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Monday, September 1, 2014

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Italian businessman honoured as Righteous Gentile

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Franco Perlasca, centre wearing suit, with Italian veterans, is the son of Righteous Gentile Giorgio Perlasca. [Sarina Rehal photo]

TORONTO — Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman who posed as a Spanish diplomat while in Hungary during World War II, saved more than 5,000 Hungarian Jews,

He was honoured at a tribute attended by his son, Franco, and his daughter-in-law, Luciana Amadio, at the Lipa Green Centre in Toronto on April 1.

The event was organized by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the National Council of Italian Canadians.

Giorgio Perlasca was born in Como, Italy. At the beginning of World War II, he was sent to Hungary to get supplies for the Italian army. In 1943, Italy signed an armistice with the Allied Armed Forces, who were then occupying the southern party of the country, entailing the capitulation of Italy. Perlasca refused to swear loyalty to Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, a puppet state of Nazi Germany, and instead proclaimed his loyalty to the Italian monarch, Victor Emmanuel.

Perlasca was jailed but eventually took advantage of a medical pass and sought refuge in the Spanish Embassy in Budapest. He became a Spanish citizen, going by the name of Jorge Perlasca, and he began working with the Spanish ambassador, Angel Sanz Briz, and other diplomats of neutral states to help Jews escape Nazi Hungary. He acquired protection cards for many Jewish citizens based on the 1924 Law of Miguel Primo de Rivera, which granted all Jews of Sephardi origin Spanish citizenship.

When Sanz Briz left Hungary for Switzerland in 1944, the Hungarian government ordered Perlasca to clear out all the houses where Jews were living, and were protected. Perlasca knew that these Jews would be sent to concentration camps, so he falsely informed the government that he had been appointed Sanz Briz’s replacement. This allowed him to house, feed and protect more than 5,000 Hungarian Jews. After the war, Perlasca moved back to Italy and did not speak of his heroic actions until 30 years had passed. 

Franco Perlasca spoke to the audience, made up of members of the Italian and Jewish communities of Toronto, about his father. “He left a beautiful legacy,” Perlasca said.  “Remembering is important because it shows that anybody can do something like this, if they want to. I hope his story is remembered, especially by young people, so that they know how to react to violence like this.”

Perlasca never revealed to his wife or children that he played such a large role in saving the lives of so many Hungarian Jews. The story only came out when a few Hungarian women began looking for the Spanish diplomat who saved their lives.

“My father never told his story,” said Perlasca. “When these women found him, I began to understand that he saved them. But when they started telling their stories, I realized that my father might have saved tens, hundreds or even thousands of people, and then I couldn’t comprehend it anymore. I realized I had lived for more than 30 years with a person who I knew nothing about.”

During the presentation, a film about Perlasca was screened, in which Mary Siklos, a Toronto Holocaust survivior, spoke about Giorgio Perlasca. “He saved my family,” she said. “I would never have been born if not for [his] bravery.”

Perlasca was often asked why he took such risks to save the lives of strangers. His son said his father would always answer, “What would you have done in my shoes, seeing so many people suffering and being killed just because of their religion.”

Perlasca has been honoured by Israel, Italy, Hungary, Spain and the United States. He died in 1992 and asked that the phrase “Righteous Among the Nations” be written in Hebrew on his grave.

Len Rudner, CIJA’s director of community relations and outreach, said he was delighted that the opportunity to honour Perlasca arose.

“I think it’s tremendously important to reflect on the fact that one person can make a difference. It’s an important lesson for us to hold close to our hearts,” he said.

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