Giorgio Perlasca (pictured left, some time before his death in 1992) was an Italian businessman and ex-fascist who cleverly used international law and bold impersonations to save thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
Perlasca was once a committed fascist who had fought for Italy in its brutal war against Ethiopia, as well as for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. By the start of the Second World War, however, he had grown disillusioned with fascism, especially following Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the implementation of Italian racial laws in 1938.
While serving as an Italian delegate in Hungary (another Nazi ally), his country had surrendered to the Allies, forcing citizens to choose between remaining loyal to the fascists or joining the Allied cause; at great personal risk, Perlasca chose the latter, and he was subsequently arrested by Hungarian authorities.
Using a medical pass that allowed him to travel in the country, he fled to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest, where he requested political status. Fortunately, his service to the victorious Spanish Nationalists endeared them to his request, and he was subsequently given protection, since Spain was neutral. Perlasca then took full advantage of his diplomatic cover to save people of a completely different faith and nationality.
Lucky for him, Angel Sanz Briz (pictured right, in 1969) was stationed there with the same idea in mind.
Indeed, up until that point, the Spanish diplomat was already furiously doing everything he could to save local Jews: he and his assistants issued fake Spanish papers to 5,200 Jews, saving them from deportation to concentration camps. He was initially authorized to provide only 200 such papers, but he managed to stretch it to many times that number. Moreover, he spent his own money to buy houses under his name that could provide shelter for fleeing Jews (as a diplomat of a neutral nation, his private property could not be searched and seized so easily). Perlasca quickly took part in assisting with this scheme,
In response to the approach of the Red Army in 1944, Spain ordered Sanz Briz to leave for Switzerland, putting the plan in jeopardy. Perlasca was invited to join him to safety, but the Italian chose to remain behind and continue their heroic work – and did so in the boldest possible way.
When Hungarian officials caught wind that Spain was abandoning its diplomatic posts – including the secret safe havens that came under diplomatic protection – they ordered the Spanish Embassy and all its properties to be cleared out. Perlasca immediately stepped out and falsely claimed that Sanz Briz would in fact be returning, and that in the meantime he would be filling in as a deputy. Perhaps because they could not imagine anyone lying about such a thing, they took him at his word and Perlasca continued carrying on the work of saving Jews.
In addition to continuing to hide and feed thousands of Jews, Perlasca added another innovation to their plan: he gave Jews safe passage out of the country through a 1924 Spanish law still on the books that granted citizenship to Sephardi Jews (descendants of Jews expelled from the country after the Reconquista). At one point, he rescued two Jewish boys from being herded into a train bound for a concentration camp in defiance of a Nazi officer later believed to be the vicious Adolf Eichmann.
In less than two months since his partner Sanz Briz’s departure, he managed to rescue another 5,000 Jews. As if this were not enough, he did one last heroic thing before the war ended: upon learning that the Hungarian government was planning to blow up a Jewish ghetto with 60,000 inhabitants, Perlasca – still posing as a representative of Spain – confronted the Interior Minister with fictitious threats of legal and economic sanctions against Hungary because thousands of “Spanish residents” were in the ghetto. The Interior Minister backed away from the plan, fortunately never bothering to contact Spain to make sure this was true (again, who would make up such a thing?)
Following the war, Perlasca returned to Italy to live a quiet life, never telling anyone – not even his family – what he did. Only in 1987, five years before his death, did his story come to light, after some of the people he saved tracked him down to thank him.
Sanz Briz also lived a relatively quiet life after the war, continuing his diplomatic career across a several postings, from the U.S. to China. (Evidently his actions were either never discovered by the Spanish government or never prosecuted.) He died in Rome in 1980 while serving as Spain’s Ambassador to the Holy See (Vatican).
Both men are honored as Righteous Among the Nations, an honor bestowed on gentiles (non-Jews) who risked their lives to save Jews during the Second World War.