The Former Italian Fascist Who Teamed Up With a Franco-Era Spanish Diplomat to Save Thousands of Jews During WWII

Giorgio Perlasca (pictured left, some time before his death in 1992) was an Italian businessman and ex-fascist who cleverly used international law and bold impersonations to save thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Perlasca was once a committed fascist who had fought for Italy in its brutal war against Ethiopia, as well as for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. By the start of the Second World War, however, he had grown disillusioned with fascism, especially following Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the implementation of Italian racial laws in 1938.

While serving as an Italian delegate in Hungary (another Nazi ally), his country had surrendered to the Allies, forcing citizens to choose between remaining loyal to the fascists or joining the Allied cause; at great personal risk, Perlasca chose the latter, and he was subsequently arrested by Hungarian authorities.

Using a medical pass that allowed him to travel in the country, he fled to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest, where he requested political status. Fortunately, his service to the victorious Spanish Nationalists endeared them to his request, and he was subsequently given protection, since Spain was neutral. Perlasca then took full advantage of his diplomatic cover to save people of a completely different faith and nationality.

Lucky for him, Angel Sanz Briz (pictured right, in 1969) was stationed there with the same idea in mind.

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Human Rights Day And Our Movement Across the Moral Arc

Today is Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document of its kind to enshrine a global standard of moral principles and norms for all humanity. It is predicated on the simple but important notion set forth in Article One: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Continue reading

The End of Smallpox

smallpox

Yesterday, December 9th, came and went like any other day. But on that day in 1979, one of the most groundbreaking endeavors in human history was accomplished: a group of eminent scientists commissioned by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) certified the global eradication of smallpox, the only human disease thus far to have been completely eliminated from nature. The WHO officially confirmed and announced this momentous achievement a few moments later:

Having considered the development and results of the global program on smallpox eradication initiated by WHO in 1958 and intensified since 1967 … Declares solemnly that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.

Less than a decade before, the end of smallpox would have seemed the remotest possibility. As recently as 1967, the WHO had estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease, and that two million had died that year alone — the average number of annual deaths since the turn of the century. Continue reading

The Greek Prelate Who Stood Up to the Nazis and Saved Thousands

Archbishop Damaskinos of Greece

Wikimedia Commons

Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou was the leader of the Orthodox Church in Greece during the Second World War, credited with saving the lives of thousands of Greek Jews. His actions were characteristic of the Greek resistance, which was among the fiercest and most stubborn in Europe; indeed, the Greeks are credited with inflicting the first major loss to Axis forces, when they turned back a numerically superior Italian invasion, which ultimately required Germany to divert precious manpower to overpower them.

Although conquered, Greeks like Damaskinos continued to make life difficult for the occupiers. He frequently clashed with both the collaborationist government and Nazi officials, often against repeated threats to this life. In 1943, when the Germans began rounding up and deporting Greek Jews, Damaskinos officially protested in a manner unique in Europe: he published a letter condemning the Nazis and calling on his people to protect their Jewish neighbors. Part of it read:

In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion… Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race…

Today we are… deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews… we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity, and most important, their indefectible patriotism…”

The local SS commander, Jürgen Stroop — a nasty character who would be executed for war crimes after the war — threatened to execute the Archbishop if he published the letter. Yet not only did Damaskinos proceed with publishing the letter, but he dared to reply sarcastically:

According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our traditions!

This is in reference to past Greek Orthodox leaders and martyrs being lynched historically. Miraculously, Stroop never followed up on his threat, perhaps because he was intimidated by the man’s lack of fear, or knew of his influence and esteem among an already riotous populace.

In addition to this bold and high profile act of resistance, Damaskinos ordered churches to distribute Christian baptismal certificates to Jews fleeing the Nazis, thus saving thousands of Jews.

For these actions, Damaskinos is named among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Sources: RaoulWallenberg.net;  www.db.yadvashem.org

What the Origin of the Turkey’s Name Says About Globalization

Ever wonder why the plump bird that is so iconic of Thanksgiving is named after the country of Turkey? Well, the origins say a lot about the nature of globalization, which, for better and worse, arguably first began with the European Age of Exploration.

The turkey is one of several things making up the “Columbian Exchange” — the widespread transfer of plants, animals, technology, and people between the Americas and the “Old World” that began 15th century following Columbus’ arrival to the Western Hemisphere. Other examples of “New World” items include corn, tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, tobacco, and cotton. (The turkey was one of the few animals to go from New World to Old, as Europe, Africa, and Asia had more domesticated animals.) Continue reading

Time to End the Five-Day Work Week?

Most developed-world denizens take the five-day work week as a given. The very idea of questioning it would be as inconceivable as it is fanciful. (Indeed, in our work-obsessed culture, it would likely brand you a lazy bum by coworkers and superiors alike.)

But as Philip Sopher over at The Atlantic points out, even the seven-day length of the week is an arbitrary invention, let alone the far more recent notion that we should have five days to work and only two to rest.  Continue reading

The Eternal Treaty

The Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, also known as the Eternal Treaty or the Silver Treaty, is the oldest known peace treaty signed between two sovereign nations, dating back to the 13th century B.C.E. (Left photo: Hittite version; Right photo: Egyptian version.)

The treaty followed over 200 years of fighting between the two empires, which culminated in the Battle of Kadesh, a massive engagement that involved anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 men. (It is also the most well-documented ancient battle.) Both sides sustained heavy casualties with no decisive strategic gain, and the conflict grinded on for another fifteen years without avail. Continue reading

America’s Largest Mass Lynching

On this day in 1871, the largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place when around 500 white rioters entered Los Angeles’ Chinatown to attack, rob, and murder its residents. Almost every Chinese inhabitant was affected, and 17 to 20 Chinese immigrants (including children) were tortured and then hanged.

While the proximate cause was the accidental killing of a white man caught in the crossfire of two feuding Chinese gangs, racial discrimination against Chinese people was long-standing and visceral, and pogroms of this sort were not unusual. As the LA Weekly observed in its detailed (and grim) article on the massacre: Continue reading

United Nations Day

On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations came into effect, establishing the U.N. as the world’s premier international organization and setting forth, for the first time in history, an aspirational global standard for human rights, international cooperation, and global security — hence the observation of United Nations Day.

The United Nations emerged during the Second World War as the formal name for the Allies that opposed the Axis powers, although the idea of creating a new world organization — to replace the moribund League of Nations that was created after WWI — was conceptualized by the U.S. State Department in 1939.  Continue reading

Towards a Global Postal Union

On this day in 1874, the Treaty of Bern was signed establishing the General Postal Union (now the Universal Postal Union) to create a coherent global mailing system.

Prior to the founding of the UPU, a country would need a separate postal treaty for each country it wanted to exchange mail with; senders were burdened with having to calculate the postage for each country their mail would travel though, and would even need to obtain a given country’s stamps (something that would be difficult enough to do today, let alone in the 19th century). If you wanted to send mail directly to a nation that had no treaty, you would need to find dedicated mail forwarders in a third country that had a treaty with the recipient. In a rapidly globalizing world, this arrangement could not last.

At the urging of the United States, an “International Postal Congress” was held in 1863 to hash out a streamlined global postal system. The Germans, led Heinrich von Stephan, spearheaded the effort and created the UPU framework, which created a standard flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the world; required government to give equal treatment to foreign and domestic mail; and provided that stamps of one nation are accepted anywhere along the route.

The UPU is still based in Switzerland as a U.N. agency. As one of the oldest international organizations in history, it helped usher in the era of globalization — and all its attending conveniences — that we now take for granted. Such global standards and forums not only saved time and money, but in the case of maritime and aviation law, have arguably saved lives. (Imagine what international travel would be like without a uniform safety or communication framework!)