27th January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the six million European Jews massacred by the Nazis in Germany as part of that regime’s belief in the need to maintain the purity of the Aryan race. The Nazis also massacred similar numbers of Russians and Poles as well as other groups seen as a threat to Aryan racial purity. This latter category ranged from those with physical or mental disabilities, gypsies, homosexuals alongside others classified as social deviants and even religious groups like the Jehovah Witnesses. Included in this horrific carnage were the Italian and foreign Jews who had previously sought safety in Italy from Nazi Germany and Vichy France. Their transportation to the extermination camps in Eastern Europe from the northern half of Italy occupied by the Nazis started after the signing of the Italian Armistice in September 1943. Thus also Mussolini’s Nazifascist puppet state, known as the Republic of Salo, played its part in the mass extermination of European Jewry as a logical consequence and progression from the racial laws introduced by the Italian fascists in 1938.
With Como bordering neutral Switzerland, many of its citizens took a part directly or indirectly in helping Jews, anti-fascists, allied ex-prisoners of wars and other enemies of the state to avoid capture by following the smuggling trails over the mountains to safety. We have tried to honour the memory of some of those involved in aiding refugees on previous anniversaries. This year I wish to recall the exploits of Giorgio Perlasca, born in Como on January 31st 1910, who has been attributed with saving the lives of over 5000 Jews living in Hungary. He has sometimes been referred to as the Italian Schindler after Oskar Schindler who saved 1200 Jews in Poland. He was a contemporary and worked alongside another better known humanitarian, Raoul Wallenberg who also saved around 5000 Hungarian Jews. There are memorials to Giorgio Perlasca locally in both Como and Cernobbio showing the amount of pride there exists locally for a Como-born hero granted the status ‘Righteous Among Nations’ in 1989 by the Israeli State organisation, Yad Vashem.
In many ways Giorgio Perlasca was an unlikely hero starting out as a fully committed fascist volunteering to fight in the war against Ethiopia and, significantly for his future, in Spain during its brutal civil war on behalf of Franco’s Nationalists. He must have contributed significantly to the Spanish fascist cause because he earned sufficient gratitude from General Franco to be granted a letter of introduction from the Spanish Head of State requesting all Spanish embassies to grant him whatever assistance he might require on demand.
On his return to Italy from Spain, he apparently lost some of his faith in fascism maybe disagreeing with Mussolini’s overtly racist turn in 1938 when he introduced anti-Semitic legislation whilst also seeking closer allegiance with Hitler. Perlasca took on a role in Hungary with diplomatic status organising the supply of meat from Trentino to the Italian troops stationed in Eastern Europe. When Italy signed the armistice with the allies in September 1943, Perlasca preferred to retain his allegiance to the Italian king and not to Mussolini’s puppet state known as the Republic of Salo. He thus overnight became an enemy of Germany and Hungary. It was at this point that he played his joker by presenting his letter of introduction to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest. He was immediately granted a Spanish passport with the single modification of his first name from Giorgio to Jorge. Jorge presented himself from then onward as a Spanish diplomat.
The Spanish Embassy was doing what ever it could to save Jews from deportation. They and other diplomatic missions were aware of the extermination camps where the Nazis were developing the means to implement the industrial scale of mass murder planned for the infamous ‘final solution’ phase of their ethnic cleansing policies. The embassies of Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the Vatican State were also assisting Jews by granting letters of protection. Spain was granting these certificates on the basis of a Spanish law passed in 1924 granting the rights of Spanish citizenship to those Jews descended from the Sephardic population expelled from Spain in the 15th century. The embassy had acquired up to eight buildings deemed part of the Spanish delegation to house those offered protection. Giorgio Perlasca assisted the embassy in granting the letters of protection and in running the safe houses. He later took on the entire responsibility for these people once the remainder of the Spanish diplomatic mission had been withdrawn to Switzerland for safety following the Nazi overthrow of the Hungarian regime in 1944. At this stage, Giorgio Perlasca falsified documents so as to present himself to the Hungarian authorities as the legitimate Spanish Ambassador. He successfully maintained this bluff and was thus able to continue providing protection to the Jews under his care in spite of constant and very real danger of exposure. He was even brought to the attention of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official tasked with implementing the holocaust in Hungary.
Through his bluff he was able to save over 5000 Jews who remained under Spanish protection in their safe houses until the Red Army liberated Budapest in April 1945. He has also claimed that by continuing his impersonation of the Spanish Ambassador he was able to prevent the demolition of the Budapest ghetto containing 60,000 Jews. The German SS and the extreme Hungarian fascist corps, Arrow Cross, had planned an assault on the ghetto but Perlasca threatened the Hungarian government that, if they permitted this, he would personally ensure that all Hungarians resident in Spain would in turn be arrested and interned.
The actions of Giorgio Perlasca and others such as the Swede Raoul Wallenberg and in particular the Swiss Carl Lutz, managed to save many lives but there were still 568,000 Hungarian Jews murdered by the time the Red Army liberated the country. The German official responsible for the Hungarian extermination programme, Adolf Eichmann, evaded capture until finally traced, tried and then executed in Jerusalem in 1962. Eichmann never denied the holocaust but sought to avoid responsibility by claiming he was simply following orders. This incredulous defense and his nondescript appearance prompted Hannah Arendt, the author of the definitive book describing his trial, to coin the phrase ‘The Banality of Evil’ for its subtitle.
When Giorgio Perlasca returned to Italy, he made no mention of his role in saving lives until a group of Hungarian Jews, wishing to meet and thank the person who had given them so much help, managed to track him down to Padova in the 1980s. He was subsequently presented with the awards from Yad Veshem and the Italian and Hungarian governments. His biography by Enrico Deaglio, in contrast to that of Eichmann, is entitled ‘The Banality of Goodness’ to reflect the matter of fact way in which Perlasca assumed the responsibility for helping those he could. He did not see it as so much a conscious choice but more as following a natural reaction to witnessing inhumanity,
The Spanish Civil War was characterised by appalling atrocities committed by all sides but arguably to a greater degree by the Nationalists, and it is hard to believe that Perlasca would not have witnessed this during his time in Spain. Yet over time he came to recognise the moral bankruptcy and illegitimacy of fascist racist ideology. His decision to act followed witnessing a German soldier in Budapest execute a 10 year old Jewish boy in the street. He felt compelled from that moment on to do what he could to resist the forces of oppression.
We owe it to those six million Jews – to the equal number of Slavs also murdered by Nazis, to the Muslim men and boys murdered in Srebrenica, to the deaths in Rwanda and Myanmar and to all other victims of attempts at ethnic cleansing across the world – that we never forget their sacrifice and do whatever is humanly possible to prevent further instances of genocide in the future. A memorial ceremony will be held outside the Biblioteca on Monday morning at 10.00 on this the 75th anniversary of the day Auschwitz was liberated.