Posing as a Spanish ambassador, an Italian Catholic forged protection cards for over 5,000 Jews during the Holocaust, thus saving their lives.

On Wednesday and Thursday evening, members of the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra performed in honor of a man who saved 5,018 Jews from the hands of Nazis—Giorgio Perlasca.

While many know the story of Oskar Schindler, made famous in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List, far fewer have heard of Perlasca, an unsung hero who saved four times as many lives. Perlasca never spoke of his role in the war, not even to his family, until a group of Hungarian Jews he had saved finally discovered him and publicized his actions, bringing him long-overdue recognition.

Perlasca’s Legacy

An Italian-born Catholic, Perlasca quickly became “anti-Nazi” after the country’s prime minister and leader of the National Facist Party, Benito Mussolini, allied with Adolf Hitler. Hungary imprisoned Perlasca for his loyalty to the Allies, but he escaped on a medical pass, and from there fled to the Spanish embassy in Budapest. He soon obtained Spanish citizenship, changing his name from Giorgio to “Jorge.”

At the embassy, Perlasca began working under the tutelage of Angel Sanz Briz, the Spanish charge d’affairs, issuing “protection cards” to Jews in conjunction with diplomats of other neutral states and granting them asylum. Circumstances soon forced Briz to flee, and the Hungarian government moved to seize the embassy and the attached Spanish House, where they knew many Jews had been hiding. Perlasca stayed behind to continue the work, convincing Hungarian and German officials that he had been appointed the new Spanish ambassador and that the refugees were under the protection of Spain.

It took Perlasca no more than 45 days to save more than 5,000 Jewish lives. He kept the embassy running smoothly from the outside, while hiding, feeding, protecting and providing passes for thousands of Jews in Budapest. By falsifying documents to state that they were actually Sephardi Jews, protected under the 1924 law that allowed their “return” to Spain, Perlasca risked his life so that they could find refuge.

Righteous Among the Nations

When Rafi Ganzou, Israel’s deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, approached the Raanana Symphonette Orchestra with the idea of composing a piece dedicated to Perlasca as part of their “Righteous Among the Nations” Project, they accepted it instantly. Orit Fogel-Shafran, general manager of the orchestra, told The Jerusalem Post: “It was clear to us that we were going to commission a piece. We have one language, [the] language of music, and this is how we tell stories.”

The symphonette has also honored six other heroes to date, including Irena Sendler, who saved 2,500 Jewish children during the Holocaust, and Alma Rose, who organized and conducted a women’s orchestra in Auschwitz. In 1989, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum inducted Perlasca as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”—a title reserved for the courageous minority who, at great personal risk, chose to save Jews.

The 20-minute tribute to Perlasca (January 31, 1910 – August 15, 1992), titled His Finest Hour, was commissioned by composer Moshe Korman. The performance includes Israeli operatic tenor Guy Mannheim singing the words of Italian-Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, in both Hebrew and Italian. Both Korman and Mannheim told the Israeli press that they feel a special connection to Levi and to this poem in particular.

Perlasca’s son and daughter-in-law, Franco and Luciana Amadia Perlasca, are the guests of honor at each of the concerts.

Compiled by United with Israel Staff

 

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