Until Nazi Germany occupied its wavering ally Hungary in March 1944, the Jews of Budapest had survived in relative safety, though they were severely restricted and harassed. But with the invasion, the arrival of Adolf Eichmann, and the enthusiastic cooperation of the native Arrow Cross fascists, the deportations and bloody killings of the city’s Jews reached a climax in the fall and winter of that year.
Still, at least 33,000 Jews were saved, mainly through the compassion of a few diplomats who set up “protected homes” under their nations’ flags. Even the International Red Cross helped.
The most famous of the rescuers, Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, has been honored as the embodiment of the Righteous Gentile. Some people also have heard of the noble work of Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz.
Giorgio Perlasca, on the other hand, is almost unknown. Perlasca, who was Italian, is credited with sheltering and sustaining some 5,200 Jews from November 1944 until the concentration camps were liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945.
His story is now told in the film “Perlasca, An Italian Hero,”which will screen in major North American cities during the coming months.
In the movie, Perlasca, played by Luca Zingaretti, is a balding, nondescript 34-year-old man, enjoying the wine and women of Budapest as the representative of an Italian cattle-import company.
Just as Oskar Schindler had a Nazi background, Perlasca was a proud veteran of Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and of the Italian legion that aided the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
But on Nov. 30, 1944, he comes across a raid on a house sheltering Jews and is horrified by the brutality of the SS and Hungarian police and the mistreatment of the Jews.
After befriending some of the expelled Jews, Perlasca decides he must help. Waving a letter of appreciation from Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, he manages to become an assistant to the sympathetic Spanish ambassador in Budapest.
Like Schindler, Perlasca is a man of strong nerves, great resourcefulness and infinite chutzpah.
As Budapest descends into chaos, he bullies Hungarian officials into believing that all Jews are Sephardim, and therefore Spanish citizens, and produces fictitious orders from Franco, threatening the execution of non-existent Hungarian prisoners of war in Spain if “his” Jews are harmed.
Even after officials at the Spanish Embassy flee the capital at the approach of the Red Army, Perlasca stays behind as the self-appointed “consul” of Spain.
Perlasca died in obscurity in Italy in 1992, but in recent years he has been recognized for his humanitarian heroism by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and by the governments of Italy, Spain and Hungary.
Directed by Alberto Negrin and based on Perlasca’s diaries and the book “The Banality of Goodness” by Enrico Deaglio, the film is in Italian with English subtitles.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.