Saluting Italian Heroes who saved Jewish Lives during the Holocaust. Event date: January 21 – 25th, 2013

VAUGHAN – Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian importer working in Budapest during World War II, posed as a Spanish consular employee and distributed protective passes to Hungarian Jews, saving about 3,500 lives. Gino Bartali, Tour de France winner, smuggled document-forging materials that were used to help Jews flee Fascist Italy.

These two men are among the hundreds of Italians who saved Jews during the Holocaust. A group called Saluting Italian Heroes believes Italian righteous gentiles should receive more recognition for their efforts. Saluting Italian Heroes recently sponsored an exhibit detailing the efforts of Perlasca, Bartali and others during the war at Vaughan City Hall.

At last Monday’s launch of the exhibit, local notables spoke about the importance of remembering not only the Holocaust but the heroism of everyday Italians who risked their lives to do what was right. Julian Fantino, minister for international cooperation, noted that Canadians of all ethnic backgrounds need to remember what he called “the painful legacy of the Holocaust.” If humankind does not recognize our past accomplishments and failures, its future direction will be unclear.

Vaughan mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua quoted Rabbi Hillel’s famous three questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

He said that Perlasca, Bartali and their fellow Italian righteous gentiles answered those questions by putting their own lives at risk to save Jews. He urged the audience to be vigilant of threats to society, emphasizing that our agenda as humans should be that of serving each other. Bevilacqua also commented that Canadians have an obligation to protect human rights. He concluded by reminding the crowd that “a ray of light can erase the darkness.”

York Centre MP Mark Adler shared his personal experience as the son of Holocaust survivors. He recounted that his father, liberated from Auschwitz, never spoke of his experiences during the war.

Adler pointed out that some of the rescuers also never told their stories of heroism. “We’ll never know some survivors’ stories or those who saved them,” he said. The Italian rescuers being honoured did not seek out glory, Adler observed. However, thanks to their courage, thousands of people are alive today.

Michael Tibollo, president of the Canadian Italian Heritage Foundation, concluded the opening of the exhibit with a story about Giorgio Perlasca’s heroism.

The Italian businessman saved a pair of Hungarian twins by hiding them in his car before they boarded a train to a concentration camp. A high-ranking German official tried to force Perlasca to turn over the twins, but he refused. He later learned that the German official was Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution. Years later, the twins visited Perlasca in Italy. They brought him a piece of china they managed to save from their home. Perlasca refused to take it, telling the women that it was a family heirloom. The twins explained that without Perlasca’s efforts, they would not have a family at all.