Archive | March, 2014

An Italian Hero Worth Knowing

31 Mar

This past weekend, while searching online for Italian movies with subtitles, I came across Perlasca, a 2002 Italian drama. The movie tells the true story of a real-life hero, Giorgio Perlasca, who posed as a Spanish ambassador and tricked Nazi officials in order to save the lives of at least five thousand Jews during the Holocaust.



For me, Italian films are a way to immerse myself in the Italian language and culture when not in Italy. Many historic films, such as this one, have dark sides, but also much to celebrate, such as this unsung hero.

After watching the movie, I did some research on the man, wondering how much was true. Per his obituary, I found that the man and the movie were one and the same, making the movie even more interesting and validating the second part of the movie title: the courage of a just man. Even when Perlasca returned to Italy from Budapest, he told no one of his actions. His heroism only came to light in 1989, when a group of his survivors’ relatives tracked him to Padua to thank him.


Photo_of_Giorgio_Perlasca Published by: Johannes; June 6 2007 – 06:13

Perlasca is available on Netflix and other sites. Note that the subtitles were too low on the screen for the first minute while Perlasca is writing a letter to his wife in Italy, but the issue is soon resolved.

Below is Giorgio Perlasca’s obituary, by Dalbert Hallenstein, published 19 August 1992,

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.
[Perlasca later recounting the story:]
‘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.’ 

When the news is so filled with the stories of villains, it’s wonderful to come across a true hero, especially an unsung one.



Through His Words: Day Twelve

25 Mar

Reflections From and About My Grandfather
Alexander Capraro, Architect

Day Twelve
Hotel Regina

Paris, France
Wednesday July 27th, 1938


It rained most of the day yesterday, the first bad day of weather. I tried to get in touch with my friends here, but found they are away for 10 days. That is a tough break because of the fact it is so difficult to get around not knowing the language. However, my friend has two brothers and one of them volunteered to take me around as he speaks Italian and French. I speak Italian to him, and he interprets it to the French here.

On account of the rain, I did a little window shopping and limited sightseeing. I had to buy a felt hat, as no one here seems to wear straws; they wear either felts, berets, or go bareheaded; and also, there are very few white shoes. 


Photo of Alex years later, still with his straw hat and white shoes.

Tonight we had dinner at the Café DeLa Paix, a well-known place in Paris.

From the Cafe’s website: Ever since their inauguration on May 5th, 1862, the Hotel de la Paix (now Le Grand Hotel) and Café de la Paix are genuine institutions enjoying worldwide fame. Café de la Paix is a restaurant bar exuding Second Empire elegance and proudly displaying its listed frescoes and sumptuous gilding.

from website

from website



Later, we went to the famous Follies Bergère. The show started at 8:45 and lasted until midnight.

That was all Alex wrote about the famous burlesque theatre. I wondered, however, what the show would have been like in 1938, and found this listing on eBay:





Whoa! No wonder he didn’t write anything!

As it had stopped raining after the show, I walked back to the hotel about 1.5 miles, and then to bed and slumberland. One good thing has happened here– I sleep soundly all night and it is of great help because I need the rest for the energy required for the next day. 

Today looks fairly nice and I plan to go to Versailles, the place where the peace treaty of the world war was signed. This is an all day trip and I won’t get back until this evening.

Alex was referring to the Treaty of Peace, signed 28 June 1919, at the end of WWI:


I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Versailles twice, never realizing that Alex had been there before me. And just this month, his great-granddaughter (our daughter Benita) visited the immense and incredible Palace of Versailles, just 15 miles from Paris.

Aerial view of the Palace of Versailles

Aerial view of the Palace of Versailles (Wiki)

Tonight we plan to go to the Montparnasse, the artists’ quarter in Paris. 

Cafés rented tables to poor artists for hours at a stretch. Several, including La Closerie des Lilas, remain in business today.

Cafés rented tables to poor artists for hours at a stretch. Several, including La Closerie des Lilas, remain in business today. (Wiki)

I haven’t seen much so far, but the city promises to show me more than I had expected to see, so I may stay here a day longer and take it out of some other town… “Pietrabbondante” or “Ricigliano” etc.???

This, of course, was in jest as Alex was referring to the southern Italian towns where his and Maude’s ancestors were from. If nothing else was accomplished on this trip, Alex had promised Maude that he’d get to those two towns.

I wonder how everything is going at home. I am anxiously waiting to hear from you and get some news. Your letters will be so welcome on this trip.

Well, darling, I’ll write you again after my visit to Versailles. So goodbye for the moment and millions of hugs and kisses to you and ours.

Lovingly, Al






Strong Italian Women

18 Mar

I come from a long line of strong Italian women. They may have differed in size, shape, personality, temperament, and accomplishment, but they shared some important characteristics:  independence and fortitude.

Fortunately, this is not unique to my family. Miranda, my Italian teacher’s mother, was another such lady. Although I never met her, I had the pleasure of speaking to her on the phone a year ago in Italy. Like so many of her generation, she didn’t need a college education to demonstrate her skills.

When Miranda moved to Chicago with her husband, she wanted to work.  She knew she had a knack for design as she made all of her own clothes, so she headed downtown to Marshall Fields.  When they asked for her resume, she instead asked them for some fabric. Watching her work her magic, they hired Miranda on the spot.


Miranda Brigiotti in her own design in Chicago, late 50’s.

After some years in America, she returned to her native Italy, still independent and feisty. Many years later, at the age of 88, she became what is believed to be the oldest Italian to get her driver’s license. When asked why, at 88, she responded, “Because it’s necessary to be independent!” And later, when proudly showing her license and asked again why now,  she replied, “Because I’m still young!”

Sadly, Miranda passed away in January, 10 days before her 91 birthday, but she remains a great role model for us all! You don’t need to understand Italian to enjoy this wonderful YouTube of Miranda, posted by her niece, as the interviewer describes “the red-haired elegant woman dressed in black who finally got her driver’s license at the age of 88!”

Brava, Miranda… Complimenti!



Bella – Ma Basta!

12 Mar

Beautiful – But Enough!!!!!

We awoke this morning in Chicago to another common occurrence this winter…more snow!  With this storm, the season now ranks as the third snowiest, and it’s only the middle of March. But since my car is in a garage, and I don’t have to shovel, why not look on the bright side?

As I drove Len to work this morning, we were greeted with some beautiful sights:



There were, of course, the drivers who never seem to clean off their cars:


And the city’s now famous Divvy bikes, taking a rest:


Of course, on days like this, it’s better not to rely on street signs:


My little golfer didn’t seem to mind too much!


Fortunately, last week Len and I took a break from all of this and visited our wonderful friends, Sandy and Larry, who winter in the California desert. Four delightful days of sun, exercise, food, wine, and most of all, great friendship. Not bad when you can pick oranges off the trees in the yard and eat them still warm from the sunshine!



So as we continue to light the fireplace, bundle up for a while longer, and anticipate the actual arrival of spring, we’ll reflect on the new memories that warmed our hearts and bodies last week:IMG_1684



And yes, it is the desert!IMG_1678

Sandy and Larry, tanti graze e cin cin till next time!



Healthy Eggplant Parmigiano

3 Mar

EggplantDo you love eggplant but hate that it is usually served smothered in sauce and cheese?  If you prefer it to be more healthy as well as delicious, here’s an easy recipe that I came up with years ago.

Note that my recipe doesn’t have specific measurements, rather suggestions.


  • A few eggplants*…I prefer smaller ones  Unknown
  • Grape tomatoes for roasting (or your favorite tomato sauce)
  • One head garlic
  • Fresh basil
  • Mozzarella
  • Crusty Bread

*I used two eggplants, about eight inches long.

Steps To Cook:

  1. Heat oven to 350.
  2. Rinse tomatoes and place in an oven-proof baking dish. Drizzle small amount of olive oil and mix.
  3. Cut off pointed top of garlic head to expose cloves. Drizzle small amount of olive oil on garlic head and turn face down in same baking dish. Roast until tomatoes start to brown, shaking pan occasionally.


  1. Wash and dry the eggplant, then cut into quarter-inch rounds, discarding both ends.
  2. Place rounds on a sprayed or lightly greased baking pan…(I use olive oil), then also lightly spray top side of rounds. (No salting, soaking or standing required!)
  3. Roast eggplant about 20-30 minutes, until top side begins to brown. Turn over and roast about 10 more minutes, being careful not to burn eggplant. Eggplant can join tomatoes in oven…just watch each separately and remove each when cooked.

IMG_1658 Steps to Assemble:

  1. When cool to touch, squeeze the garlic from its head and add cloves to tomatoes. With a fork, mash the garlic into the softened tomatoes to form a chunky tomato sauce.
  2. Cover the darkest side of each eggplant round with tomatoes, then top with cheese. Return to oven until cheese begins to bubble.

IMG_1662 IMG_1664 To Serve:

Sprinkle with fresh basil IMG_1668 and serve with your choice of salad. Last night, mine was arugula and shaved fennel with oil/ red wine vinegar dressing. Len also made some delicious focaccia. IMG_1665 IMG_1660 As a bonus, I had some brussels sprouts and zucchini in the fridge, so I cut them up, added a dash of olive oil, and roasted them also. They served as a wonderful antipasto. IMG_1659Pair with your favorite vino – and voila, a great colorful dinner for a cold, snowy night, but also delicious any time of year. And the leftovers are so good, even cold.

Buon appetito!


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