying in Hungary so he could continue saving Jews from the Nazis.
The Hungarian authorities got wind of what Giorgio was doing, and they used Sanz Briz’ departure from the country as an excuse to order the Spanish embassy building and residences to be emptied and shuttered. In response, Giorgio made a bold move. He announced that Sanz Briz would be returning shortly, and he’d been appointed consul-general in the meantime. This bought him enough time to continue saving Jews, providing them with sanctuary and vital supplies. He also issued fake transit visas based on a 1924 law giving Jews of Sephardic heritage Spanish citizenship. The law had expired in 1930 but Giorgio managed to keep that part secret.
In December 1944, Giorgio stood up to high-ranking Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann – architect of the genocidal “Final Solution” – who was about to force two Jewish children onto a freight train headed to a death camp. Swedish rescuer Raoul Wallenberg later described watching Giorgio boldly defy the vicious Eichmann and rescue the Jewish boys.
Around this time the Nazi-aligned Hungarian government known as the Arrow Cross set up a squalid ghetto in Budapest for the city’s 60,000 Jews. As “acting Spanish consul-general” was privy to top-secret information, and he learned that the Arrow Cross was going to liquidate the ghetto – which meant murdering the men, women and children who lived there. Giorgio demanded – and got – a private hearing with the Hungarian interior minister Gabor Vajna. He threatened the high-ranking government official with severe repercussions against the “3,000 Hungarians” currently living in Spain. Unless the government backed down on destroying the ghetto, those Hungarian expats would be harshly punished financially, legally and professionally. The fact was, there were nowhere near 3000 Hungarians in Spain and the real number was a fraction of that. That bold threat, combined with a promise to help Vajna and his family escape the advancing Soviet army, prevented the Budapest ghetto from being liquidated, saving thousands of lives.
After the war, Giorgio Perlasca returned to Italy where he lived a quiet life as a businessman, married and raised a family. and didn’t tell a single soul about his heroic actions during the war. Meanwhile, a group of Hungarian Jews saved by Giorgio searched for him for decades. They knew their rescuer as a Spaniard named Jorge and it took 42 years for them to finally locate him. In 1987 Giorgio’s wife, children and community were utterly shocked to learn that this unassuming man had saved the lives of a documented 5,218 Jews and probably many more. The famous rescuer Oskar Schindler saved a quarter as many people as Giorgio Perlasca did.
Once Giorgio’s heroism was known, he became famous in Italy and a source of national pride. Giorgio Perlasca was the subject of a bestselling biography, “The Banality of Goodness,” which was made into a popular movie. He received many honors, including Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, the Wallenberg Medal, the Hungarian Star of Merit, the Spanish Knight Grand Cross, the Italian Gold Medal for Civil Bravery, and many others. Noted Israeli composer Moshe Zorman wrote an orchestral piece, “His Finest Hour,” about Giorgio. There is a statue of Giorgio Perlasca in Budapest and a high school named for him, and he was featured on an Italian and an Israeli stamp.
Giorgio died in Padua, Italy in 1992.
For saving thousands of lives, and proving that people can change, we honor Giorgio Perlasca as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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*Angel Sanz Briz was a previous Thursday Hero