GIORGIO PERLASCA was one of Europe's great unsung heroes. An Italian former Fascist and livestock agent who fought for Franco during the Spanish Civil War, Perlasca - posing as the Spanish charge d'affaires in Nazi-occupied Budapest in 1944-45 - saved at least 5,500 Jews from the gas chambers, constantly risking his life in doing so. Evidence is now emerging that he may have played a leading role in saving a further 60,000 people from a massacre planned by the Hungarian Nazis in the Budapest ghetto just before the Russians took over the city.
Tall, with penetrating blue eyes and closely cropped white hair, Perlasca still exuded in old age the charm and authority which allowed him to bully and cajole Budapest's Nazi establishment into helping him save 'his' Jews while posing as a completely bogus Spanish representative.
His story only became known in 1989 when he was tracked down in Padua by a group of Hungarian women related to people whom he had saved. Since then he has been honoured by Israel as one of the Righteous of the Nations, a rare honour given to those few non- Jews who risked everything to save Hitler's victims from the gas ovens. He also received the highest honours from Hungary, Sweden and Spain, whose king recently awarded him the Order of Isabella the Catholic.
Perlasca was born in the northern Italian town of Como in 1910 but was brought up and lived most of his life in and around Padua. He came from a family of civil servants, judges and army officers. He fell under the spell of Mussolini while still at school and volunteered to fight in Mussolini's Abyssinian war of conquest and later, as a Fascist volunteer, in the Spanish Civil War.
But by 1938 Perlasca was disillusioned with Mussolini. He detested Italy's alignment with Nazi Germany and abhorred the Italian race laws of 1936 against the Jews. Many of his friends, both in Padua and in the Italian army were, in fact, Jews.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Perlasca managed to avoid military service by working in a strategic job as a livestock agent supplying meat to the Italian armed services. In 1940 he was sent in this capacity to Zagreb and Belgrade, from where he travelled widely in Eastern Europe. Here he observed dreadful massacres of Jews, Serbs and other minorities.
In 1942 he was sent to work in Budapest, which he described as 'hedonistic and full of life, where nothing was lacking and the restaurants and theatres were full of seemingly carefree people, many of them Jews'. Perlasca, in great demand because of his Italian charm, threw himself into this life with shameless gusto.
But the good life in Budapest ended with the fall of Mussolini in July 1943. Perlasca was immediately interned as an enemy alien in a camp near the Austrian border from which he escaped (back to Budapest) on 13 October 1943, just three days before a Nazi- backed puppet government overthrew the right-wing leader Admiral Horthy, who had managed to keep at least some distance from his ally Hitler.
Knowing that he had the right to Spanish protection, as a former pro-Franco soldier, he went to the Spanish embassy where, within a day, he was given Spanish citizenship, and a new Christian name - Jorge. Outside the embassy he had noticed thousands of people milling around. He was told that they were Jews pleading for the so-called 'letters of protection' which Spain, together with other neutral governments, including Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden and the Vatican, was issuing to protect Jews from deportation to the Auschwitz gas chambers. The Spanish embassy officials said they were so understaffed that they could not cope with the problem.
Perlasca volunteered for the job and was accepted. He set to work, making essential contacts in various key Nazi ministries and bribing, blackmailing and charming officials and police into helping him, or at least turning a blind eye to his pro-Jewish activities.
In November 1944, with the Russians approaching Budapest, the last remaining Spanish diplomat fled the capital, leaving the embassy officially closed down. But the diplomat had forgotten to take the embassy seal with him and Perlasca set to work stamping documents which proved not only that the Spanish Embassy was still open and functioning, but that he was the last remaining charge d'affaires.
Perlasca also used the seal to issue thousands more letters of protection to Hungarian Jews whom he housed in eight rented apartment houses which he made sure flew the Spanish flag and therefore, Perlasca argued, enjoyed diplomatic protection. The bluff worked, although he had to patrol the houses night and day to make sure that roving bands of Hungarian Nazis did not break in and murder or kidnap the protected people.
This happened only once, when 300 people under Spanish protection were carted off to the Budapest goods yards for deportation to Auschwitz. And it was here, in the presence of the heroic Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, that Perlasca's life was saved by Adolf Eichmann during a violent row with an SS officer over two young Jewish children whom Perlasca insisted on taking away in the Spanish diplomatic car.
'A young SS major pulled out his pistol, pointing it at me. Wallenberg, who was standing nearby, shouted that he could not treat a Spanish diplomatic representative like this. Then, at a certain moment, an SS lieutenant- colonel arrived and asked what was happening. He listened, then ordered the major coldly to do nothing more because, 'Sooner or later', he said, 'we'll get the children anyway.' They went away and it was then that Wallenberg told me that the SS colonel was the notorious Adolf Eichmann.'