Hashem hardens or softens the hearts of despots according to His will. After four centuries, one of history’s most shocking edicts against Jews and Judaism was finally annulled and revoked. The exiled Jews of Spain were finally permitted to return to their ancestral homeland.
This happened after Spain began extending its Moroccan conquests in 5619/1859. Emerging from tiny African conclaves they had occupied for centuries, Spanish officers and soldiers were amazed to discover a friendly element among the usually hostile North African Moors. Blended with the Moslem population were tens-of-thousands of Jews who not only spoke the Ladino dialect based on archaic Spanish but also harbored a warm nostalgia for Spain, regarding it as their ancestral homeland. It was comforting to encounter a touch of home in a land of hostile tribesmen blasting with long-barreled flintlocks behind every rock and bush.
Since the violent Catholicism of Spain had mellowed somewhat since the days of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and as it seemed good policy to have some people on Spain’s side in Africa even if they were Jewish, Spain then took the monumental step of nullifying the 5252/1492 Edict of Expulsion. This was formalized by the new Spanish constitution of 5629/1869 that conferred religious freedom to “all foreigners resident in Spain.”
In 5684/1924 the Spanish government of Miguel Primo de Rivera went a step further by decreeing that every Sephardi Jew had the right to claim Spanish citizenship, and during the 30s, the Second Republic encouraged so many thousands of Jews to immigrate into Spain that people accused it of being in cahoots with a Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy.
ANGEL OF BUDAPEST
During World War II, Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, played a delicate balancing game. While trading and helping Germany on the one hand, he resolutely refused to join Hitler’s Axis powers on the other and maintained a sort of neutrality. As Hitler said after an unsuccessful attempt to talk him around in 5700/1940, “I would rather spend two hours in the dentist’s chair than have another meeting with him.” The most the Germans got from him was the Blue Division, which fought on the Russian front for three years until recalled after vociferous complaints from the Allies.
Although not an unequivocal lover of Jews, Franco sporadically helped Jews escape the Nazis’ clutches and published a widely disseminated booklet titled “Spain and the Jews,” boasting of all he had done. Many historians claim that he could have done much more.
The best known instance of Spanish aid was during 5694/1944 when Budapest Jews were being railroaded to Auschwitz and numbers of neutral diplomats were striving to save as many as they could. Although the most famous of them was Raoul Wallenberg who had been sent by Sweden for that express purpose, there were many others. These included the Spanish Chargé d’Affaires (ambassador) to Hungary, Ángel Sanz Briz and his successor, Giorgi Perlasca. If you are wondering why a Spanish ambassador was succeeded by an Italian name, read further.
Ángel Sanz Briz became known as the Angel of Budapest thanks to his work with Raoul Wallenberg. The alibi Briz presented to Adolf Eichman and other Nazis was that he was issuing letters of protection to Hungarian Jews due to the right of every Sephardic Jew to Spanish nationality. Despite his vaunted expertise in Jewish affairs, it seems that Eichman failed to realize that few Hungarian Jews were of Spanish descent.
Although he had been granted the offi cial right to save only two hundred people, he found a devious way to circumvent this: “The two hundred units that had been granted to me I turned them into two hundred families; and the two hundred families multiplied indefinitely due to the simple procedure of not issuing a document or passport with a number higher than 200!” He was assisted by Giorgi Perlasca who was an example of a person who does not allow idealism to destroy common decency. Although he had avidly supported Mussolini’s fascism in the 20s, even risking his life as a soldier during Italy’s crushing of Abyssinia and fighting for the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War, he rejected Fascist ideology after Mussolini joined with the Nazis in 5698/1938 and introduced anti-Semitic laws in Italy.
“I couldn’t understand the discrimination against the Jews,” he exclaimed in later years. “So many of my friends were Jews, in Fiume, Trieste, and Como. In Spain, the commander of a battery in my artillery regiment was a Jew from Rome.”
During the war Perlasca made a living supplying livestock to the Italian army. After being thrown into an internment camp by the Nazis after Italy surrendered to the Allies and left Germany in the lurch, Perlasca fled to a Spanish embassy, invoked his right to Spanish citizenship due to him because of his support for Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and volunteered to help Jews escape as he “couldn’t stand the sight of people being branded like animals” and “seeing children being killed.” He helped Briz and other diplomats protect Jews and smuggle them out. When Briz left for Switzerland, and Spain was thinking of closing the embassy down, Perlasca falsely informed the Hungarian government that Briz would be coming back and served as his “substitute” under the fake name “Jorge.” Through this farce he kept the embassy and its safe houses functioning another two months and continued to hand out safe conduct passes on the basis of Spain’s 1924 law.
TOE TO TOE WITH EICHMAN
During December 5704/1944, Perlasca had rescued two young boys from a line of Jews being loaded into freight cars and shoved them into his car when a German soldier objected and started trying to get them back. Things might have gotten out of hand had a Geman Lieutenant Colonel not strode over and cynically told Perlasca,
“Go ahead and take them. Their time will come!”
Raoul Wallenberg happened to be present.
“You realize who that (Lieutenant Colonel) was, don’t you?” he asked Perlasca.
“No, who was it?”
“That was Adolf Eichman.”
“I took them over to one of our safe houses,” Perlasca related years later, “and once we were there I realized that they weren’t two boys after all. They were brother and sister… We kept them for a few days and then we handed them over to the Red Cross… But I’ll always remember when I saw them walking forward together in that line. I think I’ll remember them rather than so many others because they were so strikingly alike, because they were alone, and because they were so beautiful.”
With incredible humility, Perlasca returned to Italy without telling what he had done to a soul, and lived in obscurity until some Hungarian Jewesses came across him in the 80s. Baruch Tenenbaum, founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, mentions other Spanish diplomats who helped save Jews including Propper de Callejón and Bernardo Rolland de Miota in France, Miguel Ángel Muguiro in Budapest, José Ruíz Santaella in Berlin, José de Rojas y Moreno in Bucharest, Sebastián de Romero Radigales in Salonika, and Julio Palencia in Sophia, Bulgaria.
ANGEL OF CAIRO
A more recent instance of Spain’s revised attitude towards Jews was after 5727/1967 when Egypt had been pulverized during the Six Day War. Their air force destroyed and thrown out of Sinai, they wreaked vengeance on their tiny Jewish community that had shrunk from about 80,000 Jews in 5708/1948 to a measly 2,500 in 5727/1967, throwing at least 425 of its men into jail. Other Arab countries too began terrorizing their few remaining Jews. This time another angel of mercy came to the rescue, Spanish ambassador, Angel Sagaz. This was after 75 year old Franco decided to do a last good deed for the Jews under the prodding of the Jewish community of Madrid, American rabbonim, the Sephardic community of Chicago, national Jewish organizations and American offi cials working through the Spanish embassy in Washington and the Spanish delegation of the UN.
Franco sent instructions to his diplomats in Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco to help all Jews, whether Sephardic or otherwise, and to provide Egyptian Jews with documents to leave. Following instructions, Angel Sagaz, helped over 615 families escape during the next two years, even transferring some of their jewelry (which Egypt forbade them to take with them) out of the country in the Spanish diplomatic bag.
In the midst of this rescue operation Israel committed a blunder that could have torpedoed everything. At the time, Spain was trying to organize a vote of protest against England’s continued occupation of the Gibraltar Rock seized from Spain in 5564/1704. Stupidly, an Israeli representative rose up in the United Nations and stated that Israel was not participating in the vote in retaliation to Spain’s sending of the Blue Division to help Nazi Germany during World War II. Despite a brief squabble the rescue continued, demonstrating that hearts of rulers’ harden or soften according to the dictates of Above.
(Sources: a) Rein, Raanan, Vice Rector of Tel Aviv University. Diplomacy, Propaganda, and Humanitarian Gestures: Francoist Spain and Egyptian Jews, 1956-1968. b) Tenenbaum, Baruch. “The Banality of Goodness.” University of Notre Dame Press, 1998. c)Ysart, Federico. Spain and the Jews.)