The Magnificent Imposter
Who would expect that an escaped Italian prisoner in a foreign country during WW II would, at great personal risk, pose as a Spanish diplomat to save the lives of countless Jews he didn’t know?
To do this, he had to lie, break the law, forge documents, masquerade under a false identity and bluff his way past Nazi and Arrow Cross barbarians in Budapest, as he snatched Jews to safety under their noses.
This was the life of Giorgio Perlasca, an extraordinary story of how a former soldier in a fascist army went on to become one of the most outstanding chasidei umos haolam, Righteous Among the Nations.
Nothing in Perlasca’s early youth marked him for heroism. He was a citizen of Italy, a normal, average person who was attracted to the false causes of his time, primarily the fascist movement led by Benito Mussolini. He also fought with an Italian regiment in the Spanish Civil War (1933-1936) to help bring Franco’s fascist regime to power.
To escape the draft during WWII, he found a job as a delegate of the Italian government, dispatched with a livestock company to Eastern Europe to secure meat supplies for Mussolini’s troops.
Perlasca’s romance with fascism soured as he traveled throughout Europe for his work and witnessed the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews by the Nazis. Back home, Perlasca encountered a country that had aligned itself with Hitler’s Third Reich, and that in 1938 had introduced its own racial laws. He had many Jewish friends and was repelled by anti-Semitism.
Providentially, when Italy surrendered to allied forces in the autumn of 1943, Perlasca was stuck in Nazi-overrun Budapest with little hope of safe transit home. As an Italian citizen, he was in a precarious position. Italians were being rounded up and placed into POW camps by Nazi authorities furious at the surrender of their key ally.
Former Fascist Becomes Protector of Jews
Using a fraudulent medical pass, Perlasca fled to the nearest Spanish Embassy seeking asylum in return for his past military service on behalf of Franco’s Spain. Ambassador Angel Sanz-Briz not only granted him a Spanish passport, but sizing him up as a valuable asset, invited Perlasca to help maintain the Spanish “safe houses” filled with thousands of Hungarian Jews under threat of deportation.
Over 440,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz by this time. Hungary was now ruled by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross regime that had unleashed a reign of terror against Budapest’s Jews—the only remaining Jews of Hungary—massacring thousands on the banks of the Danube River and sending thousands more on death marches.
Together, Sanz-Briz, Perlaska and a few embassy officials exploited loopholes and diplomatic privileges to save as many Jews as they could, taking them from the ghetto with “letters of protection” to rented buildings that flew the Spanish flag.
They wrote thousands of fake letters attesting to different individuals’ “Spanish citizenship.” These papers stated that a family had requested permission to move to Spain and would be held under the protection of the Spanish government until such time as they could make the trip. In the meantime, they would be granted diplomatic asylum in Spanish-owned “safe houses.”
The Hungarians soon discovered that in addition to sheltering Jews in safe houses, some Spanish officials had been harboring them in their houses and the embassy. The police began raiding the homes of diplomats and making arrests.
Increasingly tense confrontations with Arrow Cross soldiers and the imminent arrival of Soviet troops convinced Sanz-Briz to heed his government’s orders to leave the country to avoid falling into Soviet hands.
He left covertly, advising Perlasca to follow him to Switzerland for his own safety, and hoping to buy time for the Jews in hiding until the Soviets liberated them. But in a city overflowing with double agents, news of his departure leaked out in a flash.
Hearing that the ambassador was gone, the Nazi-affiliated Arrow Cross moved to shut down the Spanish embassy and evacuate the safe houses.
‘I Swore I Wouldn’t Leave’
At this point, Perlasca had the option to sneak away and rejoin his family and this is where his war story could have happily ended. An average man manages to find a way to save his own skin in the midst of a bloody, dreadful war. End of story.
Instead, he made a choice that defied one of the most basic human instincts, that of self-preservation. It wasn’t an entirely rational decision, it was more that he couldn’t leave, he recounted years later.
Day after day, he heard stories of how the local Jewish people were systematically beaten, starved, and dragged off in the night. The Arrow Cross militia were among the most bloodthirsty killers he had ever encountered. Between December 1944 and the end of January 1945, Arrow Cross fascists took as many as 20,000 Jews from the ghetto, shot them along the banks of the Danube and threw their bodies into the river.
Perlasca was sickened by these atrocities. In one incident he shared with an LA journalist in 1990, he could hear shots and shrieks coming from the Jewish ghetto in Budapest. The next morning he was entrusted with the care of a survivor–a young, traumatized Jewish girl. She told him that she and other victims had been tied together with barbed wire two by two, and then forced by Nazis to run through the snow from the ghetto to the Danube.
There they were made to kneel on the riverbank, where each was killed by a shot in the neck. The girl had survived because the barbed wire that tied her to her sister had loosened. Realizing that one of them had a chance, they had agreed that both would fall into the river with the first shot. It would take a miracle but perhaps they, or at least one of them, would survive.
The firing began and amid blood-curdling screams from the victims, the sisters fell over into the river. Somehow, one of them managed to swim as far as a bridge where she climbed out and hid under a tree. She was found by a Hungarian soldier who remarkably handed her over to Perlasca.
Making the rounds of the safe houses, Perlasca was thrown into a quandary as the residents crowded around him, begging him not to leave.
“If I had to say what it was that convinced me to stay,” Perlasca recalled decades later in an interview, “it was probably that seeing these people’s desperation, I swore I wouldn’t leave. After that, I simply couldn’t.”
The New “Spanish Consul”
Plunging back into the danger zone from which he had just escaped, Perlasca thought up a daring scheme to protect the Jews in the safe houses. Using the Spanish embassy seal left behind by Sanz-Briz and an embassy letterhead, he forged a document appointing himself as deputy ambassador until Sanz-Briz’s return and presented it to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry. The officials fell for the ruse.
In this way, the former soldier-turned-businessman turned asylum-seeker became the “Spanish ambassador” in Nazi-occupied Hungary.
From December 1, 1944 to January 16, Perlasca exercised the authority of an ambassador without any of the usual accountability borne by a diplomat. In his memoirs he reflects that some of his success in protecting “his Jews” was due to being able to act on the spur of the moment, without having to consult or answer to higher-ups.
As his entire ambassadorship was a charade, he never had to seek approval or consent for his actions, or worry about political etiquette or long-term diplomatic consequences. He did whatever he felt the situation called for.
The new “Spanish consul” began to organize food, medical aid and protection for the 5,200 Jews in the Consulate’s eleven buildings. Living conditions were poor, and food and water scarce. “The buildings were very crowded. People even lived in the stairways,” he recalled in a 1990 interview. Yet, compared to the appalling conditions in the Budapest ghetto, the safe houses were almost luxurious.
Perlasca would regularly make the rounds of the safe houses in his fancy Embassy Ford with the Spanish flag flying, and spend some time in each one, delivering food supplies and speaking with the residents. The message this telegraphed throughout Budapest was clear: The people in the safe houses were protected by Madrid.
Bluff and Bluster
The Arrow Cross killers played cat and mouse with the Jewish occupants, seizing any opportunity to eject them from the building at gunpoint. An intelligence network warned Perlasca in advance of these raids and he used his newfound authority to harshly protest the raids on Spanish “extraterritorial” buildings.
On one occasion, Perlasca drove up in the embassy car as a safe house was being raided. He got out of the car and confronted the perpetrators. He was a tall man with a commanding presence and a talent for quick improvisation. Protesting the violation of “national agreements” between Spain and Hungary regarding diplomatic immunity, he warned of severe consequences if these agreements were breached.
“My government will not take these violations lightly. Your actions will cause reprisals to be carried out against your own countrymen in Spain,” survivors recall him lecturing the Hungarians. He spoke with an air of incredulity, as if he found it hard to believe they could behave so stupidly.
The marauders grudgingly backed off.
In Saving the Jews by Mordecai Paldiel, Jewish survivor Edith Weiss recalled how she and a group of Jews were being marched in the direction of the Danube River by Arrow Cross killers. Knowing the fate that awaited them there, her heart contracted with terror. Suddenly Perlasca appeared on the scene.
“In that forceful, powerful way of his, he ordered the killers to leave us alone . . .or risk serious consequences,” recalled Weiss. “He had such authority it was almost mesmerizing, even to these monsters. To our disbelief, they walked away.”
During a meeting with Arrow Cross Minister of Internal Affairs, Gabor Vajna, Perlasca warned that the Spanish government would retaliate against the 3000 Hungarian citizens living in Spain if the minister refused to allow Jews to remain under Spanish protection. The Hungarian official suddenly was willing to negotiate.
Later, in his diary, Perlasca admitted, “All of this was a colossal bluff. I believe there are no more than 300 Hungarians in Spain.”
Snatching Jews From Deportation Sites
Throughout the winter of 1944, Perlasca kept the Spanish legation open, continuing to spar with Nazis and Arrow Cross soldiers over one Jewish life after another.
He made a habit of patrolling the deportation stations where freight cars were lined up. Here the arrested Jews were sorted and herded into the cars that would take them to their deaths. Perlasca would pull up to these stations in his diplomatic vehicle emblazoned with Spanish flag and other markings, and boldly pull men, women, and children out of line. He’d either issue them Spanish papers on the spot, or bluster and claim they were protected Spanish citizens.
Hurrying them into his car to the confusion and protest of German guards, he would speed them away from certain doom.
Some of the rescues were quite dramatic and high-risk.
In a particularly chilling incident, Perlasca recounted grabbing twin boys in line to be deported at the train station, pushing them into the Spanish embassy car, and then scuffling with a German major at gunpoint as the German tried to open the door to drag out the boys.
Also present was Raoul Wallenberg, the legendary 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, turned to the major and exclaimed, “You don’t realize what you’re doing! You are committing an act of aggression against the territory of a neutral country! You’d better think very carefully about the consequences of your actions.”
An SS lieutenant-colonel arrived and asked what was happening. He listened, then ordered the major to desist because, ‘Sooner or later’, he said, ‘we’ll get the children anyway. Their time will come.’
“After the Nazis turned away, Wallenberg told me under his breath that the SS colonel was the notorious Adolf Eichmann,” related Perlasca.
“His time also came,” Perlasca said of Eichmann.
With the Soviets in control of Hungary by February 1945, Perlasca was preparing to leave Hungary for the long journey back to Italy, when he was handed a letter from Dr. Hugo Dukesz of Budapest, one of the Jews he had saved.
“On this occasion,” Dukesz had written, “we want to express the affection and gratitude of the several thousand Jews who survived, thanks to your protection. There are not enough words to praise the tenderness with which you fed us, and with which you cared for the old and the sick among us. You encouraged us when we were close to despair, and you risked your life so many times to save us from the hands of the murderers.
“Never, never will your name be omitted from our prayers. We pray to the Al-mighty to bless you for only He is capable of rewarding you.”
A Half Century In the Shadows
When Perlasca returned home, he found that few people were interested in his experiences; almost no one believed his stories. Like most European nations, Italy did not want to acknowledge or be reminded of its responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust.
For the next 43 years, Perlasca’s heroic exploits went unrecognized until some of the people whom Perlasca had saved tracked him down in the late 1980s, and brought this forgotten hero to the attention of the world.
It began at a family gathering as some Hungarian Jews recalled the events of wartime Budapest at a family gathering.
“Do you remember that Spanish Consul?” someone asked. Several did, and they placed a notice in Budapest’s Jewish newspaper asking for other testimonies. Gradually Perlasca’s story emerged.
In 1987, Yad Vashem received a letter from Dr. Eveline Blitstein Willinger, a woman living in Berlin. She and a group of Jewish survivors had located their now 79-year-old savior living with his wife in an apartment in Padua, Italy.
As noted in Saving the Jews (Mordecai Paldiel), she wrote, “To my astonishment, nobody knows his name, nobody thanks him for what he did . . . We are asking you to honor this great man with a noble soul, before it’s too late.”
The tributes finally began to flow. In 1989 the Hungarian Parliament awarded Perlasca its highest honor and a statue was dedicated to him in Budapest. Yad Vashem recognized his heroism and courage in a special ceremony around this time and Israel accorded him honorary citizenship.
To the end of his life, Perlasca shied away from what he felt was over-glorification. In response to the question he was persistently asked, “What made you put your life on the line to save Jews?” he would say simply, “I couldn’t stand seeing children being killed. If you had seen Jewish children being shot in the streets, would you have done anything different?”
The Plot to Annihilate the Budapest Ghetto
According to Perlasca’s diary and memoirs, he was instrumental in thwarting a plan to annihilate the Budapest Ghetto with around 70,000 people in it, as the Nazis had done in Warsaw.
With Soviet shells falling all over Budapest, Perlasca had learned of the intentions of the SS and Arrow Cross to burn down the ghetto with explosive incendiary devices.
Shocked, he asked for a direct hearing with the Hungarian interior minister, Gabor Vajna, one of the top Arrow Cross henchmen, and warned him that the world would never forgive so evil a deed. Afterward, he recorded some of the give-and-take that followed.
Vajna: You know the wickedness of the Jews.
Perlasca: Signor Vajna, in my last letter I made it clear that the Spanish government will be forced to take retaliatory measures if our protectees become victims of your government’s cruel treatments. If by January 10, the Spanish government has not received a reassuring communication from me, the retaliation will begin. There are 3000 Hungarians living in Spain and my government has decided to intern them and confiscate their property, if its protectees here in Budapest are mistreated.
Vajna: What kind of talk is this? You are speaking in a way unbecoming to a diplomat.
Perlasca: The situation demands it.
According to Perlasca’s account, Vajna then asked for guarantees that the Hungarians in Spain would not be harmed. Perlasca responded with, “The Spanish people have never persecuted foreigners without reason.”
To Perlasca it was clear that the leaders of the Arrow Cross knew their days in power were numbered and secretly hoped that in the event of a total collapse, they would be granted asylum in Spain. Holding out a carrot while brandishing the stick, Perlasca offered to help Vajna and his family escape from Hungary before the advancing Soviet Army reached Budapest.
The plan to raze the Budapest Ghetto was subsequently called off.
Following the fall of Budapest, Vajna attempted to escape to Western Europe but was captured by US troops along with other members of the Arrow Cross regime. He was tried in Budapest by a “people’s tribunal” and sentenced to the gallows for war crimes and treason.
Vajna was hanged in 1946 on the same day as three of the most bloodthirsty Arrow Cross leaders: Ferenc Zsalasi, Kroly Beregfy and Jozsef Gera, may their names be blotted out.
Bones of Jews Shot Into the Danube Brought to Burial 70 Years Later
In 2016, two wooden caskets containing hundreds of bone fragments, the majority determined to be of Jews shot on the banks of the Danube River, were finally brought to kevuras Yisroel in a Jewish cemetery in Budapest.
The remains were found during the renovation of Margit Bridge in downtown Budapest, where thousands of Jews were murdered by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross militia that seized power in Hungary in the waning months of the war. In those few months, the killers shot between 15,000-20,000 Jews and threw their bodies into the Danube River, according to the United States Holocaust Musuem Encyclopedia.
Divers spotted the bones wedged around a pillar. DNA tests concluded they belonged to around 20 different people, including women and children, all European Ashkenazi Jews.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Peter Kardos, Budapest’s chief rabbi, who was 8 years old when he survived the mass shootings on the banks of the Danube River.
“There were hundreds of us lined up by the river…Suddenly we heard an order that those with children should leave, so my mother took my brother and me and we ran away,” he told the AFP news agency. “For some reason they decided not to shoot children that day.”
When the firing started, the Kardoses were out of range of the bullets, but not far enough away to block out the horrific sounds of people being shot and drowned.
During the ceremony at the Kozma Street Jewish Cemetery in Budapest in 2016, Andras Heisler, president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, recounted how his uncle, then 90 years old and living in Israel, survived his execution at the Danube. A bullet bounced off his forehead and another punctured his neck but exited without damaging vital organs.
Heisler said he had been contacted by several families who believe their relatives were among those shot into the Danube. They were hoping to compare their DNA samples with the remains to finally achieve some form of closure.