Perlasca: Saving the Jews

True Heroism

One of Perlasca's most vivid memories was the time he was standing by the loading dock, watching German soldiers and Hungarian police push long lines of men, women, and children toward freight cars waiting to deliver them to the death camps. As described by Commonweal, "Suddenly [Perlasca] rushes forward, grabs two young boys by the collar, drags them back down the platform, and throws them into the back seat of his car." At that point, a German soldier ran over, pulled out his revolver, and motioned to the man to return the boys. Perlasca refused, shouting. "'This car is foreign territory. The boys are under Spanish jurisdiction and you'll be violating international law if you so much as touch them.' The two men begin to scuffle," Commonweal continued, "and a German lieutenant colonel comes over to investigate. He tells the soldier to leave the man and the boys alone. 'Go ahead and take them,' he says to [Perlasca] . . . 'Their time will come."'

Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews during the war, had been watching this dispute. He walked up to Perlasca and told him the colonel was none other than Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the "Final Solution" and responsible for the murder of millions of Jews in the death camps of Europe during the war.

Budapest was now caught up in "a desperate tug of war," noted a U.S. News & World Report article, "with Eichmann on one end and Perlasca and the diplomatic representatives of four other neutral states - Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the Vatican - on the other. '[Wallenberg] and I would go to the train station and bluff until we got Jews away by claiming they were our nationals,"' recalled Perlasca.

The city collapsed into chaos as the Soviet army advanced. Saving the Jews noted that groups of the Arrow Cross militia, frustrated and angered by the Russian shelling of their city, "wildly roamed the streets . . . [exacting] vengeance on countless Jews, whom they indiscriminately shot and dumped their bodies in the Danube river."

The Washington Post recounted an incident that took place in December, 1944. One morning, following a night filled with screaming and gunfire, a young survivor was handed over to Perlasca's care - "a Jewish girl naked except for an army overcoat." She told him that the Nazis had tied the Jews together, in pairs, with barbed wire, and forced them to walk naked through the snow from the ghetto to the Danube. The German soldiers made the Jews kneel at the edge of the river and began to shoot them. By chance, the barbed wire tying the girl to her sister had come loose. Realizing they had a chance to escape, the sisters agreed that they would fall into the river when the first shots rang out. "Somehow, [one sister] swam to a bridge, climbed out, and hid under a tree, where she was found by a member of the Hungarian military, who covered her and handed her over to Perlasca, a known protector of Jews."

In Saving the Jews, one Jewish survivor, Edith Weiss, recalled Perlasca's amazing influence and presence. As Weiss' group was being led to the Danube, ". . . suddenly Perlasca appeared on the scene. 'He was mesmerizing. In this forceful, powerful way of his, he told them to go away and leave us alone . . . Perlasca had such authority, he was so strong, that there was no way anyone could contradict him. They simply went away."'

In January, 1945, as Perlasca was making his final rounds to the safe-houses, the Toronto Star reported that he told the Jews, "The Russians are in the city. You don't have to be afraid. You don't need me any more."

In April, as Perlasca was preparing to leave Hungary for the long journey back to Italy, noted the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous website, he was handed a letter from Dr. Hugo Dukesz, one of the Jews saved by Perlasca, who wrote, "On this occasion we want to express the affection and gratitude of the several thousand Jews who survived, thanks to your protection. There are not enough words to praise the tenderness with which you fed us and with which you cared for the old and the sick among us. You encouraged us when we were close to despair, and your name will never be omitted from our prayers. May the Almighty grant you your reward."