11 September 1924
|Died||27 March 2006 (aged 81)|
|Citizenship||British (1966), Canadian (1972)|
|Occupation||Associate professor of pharmacology, University of British Columbia|
|Known for||Vrba–Wetzler report|
|Spouse(s)||Gerta Vrbová (m. 1947), Robin Vrba (m. 1975)|
|Children||Dr. Helena Vrbová (1952–1982), Zuzana "Zuza" Vrbová Jackson (1954–2014)|
|Parent(s)||Elias Rosenberg, Helena Rosenberg (née Grünfeldová)|
Rudolf "Rudi" Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg; 11 September 1924 – 27 March 2006) was a Slovak-Jewish biochemist who, as a teenager in 1942, was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. He became known for having escaped from the camp in April 1944, at the height of the Holocaust, and for having co-written a detailed report about the mass murder that was taking place there. Distribution of the report by George Mantello in Switzerland is credited with having halted the mass deportation of Hungary's Jews to Auschwitz in July 1944, saving more than 200,000 lives. After the war Vrba trained as a biochemist, working mostly in England and Canada.
Vrba and fellow escapee Alfréd Wetzler fled Auschwitz three weeks after German forces invaded Hungary and shortly before the SS began mass deportations of Hungary's Jewish population to the camp. The information the men dictated to Jewish officials when they arrived in Slovakia on 24 April 1944, which included that new arrivals in Auschwitz were being gassed and not "resettled" as the Germans maintained, became known as the Vrba–Wetzler report. When the War Refugee Board published it with considerable delay in November 1944, the New York Herald Tribune described it as "the most shocking document ever issued by a United States government agency". While it confirmed material in earlier reports from Polish and other escapees,[a] the historian Miroslav Kárný wrote that it was unique in its "unflinching detail".
There was a delay of several weeks before the report was distributed widely enough to gain the attention of governments. Mass transports of Hungary's Jews to Auschwitz began on 15 May 1944 at a rate of 12,000 people a day. Most went straight to the gas chambers. Vrba argued until the end of his life that the deportees might have refused to board the trains, or at least that their panic would have disrupted the transports, had the report been distributed widely and sooner.
From late June and into July 1944, material from the Vrba–Wetzler report appeared in newspapers and radio broadcasts in the United States and Europe, particularly in Switzerland, prompting world leaders to appeal to Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy to halt the deportations. On 2 July American and British forces bombed Budapest, and on 7 July Horthy ordered an end to the mass deportations, possibly fearing he would be held responsible after the war. By then, 437,000 Jews had been deported—almost the entire Jewish population of the Hungarian countryside—but another 200,000 in Budapest were saved.[b]
Vrba was born Walter Rosenberg in Topoľčany, Czechoslovakia (part of Slovakia from 1993), one of three boys and a girl to Helena Rosenberg, née Gruenfeldová, and her husband, Elias. Vrba's mother was from Zbehy; his maternal grandfather, Bernat Grünfeld, an Orthodox Jew from Nitra, was killed in the Majdanek concentration camp. Vrba took the name Rudolf Vrba after his escape.[c]
The Rosenbergs owned a steam sawmill in Jaklovce and lived in Trnava. In September 1941 the Slovak Republic (1939–1945)—a client state of Nazi Germany—passed a "Jewish Codex", similar to the Nuremberg Laws, which introduced restrictions on Jews' education, housing and travel. The government set up labour camps at Nováky, Sereď and Vyhne. Jews were required to wear a yellow badge and live in certain areas, and available jobs went first to non-Jews. When Vrba was excluded, at age 15, from the gymnasium (high school) in Bratislava as a result of the restrictions, he found work as a labourer and continued his studies at home, particularly chemistry, English and Russian. He met his future wife, Gerti Sidonovi, around this time; she and Vrba were among a group of local Jewish teenagers excluded from school.
Vrba learned to live with most of the restrictions—they had been "introduced discreetly, falling almost imperceptibly around us, like gentle snow"—but he rebelled when the Slovak government announced, in February 1942, that thousands of Jews were to be deported to "reservations" in German-occupied Poland.[d] The deportations came at the request of Germany, which needed the labour. Slovakia paid the Germans RM 500 per Jew in exchange for a deal that the Slovak government could lay claim to the deportees' property. Only around 800 of the 58,000 Slovakian Jews deported between March and October 1942 survived. Vrba blamed the Slovak Jewish Council for having cooperated with the deportations.
Insisting that he would not be "deported like a calf in a wagon", he decided to join the Czechoslovak Army in exile in England and set off in a taxi for the border, aged 17, with a map, a box of matches, and the equivalent of £10 from his mother. After making his way to Budapest, Hungary, he decided to return to Trnava for various reasons, but he was arrested at the Hungarian border. The Slovak authorities sent him to the Nováky transit camp for Jews awaiting deportation; he escaped briefly but was caught and returned to the camp. An SS officer instructed that he be deported on the next transport.
Vrba was deported from Czechoslovakia on 15 June 1942 to the Majdanek concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, where he briefly encountered his older brother, Sammy. They saw each other "almost simultaneously and we raised our arms in brief salute"; it was the last time he ever saw him. He also encountered "kapos" for the first time: prisoners appointed as functionaries, one of whom he recognized from Trnava. Most wore green triangles, signalling their category as "career criminals" (Berufsverbrecher):
They were dressed like circus clowns ... One had a green uniform jackets with gold horizontal stripes, like something a lion tamer would wear; his trousers were the riding breeches of an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army and his headgear was a cross between a military cap and a priest's biretta. ... I realized that here was a new elite, a prisoners' establishment, so to speak, recruited to do the elementary dirty work with which the S.S. men did not wish to soil their hands. It was clear to me, too, that they were fulfilling this task with an efficiency and brutality which equalled and occasionally excelled that of their masters.
Vrba's head and body were shaved, and he was given clothes, wooden shoes and a cap. Caps had to be removed whenever the SS came within three yards. At roll call each morning, prisoners who had died during the night were piled up behind the living. Vrba was given a job as a builder's labourer inside the camp; it was several days before he understood the significance of the building with the tall chimney. When a kapo asked for 400 volunteers for farm work elsewhere, Vrba signed up, looking for a chance to escape. A Czech kapo who had befriended Vrba hit him when he heard about this; the kapo explained that the "farm work" was in Auschwitz.
On 29 June 1942, the Reich Main Security Office transferred Vrba and the other volunteers to Auschwitz I, the main camp (Stammlager) in Oświęcim and the administrative centre of the Auschwitz camp complex. Vrba considered trying to escape from the train on the way there, a journey of over two days, but the SS announced that ten men would be shot for every one who went missing.
On his second day in Auschwitz, he watched as a cart pulled by Ukrainian prisoners stopped outside a windowless building. Two Polish prisoners began throwing bodies onto the cart, stacked in piles of ten, "the head of one between the legs of another to save space. Slap, slap, slap"; after 15 minutes, 200 bodies had been stacked on top of one another neatly. The following day Vrba and 400 other men were beaten into a cold shower in a shower room built for 30, then marched outside to register, still naked. The prisoners were tattooed—Vrba on his left forearm as prisoner no. 44070—and given striped tunics, trousers, caps and wooden shoes. After registration, which took all day and into the evening, he was shown to his new barracks, an attic in a block next to the main gate and the Arbeit macht frei sign.
Young and strong, Vrba was "purchased" by a kapo, Frank, in exchange for a lemon (sought after for its vitamin C), and assigned to work in the SS food store. This gave him access to soap and water—the SS expected those handling their food to be clean—which helped to save his life. Frank, he learned, was a kind man who would pretend to beat his prisoners when the guards were watching, although the blows always missed. The camp regime was otherwise marked by its pettiness and cruelty. When Heinrich Himmler visited on 17 July 1942 (during which he watched a gassing), the inmates were told everything had to be spotless. An orchestra of prisoners assembled by the gate, waiting for a sign that he was about to arrive:
And then it happened. The catastrophe that every actor dreads. The moment of horror that only great occasions merit. ... In the tenth row outside our Block, the Block Senior found Yankel Meisel without his full quota of tunic buttons.
It took some seconds for the enormity of the crime to sink. Then he felled him with a blow ... I saw the Block Senior, with two of his helpers, hauling Yankel inside the barrack block.
Out of sight, they acted like men who have been shamed and betrayed will act. They beat and kicked the life out of him.
In August 1942 Vrba was reassigned to the Aufräumungskommando (the "clearing" commando, also known as the "Kanada" commando) in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp in Brzezinka, four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the main camp. Around 200–800 prisoners worked there on the Judenrampe, where trains carrying Jews arrived, removing the dead from the freight cars and clearing out any blood and excrement, then sorting through the new arrivals' property. Many would bring kitchen utensils and clothes for different seasons, suggesting to Vrba that they believed the stories about resettlement. It took 2–3 hours to clear out the freight cars, by which time most of the new arrivals were already dead. A few were selected to work as slave labour, but those deemed unfit for work were taken by truck in groups of 100 to the gas chamber, including children, women with children, the elderly and the sick. He estimated that 90 percent were selected to die.
[O]ur first job was to get into the wagons, get out the dead bodies—or the dying—and transport them in laufschritt, as the Germans liked to say. This means "running". Laufschritt, yeah, never walking—everything had to be done in laufschritt, immer laufen. So, very sporty—they are a sporty nation, you see. ... There was not much medical counting to see who is dead and who feigns to be dead ... So they were put on the trucks; and once this was finished, this was the first truck to move off, and it went straight to the crematorium, which was about two kilometers to the left from the ramp. ...
The whole murder machinery could work on one principle: that the people came to Auschwitz and didn't know where they were going and for what purpose. The new arrivals were supposed to be kept orderly and without panic marching into the gas chambers. Especially the panic was dangerous from women with small children. So it was important for the Nazis that none of us give some sort of message which could cause a panic ... And anybody who tried to get into touch with newcomers was either clubbed to death or taken behind the wagon and shot ...
The new arrivals' property was taken to storage facilities known as Effektenlager I and II; inmates called them Kanada I and II because they were a "land of plenty". Located in Auschwitz I before Vrba's escape, they were later moved to barracks in the BIIg section Auschwitz II. Everything was there: medicine, food, clothing, utensils, spectacles, gold, dollars and pounds, much of it repackaged by the Aufräumungskommando to be sent to Germany. It was because of this access that Vrba was able to stay healthy.
The Aufräumungskommando lived in Auschwitz I, block 4, until 15 January 1943, when they were transferred to block 16 in Auschwitz II, sector Ib, where Vrba lived until June 1943. After he had been in Auschwitz for about five months, he fell sick with typhus; his weight dropped to 42 kilos and he was delirious. At his lowest point, he was helped by Josef Farber, a Slovakian member of the camp resistance, who brought him medication and thereafter extended to him the protection of the Auschwitz underground.
In early 1943 he was given the job of assistant registrar in one of the blocks; he told Lanzmann that the resistance movement had manoeuvered him into the position because it gave him access to information. A few weeks later, in June, he was made registrar (Blockschreiber) of block 10 in Auschwitz II, the quarantine section for men (BIIa), again because of the underground. The position gave him his own room and bed, and he could wear his own clothes. He was also able to speak to new arrivals who had been selected as slave labour, and he had to write reports about the registration process, which allowed him to ask questions and take notes.
From his room in BIIa, Vrba said that he could see the trucks drive towards the gas chambers. In his estimate, 10 percent of each transport was selected to work and the rest killed. During his time on the Judenrampe from 18 August 1942 to 7 June 1943, he said he had seen at least 200 trains arrive, each containing 1,000–5,000 people, according to an interview in 1978 for the documentary film Shoah (1985). In a 1998 paper, he wrote that he had witnessed 100–300 trains arrive, each locomotive pulling 20–40 freight cars and sometimes 50–60. He calculated that, between the spring of 1942 and 15 January 1944, 1.5 million had been killed. According to the Vrba–Wetzler report, 1,765,000 were killed in Auschwitz between April 1942 and April 1944. In 1961 Vrba swore in an affidavit for the trial of Adolf Eichmann that he believed 2.5 million had died overall in the camp, plus or minus 10 percent.
Vrba's estimates are higher than those of Holocaust historians, but in line with estimates from SS officers and Auschwitz survivors, including members of the Sonderkommando. Early estimates ranged from one to 6.5 million. Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving Auschwitz commandant, said in 1946 that three million had died in the camp, although he revised his view later. In 1946 the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland estimated four million. Later scholarly estimates were lower. According to Polish historian Franciszek Piper, writing in 2000, most historians place the figure at one to 1.5 million. His own widely accepted estimate was that at least 1.3 million were sent to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945 and that at least 1,082,000 died (rounded up to 1.1 million or 85 percent), including 960,000 Jews. Piper's estimate of the death toll for the period April 1942 to April 1944 was 450,000, against Vrba's 1,765,000.
According to Vrba, a kapo by the name of Yup, a former trade unionist from Berlin, told him on 15 January 1944 that he was part of a group of prisoners building a new railway line to lead straight into the crematoria. Yup said he had overheard from an SS officer that a million Hungarian Jews would soon arrive and that the old ramp could not handle the numbers. A railway line leading directly to the crematoria would cut thousands of truck journeys from the old ramp. In addition Vrba heard directly, courtesy of drunk SS guards, he wrote, that they would soon have Hungarian salami. When Dutch Jews arrived, they brought cheese; likewise there were sardines from the French Jews, and halva and olives from the Greeks. Now it was Hungarian salami. Vrba wrote: "I believed that if I could escape and spread the news of the fate awaiting potential candidates for 'resettlement', I could make some significant difference. I felt that I might undermine one of the principle foundations—the secrecy of the operation—upon which the success of the mass-murder process rested."
Vrba had been thinking of escape for two years but was now determined. A Russian captain, Dmitri Volkkov, advised him: he would need Russian tobacco soaked in petrol, then dried, to fool the dogs; a watch, which he could use as a compass; matches to make food; and salt, because salt and potatoes would be nutrition enough. Vrba began studying the layout of the camps. Both Auschwitz I and II consisted of inner camps where the prisoners slept, surrounded by a six-yard-wide trench full of water and high-voltage barbed-wire fences. The area was lit at night and guarded by the SS in watch towers. When a prisoner was reported missing, the guards searched for three days and nights. He reasoned that the key to a successful escape would be to remain hidden just outside the inner perimeter until the search was called off.
His first escape was planned for 26 January 1944 with Charles Unglick, a French Army captain, but the rendezvous did not work out; Unglick tried to escape alone and was killed. The SS left his body on display for two days, seated on a stool. An earlier group of escapees had been killed and mutilated with dumdum bullets, then placed in the middle of Camp D with a sign reading "We're back!"
On 6 March 1944 Vrba heard that the Czech family camp was about to be sent to the gas chambers. The group of around 5,000, including women and children, had arrived in Auschwitz in September 1943 from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezín, Czechoslovakia (the Czech Republic since 1993). That they had been allowed to live in Auschwitz for six months was unusual, not least because most women with children were killed immediately. Correspondence found after the war between Adolf Eichmann's office and the International Red Cross suggested that the Germans had set up the family camp as a model for a planned Red Cross visit to Auschwitz. The group was housed in relatively good conditions in block BIIb near the main gate, although in the six months they were held there 1,000 died despite the better conditions. They did not have their heads shaved, and the children were given lessons and access to better food, including milk and white bread.
After warning Fredy Hirsch, supervisor of the group's children's barracks, that they were about to be killed, Vrba urged him to organize an uprising, but Hirsch died shortly thereafter of a barbiturate overdose. On 7 March, according to the Vrba–Wetzler report, most of the group of 3,791 was gassed; several sets of twins were kept alive for medical experiments; A week before the gassing, the group had been told to write postdated postcards to relatives, explaining how they were doing and asking for food parcels. On or around 20 December 1943 a second Czech family group was placed in quarantine. Vrba assumed they would be killed in June 1944.
Vrba resolved again to escape. In Birkenau he had encountered an acquaintance from Trnava, Alfréd Wetzler (prisoner no. 29162, then aged 26) who had arrived in Auschwitz on 13 April 1942 and was working in the mortuary. Czesław Mordowicz, who escaped from Auschwitz weeks after Vrba, said decades later that it was Wetzler who had initiated and planned the escape.
According to Wetzler, writing in 1963 (and using pseudonyms),[e] the camp underground had organized the escape, supplying information for Vrba and Wetzler to carry. "Otta" in Hut 18, a locksmith, had created a key for a small shed in which Vrba and others had drawn a site plan and dyed clothes. "Fero" from the central registry supplied data from the registry; "Filipek" (Filip Müller) in Hut 13 added the names of the SS officers working around the crematoria, a plan of the gas chambers and crematoria, his records of the transports gassed in crematoria IV and V, and the label of a Zyklon B canister. "Edek" in Hut 14 smuggled out clothes for the escapees to wear, including suits from Amsterdam. "Adamek", "Bolek" and Vrba had supplied socks, underpants, shirts, glucose, a razor, torch, vitamins, margarine, cigarettes and a cigarette lighter that said "made in Auschwitz". The information about the camp, including a sketch of the crematorium produced by a Russian prisoner, "Wasyl", was hidden inside two metal tubes. The tube containing the sketch was lost during the escape; the second tube contained data about the transports. Vrba's account differs from Wetzel's; according to Vrba, they took no notes and wrote the Vrba–Wetzler report from memory. He told the historian John Conway that he had used "personal memotechnical methods" to remember the data, and that the stories about written notes had been invented because no one could explain his ability to recall so much detail.
Wearing suits, overcoats, and boots, at 14:00 on Friday, 7 April 1944—the eve of Passover—the men climbed inside a hollowed-out space they had prepared in a pile of wood stacked between Auschwitz-Birkenau's inner and outer perimeter fences, in section BIII in a construction area known as "Meksyk" ("Mexico"). They sprinkled the area with Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline, as advised by Dmitri Volkov, the Russian captain. Bolek and Adamek, both Polish prisoners, moved the planks back in place once they were hidden.
Kárný writes that at 20:33 on 7 April SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Hartjenstein, the Birkenau commander, learned by teleprinter that two Jews were missing. On 8 April the Gestapo at Auschwitz sent telegrams with descriptions to the Reich Security Head Office in Berlin, the SS in Oranienburg, district commanders, and others. The men hid in the wood pile for three nights and throughout the fourth day; they knew from escape attempts by others that the guards would search for three days. Soaking wet, with strips of flannel tightened across their mouths to muffle coughing, they lay there counting: "[N]early eighty hours. Four thousand eight hundred minutes. Two hundred and eighty-eight thousand seconds." On the Sunday morning, 9 April, Adamek urinated against the pile and whistled to signal that all was well. At 9 pm on 10 April, they crawled out of the wood pile. "Their circulation returns only slowly," Wetzel wrote. "They both have the sensation of ants running along in their veins, that their bodies have been transformed into big, very slowly warming ant-heaps. ... The onset of weakness is so fierce that they have to support themselves on the inner edges of the panels." Using a map they'd taken from "Canada", the men headed south toward Slovakia 130 kilometres (81 mi) away, walking parallel to the Soła river.
According to Henryk Świebocki of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, local people, including members of the Polish underground who lived near the camp, did what they could to help escapees. Vrba wrote that there was no organized help for them on the outside. At first the men avoided contact with other people, moving only at night; they ate bread they'd taken from Auschwitz and drank water from streams. On 13 April, lost in Bielsko-Biala, they knocked on the door of a farmhouse and a Polish woman took them in for a day. Feeding them bread, potato soup and ersatz coffee, she explained that most of the area had been "Germanized" and that Poles helping Jews risked death.
They continued following the river; every so often, a Polish woman would drop half a loaf of bread near them. They were shot at on 16 April by German gendarmes but managed to lose them. Two other Poles helped them with food and a place to stay, until they finally crossed the Polish–Slovakian border near Skalité on 21 April 1944. By this time, Vrba's feet were so swollen he had had to cut off his boots, and was walking in a pair of slippers one of the Polish peasants had given him.
A peasant family in Skalité took them in for a few days, fed and clothed them, then put them in touch with a Jewish doctor in nearby Čadca, Dr. Pollack. Vrba had met Pollack before, in a transit camp in Nováky. Through a contact in the Slovak Jewish Council, Pollack arranged for them to send people from Bratislava to meet the men. Pollack was distressed to learn the probable fate of his parents and siblings, who had been deported from Slovakia to Auchwitz in 1942.
Vrba and Wetzler spent the night in Čadca in the home of a relative of the rabbi Leo Baeck, before being take to Žilina by train, where they were met at the station by Erwin Steiner, a member of the Jewish Council, and taken to the Jewish Old People's Home, where the council had offices. Over the following days, they were introduced to Ibolya Steiner (who was married to Erwin); Oskar Krasniansky, an engineer and stenographer (who later took the name Oskar Isaiah Karmiel), and, on 25 April, the chairman of the council, Dr. Oskar Neumann, a lawyer. In his memoir, Wetzler described (using pseudonyms) several people who attended the first meeting: a lawyer (presumably Neumann), a factory worker, a "Madame Ibi" (Ibolya Steiner) who had been a functionary in a progressive youth organization, and the Prague correspondent of a Swiss newspaper. The lawyer told them the group had been waiting two years for someone to confirm the rumours they had heard about Auschwitz. Wetzler was surprised by the naïvety of the lawyer's question: "Is it so difficult to get out [of] there?" The journalist wanted to know how they had managed it, if it was so hard. Wetzler felt Vrba lean forward angrily to say something, but he grabbed his hand and Vrba drew back.
Wetzler encouraged Vrba to start describing conditions in Auschwitz: "He wants to speak like a witness, nothing but facts, but the terrible events sweep him along like a torrent, he relives them with his nerves, with every pore of his body, so that after an hour he is completely exhausted."  The group, in particular the Swiss journalist, seemed to have difficulty understanding. The journalist wondered why the International Red Cross had not intervened. "The more [Vrba] reports, the angrier and more embittered he becomes." The journalist asked Vrba to tell them about "specific bestialities by the SS men". Vrba replied: "That is as if you wanted me to tell you of a specific day when there was water in the Danube."
Vrba described the ramp, the Sonderkommando and the camps' internal organization; how Jews were being used as slave labour for Krupp, Siemens, IG Farben and DAW; and the mass murder in gas chambers of those chosen for Sonderbehandlung ("special treatment"), including the destruction of the Czech family camp. Wetzler gave them the data from the central registry hidden in the remaining tube, described the medical experiments, and listed the names of the doctors involved in them. "Every word", he wrote, "has the effect of a blow on the head."
The lawyer said the men would be brought a typewriter in the morning, and the group would meet again in three days. Hearing this, Vrba exploded: "Easy for you to say 'in three days'! But back there they are flinging people into the fire at this moment and in three days they'll kill thousands. Do something immediately!" Wetzler pulled on his arm, but Vrba continued, pointing at each one: "You, you, you'll all finish up in the gas unless something is done! Do you hear?"
The following day, Vrba began by sketching the layout of Auschwitz I and II, and the position of the ramp in relation to the camps. The report was re-written several times over three days; according to Wetzler, on two of those days, he and Vrba wrote until daybreak. Wetzler wrote the first part, Vrba the third, and they worked on the second part together. Then they re-wrote it six times. Oskar Krasniansky translated it from Slovak into German as it was being written, with the help of Ibolya Steiner, who typed it up. The original Slovak version is lost. The report was completed by Thursday, 27 April 1944; according to Vrba, it was also translated at that point into Hungarian.
The report contains a detailed description of the geography and management of the camps, how the prisoners lived, the transports that had arrived at Auschwitz since 1942, and the numbers selected for work or the gas chamber. According to Kárný, the report describes the camp "with absolute accuracy", including its construction, installations, security, the prisoner number system, the categories of prisoner, the diet and accommodation, as well as the gassings, shootings and injections. It provides details known only to prisoners, including, for example, that discharge forms were filled out for prisoners who were gassed, indicating that death rates in the camp were actively falsified. Although presented by two men, it was clearly the product of many prisoners, including the Sonderkommando working in the gas chambers.
It also contained sketches and information about the layout of the gas chambers, and stated that there were four crematoria in operation, each of which contained a gas chamber and furnace room. It estimated the total capacity of the four gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz to be 6,000 daily.
The unfortunate victims are brought into hall where they are told to undress. To complete the fiction that they are going to bathe, each person receives a towel and a small piece of soap issued by two men clad in white coats. They are then crowded into the gas chamber in such numbers that there is, of course, only standing room.
To compress this crowd into the narrow space, shots are often fired to induce those already at the far end to huddle still closer together. When everybody is inside, the heavy doors are closed. Then there is a short pause, presumably to allow the room temperature to rise to a certain level, after which SS men with gas masks climb on the roof, open the traps, and shake down a preparation in powder form out of tin cans labeled 'CYKLON For use against vermin', which is manufactured by a Hamburg concern.
In a sworn deposition for the trial of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and in his book I Cannot Forgive (1963), Vrba said that he and Wetzler had obtained the information about the gas chambers and crematoria from Sonderkommando Filip Müller and his colleagues who worked there. Müller confirmed this in his Eyewitness Auschwitz (1979). Auschwitz scholar Robert Jan van Pelt wrote in 2002 that the description contains errors, but that given the circumstances, including the men's lack of architectural training, "one would become suspicious if it did not contain errors".
Arnost Rosin (prisoner no. 29858) and Czesław Mordowicz (prisoner no. 84216) escaped from Auschwitz on 27 May 1944 and arrived in Slovakia on 6 June, the day of the Normandy landings. Hearing about the invasion of Normandy and believing the war was over, they got drunk to celebrate, using dollars they had 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 that anyone who survived more than a year in Auschwitz was a senior member of the "old hands Mafia". On 15 June Rosin and Mordowicz were interviewed by Oskar Krasniansky, the engineer who had translated the Vrba–Wetzler report into German. They told him that, between 15 and 27 May 1944, 100,000 Hungarian Jews had arrived at Birkenau; most were killed on arrival. Vrba concluded that the Vrba–Wetzler report had been suppressed. Mordowicz was arrested again in Bratislava and ended up back inside Auschwitz, but the SS did not recognize him and both he and Rosin survived the war. The seven-page Rosin-Mordowicz report was later combined with the longer Vrba–Wetzler report and a third report, known as the Polish Major's report (written by Jerzy Tabeau, who had escaped from Auchwitz in November 1943), to become the Auschwitz Protocols.
The Jewish Council found two rented apartments for Vrba, Wetzler, Rosin and Mordowicz in Liptovský Svätý Mikuláš, Slovakia; the men kept a copy of the Vrba–Wetzler report, in Slovak, hidden in one of the apartments behind a picture of the Virgin Mary. They made clandestine copies with the help of a friend, Josef Weiss of the Bratislava Office for the Prevention of Venereal Disease, and handed them out to Jews in Slovakia with contacts in Hungary, for translation into Hungarian. Vrba wrote that one of these copies "found its way to Switzerland and Bern (via Moshe Krausz, director of the Palestine Office in Budapest) and was smuggled to George Mandel-Mantello, a Hungarian Jew living in Switzerland, who managed to have parts of the abbreviated Report published."
The dates on which the report was distributed became a matter of importance within Holocaust historiography. According to Randolph L. Braham, Jewish leaders were slow to distribute the report, fearful of causing panic. Vrba alleged that lives were lost because of this. In particular he blamed Rudolf Kastner of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee (Vaada). The committee had organized safe passage for Jews into Hungary before the German invasion, and thereafter sought to help them escape the deportations. The Slovak Jewish Council handed Kastner the report at the end of April or by 3 May at the latest.[f]
Reverend József Éliás, head of the Good Shepherd Mission in Hungary, said he had received the report by late April or early May from Géza Soós, a Hungarian Foreign Ministry official and leading member of the Hungarian Independence Movement, a resistance group. Bauer believes that Kastner (or possibly Otto Komoly, leader of the Vaada) gave Soós the report. Éliás's secretary, Mária Székely, translated it into Hungarian and prepared six copies. These copies made their way to several Hungarian and church officials, including Miklós Horthy's daughter-in-law, Countess Ilona Edelsheim-Gyulai. Braham writes that this distribution occurred before 15 May.
Kastner's reasons for not distributing the report further are unknown. Vrba argued until the end of his life that Kastner withheld it in order not to jeopardize negotiations between the Vaada and Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer in charge of the transport of Jews out of Hungary. As the Vrba–Wetzler report was being written, Eichmann had proposed to the Vaada in Budapest that the SS trade up to one million Hungarian Jews for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Western Allies. The proposal came to nothing, but Kastner collected donations to pay the SS to allow over 1,600 Jews to leave Budapest for Switzerland on what became known as the Kastner train. In Vrba's view, Kastner suppressed the report in order not to alienate the SS.
The Hungarian biologist George Klein worked as a junior secretary for the Jewish Council in Síp Street, Budapest, in 1944 when he was a teenager. In late May or early June, his boss, Dr. Zoltán Kohn, showed him a carbon copy of the Vrba–Wetzler report in Hungarian and said he should tell only his closest family and friends. Klein had heard Jews mention the term Vernichtungslager (extermination camp), but it had seemed like a myth. "I immediately believed the report because it made sense," he wrote in 2011. "Nothing else made sense. The dry, factual, nearly scientific language, the dates, the numbers, the maps and the logic of the narrative coalesced into a solid and inexorable structure." Klein told his uncle, a well-known physician, who nearly hit him and asked how Klein could believe such nonsense: "I and others in the building in Síp Street must have lost our minds under the pressure." It was the same with other relatives and friends: middle-aged men with property and family did not believe it, while the younger ones wanted to act. In October that year, when the time came for Klein to board a train to Auschwitz, he ran instead.
The report was first published in Geneva on 17 May 1944, in German, by Abraham Silberschein of the World Jewish Congress as Tatsachenbericht über Auschwitz und Birkenau. Florian Manoliu of the Romanian Legation in Bern took the report to Switzerland and gave it to George Mantello, a Jewish businessman from Transylvania, who was working as the first secretary of the El Salvador consulate in Geneva. It was thanks to Mantello that the report received, in the Swiss press, its first wide coverage. According to David Kranzler, Mantello asked the Swiss-Hungarian Students' League to make 50 mimeographed copies of the Vrba–Wetzler report and two shorter Auschwitz reports (jointly known as the Auschwitz Protocols), which by 23 June 1944 he had distributed to the Swiss government and Jewish groups. The students made thousands of copies, which were passed to other students and MPs. At least 383 articles about Auschwitz appeared in the Swiss press between 23 June and 11 July 1944. According to Michael Fleming, "[t]his figure exceeds the number of articles published about the Holocaust during the entire war in The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Manchester Guardian and the whole of the British popular press."
On 19 June Richard Lichtheim of the Jewish Agency in Geneva, who had received a copy of the report from Mantello, cabled the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem to say they knew "what has happened and where it has happened", and reported the Vrba–Wetzler figure that 90 per cent of Jews arriving at Birkenau were being killed.
At the request of the Slovakian Jewish Council, Vrba and Czesław Mordowicz (one of the 27 May escapees), along with a translator and Oskar Krasniasnky, met Vatican Swiss legate Monsignor Mario Martilotti at the Svätý Jur monastery on 20 June. Martilotti had seen the report and questioned the men about it for six hours. Mordowicz was irritated by Vrba during this meeting. In an interview in the 1990s for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, he said Vrba, 19 at the time, had behaved cynically and childishly; at one point he appeared to mock the way Martilotti was cutting his cigar. Mordowicz feared that the behaviour would make their information seem less credible. In an effort to maintain Martilotti's attention, he told him that Catholics and Catholic priests were being murdered along with the Jews. Martilotti reportedly fainted, shouting "Mein Gott! Mein Gott!" Possibly as a result of that meeting, on 25 June Pope Pius XII sent a telegram appealing directly to Miklós Horthy.
Also at the Jewish Council's request, Vrba and Mordowicz met Michael Dov Weissmandl, an Orthodox rabbi and one of the leaders of the Bratislava Working Group, at his Yeshiva in the centre of Bratislava. Vrba writes that Weissmandl was clearly well-informed and had seen the Vrba–Wetzler report. He had also seen, as Vrba found out after the war, the Polish Major's Report about Auschwitz. Weissmandl asked what could be done:
We explained to him ... that once [the Jews] are surrounded on the ramp [at Auschwitz], there is nothing that can be done. ... The only thing to do is to explain to them that they are not going into a settlement camp, that they should not board the trains, that they should not obey orders, that they should run away wherever they can. They should be hunted down like deer, not slaughtered like pigs.
Weissmandl also wanted to know what should be done militarily. Hoping he had some influence, Vrba explained that the railway lines into Birkenau should be bombed. (Weissmandl had already suggested this, on 16 May 1944 in a message to the American Orthodox Jewish Rescue committee.) Vrba wrote about the incongruity of visiting Weissmandl at his Yeshiva, which he assumed could exist only because it was under the protection of the Slovak government and the Germans. "The visibility of Yeshiva life in the center of Bratislava, less than 150 miles south of Auschwitz, was in my eyes a typical piece of Goebbels–inspired activity as well as both a tragic and comic deception. There—before the eyes of the world—the pupils of Rabbi Weissmandel could study the rules of Jewish ethics while their own sisters and mothers were being murdered and burned in Birkenau."
Details from the Vrba–Wetzler report began to appear elsewhere in the media. On 4 June 1944 the New York Times reported on the "cold-blooded murder" of Hungary's Jews. On 16 June the Jewish Chronicle in London ran a story by Isaac Gruenbaum of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem with the headline "Bomb death camps"; the writer had clearly seen the Vrba–Wetzler report. Also on 16 June the BBC's German service reported the murder in March of the Czech family camp, and mentioned the second Czech group the Vrba–Wetzler report said would be killed on or around 20 June. The broadcast added a warning:
In London, there is a highly precise report on the mass murder in Birkenau. All of those responsible for this mass murder, from those who give the orders through their intermediaries and down to those who carry out the orders, will be held responsible."
A 22-line story on page five of the New York Times, "Czechs report massacre", reported on 20 June that 7,000 Jews had been "dragged to gas chambers in the notorious German concentration camps at Birkenau and Oświęcim [Auschwitz]". Walter Garrett, the Swiss correspondent of the Exchange Telegraph, a British news agency, sent four dispatches to London on 24 June with details from the report received from George Mantello, including Vrba's estimate that 1,715,000 Jews had been murdered. As a result of his reporting, at least 383 articles about Auschwitz appeared over the following 18 days, including a 66-page report in Geneva, Les camps d'extermination.
On 26 June the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that 100,000 Hungarian Jews had been executed in gas chambers in Auschwitz. The BBC repeated this on the same day but omitted the name of the camp. The following day, as a result of the information from Garrett, the Manchester Guardian published two articles. The first said that Polish Jews were being gassed in Auschwitz and the second: "Information that the Germans systematically exterminating Hungarian Jews has lately become more substantial." The report mentioned the arrival "of many thousands of Jews ... at the concentration camp at Oswiecim". On 28 June the newspaper reported that 100,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Poland and gassed, but without mentioning Auschwitz.
Daniel Brigham, the New York Times correspondent in Geneva, published a story on 3 July, "Inquiry Confirms Nazi Death Camps", with the subtitle "1,715,000 Jews Said to Have Been Put to Death by the Germans up to April 15", and on 6 July a second, "Two Death Camps Places of Horror; German Establishments for Mass Killings of Jews Described by Swiss". According to Fleming, the BBC Home Service mentioned Auschwitz as an extermination camp for the first time on 7 July 1944. It said that over "four hundred thousand Hungarian Jews [had been] sent to the concentration camp at Oświęcim" and that most were killed in gas chambers; it added that the camp was the largest concentration camp in Poland and that gas chambers had been installed in 1942 that could kill 6,000 people a day. Fleming writes that the report was the last of nine on the 9 pm news.
Several appeals were made to Horthy, including by the Spanish, Swiss and Turkish governments, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gustaf V of Sweden, the International Committee of the Red Cross and, on 25 June 1944, Pope Pius XII. The Pope's telegram did not mention Jews: "We are being beseeched in various quarters to do everything in our power that, in this noble and chivalrous nation, the sufferings, already so heavy, endured by a large number of unfortunate people, because of their nationality or race, may not be extended and aggravated."
John Clifford Norton, a British diplomat in Bern, cabled the British government on 27 June with suggestions for action, which included bombing government buildings in Budapest. On 2 July American and British forces did bomb Budapest, killing 500 and dropping leaflets warning that those responsible for the deportations would be held to account. Horthy ordered an end to the mass deportations on 7 July. That the Germans had used gas chambers was confirmed on 23 July, when the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland, was captured by Soviet soldiers with its gas chambers intact.
The Vrba–Wetzler report received widespread coverage in the United States and elsewhere when John Pehle of the US War Refugee Board issued a 25,000-word press release after many months delay, on 25 November 1944, including a full version of the report and a preface calling it "entirely credible". Entitled The Extermination Camps of Auschwitz (Oświęcim) and Birkenau in Upper Silesia, the release included the 33-page Vrba–Wetzler report; a six-page report from Arnost Rosin and Czesław Mordowicz, who escaped from Auschwitz on 27 May 1944; and the 19-page "Polish Major's report", written in December 1943 by a Polish escapee, Jerzy Tabeau. Jointly the three reports came to be known as the Auschwitz Protocols.
The Washington Times Herald said the press release was "the first American official stamp of truth to the myriad of eyewitness stories of the mass massacres in Poland", while the New York Herald Tribune called the Protocols "the most shocking document ever issued by a United States government agency". Pehle passed a copy to Yank magazine, an American armed-forces publication, but the story, by Sergeant Richard Paul, was turned down as "too Semitic"; the magazine did not want to publish it, they said, because of "latent antisemitism in the Army". In June 1944 Pehle had urged John J. McCloy, US assistant secretary of war, to bomb Auschwitz, but McCloy had said it was "impracticable". After the publication of the Protocols he tried again. McCloy replied that the camp could not be reached by bombers stationed in France, Italy or the UK, which meant that heavy bombers would have to fly to Auschwitz, a journey of 2,000 miles, without an escort. McCloy told him: "The positive solution to this problem is the earliest possible victory over Germany."
After dictating the report in April 1944, Vrba and Wetzler stayed in Liptovský Mikuláš for six weeks, and continued to make and distribute copies of the report with the help of a friend, Joseph Weiss. Weiss worked for the Office for Prevention of Venereal Diseases in Bratislava and allowed copies to be made in the office. The Jewish Council gave Vrba papers in the name of Rudolf Vrba, showing Aryan ancestry going back three generations,[c] and supported him financially to the tune of 200 Slovak crowns a week, equivalent to an average worker's salary; Vrba wrote that it was "sufficient to sustain me underground in Bratislava". On 29 August 1944 the Slovak Army rose up against the Nazis and the reestablishment of Czechoslovakia was announced. Vrba joined the Slovak partisans in September 1944 and was later awarded the Czechoslovak Medal of Bravery.
Auschwitz was liberated by the 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front (part of the Red Army) on 27 January 1945; 1,200 prisoners were found in the main camp and 5,800 in Birkenau. The SS had tried to destroy the evidence, but the Red Army found what was left of four crematoria, as well as 5,525 pairs of women's shoes, 38,000 pairs of men's, 348,820 men's suits, 836,225 items of women's clothing, large numbers of carpets, utensils, toothbrushes, glasses and dentures, and seven tons of hair.
In 1945 Vrba met up with a childhood friend, Gerti Sidonovi from Tvrnava. They both wanted to study for degrees, so they took courses set up by Czechoslovakia's Department of Education for those who had missed out on schooling because of the Nazis. They moved after that to Prague, where they married in 1947; Sidonovi took the surname Vrbová, the female version of Vrba. She graduated in medicine, then went into research. In 1949 Vrba obtained a degree in chemistry (Ing. Chern.) from the Czech Technical University in Prague, which earned him a postgraduate fellowship from the Ministry of Education, and in 1951 he received his doctorate (Dr. Tech. Sc.) for a thesis entitled "On the metabolism of butyric acid". The couple had two daughters: Helena (1952–1982) and Zuzana (b. 1954). Vrba undertook post-doctoral research at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, where he received his C.Sc. in 1956. From 1953 to 1958 he worked for Charles University Medical School in Prague. His marriage ended around this time.
With the marriage over and Czechoslovakia ruled by a Soviet Union-dominated socialist government, Vrba and Vrbová both defected, him to Israel and her to England with the children. Vrbová had fallen in love with an Englishman and was able to defect after being invited to an academic conference in Poland. Unable to obtain visas for her children, she returned illegally to Czechoslovakia and walked her children back over the mountains to Poland. From there they flew to Denmark with forged papers, then to London.
In 1957 Vrba became aware, when he read Gerald Reitlinger's The Final Solution (1953), that the Vrba–Wetzler report had been distributed and had saved lives; he had heard something about this in or around 1951, but Reitlinger's book was the first confirmation. The following year he received an invitation to an international conference in Israel, and while there he defected too. For the next two years, he worked at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. He said later that he had not been able to continue living in Israel because the same men who had, in his view, betrayed the Jewish community in Hungary were now in positions of power there. In 1960 he moved to England, where he worked for two years in the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit in Carshalton, Surrey, and seven years for the Medical Research Council. He became a British subject by naturalization on 4 August 1966.
On 11 May 1960 Adolf Eichmann was captured by the Mossad in Buenos Aires and taken to Jerusalem to stand trial. (He was sentenced to death in December 1961.) Vrba was not called to testify because the Israeli Attorney General had apparently wanted to save the expense. Because Auschwitz was in the news, Vrba contacted the Daily Herald in London, and one of their reporters, Alan Bestic, wrote up his story, which was published in five installments over one week, beginning on 27 February 1961 with the headline "I Warned the World of Eichmann's Murders." In July 1961 Vrba submitted an affidavit to the Israeli Embassy in London, stating that, in his view, 2.5 million had died in Auschwitz, plus or minus 10 percent; the affidavit explained how he had arrived at the figure.
In 1964 Vrba testified against Robert Mulka of the SS at the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, telling the court that he had seen Mulka on the Judenrampe at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The court found that Vrba "made an excellent and intelligent impression" and would have been particularly observant at the time because he was planning to escape. It ruled that Mulka had indeed been on the ramp, and sentenced him to 14 years in prison.
Following the Herald articles, Bestic helped to write Vrba's memoir, I Cannot Forgive (1963), also published as Factory of Death (1964). Bestic's writing style was criticized; reviewing the book, Mervyn Jones wrote in 1964 that it has the flavour of "the juicy bit on page 63". Erich Kulka criticized the book in 1985 for minimizing the role played by the other three escapees (Wetzler, Mordowicz and Rosin); Kulka also disagreed with Vrba regarding his criticism of Zionists, the Slovak Jewish Council, and Israel's first president. The book was published in German (1964), French (1988), Dutch (1996), Czech (1998) and Hebrew (1998). It was republished in English in 1989 as 44070: The Conspiracy of the Twentieth Century and in 2002 as I Escaped from Auschwitz.
Vrba moved to Canada in 1967, where he worked for the Medical Research Council of Canada from 1967 to 1973, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1972. From 1973 to 1975 he was a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, focusing on cancer research, where, in 1974, he met his second wife, Robin Vrba, originally from Fall River, Massachusetts. They married in 1975 and returned to Vancouver, where she became a real-estate agent and he an associate professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. He worked there until the early 1990s, publishing over 50 research papers on the chemistry of the brain, diabetes and cancer.
Vrba testified in January 1985, along with Raul Hilberg, at the seven-week trial in Toronto of German Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel, which ended with Zündel's conviction for knowingly publishing false material about the Holocaust. (In R v Zundel (1992), the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Zundel's appeal on free-speech grounds.) During the trial, Zündel's lawyer, Doug Christie, tried to undermine Vrba (and three other survivors) by requesting ever more detailed descriptions, then presenting any discrepancy as significant. According to Lawrence Douglas, when Vrba said he had watched bodies burn in a pit, Christie asked how deep the pit had been; when Vrba described an SS officer climbing onto the roof of a gas chamber, Christie asked about the height and angle. When Vrba told Christie he was not willing to discuss his book unless the jury had read it, the judge swiftly corrected him: "Dr. Vrba, you are not to give orders as to what this jury will do and what you will do or not do." Christie also argued that Vrba's knowledge of the gas chambers was secondhand. According to Vrba's deposition for Adolf Eichmann's trial in 1961, he obtained information about the gas chambers and crematoria from Sonderkommando Filip Müller and others who worked there, something that Müller confirmed in 1979. Christie asked whether he had seen anyone gassed. Vrba replied that he had watched people being taken into the buildings and had seen SS officers throw in gas canisters after them: "Therefore, I concluded it was not a kitchen or a bakery, but it was a gas chamber. It is possible they are still there or that there is a tunnel and they are now in China. Otherwise, they were gassed."
In the spring of 1987 the Swedish–Hungarian biochemist George Klein, who read the Vrba–Wetzler report in 1944 as a teenager in Budapest and escaped rather than board one of the trains, travelled to Vancouver to thank Vrba. He wrote about the meeting in an essay, "The Ultimate Fear of the Traveler Returning from Hell", for his book Pietà (1992). Klein had seen Vrba for the first time in Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah (1985). He disagreed with Vrba about Kastner; he had seen Kastner at work and viewed him as a hero. He told Vrba how he had tried himself, in the spring of 1944, to convince others in Budapest of the report's veracity, but no one had believed him, which inclined him to the view that Vrba was wrong to argue that the Jews would have acted had they known about the death camps. Vrba said that Klein's experience illustrated his point: distributing the report via informal channels had lent it no authority.
Klein asked Vrba how he could function in the pleasant, somewhat provincial atmosphere of the University of British Columbia, where no one had any concept of what he had been through. Vrba told him about a colleague who had seen him in Lanzmann's film and asked whether what the film had discussed was true. Vrba replied: "I do not know. I was only an actor reciting my lines." "How strange," the colleague replied. "I didn't know that you were an actor. Why did they say that film was made without any actors?" Klein wrote:
Only now did I understand that this was the same man who lay quiet and motionless for three days in the hollow pile of lumber while Auschwitz was on maximum alert, only a few yards from the armed SS men and their dogs combing the area so thoroughly. If he could do that, then he certainly could also don the mask of a professor and manage everyday conversation with his colleagues in Vancouver, Canada, that paradise land that is never fully appreciated by its own citizens, a people without the slightest notion of the planet Auschwitz.
Vrba's fellow escapee, Alfréd Wetzler, died in Bratislava, Slovakia, on 8 February 1988. Wetzler was the author of Escape From Hell: The True Story of the Auschwitz Protocol (2007), first published as Čo Dante nevidel (1963) under the pseudonym Jozef Lánik.
Vrba died of cancer, aged 81, on 27 March 2006 in hospital in Vancouver. He was survived by his first wife, Gerta Vrbová; his second wife, Robin Vrba; his daughter, Zuza Vrbová Jackson; and his grandchildren, Hannah and Jan. He was pre-deceased by his elder daughter, Dr. Helena Vrbová, who died in 1982 in Papua New Guinea during a malaria research project. Robin Vrba made a gift of Vrba's papers to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in New York.
Several documentaries have told Vrba's story, including Genocide (1973), directed by Michael Darlow for ITV in the UK, and Auschwitz and the Allies (1982), directed by Rex Bloomstein and Martin Gilbert for the BBC. Claude Lanzmann interviewed Vrba in November 1978, in New York's Central Park, for Lanzmann's nine-hour documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah (1985). He told Lanzmann:
Constantly, people from the heart of Europe were disappearing and they were arriving to the same place with the same ignorance of the fate of the previous transport. ... Somehow in my thinking it was difficult for me to comprehend that people can disappear in this way. And ... then there comes the next transport, and they don't know anything about what happened to the previous transport, and this is going on for months, on and on.
Vrba was also featured in Witness to Auschwitz (1990), directed by Robin Taylor for the CBC in Canada; Auschwitz: The Great Escape (2007) for the UK's Channel Five; and Escape From Auschwitz (2008) for PBS in the United States. George Klein, the Hungarian-Swedish biologist who read the Vrba–Wetzler report in Budapest as a teenager, and who escaped rather than board a train to Auschwitz, wrote about Vrba in his book Pietà (MIT Press, 1992). In 2001 Mary Robinson, then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Vaclav Havel, then President of the Czech Republic, established the "Rudy Vrba Award" for films in the "right to know" category. In 2014 the Vrba–Weztler Memorial began organizing an annual 130-km, five-day walk from the "Mexico" section of Auschwitz, where the men hid for three days, to Žilina, Slovakia, following the route they took.
Vrba's place in Holocaust historiography was the focus of Ruth Linn's Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting (Cornell University Press, 2004). The Rosenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies at the City University of New York held an academic conference in April 2011 to discuss the Vrba–Wetzler and other Auschwitz reports, resulting in a book, The Auschwitz Reports and the Holocaust in Hungary (Columbia University Press, 2011), edited by Randolph L. Braham and William vanden Heuvel. In 2014 the British historian Michael Fleming reappraised the impact of the Vrba–Wetzler report in Auschwitz, the Allies and Censorship of the Holocaust (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
The University of Haifa awarded Vrba an honorary doctorate in 1998 at the instigation of Ruth Linn, with support from Yehuda Bauer. For having fought during the Slovak National Uprising, Vrba was awarded the Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery, the Order of Slovak National Insurrection (Class 2), and the Medal of Honor of Czechoslovak Partisans. In 2007 he received the Order of the White Double Cross, 1st class, from the Slovak government.
British historian Martin Gilbert supported an unsuccessful campaign in 1992 to have Vrba awarded the Order of Canada. The campaign was supported by Irwin Cotler, the former Attorney General of Canada, who at the time was a professor of law at McGill University. Cotler wrote to Gilbert on 18 February 1992: "I fully concur with you that Vrba is a 'real hero'. Indeed, there was few more deserving of the Order of Canada than Vrba and few, anywhere, who have exhibited his moral courage." Similarly, Bauer proposed unsuccessfully that Vrba be awarded an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University.
Vrba is clear in his memoir that warning the Hungarian community was one of the motives for his escape. In January 1944, he wrote, a kapo told him the Germans were building a new railway line to bring the Jews of Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historians have disputed this because there is no mention of Hungarian Jews in the Vrba–Wetzler report. Miroslav Kárný argued in 1998 that, long after the war was over, Vrba wanted to force the world to face the magnitude of the Nazis' crimes, and that this desire led to a degree of embellishment. Randolph L. Braham also questioned Vrba's later recollections, although neither Kárný nor Braham doubt the veracity of the Vrba–Wetzler report.
According to the report, a large compound was being built at Auschwitz: "Work is now proceeding on a still larger compound which is to be added later on to the already existing camp. The purpose of this extensive planning is not known to us." It also stated: "When we left on April 7, 1944 we heard that large convoys of Greek Jews were expected." Vrba's statement that he had escaped to warn Hungarian Jews was first published on 27 February 1961, in the first installment of a five-article series for the Daily Herald in England, written by a journalist, Alan Bestic. In the second installment, the following day, Vrba described having overheard the SS say they were looking forward to Hungarian salami, a reference to the provisions Hungarian Jews could be expected to bring.
Dr. Oskar Neumann, head of the Jewish Council in Slovakia, whose interviews with Vrba and Wetzler in April 1944 helped to form the Vrba–Wetzler report, wrote in his memoir in 1946 (Im Schatten des Todes, published in 1956) that the men had indeed mentioned Hungarian salami: "These chaps did also report that recently an enormous construction activity had been initiated in the camp and very recently the SS often spoke about looking forward to the arrival of Hungarian salami." Vrba wrote that the original Slovak version of the Vrba–Wetzler report, some of which he wrote by hand, may have referred to the imminent Hungarian deportations. That version of the report did not survive; it was the German translation that was copied around the world. Vrba wrote that he had argued strongly for the inclusion of the Hungarian deportations, but he recalled Oskar Krasniansky, who translated the report into German, saying that only actual deaths should be recorded, not speculation, to lend the report maximum credibility. He could not recall which argument prevailed.
Vrba also wrote that Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl and Gisi Fleischmann of the Slovak Jewish Council referred to the report and Hungarian Jews in a five-page letter sent by courier in May 1944 to a Swiss branch of HeHalutz, the Jewish youth movement: "In December and January a special railway line has already been built leading into the halls of annihilation, in order to prepare the new work of annihilation of Hungarian Jews. That was said by knowledgeable people there in that hell; there they discuss it without scruples, without suspecting that someone will learn about it since they assume, in general, that no one in the country knows anything whatever about the work in this hell."[g] The letter reportedly states on page three that the sources are "two Jews recently escaped from Auschwitz".
It was a source of distress to Vrba for the rest of his life that the Vrba–Wetzler report had not been distributed widely until June–July 1944, weeks after his escape in April. Between 15 May and 7 July 1944, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, most killed on arrival. In his book, I Cannot Forgive (1963), he asked: "Why did hundreds of thousands walk without resistance to the gas chambers"? In his view, the deportees boarded the trains in the belief they were being sent to some kind of Jewish reservation.
Arguing that they would have fought or run had they known the truth, or at least that panic would have slowed the transports, Vrba alleged that Rudolf Kastner of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee (who had a copy of the Vrba–Wetzler report by 3 May 1944 at the latest) had held back the report to avoid jeopardizing complex, and mostly futile, negotiations with Adolf Eichmann, Dieter Wisliceny and other SS officers to exchange Jews for money and goods. In taking part in these negotiations, Vrba argued, the SS was simply placating the Jewish leadership to avoid rebellion within the community.
In I Cannot Forgive, Vrba drew attention to the 1954 trial in Jerusalem of Malchiel Gruenwald, a Hungarian Jew. In the early 1950s Gruenwald began self-publishing a political pamphlet, the target of which in August 1952 was Rudolf Kastner, who had become a civil servant in Israel. Kastner had bribed the SS to allow over 1,600 Jews to leave Hungary for Switzerland on the Kastner train on 30 June 1944, and he had testified on behalf of one of the SS officers, Kurt Becher, at the Nuremberg trials. Gruenwald accused Kastner of having collaborated with the SS so that he could escape from Hungary with a select few, including his family.[h]
In Attorney-General of the Government of Israel v. Malchiel Gruenwald, the Israeli government sued Gruenwald for libel on Kastner's behalf. In June 1955, Judge Benjamin Halevi (one of the judges at the trial of Adolf Eichmann) decided mostly in Gruenwald's favour, ruling that Kastner had "sold his soul to the devil". "Masses of ghetto Jews boarded the deportation trains in total obedience," Halevi wrote, "ignorant of the real destination and trusting the false declaration that they were being transferred to work camps in Hungary." The Kastner train had been a pay-off, the judge said, and the protection of certain Jews had been "an inseparable part of the maneuvers in the 'psychological war' to destroy the Jews." Kastner had "accepted the extermination of the ordinary people and abandoned them to their fates", the judge said. Israeli historian Tom Segev called the ruling "one of the most heartless in the history of Israel, perhaps the most heartless ever". Kastner was assassinated in Tel Aviv in March 1957 as a result of the verdict, which was partly overturned by the Supreme Court of Israel in 1958.
Vrba agreed with Gruenwald's criticism of Kastner. In addition, he blamed the Slovak Jewish Council for having failed to resist the deportation of Jews from Slovakia in 1942. When he was sent to the Majdanek concentration camp in occupied Poland in June that year, the council knew, he alleged, that Jews were being killed in Poland, but did nothing to warn the community and even assisted by drawing up lists of names. Bauer argues that the council did know that being sent to Poland meant severe danger for Jews, but at that stage did not know about the Final Solution. It is true, Bauer writes, that several members of the Jewish Council under Karol Hochberg, head of the council's "department for special tasks", worked with the SS, offering secretarial and technical help, to draw up lists of Jews to be deported (lists supplied by the Slovak government). Other members of the Jewish Council warned Jews to flee and later formed a resistance, the Working Group, which in December 1943 took over the Jewish Council, with Oskar Neumann (the lawyer who helped organize the Vrba–Wetzler report) as its leader.
Vrba did not accept these distinctions. He referred to Jewish leaders in Slovakia and Hungary as "quislings" who were essential to the smooth running of the deportations: "The creation of Quislings, voluntary or otherwise, was, in fact, an important feature of Nazi policy" in every occupied country, in his view. "Would anyone have got me alive to Auschwitz if I had had this information?" he wrote. "Would thousands and thousands of able-bodied Jewish men have sent their children, wives, mothers to Auschwitz from all over Europe, if they knew?"
Vrba's position that the Jewish leadership in Hungary and Slovakia betrayed their communities was supported by the Anglo-Canadian historian John S. Conway, a colleague of his at the University of British Columbia, who from 1979 wrote a series of papers in defence of Vrba's views. In 1996 Vrba repeated the allegations in an article, "Die mißachtete Warnung. Betrachtungen über den Auschwitz-Bericht von 1944", in Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, a prominent German academic journal, to which the Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer responded. Bauer also responded to Conway in 2006.
Bauer wrote that many survivors share Vrba's and Conway's view but that is "patently wrong". Arguing that Vrba's "wild attacks on Kastner and on the Slovak underground are all a-historical and simply wrong from the start", he wrote that by the time the Vrba–Wetzler report had been prepared, it was too late for anything to alter the Nazis' deportation plans. The Jews in Hungary knew about the mass murder in Poland, he argued, even if they did not know the particulars about Auschwitz. Even if they had seen the Vrba–Wetzler report, they would have been forced onto the trains by guards with weapons and dogs. Bauer cautioned about the need to distinguish between the receipt of information and its "internalization": "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." Vrba, in response, alleged that Bauer was one of the Israeli historians who, in defence of the Israeli establishment, had downplayed Vrba's place in Holocaust historiography.
Michael Fleming argued in 2014 against the view that Hungarian Jews had sufficient access to information. After the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, the British government's Political Warfare Executive (PWE) had directed the BBC's Hungarian Service to run Allied warnings to the German government about the deportation of people (Jews were not mentioned). The London-based Jewish Chronicle ran a story on 7 April 1944 headlined "Zero hour in Hungary", and on 28 April the headline: "300,000 Hungarian Jews arrested—the hideous process begins". But on 13 April the PWE decided against broadcasting warnings directly to Hungarian Jews on the grounds that it would "cause unnecessary alarm" and that "they must in any case be only too well-informed of the measures that may be taken against them".[i] Fleming writes that this was a mistake: the Germans had tricked the Jewish community into thinking they were being sent to Poland to work. The first mention of extermination camps in the PWE's directives to the BBC's Hungarian Service came on 8 June 1944.
According to Randolph L. Braham, writing in 2011, by the time the Vrba–Wetzler report was available, the Jews of Hungary were in a helpless state: "marked, hermetically isolated, and expropriated". In northeastern Hungary and Carpatho-Ruthenia, the women, children and elderly were living in crowded ghettos, in unsanitary conditions and with little food, while the younger men were in military service in Serbia and the Ukraine. There was nothing they could have done to resist, Braham argued, even if they had known about the report.
Vrba was criticized in 2001 in a collection of articles in Hebrew, Leadership under Duress: The Working Group in Slovakia, 1942–1944, by a group of Israeli activists and historians, including Bauer, with ties to the Slovak community. The introduction, written by a survivor, refers to the "bunch of mockers, pseudo-historians and historians" who argue that the Bratislava Working Group collaborated with the SS, a "baseless" allegation that ignores the constraints under which the Jews in Slovakia and Hungary were living. Vrba (referred to as "Peter Vrba") is described as "the head of these mockers", although the introduction makes clear that his heroism is "beyond doubt". It concludes: "We, Czechoslovakian descendants, who personally experienced [the war] cannot remain silent in face of these false accusations."
The dispute stems in part from the tension between what Israeli scholar Ruth Linn calls survivor and expert discourse. Vrba often dismissed the opinion of historians, arguing that they did not know enough about Auschwitz. Bauer referred to Vrba's memoir as "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 his personal experiences, Vrba's account is an important and true one, Bauer wrote, "a document of significant historical value", but he argued that Vrba was not justified in viewing himself as an expert.
In Vrba's view, Israeli historians tried to erase his name from Holocaust historiography because of his views about Kastner and the Hungarian and Slovak Jewish Councils, some of whom went on to hold prominent positions in Israel. When Ruth Linn first tried to visit Vrba in British Columbia, he practically "chased her out of his office", according to Uri Dromi, saying he had no interest in "your state of the Judenrats and Kastners".
Linn wrote in her book about Vrba, Escaping Auschwitz (2004), that Vrba's and Wetzler's names had been omitted from Hebrew textbooks or their contribution minimized: standard histories refer to the escape by "two young Slovak Jews", "two chaps", and "two young men", and represent them as emissaries of the Polish underground in Auschwitz. Dr. Oskar Neumann of the Slovak Jewish Council referred to them in his memoir as "these chaps"; Oskar Krasniansky, who translated the Vrba–Wetzler report into German, mentioned them only as "two young people" in his deposition for the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. There was also a tendency to refer to the Vrba–Wetzler report as the Auschwitz Protocols, which is a combination of the Vrba–Wetzler and two other reports. The 1990 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, published by Yad Vashem in Israel, did name Vrba and Wetzler, but in the 2001 edition they are "two Jewish prisoners".
Vrba's memoir was not translated into Hebrew until 1998, 35 years after its publication in English. As of that year, there was no English or Hebrew version of the Vrba–Wetzler report at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, an issue the museum attributed to lack of funding. There was a Hungarian translation, but it did not note the names of its authors and, Linn wrote, could be found only in a file that dealt with Rudolf Kastner. Linn herself, born and raised in Israel and schooled at the prestigious Hebrew Reali School, first learned about Vrba when she watched Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah (1985), for which Vrba was interviewed. In 1998 she polled 594 students at the University of Haifa, either third-year undergraduates or first-year graduate students; 98 percent said that no one had ever escaped from Auschwitz, and the remainder did not know the escapees' names. This failure to acknowledge Vrba has played into the hands of Holocaust deniers, who have tried to undermine his testimony about the gas chambers.
In 2005 Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute responded that there were at least four Israeli books on the Holocaust that mention Vrba, and that Wetzler's testimony is recounted at length in Livia Rothkirchen's Hurban yahadut Slovakia ("The Destruction of Slovak Jewry"), published by Yad Vashem in 1961. Robert Rozett, head librarian at Yad Vashem and author of the entry on the "Auschwitz Report" in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, said of the Vrba controversy in 2005: "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."
"Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture 2014", University of British Columbia, 21 March 2014.
Daniel, E. C. (4 June 1944). "Pole Says Nazis Plan Slave Town: Reports 75,000-Acre Plot in Poland Even Contains Permanent Factories". The New York Times, 6.
Brigham, Daniel T. (6 July 1944). "Two Death Camps Places of Horror; German Establishments for Mass Killings of Jews Described by Swiss". The New York Times, 6.
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