Rudolf “Rudi” Vrba


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Rudolf “Rudi” Vrba (11 September 1924 – 27 March 2006) was a professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. Originally from Slovakia, he is known for his escape, at the age of 19, from the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War, and for having provided some of the earliest and most detailed information about the mass murder that was taking place there.

Vrba and a fellow prisoner, Alfréd Wetzler (1918–1988), managed to flee Auschwitz on 10 April 1944, three weeks after German forces had invaded Hungary (a German ally), and after SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann had arrived in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, to begin the deportation to Auschwitz of the country’s Jewish population. The 40 pages of information the men passed to Jewish officials when they arrived in Slovakia on 24 April – which included information about the use of gas chambers and crematoria – became known as the Vrba-Wetzler report. While it confirmed material in earlier reports from Polish and other escapees, Miroslav Kárný writes that it was unique in its “unflinching detail.”

Mass transports of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz began by train on 15 May 1944 at a rate of 12,000 people a day, most of whom were sent straight to the gas chambers. There was a delay of several weeks before information from the Vrba-Wetzler report was distributed widely enough to gain the attention of governments. Vrba argued until the end of his life that, had the deportees been given access to the report – in particular had they known they were being sent to their deaths and not “resettlement” (Umsiedlung), as the Nazis had said – they might have refused to board the trains. His position is generally not accepted by Holocaust historians.

Material from the Vrba-Wetzler and earlier reports appeared in newspapers and radio broadcasts in the United States and Europe, particularly in Switzerland, throughout June and into July 1944, prompting world leaders to appeal to Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy to halt the deportations. He ordered them to be stopped on 7 July, possibly fearing he would be held personally responsible after the war. By then 437,000 Jews had already been deported, constituting almost the entire Jewish population of the Hungarian countryside, but another 200,000 living in Budapest itself were saved.

Early life and arrest

Vrba was born Walter Rosenberg in Topoľčany, Czechoslovakia, to Elias Rosenberg and his wife, Helena (née Grunfeldová), who owned a steam sawmill in Jaklovce, near Margecany. The name “Rudolf Vrba” was given to him by the Slovak Jewish Council in April 1944 after his escape.

Because he was a Jew, he was excluded at the age of 15 from the local high school under the Slovak version of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, and went to work instead as a labourer. He wrote in his memoirs that jobs were hard to come by for Jews; there were restrictions on where they could live and travel, they were required to wear a yellow badge, and available jobs went first to non-Jews.

In 1942 it was announced that Jews were to be sent to “reservations” in Poland, starting with the young men. Vrba, then aged 17, decided instead to flee the country to join the Czechoslovak Army in England. He reached the Hungarian border, but the border guards handed him back over to the Slovak authorities, who in turn sent him to the Nováky transition camp, a holding camp for Jews awaiting deportation. He managed to escape briefly, but was caught by a policeman who apparently became suspicious when he saw that Vrba was wearing two pairs of socks.

Auschwitz

Auschwitz I

Vrba was deported to the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland on 15 June 1942, and on 30 June was sent to Auschwitz I, the main camp of the Auschwitz complex and the administrative center for the satellite camps. There he was assigned to work in the Aufräumungskommando, where the property taken from new inmates was repackaged. The work involved being present on the Judenrampe, the platform where the trains carrying Jews arrived, to meet the new arrivals and sort through their possessions. He also had to enter the trains and remove the bodies of passengers who had died. He worked there from 18 August 1942 until 7 June 1943, and told Claude Lanzmann, for Lanzmann’s film Shoah (1985), that he had seen around 200 trains arrive during those 10 months.

Though he was housed in Auschwitz I (in Block 4), the storage facilities where he worked (Effektenlager I and II) occupied several dozen barracks in the BIIg sector of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp, two-and-a-half miles (4 km) from the main camp. The barracks were nicknamed “Canada I” and “Canada II” by the prisoners, because they contained food, clothing, and medicine, and were regarded as the land of plenty. It was thanks to this access that Vrba was able to stay healthy during his time in the camp.

Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

On 15 January 1943, he was sent to be housed instead in Block 16 of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where he continued to work in the “Canada” facility, now tattooed as prisoner no. 44070. He tried to commit to memory the numbers he saw arriving and the place of origin of each transport. He wrote that many had brought clothes for different seasons and utensils, which implied they believed the stories about resettlement. This strengthened his conviction that he had to escape to warn people. He believed that the transports and operation of the gas chambers ran smoothly only because there was no panic, and that this was attributable to the deportees not knowing what lay ahead. If they knew, he reasoned, they would run or fight.

In June 1943 he was given the job of registrar in the quarantine section at Birkenau sector B II, which allowed him to speak to the deportees who had been selected as slave labour. From the office he used inside his barracks, he could see the lorries driving towards the gas chambers, and estimated that 10 percent of each transport was selected to work and the rest to be killed. By April 1944 he calculated that 1,750,000 Jews had been killed, a figure higher than that accepted by historians, but which decades later he insisted was accurate.

Conversations about Hungarian Jews

Vrba wrote in his memoir that, on 15 January 1944, a Polish kapo told him that a million Hungarian Jews would be arriving soon, and that a new railway line was being built that would go straight to the crematoria. Vrba said he also overheard SS guards discuss how they would soon have Hungarian salami by the ton. “When a series of transports of Jews from the Netherlands arrived, cheeses enriched the war-time rations,” he wrote. “It was sardines when … French Jews arrived, it was 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.”

Although Vrba is clear in his autobiography that he took part in or overheard these conversations, and that warning the Hungarian community was one of the motives for his escape, there is no mention of the Hungarian Jews in the Vrba-Wetzler report. The discrepancy has led several historians, including Miroslav Kárný and Randolph L. Braham, to dispute Vrba’s later recollections, though not the Vrba-Wetzler report itself. Ruth Linn, argues that Oskar Neumann, one of the architects of the report, indicates in his post war memoirs that the escapees “ 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.”

Escape

When he arrived in Birkenau, Vrba discovered that Alfréd Wetzler, someone he knew from Trnava, was working in the mortuary, registered as prisoner no. 29162. The men decided to escape together. On 7 April 1944, with the help of two other prisoners, they hid in a pile of wood between the inner and outer perimeter fences, sprinkling the area with tobacco soaked in gasoline to fool the guards’ dogs. According to Kárný, at 20:33 that evening SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Hartjenstein, the Birkenau commander, was informed by teleprinter that two Jews had escaped.

The men knew from previous escape attempts by others that, once their absence was noted during the evening appell (roll call), the guards would continue the search for three days. They therefore remained in hiding, in silence, for three nights and throughout the fourth day. Wetzler wrote in his memoir that they tied strips of flannel across their mouths and tightened them whenever they felt a tickle in their throats. At 9 pm on 10 April, they crawled out of their hiding place and headed south toward Slovakia 80 miles (130 km) away, walking parallel to the Soła river.

Vrba-Wetzler report

Writing the report

The men crossed the Polish-Slovakian border on 21 April. They went to see a local doctor in Čadca, Dr. Pollack, someone Vrba knew from his time in the first transit camp. Pollack had a contact in the Slovak Judenrat (Jewish Council), which was operating an underground group known as the “Working Group,” and arranged for them to send people from their headquarters in Bratislava to meet the men. Pollack was distressed to learn the probable fate of his parents, brothers and sisters, and their families, who had been deported in 1942.

Vrba and Wetzler spent the night in Čadca in the home of a relative of the rabbi Leo Baeck, and the next day, 24 April 1944, met the chairman of the Jewish Council, Dr. Oscar Neumann, a German-speaking lawyer. Neumann placed the men in different rooms in a former Jewish old people’s home, 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 labour for Krupp, Siemens, IG Farben, and D.A.W., and 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 whole thing together, re-writing it six times. Neumann’s aide, Oscar Krasniansky, an engineer and stenographer who later took the name Oskar Isaiah Karmiel, translated it from Slovak into German with the help of Gisela Steiner. They produced a 40-page report in German, which was completed by Thursday, 27 April 1944. Vrba wrote that the report was also translated into Hungarian. The original Slovak version of the report was not preserved.

Contents

The report contained a detailed description of the geography and management of the camps, and of how the prisoners lived and died. It listed the transports that had arrived at Auschwitz since 1942, their place of origin, and the numbers “selected” for work or the gas chambers. 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.

It also contained sketches and information about the layout of the gas chambers. In a sworn deposition for the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and in his book I Cannot Forgive (1964), Vrba said that he and Wetzler obtained the information about the gas chambers and crematoria from the Sonderkommando Filip Müller and his colleagues, who worked there. Müller confirmed Vrba’s story in his Eyewitness Auschwitz (1979). Auschwitz scholar Robert Jan van Pelt wrote in 2002 that the description contains errors, but that “given the conditions under which information was obtained, the lack of architectural training of Vrba and Wetzlar [sic], and the situation in which the report was compiled, one would become suspicious if it did not contain errors. … Given the circumstances, the composite “crematorium” reconstructed by two escapees without any architectural training is as good as one could expect.”

How the report was distributed

The dates on which the report was passed to certain individuals has become a matter of importance within Holocaust historiography. This is partly because of the issue of whether the Hungarian government knew about the gas chambers in Auschwitz before it facilitated the mass deportations, which began on 15 May 1944, and partly because Vrba alleged that lives were lost because the report was not distributed quickly enough by Jewish leaders, particularly Rudolf Kastner of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee.

Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer writes that Oscar Krasniansky of the Jewish Council, who translated it into German from Slovak as Vrba and Wetzler were writing and dictating it, made conflicting statements about the report after the war. In the first statement, he said he had handed the report to Kastner on 26 April during the latter’s visit to Bratislava, but Bauer writes that the report was not finished until 27 April. In another statement, he said he had given it to Kastner on 28 April in Bratislava, but Hansi Brand, Kastner’s lover and the wife of Joel Brand, said that Kastner was not in Bratislava until August. Bauer writes that it is nevertheless clear from Kastner’s post-war statements that he had early access to the report, though perhaps not in April as Krasniansky claimed. Randolph L. Braham writes that Kastner had a copy by 3 May when he paid a visit to Kolozsvar (Cluj), his home town.

Kastner’s reasons for not making the document public are unknown, but Vrba believed until the end of his life that Kastner withheld it in order not to jeopardize negotiations between the Aid and Rescue Committee and Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer in charge of the transport of Jews out of Hungary.

Deportations to Auschwitz continue

On 6 June 1944, the day of the Normandy landings, Arnost Rosin (prisoner no. 29858) and Czesław Mordowicz (prisoner no. 84216) arrived in Slovakia, having escaped from Auschwitz on 27 May. Hearing about the Battle 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 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 15 June, the men were interviewed by Oscar Krasniansky, the engineer who had translated the Vrba-Wetzler report into German. They told Krasniansky that, between 15 and 27 May, 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. Historian John Conway writes that Vrba concluded that the report had been suppressed.

Deportations halted

Braham writes that the report was taken to Switzerland by Florian Manoliu of the Romanian Legation in Bern, and given to George Mantello, a Jewish businessman from Transylvania who was working as the first secretary of the El Salvador consulate in Geneva. He writes that it was thanks to Mantello that the report received, in the Swiss press, its first wide coverage. According to David Kranzler, Mantello asked for the help of the Swiss-Hungarian Students’ League to make around 50 mimeographed copies of the Vrba-Wetzler and two other, shorter, Auschwitz reports (jointly known as the Auschwitz Protocols), which by 23 June he had distributed to the Swiss government and Jewish groups. The students went on to make thousands of other copies, which were passed to other students and MPs.

On 19 June, Richard Lichtheim of the Jewish Agency in Geneva, who had received a copy of the report from Mantello, wrote to the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem to say that 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. Vrba and Oscar Krasniasnky met Vatican Swiss legate Monsignor Mario Martilotti at the Svaty Jur monastery in Bratislava on 20 June. Martilotti had seen the report and questioned Vrba about it for six hours.

As a result of the coverage given to the report in the Swiss press, details began to appear elsewhere, including in The New York Times and BBC World Service. Daniel Brigham, the New York Times correspondent in Geneva, published a story on 3 July, “Inquiry Confirms Nazi Death Camps,” and on 6 July a second, “Two Death Camps Places of Horror; German Establishments for Mass Killings of Jews Described by Swiss.” Braham writes that several appeals were made to Horthy, including by the Swiss government, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gustaf V of Sweden and, on June 25, Pope Pius XII, possibly after Martilotti passed on the report.[48] On 26 June, Richard Lichtheim 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 the Hungarian government and shown to Prime Minister Döme Sztójay, who passed it to Horthy. Horthy ordered an end to the deportations on 7 July, and they stopped two days later.

That the Germans were using 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 and 820,000 shoes. Auschwitz itself was liberated by the 28th and 106th corps of the 1st Ukrainian Front of the Red Army on 27 January 1945. Van Pelt writes that the SS learned the lesson of Majdanek and tried to destroy some of the evidence, but the Red Army nevertheless found what was left of four crematoria, as well as 5,525 pairs of women’s shoes, 38,000 pairs of men’s shoes, 348,820 men’s suits, 836,225 items of women’s clothing, large numbers of toothbrushes, glasses and dentures, and seven tons of hair.

Vrba’s allegations

“Blood for goods” proposals

The timing of the report’s distribution remains a source of controversy. For reasons that remain unclear it was not distributed widely until several weeks after Vrba’s escape in April. Between 15 May and 7 July 1944, 437,000 Hungarian Jews (12,000 every day) were sent to Auschwitz by train. Vrba believed they would have run or fought had they known they were being sent to their deaths.

He alleged that the report had been withheld deliberately by Rudolf Kastner and the Jewish-Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee in Budapest in order not to jeopardize complex, and ultimately futile, negotiations with Adolf Eichmann, who had suggested to the committee that they arrange an exchange of up to one million Jews for money and trucks from the US or UK, the so-called “blood for goods” proposal. Vrba wrote in his memoirs that the Jewish communities in Slovakia and Hungary had placed their trust either in the secular Zionist leaders such as Kastner, or in Orthodox Jewish leaders such as Weissmandl. The Nazis were aware of this, Vrba wrote, which is why they lured precisely those members of the community into various negotiations, supposedly designed to lead to the release of Jews, but actually intended to placate the Jewish leadership to avoid the spread of panic, because panic would have slowed down the transports.

Although from 1943, the BBC Polish Service was broadcasting about the exterminations, the BBC Hungarian Service have not mentioned Jews at all. After the German invasion in March 1944, the Hungarian Service did then broadcast warnings, But by then it was too late. However, according to Professor Cesarani and to Götz Aly, although Jews who survived the deportations claimed that they had not been informed by their leaders, that no one had told them, there’s plenty of evidence that the Hungarian Jews could have known. In her book, Escaping Auschwitz, Prof. Ruth Linn documents the selective dissemination of the Vrba-Wetzler report within the Slovak and the Hungarian communities.

Kastner train

The Aid and Rescue Committee’s first meeting with Eichmann about the proposal was on 25 April 1944. On 28 April, the first trainload of Hungarian Jews left for Auschwitz, although not as part of the mass transports, and around the same time 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 the report in order not to jeopardize the Eichmann deal, but acted on it privately by arranging for a trainload of 1,684 Hungarian Jews to escape to Switzerland on the Kastner train, which left Budapest on 30 June. According to John Conway, the escaping party consisted of “themselves, their relatives, a coterie of Zionists, some distinguished Jewish intellectuals, and a number of wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs.” Other scholars dispute this emphasis. Ladislaus Löb writes that the party also included over 200 children under 14, many of them orphans, and hundreds of ordinary people such as teachers and nurses. Yehuda Bauer argues that Kastner put his own family on the train to prove to the other passengers that it was safe, and that in any event he could hardly be expected to exclude his family from it.

The allegations against Kastner became part of a libel case in Jerusalem in 1954, after Malchiel Gruenwald, an Israeli hotelier, accused him in a self-published pamphlet of being a Nazi collaborator. Because Kastner was by then a senior Israeli civil servant, the Israeli government sued Gruenwald. Although Kastner was later exonerated by the Supreme Court, the lower court ruled against the government, and Kastner was assassinated in March 1957 as a result of the ensuing publicity.

Response

Bauer writes that, by the time the Vrba-Wetzler report was prepared, it was already too late for anything to alter the Nazis’ deportation plans. He cautions about the need to distinguish between the receipt of information and its “internalization” – the point at which information is deemed 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 argues that Vrba’s “wild attacks on Kastner and on the Slovak underground are ahistorical and simply wrong from the start …” Vrba, in response, alleged that Bauer was one of the Israeli historians who had downplayed Vrba’s role in Holocaust historiography in order to defend the Israeli establishment. Linn argues that informed Jewish activists prove Bauer’s thesis to be problematic as they did manage to internalized the report information and act upon it.

After the report

Resistance activities

After handing his information to the Slovakian Jewish Council, Vrba said he was assured by Krasniansky that the report was “in the right hands.” 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 29 August 1944, the Slovak Army rose up against the Nazis, and the reestablishment of Czechoslovakia was announced. Vrba joined the Czechoslovak partisan units in September 1944, and was later awarded the Czechoslovak Medal of Bravery.

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. In the summer of 1944 he met a childhood friend Gerta; they married (she took the surname Vrbová, the female version of Vrba) and had two daughters, though the marriage failed shortly thereafter.

In 1958 he received an invitation to an international conference in Israel, and while there he defected. He worked for the next two years at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. He said later that 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; he decided in 1960 to move instead to England, 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 11 May 1960, 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 Daily Herald, to ask whether the newspaper would be interested in his story. 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 to the Israeli Embassy in London; Israel’s attorney general said the government could not pay travel expenses for witnesses. With Bestic’s help, Vrba wrote up the rest of his story for his memoir, I Cannot Forgive (1964), republished as Escape from Auschwitz (1964) and I Escaped from Auschwitz (2002). He also appeared as a witness at one of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1964.

Move to Canada, Zündel trial

In 1967 Vrba moved to Canada, working for the Medical Research Council of Canada from 1967 to 1973, and becoming a Canadian citizen in 1972. He spent 1973–1975 as a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, focusing on cancer research, where he met his second wife, Robin. They returned to Vancouver, where she became a real estate agent, and he an associate professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia until the early 1990s, specializing in neurology. He became known internationally for over 50 research papers on the chemistry of the brain, and for his work on diabetes and cancer.

Vrba testified in January 1985 at the seven-week trial in Toronto of Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel, who was charged with knowingly publishing false material likely to cause harm to racial or social tolerance. Zündel’s lawyer, Doug Christie, accused Vrba of lying about his experiences in Auschwitz, and asked whether he had actually seen anyone being 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,” Vrba told the court. “It is possible they are still there or that there is a tunnel and they are now in China. Otherwise, they were gassed.” Vrba acknowledged that some of the passages in his book, I Cannot Forgive (1964), were based on secondhand accounts.

Vrba died of cancer on 27 March 2006 in Vancouver. He was survived by his first wife Gerta, his second wife Robin, his daughter Zuza Vrbová Jackso and his grandchildren Hannah and Jan. He was pre-deceased by his elder daughter, Dr. Helena Vrbová. His fellow escapee, Alfréd Wetzler, who wrote about Auschwitz using the pen name Jozef Lánik, died in Bratislava, Slovakia, on 8 February 1988.

Reception

Documentaries, books, and awards

Several documentaries have told Vrba’s story, including:

  • Genocide (1973), directed by Michael Darlow for ITV in the UK;
  • Auschwitz and the Allies (1982), directed by Rex Bloomstein and Martin Gilbert for the BBC;
  • Shoah (1985), directed by Claude Lanzmann;
  • 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.

Vrba featured in an essay by George Klein, the Hungarian-Swedish biologist, “The Ultimate Fear of the Traveller Returning from Hell,” in Klein’s Pieta (1992), and is the focus of Ruth Linn’s Escaping Auschwitz (2004). An academic conference was held in New York in April 2011 to discuss the impact of the Vrba-Wetzler and other Auschwitz reports, resulting in a book, The Auschwitz Reports and the Holocaust in Hungary (2011), edited by Randolph L. Braham and William vanden Heuvel, and published by Columbia University Press. After Vrba’s death, his wife made a gift of his papers to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in New York.

British historian Martin Gilbert supported a campaign in 1992 to have Vrba awarded the Order of Canada, and solicited letters from well-known Canadians on his behalf, but was unsuccessful. In 1998, at the instigation of Prof. Ruth Linn, he received the title of Doctor of Philosophy Honoris Causa from the University of Haifa. On this occasion, Linn arranged for the publication of Vrba’s memoirs and the report into the Hebrew language by the university of Haifa, after it was rejected by Yad Vashem . He was awarded the Order of the White Double Cross, 1st class, by the Slovakian government in 2007. The Czech One World festival annually presents the “Rudolf Vrba Award” for original documentaries that draw attention to an unknown theme about human rights; the award was established in his name by Mary Robinson, then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Václav Havel, then President of the Czech Republic.

Discrepancies

Several historians have argued that Vrba embellished his later accounts, though not the Vrba-Wetzler report itself. He wrote in his memoir in 1963 that he had overheard SS officers in Auschwitz discuss how a new area was being constructed and that they would soon have “Hungarian salami … by the ton,” allegedly a reference to the imminent arrival of Hungarian Jews, but he did not mention this in his report in April 1944. Although Vrba maintained that warning the Hungarian community was one of the motives for his escape, the report said: “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 conveys of Greek Jews were expected.” 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, long after the war was over, Vrba wanted to testify about the deportations out of a sense of longing, to force the world to face the magnitude of the Nazis’ crimes. The suspicion is that this led to a degree of embellishment in later accounts. 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 the Vrba-Wetzler report, some of which he wrote by hand, but which did not survive. 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, to lend the report maximum credibility. Vrba speculated that this was the reason Krasniansky omitted the references to Hungary from the German translation, which was the version that was copied around the world.

Survivor versus expert discourse

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 leading Israeli historians with ties to the Slovak community, including Yehuda Bauer, Hanna Yablonka, Gila Fatran and Livia Rothkirchen. The introduction by Giora Amir describes as “a bunch of mockers, pseudo-historians and historians” those who, like Vrba, argue that the Slovakian Jewish Council may have collaborated with the Nazis by concealing what was happening in Auschwitz. Amir writes that the “baseless” accusation was lent credence “when the University of Haifa 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 Alfréd 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 criticism of Vrba stems from the tension between what Ruth Linn calls survivor and expert discourse. 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 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.” Vrba often dismissed the opinion of Holocaust historians; regarding the numbers 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.”

Linn argued in 2004 that certain Israeli historians had misrepresented Vrba’s story. Vrba believed that they had sought to erase his story from Holocaust historiography because of his views about Rudolf Kastner and the Hungarian Judenrat, some of whom went on to hold prominent positions in Israel. Linn wrote that Vrba’s and Wetzler’s names are omitted or their contribution minimized in Hebrew textbooks: standard histories refer 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. Vrba’s book was not translated into until Linn brought it in 1998, 35 years after its publication in English, to the attention of the Israeli Hebrew reader. Yad Vashem holds one of the world’s most extensive collections of Holocaust documentation, but until 1998 there was no English or Hebrew version there of the Vrba-Wetzler report, 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, it could be found only in a file that dealt with Rudolf Kastner.

In 2005 Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute responded that there were at least four popular Israeli books on the Holocaust that mention Vrba, and that Wetzler’s testimony was recounted at length in Livia Rothkirchen’s Hurban yahadut Slovakia (The Destruction of Slovakian Jewry), published by Yad Vashem in 1961. In reply to Dromi’s article, Linn wrote that most books mentioning Vrba were published after 1998, and that earlier mentions were all in obscure texts. Robert Rozett, head librarian at Yad Vashem and author of the entry on the “Auschwitz Report” in 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.”

 

 

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