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Rudolf 'Rudi' Vrba, born Walter Rosenberg (September 11, 1924 – March 27, 2006), was a professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. He came to public attention in 1944 when, in April that year, he and a friend, Alfréd Wetzler, became the second and third of only five Jews to escape from the Auschwitz concentration camp, and pass information to the Allies about the mass murder that was taking place there. The 32 pages of information that the men dictated to horrified Jewish officials in Slovakia after their escape became known as the Vrba-Wetzler report. It is regarded as one of the most important documents of the 20th century, because it was the first detailed information about the camp to reach the Allies that they accepted as credible.
Although the report's release to the public was controversially delayed until after the mass transport of 437,000 Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz had begun on May 15 1944, it is nevertheless credited with having saved many lives. Information from the report was published on June 15, 1944 by the BBC and on June 20 by The New York Times. World leaders subsequently appealed to Hungarian leader Admiral Miklós Horthy to halt the deportations, which stopped on July 9 1944, thereby saving up to 200,000 Jews.
The timing of the report's distribution remains a source of significant controversy. It was made available to officials in Hungary and elsewhere before the deportations to Auschwitz had begun, but was not further disseminated until weeks later. Vrba believed that more lives could have been saved if it had been publicized sooner, reasoning that, had Hungary's Jews known they were to be killed in the gas chambers — and not resettled, as the Nazis were telling them — they might have chosen to run or fight rather than board the trains. He alleged that the report was deliberately withheld by the Jewish-Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee in order not to jeopardize complex, but ultimately futile, negotiations between the committee and Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer in charge of the deportations, to exchange Jewish lives for money, trucks, and other goods — the so-called "blood for goods" proposals.
There is no consensus among historians as to the validity of Vrba's allegations, which have revealed a fissure in Holocaust historiography between "survivor discourse" and "expert discourse." Yehuda Bauer, Professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has called Vrba "one of the Heroes of the Holocaust," but also a "bitter Auschwitz survivor," writing that "[t]he trauma of the Holocaust had a severe effect on the internal intra-Jewish discourse, in the form of baseless accusations whose origin lay in the despair and anger over the loss of so many ... It is almost pointless to try to quarrel with this anger, since facts and logical arguments cannot assuage it."
Additional recommended knowledge
Early life and arrest
Vrba was born Walter Rosenberg in Topoľčany, Slovakia, to Elias and Helena (née Grunfeldova) Rosenberg, who owned a steam sawmill in Jaklovce, near Margecany. Because he was a Jew, he was excluded at the age of 15 from the Gymnasium (high school) of Bratislava under the Slovakian version of the Nazi's Nuremberg Laws, which placed heavy restrictions on Jews' civil rights. He went instead to work as a labourer in Trnava, and continued his studies at home, learning English and Russian. According to The Daily Telegraph, his mother found his interest in English eccentric, but his interest in Russian so alarming that she took him to a doctor.
In March 1942, at the age of 17, wanting to rebel against his country's anti-Semitism, Vrba decided to flee to England to join the Czechoslovak Army in Britain. He tore off the yellow Star of David that he was forced to wear as a Jew, and took a taxi from Topoľčany to Hungary with the equivalent of £10, all his mother could afford to give him. Though he managed to reach Hungary, as a Slovak Jew with no legal status he found the country too hostile and concluded that it would be dangerous to continue on to Britain.
He decided to return to Slovakia, but was caught by Hungarian border guards while crossing back over the Hungary-Slovakia border. They turned him over to the Slovakian authorities, who sent him to the Nováky transition camp in Slovakia. He escaped from Nováky along with prisoner Josef Knapp, but was caught several days later by a Slovakian policeman on a bicycle, who became suspicious when he noticed Vrba wearing two pairs of socks. He was sent back to the camp, where he was savagely beaten by the guards as punishment for his escape.
On June 14, 1942, Vrba was deported to the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, where he briefly found one of his brothers. He volunteered for farm work, and on June 30, he was sent to Auschwitz I, the main camp of the Auschwitz complex and the administrative center for the satellite camps. Rather than the promised "farm work", Vrba's initial duties in Auschwitz involved digging up the bodies of over 100,000 Jews who had already been killed or died, so they could be incinerated. He eventually befriended a Viennese prisoner who was trusted by the SS, and who arranged for him to work in the Aufräumungskommando, also called the "Canada" kommando in camp slang. This was a work detail of up to 2,000 male and female prisoners who worked on the Judenrampe ("Jewish ramp") situated between Auschwitz I and II that the new arrivals were unloaded onto from the freight trains, and who sorted out the possessions confiscated from them, and disposed of the dead bodies among them. The Germans ensured that any valuables among the prisoners' possessions, including gold, were repackaged and sent to Germany, and the gold melted into ingots for the Reichsbank.
The kommando and its storage facilities, which occupied several dozen barracks in the BIIg sector of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, were nicknamed "Canada I" and "Canada II" — officially, Effektenlager I and II — because the facilities contained clothing, shoes, medicines, blankets, and other provisions; it was therefore regarded as paradise by the Polish prisoners, who chose the nickname because they saw Canada as the land of plenty. Because he had access to the food, soap, and warm clothes stored in "Canada", Vrba was able to stay healthy and free of disease. He eventually became part of the pilfering hierarchy of the camp guards, though at one point he was beaten severely for smuggling goods to friends.
On January 15, 1943, he was transferred again, along with the rest of the Aufräumungskommando, to Birkenau, the death camp, 2½ miles (4 km.) away from the main camp, where he continued to work as part of the "Canada" kommando.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
On arrival at Birkenau, Vrba was "selected" to go to the right rather than the left, which meant he had been chosen to work rather than be sent to the gas chambers. He was tattooed as prisoner no. 44070.
Vrba was later described by those who knew him as possessing a photographic memory, and during his time at Auschwitz I and II, he attempted to commit to memory the numbers of Jews arriving and the place of origin of each transport. Because his job involved being present when most of the Jewish deportees arrived, and sorting out the belongings of the ones who were gassed, he was able to make rough calculations of how many had been sent to Auschwitz, and how many of them were killed.
He later wrote that he was able to judge how much the prisoners knew about why they were being sent to Auschwitz, and he concluded that they were ignorant of their fate when they arrived. While sorting through luggage, he noticed that many of them had packed as though for the long term. He saw clothes for different seasons and utensils for a variety of uses, which convinced him that the Jews believed the Nazis' stories about resettlement in the East. This strengthened his conviction that he had to escape. For two years he had thought about it, but now, he wrote, "It was no longer a question of reporting a crime, but of preventing one; of warning the Hungarians, of rousing them, of raising an army one million strong, an army that would fight rather than die."
In the summer of 1943, he was given the job of registrar (Blockschreiber) in the quarantine section for men, Birkenau sector BIIa. From his barracks, he was able to watch the lorries driving towards the gas chambers, carrying the Jews who had been sent to the left. This allowed him to estimate the number of Jews arriving daily, and the percentage that were gassed. His estimate was that only around 10 percent of each transport was selected to go to the right to be used as slave labor, and the rest were killed. By April 1944, he calculated that 1,750,000 Jews had already been killed in the camps, a figure significantly higher than those now accepted by mainstream historians, but which even decades later he insisted was more accurate.
At the beginning of 1944, Vrba noticed that preparations were underway for the building of a new railway line, which would allow inmates to be transported directly from their places of origin to the gas chambers, and wrote that this was confirmed to him on January 15, 1944 by a German kapo who was one of the builders. Vrba also reported having overheard SS guards discuss how they would soon have "Hungarian salami ... by the ton," allegedly a reference to the refugees' habit of packing provisions for the long journey, and how the food invariably found its way into the SS officers' mess. Vrba wrote: "When a series of transports of Jews from the Netherlands arrived, cheeses enriched the war-time rations. It was sardines when series of transports of French Jews arrived, halva and olives when transports of Jews from Greece reached the camp, and now the SS were talking of 'Hungarian salami,' a well-known Hungarian provision suitable for taking along on a long journey." A new area of the camp, called "Mexico," was allegedly being constructed to accommodate the new inmates.
Although Vrba is clear in his autobiography, and in subsequent versions of his story told to historians, that he did overhear the "Hungarian salami" conversation, there is no mention of the imminent mass arrival of Hungarian Jews in the Vrba-Wetzler report. This has led Czech historian Miroslav Kárný to dispute that Vrba heard anyone discussing "Hungarian salami," and whether Vrba's accounts over the decades after his escape may have suffered from some exaggeration. (See What Vrba knew below)
When he arrived in Birkenau, Vrba discovered that Alfréd Wetzler, an older man he had known from his home town, was already there, registered as prisoner no. 29162. Wetzler worked in the Birkenau mortuary, where his job was to record the number of prisoners who died other than by gassing, and the amount of gold extracted from their teeth.
The men came to trust each other implicitly and decided to try to escape together. With the help of the camp underground, at 2 p.m. on Friday, April 7, 1944 — the eve of Passover— the two men climbed inside a hollowed-out hiding place in a wood pile that was being stored to build the "Mexico" section for the new arrivals. It was outside Birkenau's barbed-wire inner perimeter, but inside an external perimeter the Nazi guards kept erected during the day. The other prisoners placed boards around the hollowed-out area to hide the men, then sprinkled the surrounding area with pungent Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline to fool the guards' dogs, a trick they had learned from Russian POWs, particularly Dmitry Volkov, who had escaped Auschwitz and then been recaptured. Volkov also advised them to travel lightly, with no money, and only at night, and trust no-one with their plans. At 20:33 that evening, the commander of Auschwitz II, SS-Sturmbanführer Fritz Hartjenstein, was informed by teleprinter that two Jews had escaped.
The men knew from previous escape attempts by other prisoners that, once their absence was noticed during the evening appell, or roll call, the guards would continue to search for them for three days. They therefore remained in hiding until the fourth night, almost getting caught at one point. On April 10, wearing Dutch suits, overcoats, and boots they had taken from "Canada", they made their way south, walking parallel to the Soła river, heading for the Polish border with Slovakia 80 miles (133 km.) away, guiding themselves using a page from a child's atlas that Vrba remembered looking at while working in "Canada."
"At the moment of our escape, all connections with whatever friends and social contacts we had in Auschwitz were severed, and we had absolutely no connection waiting for us outside the death camp ... We were de facto written off by the world from the moment we were loaded into a deportation train in the spring of 1942 ... The only administrative evidence of our existence was an international warrant about us, issued telegraphically and distributed to all stations of the Gestapo." The warrant was also telegraphed to the Kripo (criminal police), the Sicherheitsdienst (security police) and the Grenzpolizei (border guards).
Although Vrba has told the story of his escape as one of himself and Wetzler alone in the world, Ruth Linn writes that Polish historiography argues that the escape was only possible because of the Polish underground operating inside the camp, and because of help from local people outside.
The Vrba-Wetzler report
Eleven days after escaping, Vrba and Wetzler crossed the Polish-Slovakian border. They met a farmer who put them in touch with a Jewish doctor, Dr. Pollack, who had a contact, Adre Steiner, in the Slovak Judenrat (Jewish Council) in Žilina, which now called itself the Working Group, and regarded itself as an underground movement. Vrba left Dr. Pollack's office with a bandage on his foot to counter any suspicion, leaving behind an emotionally wounded physician, who until then had hoped his family was still alive in the new "resettlement" area they had been sent to.
Vrba and Wetzler spent the night in Čadca in the home of Mrs Beck, a relative of the well-known rabbi Leo Baeck, and met the Working Group the next day, April 24, 1944. The head of the Working Group, Dr. Oskar Neumann, a German-speaking lawyer, placed the men in different rooms in a former Jewish old people's home (used by the Judenrat since the old people had been "resettled"), and interviewed them separately over three days.
Vrba writes that he began by drawing the inner layout of Auschwitz I and II, and the position of the ramp in relation to the two camps. He described the internal organization of the camps; how Jews were being used as slave labor for Krupp, Siemens, I.G. Farben, and D.A.W.; and of the mass murder in gas chambers of those who had been chosen for Sonderbehandlung or "special treatment".
The report was written and re-written several times. Wetzler wrote the first part, Vrba the third, and the two wrote the second part together. They then worked on the report together, and ended up re-writing it six times. As they were writing it, Dr. Neumann's aide, Oscar Krasniansky, an engineer and good stenographer, who later took the name Oskar Isaiah Karmiel, translated it from Slovak into German with the help of Gisela Steiner, producing a 32-page report in German, which was completed by Thursday, April 27, 1944. Vrba wrote that the report was also hastily translated into Hungarian.
The original Slovak version of the report was not preserved, according to Czech historian Miroslav Kárný. The German version contained a precise description of the geography of the camps, their construction, the organization of the management and security, how the prisoners were numbered and categorized, their diet, the selections, gassings, shootings, injections, and deaths from the living conditions themselves. The report also contained sketches and information about the interior layouts and operations of (and surrounding) the gas chambers, based on information Vrba and Wetzler had received from the Sonderkommando who worked there, which led to some inaccuracies.
Jean-Claude Pressac, a French specialist on the mechanics of the mass murder, examined the report and concluded that, while "somewhat unreliable and even quite wrong on some points, [it] has the merit of describing exactly the gassing process in type II/III Krematorien as from mid-March 1943. It made the mistake of generalizing internal and external descriptions and the operating method to Krematorien IV and V. Far from invalidating it, the discrepancies confirm its authenticity, as the descriptions are clearly based on what the witnesses could actually have seen and heard." Auschwitz scholar Robert Jan van Pelt concurs: "The description of the crematoria in the War Refugee Board report contains errors, but given the conditions under which information was obtained, the lack of architectural training of Vrba and Wetzlar, and the situation in which the report was compiled, one would become suspicious if it did not contain errors." Kárný writes that the report is an invaluable historical document because it provides details that were known only to prisoners, most of whom died — including, for example, that discharge forms were filled out for prisoners who were gassed, indicating that death rates in the camp were actively falsified.
How the report was distributed
According to Miroslav Kárný, the report was written and translated by April 28, 1944 at the latest, although Vrba says it was completed by April 27. Oscar Krasniansky had heard that Rudolf Kastner, a Jewish lawyer and journalist, and de facto head of the Zionist Aid and Rescue Committee (Va'adat Ezrah Vehatzalah) in Budapest, was about to visit Bratislava, as he did regularly. According to one of Krasniansky's postwar statements, he personally handed a copy of the report to Kastner at the end of April. According to British writer Laurence Rees, Kastner received a copy during his visit to Bratislava on April 28.
The dates on which the report was handed over to Kastner and others are important, because Vrba and other Holocaust survivors and writers have alleged that the report was not distributed quickly enough. Kastner chose not to publicize its contents, and although the reasons for that decision are complex and unclear, Vrba believed until the end of his life that Kastner withheld it in order not to jeopardize ongoing negotiations between the Aid and Rescue Committee and Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer in charge of the transport of Jews out of Hungary, to secure the release of a number of Jews in exchange for money, 10,000 trucks, and other goods. (See the controversy section below, Joel Brand, and Kastner train.)
Although Kastner did not make the report public, he did pass it on. Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer writes that Kastner gave a copy to Geza Soos, a Hungarian Foreign Ministry official who ran a resistance group, almost as soon as he received it on or around April 28. Soos gave it to Joszef Elias, head of the Good Shepherd Mission, a Protestant missionary organization, and his secretary, Maria Szekely, translated it into Hungarian and prepared six copies (though Vrba said it had already been translated into Hungarian by Krasniansky). These copies made their way to various Hungarian officials. On June 20, Vrba met Vatican legate Monsignor Mario Martilotti at the Svaty Jur monastery, and either gave him a copy of the report or told him about its contents, and a few days later, was taken to meet Rabbi Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl, who was regarded as the leader of the Orthodox community in Slovakia, at his Yeshiva in Bratislava. Vrba wrote that it was clear during the meeting that Weissmandl was already familiar with the contents of the report.
Deportations to Auschwitz continue
On June 6, 1944, the day of the Normandy landing or D-Day, Arnost Rosin (prisoner no. 29858) and Czesław Mordowicz (prisoner no. 84216) arrived in Slovakia, having escaped from Auschwitz on May 27. Hearing about the Battle of Normandy, and believing the war was over, they got drunk to celebrate, using dollars they'd smuggled out of Auschwitz. They were promptly arrested for violating the currency laws, and spent eight days in prison, before the Jewish Council paid their fines.
Rosin and Mordowicz already knew Vrba and Wetzler. Vrba wrote in his memoir that any inmate who managed to survive more than a year in Auschwitz was regarded as a senior member of what he called the "old hands Mafia," and all were known to each other. On June 15, the men were interviewed by Oscar Krasniansky, the engineer who had translated the Vrba-Wetzler report into German. They told Krasniansky that, between May 15 and May 27, 100,000 Hungarian Jews had arrived at Birkenau, and that most of them were killed on arrival, apparently with no knowledge of what was about to happen to them. The men reported that Jews were being killed at an unprecedented rate, with human fat being used to accelerate the burning.
John Conway, professor emeritus of history at the University of British Columbia, and a friend of Vrba, has written that, because Rosin and Mordowicz were saying Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz still had no idea what awaited them, Vrba and Wetzler concluded that their information had been suppressed. According to Conway, Vrba remained convinced until the end of his life that "if the intended victims had been warned, they would have resisted or hid or fled." In his memoir, Vrba wrote: "I only learned after the war that more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were brought to Auschwitz after our escape and died a terrible death there up to mid-July, 1944 without ever having been warned by the Hungarian Jewish Council about the true nature of 'resettlement'."
Broadcast of the report and the end of deportations
The Vrba-Wetzler Report is known to have reached the British and U.S. governments by mid-June 1944. Elizabeth Wiskemann of the British Legation in Bern sent it to Allen Dulles, the head of U.S. intelligence, who sent it to the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on June 16. Details from it were broadcast by the BBC on June 15, and on June 20, The New York Times published the first of three stories about the existence of "gas chambers in the notorious German concentration camps at Birkenau and Oświęcim [Auschwitz]."
Several world leaders, including Pope Pius XII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the King of Sweden, appealed to Admiral Miklós Horthy to stop the deportations. On June 26, Richard Lichtheim, a member of the Jewish Agency in Geneva, sent a telegram to England calling on the Allies to hold members of the Hungarian government personally responsible for the killings. The cable was intercepted by Hungary and shown to Prime Minister Döme Sztójay, who passed it to Horthy. On July 7, he ordered that the deportations end, which they did two days later. Historian T.L. Sakmyster has written that fear of being tried for war crimes was not the only reason Horthy halted the deportations; rather, before he read the Vrba-Wetzler report, Horthy had allegedly dismissed the rumors about Auschwitz as "Jewish exaggeration."
Jews continued to be deported, although in smaller numbers, after the overthrow of Horthy's government and its replacement on October 15, 1944 by the pro-German fascist Arrow Cross Party. In November, Eichmann arranged for tens of thousands of Budapest Jews to walk the 120 miles (200 km.) from Budapest to Vienna, marching without food in the rain and snow. Eventually, protests from neutral countries, and reportedly from other SS officers, forced Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, to instruct Eichmann to halt the marches.
After the report
After handing his information over to the Slovakian Jewish Council, Vrba was assured by Krasniansky that the report was "in the right hands," and so Vrba felt his job was over. He and Wetzler spent the next six weeks in Liptovský Mikuláš, and continued to make and distribute copies of their report whenever they could. The Slovak Judenrat gave Vrba papers in the name of Rudolf Vrba, showing that he was a "pure Aryan" going back three generations, and supported him financially to the tune of 200 Slovak crowns per week, equivalent to an average worker's salary, and as Vrba wrote, "sufficient to sustain me in an illegal life in Bratislava."
On August 29, 1944, the Slovak Army revolted against the Nazis, and the reestablishment of Czechoslovakia was announced. Vrba joined the Czechoslovak partisan units in September 1944, taking Rudolf Vrba as his nom de guerre, and April 7, the day of his escape, as his birthday. He fought as a machine-gunner in a unit commanded by Milan Uher, and received the Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery, the Order of Slovak National Insurrection, and the Order of Meritorious Fighter. He legalized his new name after the liberation of Czechoslovakia.
After the war
Vrba moved to Prague in 1945, attending and working at the Prague Technical University, where he received his doctorate in chemistry and biochemistry (Dr. Tech. Sc.) in 1951 for a thesis entitled "On the metabolism of butyric acid." This was followed by post-doctoral research at the Czechoslovak Academy of Science, where he received his C. Sc. in 1956. According to friends, Vrba was initially a staunch supporter of the Communist Party, which had helped him and Wetzler escape from Auschwitz, and for whom he had fought with the Czech partisans. However, "anti-semitic purges in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, culminating in the 1952 trial of Rudolph Slansky, the Czechoslovak Communist party secretary" drove him to want to emigrate. In the summer of 1944 he had re-acquainted himself with a childhood friend Gerta, another Slovak Jew, who survived the war by moving from Slovakia to Hungary and back under assumed names, eventually escaping the Gestapo, and living as a refugee in Russian controlled Budapest. After the war she too moved to Prague and became a medical doctor; they married (she took the surname Vrbová, the female version of Vrba), and they had two daughters, one in 1952, and one in 1954. Soon after that the marriage failed; Vrbová escaped with her daughters to Copenhagen via Poland in 1958, reaching England in 1959.
In 1958, Vrba received an invitation to present at an international conference in Israel, and while there, he also defected, working for the next two years at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. He found he could not continue to live in Israel, because the same men who had, in his view, betrayed the Jewish community in Hungary were now in positions of power there, so he decided to move to England in 1960, becoming a British citizen in 1966. In England, he worked for two years in the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit in Carshalton, Surrey, and seven years for the British Medical Research Council.
On May 11, 1960, Adolf Eichmann was captured by the Mossad in Buenos Aires and taken to Jerusalem to stand trial. Vrba wrote in his memoir that the British newspapers were suddenly full of stories about Auschwitz. He contacted Alan Bestic, a journalist with the British newspaper, the Daily Herald, to ask whether the newspaper would be interested in his story. They were, and it was published in five installments of 1,000 words each over one week in March 1961, on the eve of Eichmann's trial. Vrba also submitted a statement in evidence against Eichmann. With Bestic's help, he wrote up the rest of his story in August 1963 for his memoir, Escape from Auschwitz: I cannot forgive, which was published in English (1963), German (1964), French (1988), Dutch (1996), Czech (1998), and Hebrew (1998).
His move to Canada
Vrba moved to Canada in 1967, serving on the Medical Research Council of Canada from 1967 to 1973, and becoming a Canadian citizen in 1972. He spent 1973 to 1975 on sabbatical as a research fellow at Harvard Medical School; there he met his second wife Robin. They returned to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she became a successful real estate dealer, and he became an associate professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia from 1976 until the early 1990s, specializing in neurology. He became known internationally for more than 50 research papers on the chemistry of the brain, and for his work on diabetes and cancer. According to colleague Professor Michael Walker "As a scientist he started out very well, and was well respected for his work in proteins and chemistry."
Towards the end of his career Vrba had trouble getting grant money; according to Walker, he was not "treated appropriately by the Canadian scientific community. He was prescient in his understanding of his area, which is proteins, and how their function may be changed if they have glucose attached to them". Rather than complaining, he instead focused on teaching, and was loved by his students.
Impressed with Vrba's heroism, in 1992 British historian Sir Martin Gilbert supported a campaign to have him awarded the Order of Canada, and solicited letters from well-known Canadians on his behalf. One of them was law professor (and later Minister of Justice and Attorney General) Irwin Cotler, who, in a handwritten letter to Gilbert said "I fully concur with you that Vrba is a 'real hero'. Indeed, there are few more deserving of the Order of Canada than Vrba, and few, anywhere, who have exhibited his moral courage. Canada will honour itself — and redeem itself somewhat — by awarding him the order of Canada." However, Gilbert's efforts were unsuccessful.
In 1998, at the instigation of Ruth Linn, he received the title of Doctor of Philosophy Honoris Causa from the University of Haifa "in recognition of his heroism and daring in exposing, during the war itself, the horrors of Auschwitz, which action led to the saving of Jewish lives; and in profound appreciation of his educational contribution and devotion to spreading knowledge about the Holocaust."
Vrba died of cancer on March 27, 2006 in Vancouver; he was survived by his first wife Gerta, second wife Robin, younger daughter Zuza Vrbová Jackson, granddaughter Hannah, and grandson Jan. He was pre-deceased by his older daughter Dr. Helena Vrbová, who died doing malaria research in Papua-New Guinea in 1982. His fellow escapee, Alfréd Wetzler, died in Slovakia in 1988.
Awards and documentaries
The Czech "One World festival", in its "Right to Know" category, annually awards the "Rudolf Vrba Award" to original documentaries which "draw attention to an unknown or silenced theme concerning human rights." The award was established in 2001 by Mary Robinson, then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Václav Havel, then President of the Czech Republic.
Several documentaries have told Vrba's story: Genocide, part of ITV's World at War series in 1973; Auschwitz and the Allies, directed by Rex Bloomstein and Martin Gilbert for the BBC in 1982; Shoah by Claude Lanzmann in 1985; Witness to Auschwitz by Robin Taylor for CBC's Man Alive series in 1990; and most recently Auschwitz - The Great Escape for Channel Five's Revealed series in 2007.
Vrba believed that many of the 437,000 Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz between May 15 and July 7, 1944 — when 12,000 Jews were being dispatched by train every day — would have resisted or hidden had they known they were to be killed and not resettled. He wrote: "From the testimony of survivors such as Elie Wiesel, it seems clear that the Jewish masses assumed that if something truly horrible was in store for them, these respectable leaders would know about it and would share their knowledge ... It is my contention that a small group of informed people, by their silence, deprived others of the possibility or privilege of making their own decisions in the face of mortal danger."
Vrba wrote in his memoirs that, as the Germans were preparing the mass deportations to Auschwitz, the Jewish communities in Slovakia and Hungary placed their trust either in the Zionist leadership (people such as Rudolf Kastner, the de facto head of the Aid and Rescue Committee), or in Orthodox Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Weissmandl and Philip von Freudiger. The Nazis were aware of this, which is why they lured precisely those members of the community into various negotiations, supposedly designed to lead to the release of some, or even most, of the Jews, but probably regarded by the Nazis as a way of placating the Jewish leadership into not spreading panic, in order to avoid an uprising. Vrba wrote: "That the negotiators and their families were in fact pathetic, albeit voluntary, hostages in the hands of Nazi power was an important part of these 'deals'."
At the time Vrba arrived in Slovakia from Auschwitz, Kastner was involved with other members of the Aid and Rescue Committee, particularly Joel Brand, in a series of complex negotiations with SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz, and who was offering to trade as many as one million Jews — who were supposedly to be allowed to settle anywhere but Palestine — in exchange for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Western Allies.
Kastner's first meeting with Eichmann took place on April 25, 1944, and three days later, on April 28 — the same day the first trainload of Hungarian Jews left for Auschwitz, although not as part of the mass transports — Kastner is believed to have received a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler Report, though possibly in German and not yet translated. Vrba alleged that Kastner failed to distribute it in order not to jeopardize the negotiations with Eichmann, but instead acted on it privately by arranging for a trainload of 1,684 Hungarian Jews to escape to Switzerland. According to historian John Conway of UBC, the escaping party consisted of "themselves, their relatives, a coterie of Zionists, some distinguished Jewish intellectuals, and a number of wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs."
Historian Yehuda Bauer argues against this interpretation of Kastner's motives, writing that Kastner put his own family on the train only in order to prove to the other passengers that it was safe. Vrba, in response, alleged that Bauer is one of the Israeli historians who have downplayed Vrba's role in Holocaust historiography, and who seeks to defend the Israeli and Zionist establishment. Vrba argued that Kastner's negotiations with the Nazis were far-fetched and foolish, and that they amounted to collaboration, an accusation Israeli historians such as Bauer reject.
The allegations against Kastner were heard by the Supreme Court of Israel in 1957, after Malchiel Gruenwald, an Israeli amateur writer and stamp collector, accused Kastner in a self-published pamphlet of being a Nazi collaborator. Because Kastner was by then a senior Israeli civil servant, the Israeli government sued the writer for libel, and although Kastner was eventually exonerated, as a result of the controversy he was shot by an assassin on March 3, 1957, and died of his wounds nine days later.
Most Holocaust historians disagree with Vrba's interpretation of the Slovakian Jewish leadership's actions. British historian Martin Gilbert argues that "Kastner and his colleagues in the Zionist leadership in Hungary were already committed to their negotiations with Eichmann ... Not urgent warnings to their fellow Jews to resist deportation, but secret negotiations with the SS aimed at averting deportation altogether, had become the avenue of hope chosen by the Hungarian Zionist leaders."
Bauer writes that, by the time the report was prepared, it was already too late for anything to alter the Nazis' deportation plans. Bauer cautions about the need to distinguish between the receipt of information and its "internalization," where it's regarded as correct and worthy of action, arguing that this is a complicated process: "During the Holocaust, countless individuals received information and rejected it, suppressed it, or rationalized about it, were thrown into despair without any possibility of acting on it, or seemingly internalized it and then behaved as though it had never reached them." Bauer has written that Vrba's "wild attacks on Kastner and on the Slovak underground are a-historical and simply wrong from the start ..."
What Vrba knew
Vrba was criticized in 2001 in a series of articles — Leadership under Duress: The Working Group in Slovakia, 1942–1944 — edited by a group of leading Israeli historians with ties to the Slovak community, including Yehuda Bauer, Hanna Yablonka, Gila Fatran, and Livia Rothkirchen. The introduction by Giora Amir refers to those who argue that the Slovakian Jewish Council may have collaborated with the Nazis, as "a bunch of mockers and pseudo-historians ..." Amir writes that the "baseless" accusation was lent credence when Haifa University awarded an honorary doctorate to the "head of these mockers, Peter [sic] Vrba." Amir continues: "The heroism of this person, who together with the late Alfred Wetzler, was among the first to escape from Auschwitz, is beyond doubt. But the fact that, just because he was an Auschwitz prisoner endowed with personal heroism, he has crowned himself as knowledgeable to judge all those involved in the noble work of rescue, and accuse them falsely, deeply disturbs us, the Czech community.
The tension between what Ruth Linn calls the "survivor discourse" and the "expert discourse" lies at the heart of this criticism of Vrba. Bauer has called Vrba's memoir "not a memoir in the usual sense," alleging that it "contains excerpts of conversations of which there is no chance that they are accurate and it has elements of a second-hand story that does not necessarily correspond with reality." When writing about himself and his personal experiences, Vrba's account is an important one, argues Bauer. "Everything he tells about himself and about his actions ... is not only the truth, but also [forms] a document of significant historical value." But he continues: "I admired Vrba, with true admiration — though mixed with resistance to his thoughts in historical matters in which he thinks he is an expert, though I am not sure he is justified in thinking so." For his part Vrba often dismissed the opinion of Holocaust historians; for example, regarding the number of people killed at Auschwitz, he said "Yehuda Bauer simply doesn't know what he's talking about, but with his impressive title, he thinks he can throw around figures without doing any research. Hilberg and Bauer don't know enough about the history of Auschwitz or the Einsatzgruppen."
It has also been alleged that Vrba embellished what he said was his eyewitness account. Vrba wrote in his memoir, written in 1963, that he overheard SS officers in Auschwitz discuss how they would soon have "Hungarian salami ... by the ton," allegedly a reference to the imminent arrival of hundreds of thousands of deported Hungarian Jews. However, Vrba did not mention in the Vrba-Wetzler report, written in April 1944, that he had advance warning of the mass deportation of Hungary's Jews, which began in May 1944. If he had known about such a momentous event, why would he not have mentioned it at the time?
Czech historian Miroslav Kárný writes: "It is generally accepted that at the time Vrba and Wetzler were preparing their escape, it was known in Auschwitz that annihilation mechanisms were being perfected in order to kill hundreds of thousands of Hungary's Jews. It was this knowledge, according to Vrba, that became the main motive for their escape. ... But in fact, there is no mention in the Vrba and Wetzler report that preparations were under way for the annihilation of Hungary's Jews. ... If Vrba and Wetzler considered it necessary to record rumors about the expected arrival of Greece's Jewish transports, then why wouldn't they have recorded a rumor — had they known it — about the expected transports of hundreds of thousands of Hungary's Jews? ..."
Kárný argues that, although Vrba and Wetzler did not, in his view, have advance warning of the imminent Hungarian Endloesung, Vrba later — long after the war was over — wanted to testify about it out of a longing to force the world to face the magnitude of the Nazis' crimes. The suspicion is that Vrba's longing may have led to a degree of embellishment, in his subsequent accounts (although not in the Vbra-Wetzler report itself), regarding how much he actually knew when he escaped from the camp.
In a later edition of his memoirs, Vrba responded that he is certain the reference to the imminent Hungarian deportations was in the original, Slovakian version of Vrba-Wetzler report, some of which he wrote by hand. He wrote that he recalled Oscar Krasniansky of the Slovakian Jewish Council, who translated the report into German, arguing that only actual deaths should be recorded, and not speculation, in order to lend the report maximum credibility. Vrba speculates this was the reason Krasniansky omitted the references to Hungary from the German translation the latter prepared, which was the main version that was copied around the world. The original version in Slovak did not survive.
Vrba's story allegedly suppressed
Vrba believed that successive Israeli historians have virtually erased his story from the Israeli Holocaust narrative because of his controversial views about Rudolf Kastner and the Hungarian Judenrat, many of whom went on to hold prominent positions in Israel.
Ruth Linn, dean of education at Haifa University in Israel, writes: "Ever since I saw the Lanzmann documentary, this question stayed in my mind: Am I the only crazy Israeli who fell asleep in class when we studied this in the Holocaust? Or maybe we never studied it ... In terms of literature, [Escape from Auschwitz: I cannot forgive] is in the class of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, first-class novelists of the Holocaust. But then I turned the book back and forth and I see on the cover, 'First published 1963.' And the year is 1994. I said to myself, 'Where has this book been for 31 years? I never read about it in Israel."
Linn alleges that a "family of Israeli historians" have misnamed, misreported, miscredited, and misrepresented Vrba's story. She writes that the story is misrepresented in Hebrew textbooks by omitting Vrba's and Wetzler's names or by minimizing their contribution. Standard histories of the Holocaust typically refer only to the escape by "two young Slovak Jews", "two chaps," or "two young people," and represent Vrba and Wetzler as emissaries of the Polish underground in Auschwitz, as mere messengers.
Linn cites the non-publication in Hebrew of Vrba's memoirs for 35 years after their publication in English, and the failure to translate the Vrba-Wetzler report itself into Hebrew. Yad Vashem holds one of the world's most extensive collections of Holocaust documentation, and yet, as of 2004, there was no English or Hebrew version of the Vrba-Wetzler report. The Hungarian version, marked 015/9, is held in the archives in a file about Rudolf Kastner, and without the names of its authors. Linn quotes Yad Vashem's response to an inquiry in June 1997 from Yehoshua Ben Ami, the Hebrew translator of Vrba's memoirs, about having the report translated into Hebrew: "Indeed, it would have been important to translate the Vrba-Wetzler report, just as it is important to translate other significant documents ... Hopefully we will have the money one day."
Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute writes that Vrba's story has in fact been told, citing at least four popular Israeli books on the Holocaust that mention Vrba and Wetzler's escape, and that Wetzler's testimony is recounted at length in Livia Rothkirchen's Hurban yahadut Slovakia (The Destruction of Slovakian Jewry), published by Yad Vashem in 1961. Yeshayahu Jelinek, a historian of Slovakia's Jewish community, credits Vrba's obscurity to the general obscurity of Slovakian Jews: "Who ever thinks about the Jews of Slovakia? A medium-size ghetto in Poland was larger than our whole community. Everyone knows about Hannah Szenes. How many people know about Haviva Raik?"
Dr. Robert Rozett, head librarian at Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, and author of the entry on the "Auschwitz Report" in Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, has said of the Vrba controversy: "There are people who come into the subject from a certain angle and think that they've uncovered the truth. A historian who deals seriously with the subject understands that the truth is complex and multifaceted."
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