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Three Righteous Men: Fry, Perlasca, and Sugihara

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Spring 2003

Rejecting the continent-wide passivity to the holocaust, some exceptional men and women risked their lives to save the Jews. Their actions exhibited the power of an individual, the importance of personal morality, and sympathy for fellow man at a time when anti-Semitism and self-centeredness blunted this emotion in most. These individuals did more than stand as islands of morality in a sea of evil. They had a tangible effect not only on European and world Jewry, but also on the preservation of Western culture.  

This article will highlight just three of the many men and women who preserved a modicum of morality and dignity in Europe. Varian Fry, Giorgio Perlasca, and Chiune Sugihara, each living abroad, saved thousands of Jews. Some of the rescued were famous, such as Hannah Arendt, Jacques Lipchitz, and Marc Chagall; others were unknown. These three men - from three continents - acted out of personal beliefs at a time when collective beliefs offered no moral compass. Their stories show the sympathy and brotherhood that some still felt for their Jewish comrades.  

Varian Fry  

Varian Fry, an American, helped rescue thousands of refugees, including some of Europe’s most accomplished writers, artists, and scientists. Fry, 32 in August 1940, had attended New England prep schools and majored in classics at Harvard. He enjoyed reading Greek and Latin poetry as well as watching birds. Erudite and “intellectually condescending,” as one contemporary described him, Fry would appear unprepared for the rough world of saving refugees. Fry, himself, said, “Certainly my manner and appearance did not suggest the daredevil.”  

Fry went to Vichy France as the representative of the Emergency Rescue Committee, which was founded on June 24, 1940, to help refugees escape from Europe. Fry knew the type of treatment refugees could expect at Nazi hands, having witnessed the horrors of Nazism during a 1935 visit to Germany. He had seen Nazis beating Jews in Berlin and remembered one brutal incident in which he saw a “victim’s hand nailed to the table beside the beer mug.”  

Although Vichy barred refugees from leaving the country, Fry recognized the urgency of their plight and was determined to help them escape. “I believed in freedom. I remembered what I had seen in Germany,” Fry wrote. “I knew what would happen to the refugees if the Gestapo got hold of them. ... It was my duty to help them.”  

Fry departed with a list of two hundred endangered refugees and $3000 taped to his leg. ERC members such as University of Newark president Frank Kingdon, New School for Social Research president Alvin Johnson, and Alfred H. Barr Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art, composed this list that included some of Europe’s most prominent writers, artists, and intellectuals, who the ERC had asked Fry to try to save. Arriving in Marseilles on August 15, 1940, he planned for a month-long stay in Europe.  

First Days  

On his third day in Marseilles, Fry settled down to write letters to the refugees he was charged to save. But before he could finish this task, the refugee community heard about this American who was in France to help. Fry’s first visitor was German poet Hans Sahl, who never forgot his first meeting with Fry: “Imagine the situation: the border’s closed, you’re caught in a trap, might be arrested again at any moment; life is as good as over - and suddenly a young American in shirt sleeves is stuffing your pockets full of money ... and whispering with the conspiratorial expression of a ham actor: `Oh, there are ways to get you out of here.’”  

Sahl’s visit was the beginning of a stream of refugees who came to Fry for help. On his fourth day in Marseilles a group of Austrians, members of Neu Beginnen, a Social Democratic group, came to his door. These refugees were not on Fry’s list and he began to wonder about the list’s relevance, realizing how separated the perceptions of the ERC’s New York founders were from reality.  

In his first days in Marseilles, Fry searched out the consulate, knowing that its help would be crucial to his endeavors. He would be greatly disappointed. The American consular officials were generally either dismissive or hostile to Fry’s efforts. Their attentiveness to good diplomatic relations with Vichy and their obtuseness regarding the refugee question were ever-present obstacles to Fry.  

By the beginning of the second week, Fry had much of his operation in place, naming it the Centre Americain de Secours, or the American Relief Center. At his hotel room, Fry would interview each person. Sheila Isenberg, author of A Hero of Our Own, a biography of Fry, writes that in the interviews, “he listened to stories of fear and terror with understanding and compassion. He related well to these people, and his reassuring manner gave them confidence. ... He was initially burdened with a desire to help everyone, then by trying to decide who to help first. All night he thought about his daytime interviews and the `special’ refugees who were in the most danger. Each day he found new people at risk of arrest and added their names to his original list.”  

There were other groups in Marseilles helping the refugees, such as the New York based Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Quakers, the Unitarians, and others. But these organizations provided only aid. Fry’s center was the only one trying to help refugees escape.  

Fry’s hotel room became too small for the operation and he rented an office. On one wall Fry hung a large American flag, believing it would lend credibility to the operation. Because of the enormity of Fry’s task, the idea of staying for just one month had to be dismissed. His job became too large for Fry alone and he hired a small staff to help him. The staff often wondered what motivated the Presbyterian Anglo-Saxon to risk his life for a refugee population that was almost entirely Jewish.  


One of Fry’s employees, Charlie Fawcett, just 23 in 1940, asked his boss if he was ever afraid. Fry looked Fawcett in the eye and answered, “All the time.” Fawcett was impressed as Fry always kept a facade of fearlessness, or at least acted as if there was no danger. Fry believed his composure would instill confidence in his staff and the refugees.  

Fawcett had joined Fry because of his horror over the way the Jews were being treated. Fry managed to recruit several other like-minded allies, including American heiress Mary Jayne Gold, who donated funds specifically earmarked for those not on the New York lists. She would later become more involved, successfully using her beauty to distract Vichy officials. Others, including Peggy Guggenheim, also helped finance Fry’s operation.  


Most of these refugees were enemies of Vichy and the Nazis, and consequently Vichy officials made it difficult for them to leave France. Likewise, the U.S. State Department was uninterested in helping these refugees. Under these circumstances, Fry had to consider a clandestine escape for many of his charges.  

Smuggling refugees over the border with Spain and ultimately to Lisbon proved to be one of Fry’s best methods. However, this route required many documents, including an exit visa from France, transit visas from Spain and Portugal, and a visa from the United States (or some other Western Hemisphere nation). Fry also tried to get the refugees to North Africa, which was expected to be an easier journey because it did not require a visa, but this route proved to be untenable due to the betrayal of Mediterranean smugglers. A third route, which Fry did use with some success was from Marseilles to Martinique. For a time, this was Fry’s chief route and because Martinique was still French territory, the visa issues were less complicated. While Martinique was far away from the Vichy government, the French officials still treated the refugees very badly, placing them in concentration camps and treating them in an insulting manner. Despite its problems, Martinique was still distant from the much worse horrors of Europe. Many refugees were ultimately able to make their way to the United States.  

The State Department  

The State Department was embarrassed by Fry’s activities and wrote to its functionaries in France: “This government cannot countenance the activities as reported of ... Mr. Fry and other persons in their efforts in evading the laws of countries with which the United States maintains friendly relations.” U.S. foreign policy was more concerned with maintaining good relations with Vichy than the fate of the mainly Jewish refugees.  

Fry wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull suggesting the United States grant “honorary citizenship and real national passports” to “especially distinguished” refugees. Such a deed, wrote Fry, “would shine as one of the greatest acts of human kindness in modern history.” Hull rejected Fry’s request.  


The Vichy government, which controlled the southern half of France, was closely allied with Germany. Its persecution of the Jews was no better than Germany’s actions in the parts of France it formally occupied. Vichy officials were Fry’s enemies, and he was constantly battling them.  

When Vichy police would arrest the refugees who Fry was attempting to protect, Fry would try to obtain their release and investigate what had happened. When they arrested German industrialist Fritz Thyssen, an anti-Nazi, Fry went to investigate. He questioned the manager of the hotel where Thyssen had been staying. Angered by Fry’s querulousness, the manager snapped, “Why don’t you go back where you came from, anyway, and leave us French alone? If we want to collaborate with the Germans, we will ... and nothing you pigs of Americans say will influence us the slightest. Now get out!”  

An additional barrier that Fry faced was the complacent attitude of many refugees who either did not see the danger or could not bring themselves to leave their home. The artist Marc Chagall, who was on Fry’s original list, fell into this category. Despite the fact that he was Jewish, he was oblivious to the danger and was scared of going to America, which he regarded as a cultural wasteland.  

In the spring of 1941 Chagall and his wife Bella, as Jews, lost their French citizenship. Vichy police arrested Chagall in March. Bella contacted Fry, pleading for his help. Fry, with enemies in the State Department and in the Vichy government, had few tools at his disposal. Yet, he used one of the few still available, telephoned the prefecture, and said to the officer in charge: “Do you know that Monsieur Chagall is one of the world’s greatest living artists? If, by any chance, news of his arrest should leak out, the whole world would be shocked. Vichy would be severely embarrassed, and you would probably be severely reprimanded.” He threatened to call the New York Times if Chagall was not released immediately. Thirty minutes later, Chagall was set free.  

The sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, like Chagall, was a foreign Jew, but had lived in France for decades, and he refused to see the danger. It was Fry’s persistence that saved Lipchitz. “In some ways I owe him my life,” Lipchitz later said. “I did not want to go away from France. It was his severe and clairvoyant letters which helped me finally to do so.”  

In the spring Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws were tightening and it became increasingly difficult to get the required visas. Vichy was no longer offering the necessary exit visas. As a result, the Chagalls had to be smuggled across the French-Spanish border. They made their way to Lisbon and ultimately to New York.  

Who He Saved  

Fry had a daunting task, faced with thousands of refugees and no governmental support - his own, or any other. He complained in a letter to his wife that his task was impossible. It was “like trying to stay a flood-not even God can do it.” Yet, Fry was too hard on himself. He had, in fact, accomplished a great deal, saving many of those in his initial charge, including writers Heinrich and Golo Mann, Franz Werfel, Konrad Heiden, Lion Feuchtwanger, Arthur Koestler, and Hertha Pauli; mathematician Emil Gumbel; and Nobel prizewinner Dr. Otto Meyerhof, and musician Wanda Landowska.  

The center also supported refugees who were unable or unallowed to work anymore. Among these were painter Andre Masson and his family. Masson was in danger because of the nature of his art and because his wife, Rose, was Jewish. Fry’s center supported the Masson family and helped it emigrate. Among the other surrealists who Fry aided were Andre Breton and Max Ernst. After arriving in New York, Breton’s wife Jacqueline wrote to Fry: “America is truly the Christmas tree of the world.”  

Another prominent family Fry helped escape was that of Max Ophuls. Ophuls was a famed German stage and film director who emigrated to France after the Nazi takeover in 1933. After the war began, Ophuls worked for the French ministry of propaganda and made a number of anti-Nazi films. Fry helped Max, his wife Hilde, and his son Marcel1 get U.S. visas.  

The End  

Both Vichy and Washington wanted Fry out of France. Washington regarded him as a complication in its relations with Vichy. Meanwhile, Fry’s relations with the Emergency Rescue Committee had deteriorated dramatically, and they wanted him to return as well. Fry’s personal abrasiveness coupled with the bad impression he had made on the State Department caused the ERC to want to turn in another direction. The American consulate in Marseilles ordered Fry to return home. Vichy, too, was tired of Fry and wanted him out. Fry asked the head of police in Marseilles, “Why are you so eager for me to go?” The response was: “Because you have protected Jews and anti-Nazis too much. In the new France we do not need proof. We believe that it is better to arrest a hundred innocent men than to let one criminal escape.” Fry finally conceded to the pressure to leave, believing that his usefulness was likely gone with neither the Americans nor the French willing to work with him, and the danger of losing his passport and being thrown in a French jail looming over him.  

Fry had stayed in Vichy for thirteen months after planning for just a one-month stay. During that period he was contacted by 15,000 refugees, and Fry estimated that he helped about 2,000 escape.  

Danny Benedite, who worked with Fry in France, wrote to Fry’s children about their father after his death (which was not until 1967). He “arrived in France at a time when there was terrible chaos, extreme depression, and among the refugees he was coming to assist, terrifying panic. In the midst of an ocean of cowardice, compromise, and betrayal, he remained lucid and energetic, relying at times on his intrinsic integrity and at times on his sense of humor. ... A man other than who he was would have succumbed to the first pressures from American authorities who found him to be an embarrassment, the first persecutions by the police, the first attempts on his life. ... Fry remained in France until the last possible moment, stating that as long as one case remained, his mission would not be accomplished.”  

Chiune Sugihara  

Chiune Sugihara, another non-European, also came across an opportunity to save the lives of thousands of Jews and other refugees. Sugihara, the Japanese consul in the Lithuanian capital of Kaunas,2 rejected the complacency that characterized most diplomats. Instead, he violated his nation’s instructions to save Jews and other refugees fleeing from the Germans and Soviets.  

Sugihara, a 39-year-old vice-consul and an expert on Russia, opened the Japanese consulate in the fall of 1939. According to Sugihara, his primary job was as a spy, not a diplomat. “My consulate’s main task was to rapidly and accurately determine the time of the German attack [on Russia],” Sugihara recalled in 1967. “It became clear to me that this was the reason why the Japanese General Staff had urged the Japanese Foreign Ministry to open a consulate in Kovno.” Consequently, visa stamping was a low priority for Sugihara. Yet, faced with throngs of desperate refugees, Sugihara ignored his orders and took the only humane course of action he felt was possible.  

Pre-War Japan  

In 1939 and 1940, Japanese foreign policy was far from unified. It was divided by internal strife among the emperor, the military, and the civilian government. A coherent policy regarding America and East Asia was difficult for Tokyo, much less the relatively minor question of policy towards the Jews. In December 1938, five Japanese ministers met to sketch guidelines for how to treat Jews. Japan did not want to offend the anti-Semitic sensibilities of her allies-Germany and Italy - but she also wanted to benefit from the expertise and capital of Jewish refugees. Many Japanese decisionmakers were puzzled by Nazi anti-Semitism. Perhaps Jews were disagreeable, but their talents and wealth were undeniable. Some Japanese saw the Germans’ willingness to dispatch the Jews as wasteful.  

Some government officials believed that Jews could be helpful to Tokyo. Not only did they have capital and expertise, but they also might have some influence in Washington. Japanese acceptance of Eastern European Jewish refugees might inspire American Jews to lobby on Japan’s behalf. In the end, the Gaimushuo-Japan’s foreign ministry-sent very mixed signals to its diplomats. In the summer of 1940, consuls were told the following: 1. Visas for Jewish refugees are important in courting American opinion and improving trade relations. 2. At the same time, Jews, like all foreigners, might bring dangerous influences. 3. Therefore, particularly in regard to Jews, extreme caution is necessary to avoid antagonizing the Nazis who soon might be Japan’s allies.  

Climate in Lithuania  

While he was receiving such mixed signals from Tokyo, Sugihara was operating in a Lithuania increasingly regarded as a haven by Jewish refugees. Some were referring to it as the “Switzerland of the East.” Most refugees were Jews from Nazi-occupied western Poland and Soviet-occupied eastern Poland. There were also Poles who were fleeing both the Soviets and the Nazis. Lithuania, which was still free, was one of the most desirable places in Europe.  

The Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), an organization founded by American Jews in 1914 to help imperiled Jews abroad, in 1938 described “beautiful Lithuania” as that “island of peace.” The JDC continued: “Surrounded by Germany, Poland, and Latvia - countries where the Jews suffer from oppression - Lithuania today looms up as one spot in Eastern Europe where the Jews feel themselves at home and where the government ... is sincerely friendly towards the Jewish citizens.” Moses Beckelman, the American representative of the JDC estimated that there were more than 100,000 recent Jewish refugees from Poland.  

Vilnius was a center of Jewish culture and many refugees preferred to go there than the far off destinations of Palestine and America because Lithuania was similar to the Eastern European nations they came from. They could remain close to their families and roots. Many Jews believed that Lithuania would remain safe and neutral. This was particularly true of Lithuanian Jews, who were hesitant to leave their country.  

What Sugihara Did  

Sugihara arrived in Kaunas with the uncertain political climate in Tokyo on his mind and a charge to spy against both the Germans and Soviets. Meanwhile, these thousands of Jews were living in their temporary Switzerland.  

Solly Ganor, an eleven-year-old Lithuanian Jew, tells one story that helps to illustrate this situation. He recalls a dinner at his family’s home with Sugihara and some Jewish refugees from Warsaw - the Rosenblatts. “In the beginning [Mr. Rosenblatt] spoke hesitantly, then he warmed up to the subject and described to the hushed audience the terrible things the Nazis did to the Jews in Poland and to him and his family. Then he became so emotional that he broke down and cried. All the time I noticed that Mr. Sugihara listened very attentively to Jacob Rosenblatt. I noticed that he was visibly upset by Rosenblatt’s accounts. He wanted to know many more details about the conditions of Poland under Nazi occupation. Later I overheard Mr. Rosenblatt imploring the Japanese consul to issue him a visa. `Even a transit visa will help,’ he begged. Mr. Sugihara looked doubtful. But then he invited him to come to the consulate and he would see how he could help him. `I must do something for this poor man. I had no idea that the Germans were behaving in such a despicable manner,’ he later told Father.”  

A few days later, when Ganor visited Sugihara to get some stamps for his collection, Sugihara sent the boy home with an unequivocal message: Tell your family and friends “the time to leave is now.” With the Rosenblatts and the Ganors, Sugihara was beginning what would become a massive rescue operation based at his Japanese consulate.  

A telegram Sugihara sent to the foreign ministry on July 28, 1940, illuminates the bureaucratic difficulty for the Jews and how desperate they were for visas. In this telegram Sugihara seems to be repeating the instructions he was given: Japan “is the only country left to transit because there are no representatives of Central or Southern America countries in this vicinity.” Because of this and in anticipation of “the evacuation of this consulate, there are many applying to me to issue to them our visa. Moreover, our visa is the necessary condition required by the Soviet Union for leaving that country and transit to the United States and that area. We have to consider these facts. ... Before they leave from Vladivostok, [they] must have reservations on ships to our country and have permission to land, thereafter, in a destination country. Also, they need to make advance arrangements for the forwarding of money to cover their expenses due to strict currency exchange rules.”  

Dutch Consul  

The honorary Dutch consul in Kaunas, Jan Zwartendijk proved to be an excellent partner in Sugihara’s efforts to help the refugees. With Holland having fallen to Germany in May 1940, a visa to Holland would be worthless. However, a visa to the Dutch West Indies and Suriname was of great value. There were no visas to these destinations as the local governor was the one who issued landing permits. The ordinary visa that Dutch diplomats used read: “For Curacao [and other Dutch West Indies islands as well as Suriname], no visa is required. Only the local Governor has the authority to issue landing permits.” Zwartendijk eliminated this last sentence as he stamped visas, and this made it an “end point” visa, which was necessary to qualify for a Japanese transit visa. Sugihara and Zwartendijk were essentially working together. First the refugees would go to the Dutch consul and then would go to Sugihara.  

Sugihara’s neighbor, Jagdvyga Ulvydaite reported the situation at the Japanese consulate: Jews began to visit the consulate in the spring of 1940. “The line was long, perhaps 200 meters long. People were standing there with their children. They were in panic that they would not get visas. We tried to calm them down. `Sugihara is a wonderful man,’ we would tell them.”  

Rabbi Eliezer Portnoy, 30, volunteered to help the overwhelmed consulate. For two weeks he helped Sugihara. Portnoy later recalled: “I still can’t understand how Sugihara let me in, a boy. He didn’t have any records or anything on me. He simply handed over the consular stamp and allowed me to make visas! He wanted to do good. He told me, `I do it just because I have pity on the people. They want to get out so I let them have the visas.’ He had a good heart and he was very outgoing and saved people. I don’t know how much he knew that he was in danger to do it, but he did it. And he did it wholeheartedly.”  

Sugihara was the last chance for many distressed refugees. The story of sixteen-year-old Chaja Liba Szepsenwol displays Sugihara’s compassion as well as her plight. Szepsenwol recalls her August 12, 1940, meeting with Sugihara: “There were a lot of people waiting in line at the Japanese consulate. Everyone had a story; everyone was trying to get somewhere; but most people did not have a definite destination and did not have money. [Sugihara] asked us where our parents were, and we replied that our father was not living and our mother had no papers. After we told him, he looked very sympathetic; He looked like such a kind man. He nodded his head and stamped our passport. We were terribly frightened of all authority figures, and we were very nervous and scared the whole time we were there. We kept on saying `thank you thank you’ in Polish, and he raised his hand to let us know it’s okay and smiled at us. We were crying and shaking when we left his office.”  

What He Accomplished  

Sugihara kept a list of 2,139 names of those he rescued. They were largely Poles-both Jews and non-Jews. Many who received visas from Sugihara, including many children, were not on the list. Sugihara did not keep accurate records, but based on the records in the Japanese foreign ministry, from Jewish organizations, and from information from the rescuees, Hillel Levine, author of In Search of Sugihara, concluded that Sugihara saved up to 10,000 refugees.  

As for motives, all Sugihara had to say was: “I acted according to my sense of human justice, out of love for mankind.” Citing the indifference in American diplomatic missions, Sugihara told one Jewish refugee in Kaunas: “The world says that America is civilized. I will show the world that Japan is more civilized.”  

With the Soviet annexation of Lithuania, and consequent closing of the Japanese mission in Kaunas, Sugihara was transferred to Berlin. From the train window Sugihara continued issuing visas. He had acted in violation of the foreign ministry’s orders, was reprimanded by the Gaimushuo, and his service for the foreign ministry was cut short. After the war, he worked in a number of positions, but primarily as a businessman. In 1985, a year before he died, Yad Vashem honored him as a “Righteous Gentile.” In 1986 Sugihara spoke about his experiences in Lithuania: “You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees the refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them.... I knew that somebody would surely complain to me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives. If anybody sees anything wrong in the action, it is because something `not pure’ exists in their state of mind.”  

Giorgio Perlasca  

The third heroic figure that this article highlights, Giorgio Perlasca, has perhaps the most incredible story, one that includes his disguised identity, his enormous bluffs, and daring actions to save Budapest’s Jews. Fry was sent by a relief organization. Sugihara worked for the Japanese government. In contrast, Perlasca was just an Italian businessman. Additionally, he was a fascist and a veteran of two of Mussolini’s wars.  

Perlasca worked for an Italian livestock importing company that was shipping meat for the Italian armed forces. He was living in Budapest when the Germans occupied the city in March 1944. With the Italians having abandoned their German allies, Budapest became an uncomfortable place for an Italian citizen. Perlasca was interned with the other Italian nationals at a camp called Kekes. The Italians feared that they would be deported to Germany as many Italian soldiers were after the announcement of the September 8, 1943, armistice. When Perlasca was released for a fifteen-day stay in Budapest, he went to the Spanish embassy and presented a document he received from the Spanish government as a result of his service in the Spanish Civil War. Perlasca’s paper said: “Dear Brother-in-Arms, no matter where you are in the world, you can turn to Spain.” Perlasca talked Spanish ambassador Angel Sanz Briz into issuing him a passport. Sanz Briz then asked Perlasca to stay on at the embassy and help out with its effort to save Jews.  

Spanish Embassy’s Role  

While Budapest was becoming an increasingly dangerous place for Jews, the delegations of several countries established safe houses in an “international ghetto” in which some of the Jews were protected. In the Spanish embassy, Perlasca and his colleagues decided to issue letters of protection to anyone requesting them, regardless of social status, connections, or friendships. Because Hungarian racial laws denied Jews their rights as citizens, the Spanish embassy assumed the right to grant them citizenship in unlimited numbers. The letters were all to be backdated to the day before the fascist Szalasi government came to power and would all follow the same formula: “The X family has requested permission to move to Spain.... While awaiting departure, the family shall be under the protection of the Spanish government.”  

However, the Hungarian government wanted concessions from Spain if Spain were to be allowed to interfere in Budapest’s anti-Semitic policies. On November 28, 1944, the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Sanz Briz to a meeting. The Hungarian government wanted Spanish recognition, used by Sanz Briz as a bargaining chip, to attain some level of international legitimacy. In this meeting, Sanz Briz feared he could not delay the Hungarians any longer and would have to admit that Spain would not recognize the government. Instead, he chose to leave under cover. In this way, diplomatic relations would not be interrupted, and the embassy could remain open. Sanz Briz said to Perlasca: “Listen to me, Perlasca. You have been invaluable, and I appreciate everything you’ve done. I’ve been able to get you a German visa. You can leave too.... Believe me, unfortunately, there’s nothing more we can do here.”  

Perlasca’s Choice  

The next day Perlasca went to visit the safe houses that the Spanish embassy was using to house “Spanish” Jews. Knowing that Sanz Briz had already left, the residents crowded around Perlasca and made him swear he would not leave. “I was really confused that morning,” Perlasca remembered. “But if I had to say what it was that convinced me to stay, then I’d guess it was probably that request that I swear not to leave. Yes, because I had solemnly sworn that I would stay. And at that point, you understand, I couldn’t do anything but stay.” When Perlasca visited another Spanish safe house he found members of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascists, and discovered that the Hungarian government, having heard of Sanz Biz’s departure, interpreted it as the official interruption of diplomatic relations between Hungary and Spain. The minister of internal affairs had therefore ordered the evacuation of the houses. Perlasca protested: “Hold everything! You’re making a mistake. Sanz Briz has not fled. He has simply gone to Bern in order to communicate more easily with Madrid, seeing as it’s no longer possible to communicate from here. You’re making a very serious mistake.” He continued, “Please inform yourselves at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sanz Briz left a specific note naming me as his replacement during his absence! You are speaking with the official representative of Spain!” Perlasca’s plan worked. The Foreign Ministry ordered the evacuation of the safe houses to be suspended. This oration was the beginning of an Italian businessman’s role as “the official representative of Spain.”  

In meetings with officials of the Hungarian government Perlasca used the same tool as Sanz Briz, the possibility of Spanish recognition. Perlasca used other diplomatic weapons as well. He wrote in his diary about a meeting on December 3 with the vice foreign minister. While discussing the Spanish protectees, Perlasca wrote, “I reminded him that there are thousands of Hungarian citizens living peacefully in Spain, but if, for any reason whatsoever, the Spanish embassy and the Hungarian government were to fail to reach a satisfactory solution concerning conditions for the Jews under Spanish protection, then the Spanish government, albeit with great regret, would have to put its relations with Hungary under review.”  

Another Bluff  

In another bluff, Perlasca wrote to the minister of the interior, in my last letter I stated clearly that the Spanish government will be forced to take retaliatory measures if our protectees should become victims of your cruel treatment. If, by January 10, the Spanish government has not received a reassuring communication from me, the retaliation will begin. You should know that there are 3,000 Hungarian citizens living in Spain and that the government has decided to intern them and confiscate their property in the event its protectees here in Budapest are mistreated. The same measure is ready to be applied to all those Hungarians who wish to go to Paraguay and for whom 150 provisional passports have been issued here in Budapest.” Perlasca wrote in his diary: “All of this was a colossal bluff. I believe there are no more than 300 Hungarians in Spain.”  

Perlasca and the other diplomatic representatives of neutral nations went to the freight stations that were used for deportations to see if they could save anybody. On one of these occasions, Perlasca saw an old man who had pinned on his chest, next to the yellow star, his World War I medals. Perlasca walked up to him, took him away from the station, and helped him into his car. A German officer signaled one of the Hungarian policemen to investigate. After showing him his passport and the letter certifying that he was on the staff of the Spanish embassy, he was allowed to take the man away.  

On other occasions it was more difficult. Perlasca recalled an incident one morning at the station: “The line was moving forward, and I saw these two boys in the middle of it. They must have been twelve or thirteen years old, and they were identical. A couple of twins, all alone. I had the Buick from the consulate parked right there beside the platform with the Spanish flag on the fender. I really don’t know why, but those two boys really struck me. They had dark complexions and curly brown hair. To me they looked like the same person, multiplied by two. As they passed in front of me, I reached out and grabbed them, pulled them out of line, and threw them into the car. I yelled out, `These two people are under the protection of the Spanish government!’ A German major came over and wanted to take them back. I stepped in front of him and said, `You have no right to take them! This car is Spanish national territory. This is an international zone!’ The German major pulled out his gun, and we got into a shoving match. The driver and I were holding the door closed and he was trying to pull it open. Raoul Wallenberg was standing nearby. He turned to the major and said, in a very decisive tone, `You don’t realize what you’re doing! You are committing an act of aggression against the territory of a neutral country! You’d better think very carefully about the consequences of your actions!’ ...  

“Then a colonel came over to us. The major put his gun away and explained the situation to him. I gave my explanation too. I repeated once again that the two boys were under the protection of the Spanish government and that the embassy car was an extra territorial zone. The colonel gestured with his hand to the major, indicating that he should desist. Then he turned to me and said, very calmly, `You keep them. Their time will come. It will come for them too.’  

“So we kept them. We’d done it. After the Germans walked away, Wallenberg said to me, under his breath, `You realize who that was, don’t you?’ ‘No,’ I said. `That was Eichmann.’”  

The situation in Budapest was terrible for the Jews, but the interference of foreign embassies was still effective. On December 11, Perlasca wrote in his diary: “Thousands of Jews are living in the most unthinkable hiding places. Arrow Cross groups go searching for them and when they find them, they shoot them on sight. That’s why I’m trying to get as many of them as possible into our houses.”  

Perlasca kept the Spanish legation open and functioning for 48 days. Over this period the embassy issued thousands of safe conduct letters to Hungarian Jews and also found food and money for them. Mordecai Paldiel, director of the section on Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, credits Perlasca with saving up to 1,000 Jewish lives.  


The Acting Executive Committee of the Hungarian Jewish Association recognized Perlasca’s work immediately after Budapest was liberated: “We take great pleasure in certifying that, during the Szalasi government, you helped us on many occasions and that, in those days, you risked everything to help the Jews through your contacts and your own personal efforts. In those hard and critical times, you were always at the side of those people who found themselves in serious difficulty, and now, we are happy that the moment has come in which we can express our gratitude for your constant commitment and for your noble human sentiments. According to our information, your activity on behalf of Israelite Jewish citizens made it possible for several thousand of them to save their lives and overcome the period of the siege of Budapest as well as the well-known political difficulties.”  

As he was leaving Budapest, with the Soviets in control of the city, a delegation from one of the safe houses presented Perlasca with this certificate: “We are sorry to learn that you are leaving Hungary in the direction of your native land, Italy. On this occasion we wish to express to you the affection and gratitude of the several thousand Jews who survived, thanks to your protection. There are no words to praise the tenderness with which you fed us and with which you cared for the old and the sick. You gave us courage when we were on the verge of desperation and your name will never be missing from our prayers. May Almighty God reward you.”  

Of all the commemorative plaques Perlasca received, his favorite was one given to him from the children of the elementary school near the home in which he later lived in Italy. It said: “To a man we would like to be like.”  

Why He Did It  

Perlasca explained the reason for his actions: “Because I couldn’t stand the sight of people being branded like animals. Because I couldn’t stand seeing children being killed. That’s what I think it was; I don’t think I was a hero. When it comes right down to it, I had an opportunity and I took advantage of it. We have an old proverb that says that it’s the opportunity that makes a man a thief. Well, it made me something else. All of a sudden I found that I had become a diplomat, with a lot of people who were depending on me. What do you think I should have done? As it turned out, I think being a fake diplomat was a big help, because I could do things that a real diplomat couldn’t do. I mean ... diplomats are a strange breed. They’re not exactly free to do what they want to do. There’s etiquette, there are formalities, hierarchies, people to answer to, your career. A lot of things, a lot of constraints that I didn’t have.”  

Perlasca humbly said: “I had the possibility to do something, and I did what I could. Anyone, in my place, would have done what I did.”  


As we remember the horrors of the Holocaust and the destructive impact it had on European and world Jewry, let us not forget men like Fry, Perlasca, and Sugihara. These three each saved thousands of Jews. And there were others like them. There were individuals in every nation under Nazi control who opened their doors to the persecuted and they deserve to be remembered and honored. We should renew our vows to never forget the evil of that period, but we should also never forget the power of humanity and the preservation of compassion in a time when it seemed to have died.  

1. Marcel Ophuls would later make The Sorrow and the Pity, a groundbreaking film about Vichy France.  

2. With Vilnius a part of Poland, Kaunaus was Lithuania's capital. The Lithuanians call it “Kaunas”; the Pole call it “Kowne”; and the Russians and Jews call it “Kovno.”

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.