Israeli orchestra honors Italian who saved 5,000 Jews from Nazis
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Israeli orchestra honors Italian who saved 5,000 Jews from Nazis

Giorgio Perlasca’s daring subterfuge in posing as a Spanish ambassador in Hungary let him issue thousands of ‘protection cards’ alongside Raoul Wallenberg

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Members of the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra. The RSO is spearheading a project honoring Righteous Among the Nations through commissioned new works from Israeli composers. (courtesy)
Members of the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra. The RSO is spearheading a project honoring Righteous Among the Nations through commissioned new works from Israeli composers. (courtesy)

One has to wonder if Steven Spielberg chose the right man to profile in film. Posing as a Spanish diplomat in Hungary during World War II, Italian import/exporter Giorgio Perlasca diverted some 5,200 Jews from extermination camps. (For comparison’s sake, Oskar Schindler, the subject of the blockbuster Hollywood “Schindler’s List,” is credited with saving 1,200.)

Perlasca, modest of his accomplishments, kept the details of his daring story to himself until 1987 when a group of “his” Jews discovered him and sparked a throng of media and state honors.

And although Perlasca died in 1992, these honors continue.

As part of its Righteous Among the Nations project, the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra has commissioned an original orchestral piece, “His Finest Hour,” from composer Moshe Zorman in tribute to Perlasca. The piece will have its debut this week at a December 10 concert in Raanana in the presence of Perlasca’s son Franco and daughter-in-law Luciana Amadia.

“When I heard about Perlasca’s extraordinary activities, I thought everyone should hear about him. And we have only one way to share it — through music,” orchestra general manager Orit Fogel-Shafran told The Times of Israel ahead of the gala concert.

“Music is a language that speaks to everybody and through music we want to tell his unbelievable courageous story,” said Fogel-Shafran.

Giorgio Perlasca as a soldier in 1935 during the Spanish Civil War. (courtesy Yad Vashem)a
Giorgio Perlasca as a soldier in 1935 during the Spanish Civil War. (courtesy Yad Vashem)a

To date the orchestra has commissioned from Israeli composers new works for seven individuals who saved Jews during the Holocaust, including the much heralded Irina Sendler who smuggled some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. After the Sendler project went viral on YouTube, the orchestra was awarded a medal of honor from the president of Poland.

“It starts with a piece of music, but thousands of children became involved through the piece,” said Fogel-Shafran.

The new piece by Zorman for Perlasca includes text from Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s poem, “Is this a human being.”

Zorman begins the orchestral work with an exposition of the lives who those who lived in peace in protected buildings. Through the music he wonders “if, under these conditions, it is possible to understand those who live under constant threat of death and struggling to prevent starvation, but continue to fight for their own humanity.”

The piece’s second section describes the Jews’ existential struggle and threatening force of evil. The painful call of the Jews is heard within “a military march that threatens to trample all in its way.”

Paralelling Levi’s poem, the piece ends in addressing future generations, imploring them to recount Holocaust history and enshrine it for the future.

A story made for the big screen

Perlasca’s story could easily be enshrined in a Hollywood script.

After fighting with Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War in support of Francisco Franco, the new Fascist dictator offered him Spanish citizenship, which at that point he declined.

Later, during WWII, Perlasca procured a lucrative position in supplying food to the Italian army front fighting in Eastern Europe. In 1943 with the fall of Mussolini in Italy, however, Perlasca was forced to reconsider Franco’s offer.

Giorgio Perlasca during his 'diplomat' period in Hungary, mid-1940s. (courtesy Yad Vashem)
Giorgio Perlasca during his ‘diplomat’ period in Hungary, mid-1940s. (courtesy Yad Vashem)

Faced with a decision of whether to return home and support another Fascist regime or stay in Eastern Europe, the Italian, then in Hungary, remained. But after spending time interned in a Budapest castle with other stateless diplomats, the Italian realized, “I was neither a fascist nor an anti-fascist, but I was anti-Nazi.”

What better way to work against the Nazis than by saving their prey?

Perlasca arrived at the Spanish consulate in Budapest and, adopting the name Jorge, claimed asylum. He began working to save Jews alonside Spanish Chargé d’Affaires Ángel Sanz Briz, who had already begun issuing “protection cards” which granted neutral states’ embassies a legal guardianship of them.

The Hungarian government became wise to Sanz Briz’s efforts and he fled the consulate. Perlasca, however, having witnessed mass transportations of Jews in Eastern Europe while working for the Italian army, decided to continue issuing these protection cards.

‘I couldn’t stand seeing children being killed. I did what I had to do’

He quickly assumed the falsified role of Sanz Briz’s deputy by appointing himself ambassador in place of Sanz Briz through a forgery on consulate letterhead.

“I couldn’t stand the sight of people being branded like animals… I couldn’t stand seeing children being killed. I did what I had to do,” Perlasca explained.

Interestingly, Perlasca apparently began using a Spanish legal loophole to save Jews under a 1924 Spanish law that allowed Spanish-born Jews full citizenship and protection. He issued fake safe-conduct passes on the claim that the Hungarian Jews were of Sephardic origin.

Sweden's envoy to Nazi-occupied Hungary Raoul Wallenberg. (photo credit: AP/Scanpix Sweden, File)
Sweden’s envoy to Nazi-occupied Hungary Raoul Wallenberg. (photo credit: AP/Scanpix Sweden, File)

According to MoralHeroes.org the passes declared: “The relatives of all Spaniards in Hungary require their presence in Spain. Until we are able to reestablish communications and the journey back is possible, they will remain here under the protection of the government of Spain.”

Knowing he was racing against time, Perlasca teamed up with other diplomats, including Raoul Wallenberg, in combined efforts to bring Jews to safety. Perlasca is credited with saving 3,500-5,000 Jews from December 1, 1944, until mid-January 1945 alone.

Perlasca returned to Italy and lived a life of relative anonymity until 1987, when he was discovered by a group of grateful Hungarian Jews. He was since honored by the Italian, Hungarian and Spanish governments and was recognized in a Yad Vashem ceremony during his lifetime as a Righteous Among the Nations.

After its December 10 and 11 Raanana performances, “His Finest Hour” will be performed by the orchestra in Venice.

“You can never know where the music is taking you,” said orchestra head Fogel-Shafran. “This is our way to say thank you and spread the music.”

Giorgio Perlasca is honored during a ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, September 1989. (courtesy Yad Vashem)
Giorgio Perlasca is honored during a ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, September 1989. (courtesy Yad Vashem)
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