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That boys may become men

· Giorgio Perlasca remembered by his son ·

We publish below an article in the latest edition of “Pagine Ebraiche”, the monthly journal of the Union of the Italian Jewish Community. Giorgio Perlasca was an Italian who posed as the Spanish consul-general to Hungary in 1944 and saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.

I learned what my father had done many years ago only in 1988, when he was tracked down by some Hungarian Jewish women and more precisely when Mrs. Lang and her husband came to his door. They had called some days prior for an appointment; they had learned some Italian for the trip – not easy since the Berlin wall, though crumbling, was still standing. They came as representatives of a handful of families who had been saved by a strange Spanish consul, Jorge Perlasca.

They told their very human story and I understood that it was my father who had saved them; continuing with their story, I began to understand that he had not only saved them but tens, hundreds, maybe thousands, more. And I confess that I panicked, wondering how much I really knew the person with whom I had lived for the past thirty years, which was my age at the time.

A small, but grand, fact opened my eyes and made me think about what had happened: the lady had brought various gifts including three little packages which she opened nervously. Inside, were a small spoon, a tiny cup and a little medal: the only objects, she said, that the family was able to save from the disaster that was World War II. She wanted to give them to my father. He did not want to accept them: “Madam, you must give them to your children, and your children will give them to your grandchildren as a family memento.” The lady responded with a phrase which still touches me today. “Mr. Perlasca, you must keep them because without you we would not have children or grandchildren.”

Needless to say, we conserve those three little objects today with a special love for the suffering, pain and blood that they represent. My father had never talked much about those times, neither to the family or others, with the exception of a few episodes that didn’t really give a full picture of what had happened. Returning to Italy, he never thought to “sell” his story in order to receive something in exchange. His life after the war was difficult: he lost his job and had to start over entirely.

When I went to Budapest in the early 80s as a tourist, the only thing he told me was that it was a city he knew well and a place in which he had lived. After a stroke nearly took his life, he told us he had written some memoirs so that we would read it and know that he had done some good in his life.

At the time, we didn’t have the time or desire, but as soon as he was back on his feet, one of the first things he did was pick up his memoirs again. He thought he was going to die and that it was right that at least his family knew some things. His death, however, was not imminent; first there would be another date with destiny: 1988, when the Hungarians came to the door.

Afterwards, nothing changed; he was the same “simple” person as before, in the highest sense of the word. He did not believe that he had done anything extraordinary, but that he had done his duty as a man. Journalists continually asked him about his heroic behavior and he responded, “What would you have done in my place? Seeing women, children and men massacred and exterminated because they have a different religious belief?”

To one journalist who suggested that his actions were the result of the fact that he was a Catholic, he responded simply and clearly, “No, I did it because I am a man.”

Destiny saw to it that the story of Giorgio Perlasca, in the period after the war, be entwined in an important way with the history of Italy. They were years in which he was completely forgotten, even though many people, and important ones, knew who Jorge Perlasca really was. Suffice to quote one example from my father’s memoirs – and it is only one example – the apostolic nuncio, Mons. Angelo Rotta, who knew everything but said nothing. From De Gasperi to Sanz Briz, the real Spanish consul, and many others.

When the story was re-discovered in Italy, the silence continued. The film had a long and difficult journey: more than ten years of incubation due to a then-politically incorrect story trying to come light at RAI in a time of ideological barriers.

Now things have changed and the story of Giorgio Perlasca has accompanied, favored and encouraged this change. Giorgio Perlasca was a very normal person, one of us, a man with his doubts, his uncertainties, his flaws, but he was also a person who knew how to place his conscience and justice before all else. A just man in the highest sense of the word.

His incredible story is the demonstration that any one of us can do something if we don’t remain indifferent to the pain of others; if we want to open our eyes to what is happening around us and become involved, even at great personal risk.

What has Giorgio Perlasca left us with, in this incredible Hungarian story and its 45  years of silence? A great lesson: helping others without expecting anything in return. It is a great spiritual testimony, summarized by the few words with which he answered a question from journalist Giovanni Minoli who asked him in 1990, “Mr. Perlasca, why do you want this story to be remembered?”

My father replied directly and simply, “I would like this story to be remembered by young people so that they will know that they too should oppose such violence, should it ever repeat itself.” A reflection absolutely relevant for today’s society.




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 18, 2019