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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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

If Only We Listened to De Gaulle

In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army), which formulated how France should organize its military. It was ahead of its time in advocating for a professional army based on mobile armored divisions, namely mechanized infantry and tanks. Not only did he propose this as a way to keep Germany in check, but he saw it as a means of enforcing international law.

Unfortunately for France and its allies, the book did extremely poorly in its home country: only 700 copies were sold. However, it sold ten times as many copies in neighboring Germany, where even Adolf Hitler himself reportedly studied it. Sure enough, Germany employed a very similar approach to du Galle’s, with its panzer units and mobile infantry sweeping through the country in the invasion of France in 1940.

At the time, de Gaulle, who had served with distinction in the First World War, remained a colonel, due to his bold views antagonizing France’s conservative military leaders. He nonetheless implemented many of his theories and tactics as commander of a tank regiment, and during an offensive against German armor at Montcornet on May 17th, he managed to temporarily turn back enemy forces without the benefit of air support. While this ultimately proved inconsequential in slowing the invasion, it was one of the few victories France enjoyed prior to its rapid capitulation just one month later.

Whereas French collaborators and traitors would blame French society for the fall of the country, de Gaulle – who refused to surrender and extolled his countrymen to continue fighting – took the reverse stance, blaming French military and civilian leaders while believing the French people had the courage and moral stamina to keep resisting. Given the sheer size and strategic value of the French Resistance, as recognized by Allied leaders like Eisenhower, his point was validated. If only his prescient book and ideas had been heeded, or at the very least he be placed in the higher ranking he earned. World War Two may have gone very differently, if at all.

H/T to  Jean Lacouture‘s DeGaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944 (Vol. 1)

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Brazil’s Forgotten WWII Contribution

Fun history fact: Brazil actively participated in the Second World War, and in some respects played a relatively significant role. Joining the Allied cause in 1943 — one of the few independent states outside of Europe or the European sphere of influence to do so — Brazil assembled a force of over 25,000 men and women to fight in the Mediterranean Theater under U.S. command: the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF). Continue reading

Alaskan Native Code Talkers Honored for WWII Service

Despite enduring generations of oppression and deprivation by the United States, indigenous Americans have a long and distinguished history of serving in the very armed forces that were often used to suppress them or their ancestors. Many did so for their own personal reasons, or because they sincerely believed in the values of the country they became part of, whatever its flaws and shortcomings in practice.

Last week, several of these Native American veterans was finally honored for their underappreciated yet invaluable service. As Juneau Empire reported:

[Jeff] David Jr. was one of 200 individual code talkers or their family members who received a silver medal at Wednesday’s ceremony. Each of the 33 tribes recognized received a gold medal. The medals were engraved with a design specific to each tribe.

Native American languages were used during World War I and World War II. Their use is credited for saving the lives of many service members. An estimated 400 to 500 Native American code talkers served in the United States Marine Corps.

America’s indigenous languages were ideal for U.S. war efforts because they were known to very few people outside of their respective tribes, and many are isolated from languages native to other parts of the world. Code talkers were specially trained to use their language so that only they could understand it. A Tlingit code talker would have used a special set of words that might have sounded like nonsense to another Tlingit speaker who wasn’t a trained code talker.

“It made me really proud of my dad” David Jr. said. “He accomplished a lot of things in his life, but this tops it. It’s really icing on the cake”.

Of the relatively few Americans who know about the code talkers, most associate the practice with the Navajo, who made up a majority of code talkers, or the Cherokee and Choctaw, who pioneered the strategy during the First World War. Only over the last couple of decades have these obscure heroes been honored. Smaller but no less important  tribes, such as the Tlingit, Lakota,  Meskwaki, and Comanche, are only recently being given formal due credit (Only in 2008 did Congress officially pass an act honoring every code talker who served in the U.S. military during the world wars with a Congressional Gold Medal.)

As Juneau Empire points out, the recent awards ceremony offers validation in more ways than one.

For the tribes recognized during the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s speech might have best summed up the irony of having the U.S. government recognizing Native American languages in a positive way.

“In the late 1800’s, The United States government forced Native American children to attend English-only boarding schools”. Reid said. “Native Children were torn from their families, taken far from home in box cars and buggies, given English names and forced to cut their hair short. Teachers beat the children with leather belts when they spoke in their native tongues”.

The government told them their language had no value. But the children held onto their languages, culture and history despite great personal risk. And in this nation’s hour of greatest need, Native American languages proved to have great value indeed.

Commander William “Ozzie” Sheakley, who oversees the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans, received the medal on behalf of the Tlingit tribe. Sheakley said Reid’s speech was validating.

“We’ve been talking about how we were treated for years and years and years, and nobody seemed to care”, Sheakley said. “Now it’s coming out from other people, which is kind of nice to hear”.

It might be small and belated comfort in the grand scheme of things, but for proud, close-knit, and historically conscious tribes like the Tlingit, it must make a world a difference.

Why Americans Do Not Appreciate World War One

While Europeans marked the centenary of the First World War with a series of often solemn and contemplative exhibits, ceremonies, and other formal commemorations, the United States was auspiciously absent in any such major remembrances. This is despite the fact that the war cost some the lives of around 115,000 American soldiers — more than in all other post-1945 conflicts combined — and that the U.S. ostensibly played a major, if belated, role in the conflict.

David Frum of The Atlantic goes over four main reasons why the U.S. has left the once widely revered “Great War” out of its noted pantheon of venerated conflicts. Continue reading

On this day in 1914…

…Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and triggered the series of alliances and defense pacts that ignited the First World War.

Despite playing a role in setting off the war, both nations would become overshadowed by the larger players that immediately became involved, namely Germany, France, the U.K., and Russia.

After putting up stiff resistance for the first year, the Kingdom of Serbia was conquered during the course of 1915 and occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces until the war’s end in 1918. Serbia lost more than 1.1 million people, including 25 percent of all troops, 16-27 percent of its overall population and 60 percent of its males. Proportionally, it suffered more losses than any other country involved (in this regard, the Ottoman Empire ranks second, losing 13-15 percent of its population, followed by Romania, an Entente member, at 7-9 percent). Continue reading

Canada In The Second World War

Pictured: Wait for Me, Daddy by Claude P. Dettloff. Taken on October 1, 1940, it depicts Warren Bernard running away from his mother to his father, Private Jack Bernard, who is marching with the British Columbia Regiment of Canada. The picture received extensive exposure and was used in war-bond drives (Private Bernard survived the war).

Many Americans are unaware of Canada’s extensive contribution to World War II. It was one of the first nations to declare war on the Axis, and by some accounts it fielded the largest volunteer army of any nation in the war: over 1 million Canadians — out of a population of only 11 to 12 million — joined the war effort, constituting 10 percent of the population and nearly 20 percent of all men.

Canada’s bountiful prairies and rich mineral resources were invaluable to the war effort (as well as to reconstruction efforts in Europe). For example, half of Allied aluminium and 90 percent of Allied nickel was supplied by Canada.

The Canadian Navy played a decisive role in the Battle of the Atlantic, and was given responsibility of covering two strategically key points in the ocean. Throughout the war it accomplished 25,343 successful escort voyages and delivered nearly 165 million tons of cargo, and also sank 52 German submarines. Meanwhile, Canadian airmen were some of the best performing in the Battle of Britain, comprising a disproportionate number of flying aces.

As in the First World War, Canadian troops served with considerable distinction in several campaigns. Most notable was D-Day, in which the Canadians faced the second-hardest landing point on Normandy, Juno Beach, yet were the first to break through enemy lines and the ones to reach the deepest into enemy territory. Canadians almost single-handedly liberated the Netherlands and Belgium, saving hundreds of the thousands of civilians from famine. Canada also fought in North Africa, Italy, and the South Pacific.

Canada was among the first nations to develop what are now known as special forces (through its cooperation with the United States), and was instrumental in the Manhattan Project, to which it supplied personnel, research, and resources.

By the end of the war, Canada possessed the fourth largest air force, third largest navy, and fourth or fifth largest army in the world. Much like the U.S., it had become shaped by the conflict and forever oriented towards global affairs, albeit with far less gusto (though it would become a major part of NATO, it reigned in on the size and funding of its military, and directed much of its diplomatic energy towards developing multilateral institutions and initiatives like U.N. Peacekeeping).

How Russia Saved The World

England provided the time, America provided the money, and Russia provided the blood.

Today is Victory Day (also known as the Ninth of May), which commemorates the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany and the subsequent end of the Second World War in Europe. The holiday is still celebrated in most former Soviet republics, especially Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, which bore the brunt of the conflict. Among Russians in particular, the Eastern Front of the conflict remains known as the Great Patriotic War.

Given the currently frigid relations between Russia and the West, it is sadly likely that this immense contribution to ending history’s biggest war will remain largely downplayed, if at all acknowledged. Granted, it would not be the first time that geopolitical factors and mutual suspicion interfered with the historical narrative: the Cold War that followed almost immediately after made crediting our then-rival untenable, while the vast global influence of U.S. media, from comics to film, allowed it to have the prevailing word on of how the war transpired (e.g. with Americans taking center-stage).

Setting aside the intrinsic value of knowing the historical facts, this lack of acknowledgement is all the more jarring given the horrifically high cost of victory. As The Washington Post highlights:

The Red Army was “the main engine of Nazism’s destruction,” writes British historian and journalist Max Hastings in “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945.” The Soviet Union paid the harshest price: though the numbers are not exact, an estimated 26 million Soviet citizens died during World War II, including as many as 11 million soldiers. At the same time, the Germans suffered three-quarters of their wartime losses fighting the Red Army.

“It was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire ‘butcher’s bill’ for [defeating Nazi Germany], accepting 95 per cent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance,” writes Hastings. [By one calculation, for every single American soldier killed fighting the Germans, 80 Soviet soldiers died doing the same.]

The epic battles that eventually rolled back the Nazi advance — the brutal winter siege of Stalingrad, the clash of thousands of armored vehicles at Kursk (the biggest tank battle in history) — had no parallel on the western front, where the Nazis committed fewer military assets. The savagery on display was also of a different degree than that experienced further west.

Indeed, the Eastern Front was by far the largest and bloodiest theatre of WWII, and in fact was the deadliest conflict in human history, claiming the lives of over 30 million people — at least half of whom were civilians. The USSR lost at least 9 million soldiers — a third of them in Axis captivity — and just as many civilians, if not more. Some sources suggest that as many as 17 to 27 million Soviet citizens were killed, while others have calculated that perhaps as many as 20 million Soviet civilians lost their lives.

By comparison, the United States lost over a quarter of a million men for the entire war, and fewer than a 3,000 civilians, while the Germans lost 5 million troops on the Eastern Front (and perhaps another one to two million civilians when the Russians invaded). So many young men were killed that the USSR’s population was nearly 50 million less than it should have been, given the families that these men would’ve had. To this day, many former Soviet states have an imbalance between men and women, having not fully recovered from the scale of dead men.

This is a scale of carnage and death that is difficult to grasp. Think of all the pain and suffering caused by loss of several thousand troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans). Now amplify that anguish by several million, with nearly 20% of some countries wiped out (namely Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland). The human mind simply can’t process that level of death. How the Soviets managed to move on and rebuild is beyond me.

And while the Soviet Union came out of the war victorious, was economically and structurally devastated. Much of the combat took place in or around densely populated areas, and the brutal actions of both sides contributed to massive loss destruction. The property damage inflicted on the USSR by the Axis invasion was estimated at a cost 679 billion rubles, probably a trillion or more dollars by today’s standards. The siege of a single city, Leningrad, claimed 1.2 million lives, while the fight over another city, Stalingrad, cost a similar number of lives, and was by some accounts the single largest battle in history — not to mention a turning point in the entire war.

In all, the combined damage consisted of complete or partial destruction of 1,710 cities and towns, 70,000 villages/hamlets, 2,508 church buildings, 31,850 industrial establishments, 40,000 miles of railroad, 4100 railroad stations, 40,000 hospitals, 84,000 schools, and 43,000 public libraries. Over 20 million sheep, goats, horses, and other cattle were also slaughtered or driven off. Western Russia, as well Ukraine and Belarus, still bear signs of this devastation (in some cases, fragments of bone and metal have been dug up, though that also happens in Western Europe occasionally).

There is no denying that this sacrifice was instrumental in winning the war. The Russians were dealing with around 85 percent of Axis forces, and German armed forces suffered anywhere from 80 to 93 percent of its military deaths in the Eastern Front. If the USSR had capitulated, Allied forces would have had to contend with a lot more resistance. The war would have been far bloodier and more drawn out. The Russians nearly bled themselves dry in our place.

But this wasn’t merely the result of bravery and stereotypical Russian resoluteness (though those were certainly factors). The markedly brutal nature of warfare on the Eastern Front was the result of the often willful disregard for human life by both sides: Hitler and Stalin each used terror and mass murder to further their aims, and had no qualms about leading millions to their deaths in the name of victory. This included victimizing their own troops and civilians, through mass deportation, threats of execution for cowardice, and human wave attacks.

And keep in mind that all this is in addition to atrocities carried out by the Nazis, including routine massacres of civilians and the brick-by-brick destruction of entire communities (and their inhabitants). There was simply no parallel to this on the Western Front. According to Time:

By measure of manpower, duration, territorial reach and casualties, the Eastern Front was as much as four times the scale of the conflict on the Western Front that opened with the Normandy invasion.

The fact is, as monstrous as Stalin was, and as brutal as the Soviets tended to be (before, during, and after the war), we arguably needed that kind of viciousness on our side in order to win. To put it crudely, Soviet Russia was the bad cop in the war. It took playing Hitler at his own cruel game to put a stop to him, and only the USSR was willing and able to do so. Such is the nature of war. The horror and destruction of the Eastern Front proves exemplifies, in the most extreme example, the fact that most conflicts are hardly black-and-white, nor are they matters of honor and glory. It’s simply about winning in whatever way you can, period. There’s no romanticizing that, although we can certainly do so for the average Soviet soldier who was mixed up in all this, and fought valiantly to the end.

All this stands in contrast to the Allied experience. We Americans would remember the conflict very different, simply because our conduct and memory of the war was much cleaner – we were a democracy fighting a conventional conflict against a fraction of the enemy’s forces. We weren’t occupied and invaded (for the most part). We didn’t need to even consider, much less implement, wanton and self-destructive tactics (nor could we, given the vast differences in the ethics of our political and military leadership).

I am in no way denigrating the U.S. contribution to the war effort (nor that of other Allied members), especially considering that America helped prop up the USSR during the earlier stages of the way until it could recover its own industrial output.  Moreover, the U.S. did much of the heavy lifting in the Asian theatre — although the Russians, not to mention the Chinese, played a much underrated role in that effort as well (indeed, the latter’s costly resistance to the Japanese, as outlined here, was instrumental to the Pacific Theater).

I am simply noting the obvious fact that World War II could not have been won without the Soviet Union, at least not without investing far more of our own blood, money, and time. It’s very unfortunate that few people outside of Russia seem to realize that – as if the sacrifice itself was not horrific enough, it’s barely even acknowledged.

So while the Russians, as well as other Europeans, celebrate their hard-fought victory over Nazi oppression, there is a level of somberness that underlies all that glory that we can barely relate with. They will keep on romanticizing of course, as humans are wont to do. And indeed, the typical soldier deserves it. But we mustn’t forget just how messy and gray most of these conflicts tend to be. With all that said, my heart goes out to the tens of millions of men, women, and even children who fought and died in the single most horrific conflict in human history.

A (Rightly) Unsettling Holocaust Memorial

Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is intended to evoke a chaotic, cold, and uneasy atmosphere — which I feel it accomplishes quite effectively, even based on this photo by Gerd Ludwig.

Source: National Geographic

According to Eisenman himself, “The sculpture represents a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” One critic noted that the memorial “is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion”.

Moreover, it stands out for lacking the symbolism that is typical of traditional memorial designs, although many have argued that the sculpture resembles a cemetery (which in any case is still an effective invocation in my opinion).

I personally could not think of a more apt approach to representing the senselessness and wanton cruelty that characterized one of history’s largest genocides. The scale of the memorial, which is better captured in the photo below, must make it a powerful experience (one that I hope to understand when I visit Berlin one of these days).