Giorgio Perlasca was one of Europe’s great unsung heroes. He saved thousands of Jews from the Nazi gas chambers through his bravery, cunning, charm, and persistence. And he risked his own life at every turn in this story.
Perlasca’s early life gives no clue as to his future role. In fact, it suggests that he might have taken quite the opposite path. Born in Como in 1910, as a teen in Padua he became enamored by Gabriele D’Annunzio, whose ideas and beliefs influenced fascism and Benito Mussolini. He volunteered to fight in one of Mussolini’s wars of conquest in 1935 and, then, as a fascist volunteer, to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
But when he returned to Italy, Perlasca became quite disillusioned with Mussolini. He detested Italy’s alignment with Nazi Germany and abhorred the Italian race laws against the Jews. At the outbreak of World War II, he managed to avoid military service by working as a livestock agent procuring meat and supplies for the Italian army. He travelled widely in Eastern Europe, first in Zagreb and Belgrade, where he saw massacres of Jews, Serbs, and other minorities.
Then in 1942 he was sent to Budapest. As a tall, handsome man, he used his charm and negotiating skills to make good business deals for the Italians. And he enjoyed the theatre and restaurant life of the city, often in the company of his Jewish friends. But things changed in 1943 with the fall of Mussolini. Perlasca was imprisoned as an enemy alien near the Austrian border. Three months later he escaped, returned to Budapest, and immediately went to the Spanish embassy for protection. As a former pro-Franco soldier, he was given Spanish citizenship, a passport, and a new name—Jorge. Outside the embassy he noticed thousands of people milling around. He was told they were Jews pleading for “letters of protection,” which Spain and other neutral governments issued to protect Jews from deportation to the gas chambers. The Spanish embassy couldn’t keep up with the requests, so Perlasca volunteered to help. He made key contacts with Nazi officials—bribing, blackmailing, and charming them into helping him, or at least not interfering with his activities.
Then in 1944 with the Russians approaching Budapest, the Spanish consulate fled to Switzerland leaving behind empty offices, but also the embassy seal. Perlasca brazenly convinced Hungarian authorities that he was the new Spanish ambassador. Then he set to work not only stamping letters of protection with the embassy seal, but also housing the Jews in eight rented apartment blocks where he flew the Spanish flag. The bluff worked. But he had to patrol the houses day and night to make sure that bands of Hungarian Nazis did not break in and murder the protected people.
Daily executions on the banks of the Danube meant that only a quarter of Hungary’s 800,000 Jews survived the war. At the end of 1944, the Ministry of the Interior decided to move all Jews from the Consular apartments to the ghetto and then set fire to it. Perlasca rushed to the Minister to beg him to stop. When humanitarian arguments fell on deaf ears, he switched to threats. He warned that if the Spanish government was not assured that the Jews under its protection would not be harmed, all Hungarians in Spain would be imprisoned and their property confiscated. He even added that the Brazilian and Uruguayan governments would do the same. The Minister’s plans were abandoned.
Perlasca had many other close calls. Once when he was removing twin adolescents from a train bound for Auschwitz, an SS officer pointed a pistol at him. The heroic Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was standing nearby, shouted that he could not treat a Spanish diplomat like that. Then a more senior SS official arrived and asked what was happening. He told the young officer to do nothing more because “sooner or later we’ll get the children anyway.” This officer was the notorious Adolf Eichmann.
When Soviet troops entered Budapest in January 1945, the Jews were finally able to leave the apartments. The Russians forced Perlasca to work as a street cleaner. Soon thereafter, he was able to go to Istanbul and then back to Italy. Despite his negotiating skills, few people back home believed his story, including his wife. So he simply stopped talking about it and faded into obscurity…that is, until a group of Hungarian Jewish women recalled the nightmare of wartime Budapest at a family gathering in Berlin in 1986. “Do you remember that Spanish consul?”
They eventually found him in Padua, and the recognitions began. Perlasca had saved the lives of at least 5,500 Jews, more than four times the number that the heralded Oskar Schindler saved. Perlasca was awarded medals and decorations from Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, American, and Israeli governments for his courage and actions. A bust of him stands proudly in Budapest. But Perlasca downplayed his heroism to the end (he died in 1992) claiming that he had done nothing more than tell a lot of lies.