Jan. 17, 2017
An early enthusiast of fascism, Giorgio Perlasca volunteered to fight for Italian forces in Ethiopia in 1935 and then went to Spain to fight for Francisco Franco. But after returning to Italy in 1939, he quickly became disillusioned with Mussolini and, to avoid military service, found himself a job procuring livestock for the Italian army, which involved traveling around southeastern Europe. His travels made him aware of—and deeply troubled by—what was happening to the Jews. After Mussolini’s fall in 1943, he found himself in Budapest. Elizabeth Salthouse writes:
[I]n late 1944, the Spanish consul to Budapest beat a hasty retreat to Switzerland leaving behind empty offices, his official consulate seals, Jewish staff, and hundreds of Jews desperate for Spanish protection. . . .
Unbeknownst to the Germans, the Spanish consulate had been quietly sheltering Hungarian Jews in eight apartment blocks under its control, but the rescue effort was jeopardized by the consul’s departure. And so Giorgio “Jorge” Perlasca stepped in, brazenly convincing Hungarian authorities that he was now the Spanish ambassador with all the powers that went with the title.
It was a breathtakingly audacious and highly dangerous move that could have led to Perlasca’s summary execution at any moment. But he was a master of persuasion and so “Ambassador Perlasca” proceeded to issue Spanish-consulate letters of protection, stamped with the genuine seals, to hundreds of Jews over the winter of 1944. And not only that, Giorgio personally challenged German troops rounding up Jews, persuading them that many potential gas-chamber deportees had Spanish heritage and were therefore protected. He even used his own money to buy peoples’ freedom and argued with German officers directly, including the infamous Adolf Eichmann, to rescue children from the jaws of certain death. The man was fearless, galvanized by his hatred of the Nazis and fortified by his skills as a negotiator.
Ultimately, over the course of around 45 days Giorgio Perlasca managed to fool the Germans, to issue fake permits and to directly protect, rescue, and secure the lives of at least 5,500 Jews.