Fear and hope are no criteria of truth.

Moses Mendelson

Rudolf Vrba - Biography

Rudolf "Rudi" Vrba, born Walter Rosenberg (September 11, 1924 – March 27, 2006) was a Slovak-Canadian professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia, who came to public attention during the Second World War when, in April 1944, he escaped from the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland with the first information about the camp that the Allies regarded as credible. The 32 pages of information Vrba and his fellow escapee, Alfréd Wetzler, dictated to horrified Jewish officials in Žilina, Slovakia—in which they offered extensive detail about the mass murder taking place inside Auschwitz, including a description of the layout of the camp and the use of gas chambers—became known as the Vrba-Wetzler report.

Three weeks before Vrba escaped, German forces had invaded Hungary—an ally of Nazi Germany—and SS officer Adolf Eichmann had arrived in Budapest to oversee the deportation to Auschwitz of the country's Jewish population. Mass transports began on May 15, 1944, at a rate of 12,000 people a day; they were led to believe they were being resettled, but most were sent straight to the gas chambers. Details from the Vrba-Wetzler report alerting the world to what was happening inside the camp were broadcast in Czech and Slovak on June 15, 1944, by the BBC World Service and reported several days later by The New York Times, prompting world leaders to appeal to Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy to halt the deportations. He ordered them to be stopped on July 7, fearing he would be held personally responsible after the war; 475,000 had already been deported, but another 200,000 were probably saved.

The timing of the report's distribution remains a source of controversy. It was made available to officials—including the Jewish community's leadership—in Hungary and elsewhere at the end of April, but for reasons that remain unclear it was not disseminated widely until weeks later. Vrba believed more lives could have been saved had the officials published it immediately; he argued that, had Hungary's Jews known they were going to the gas chambers, they might have fought or run rather than board the trains. He alleged that the report had been withheld deliberately by the Jewish-Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee in Budapest in order not to jeopardize complex, and ultimately futile, negotiations with Eichmann, who had suggested exchanging up to one million Jews for money and trucks—the so-called "blood for goods" proposal.

Vrba's argument about the consequences of the report's slow dissemination is largely not accepted by Holocaust historians. In response to his allegations, Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer wrote that the process of information being received, internalized, and acted upon is complex: "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."


Early life and arrest

Vrba was born in Topoľčany, Czechoslovakia, to Elias and Helena (née Grunfeldova) Rosenberg, who owned a steam sawmill in Jaklovce, near Margecany. Because he was a Jew, he was excluded at the age of 15 from the Gymnasium (high school) of Bratislava under the Slovakian version of the Nazis' Nuremberg Laws, and went to work instead as a labourer in Trnava. He wrote in his memoirs that jobs were hard to come by for Jews; anything available went first to non-Jews. There were restrictions on where Jews could live and travel, and they were required to wear a Yellow badge. In 1942 it was announced that Jews would be sent to "reservations" in Poland, beginning with young men. Vrba, then aged 17, decided to flee the country to join the Czechoslovak Army in England. With money from his mother, he took a taxi from Topoľčany to Hungary, but as a Slovak Jew with no legal status he realized it would be dangerous to continue on to Britain. He tried to return to Slovakia, but was stopped by Hungarian border guards, who turned him over to the Slovakian 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 became suspicious when he saw Vrba wearing two pairs of socks, and he was sent back to the camp.


Auschwitz I

On June 14, 1942, Vrba was deported to the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, and on June 30 was sent to Auschwitz I, the main camp of the Auschwitz complex and the administrative center for the satellite camps. His first job was helping to dig up bodies that had to be incinerated. He befriended a prisoner who was trusted by the SS, and who arranged for him to work instead in the Aufräumungskommando, called "Canada" in camp slang. It was a work detail that sorted out the possessions taken from inmates who had just arrived at the camp, repackaging anything valuable to be sent to Germany. The kommando and its storage facilities, which occupied several dozen barracks in the BIIg sector of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, were nicknamed "Canada I" and "Canada II"—officially, Effektenlager I and II—because they contained food, clothing, shoes, medicines, and blankets, which for the Polish prisoners made it a paradise. With access to food, soap, and warm clothes, he was able to stay healthy, and eventually became part of the pilfering hierarchy of the camp guards.

Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

On January 15, 1943, he was transferred to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp, 2½ miles (4 km) from the main camp, where he continued to work in the "Canada" facility, now tattooed as prisoner no. 44070. During his time there he tried to commit to memory the numbers of Jews he saw arriving and the place of origin of each transport. Because his job involved being present when the deportees arrived, and sorting out the belongings of the ones who were gassed, he was able to calculate what percentage had been killed. He noticed that many had packed as though for the long term, bringing clothes for different seasons and utensils for a variety of uses, which implied they had believed the stories about resettlement. This strengthened his conviction that he had to escape to warn people. In the summer of 1943, he was given the job of registrar (Blockschreiber) in the men's quarantine section at Birkenau sector B IIa. From his barracks, he could see the lorries driving towards the gas chambers. His estimate was that only 10 percent of each transport was selected to go to the right, and the rest were killed; selection to the right meant work, to the left, the gas chambers. By April 1944, he calculated that 1,750,000 Jews had already been killed there, a figure significantly higher than those accepted by mainstream historians, but which even decades later he insisted was accurate.

At the beginning of 1944, he noticed that preparations were underway for a new railway line, which would allow inmates to be taken directly to the gas chambers. He wrote that this was confirmed on January 15, 1944, by one of the builders, a German kapo. He also said he overheard SS guards discuss how they would soon have Hungarian salami by the ton. He wrote: "When a series of transports of Jews from the Netherlands arrived, cheeses enriched the war-time rations. It was sardines when ... French Jews arrived, halva and olives when transports of Jews from Greece reached the camp, and now the SS were talking of 'Hungarian salami'..." Although Vrba is clear in his autobiography that he overheard this conversation, 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, leading Czech historian Miroslav Kárný to dispute Vrba's recollection (see below).


When he arrived in Birkenau, Vrba discovered that Alfréd Wetzler (1918–1988), someone he knew from his home town, was registered as prisoner no. 29162 and working in the mortuary. The men decided to try to escape together. With the help of the camp underground, at 2 p.m. on Friday, April 7, 1944—the eve of Passover—they climbed inside a hollowed-out space in a wood pile. It was outside Birkenau's barbed-wire inner perimeter, but inside an external perimeter the guards kept erected during the day. The other prisoners placed boards around the hollowed-out area to hide the men, then sprinkled the area with Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline to fool the guards' dogs, a trick learned from Russian POWs.

At 20:33 that evening, the commander of Auschwitz II, SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Hartjenstein, was informed by teleprinter that two Jews had escaped. The men knew from previous escape attempts by others that, once their absence was noticed during the evening appell, the guards would continue to search for them for three days. They therefore remained in hiding until the fourth night, almost getting caught at one point when a guard stood on the pile of wood right above them. On April 10, wearing Dutch suits, overcoats, and boots they had taken from "Canada," they made their way south, walking parallel to the Soła river, heading for the Polish border with Slovakia 80 miles (133 km) away. Vrba later wrote that they had no contacts outside the camp and had to make their way alone, but Ruth Linn, dean of education at the University of Haifa—who wrote a book about Vrba—writes that Polish historiography argues the escape was possible only with help from the Polish underground inside the camp, and local people outside it.

The Vrba-Wetzler report

Eleven days after escaping, Vrba and Wetzler crossed the Polish-Slovakian border into Žilina. They went to see a local doctor, Dr. Pollack, someone Vrba knew from his time in the first transit camp. Pollak had a contact in the Slovak Judenrat (Jewish Council)—by then an underground organization that called itself 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 own family, who had already been "resettled."

Vrba and Wetzler spent the night in Čadca in the home of Mrs Beck, a relative of the rabbi Leo Baeck, and the next day, April 24, 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 labor 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 it together, re-writing it six times. As they were working on it, 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, producing a 32-page report in German, which was completed by Thursday, April 27, 1944. Vrba wrote that the report was also translated into Hungarian.

The original Slovak version of the report was not preserved, according to Kárný. The German version contained a precise description of the geography of the camps, their construction, the organization of the management and security, how the prisoners were numbered and categorized, their diet, the selections, gassings, shootings, injections, and deaths from the living conditions themselves. It also contained sketches and information about the interior layouts and operations of the gas chambers, based on information Vrba and Wetzler had received from the Sonderkommando who worked there, which led to some inaccuracies.

Jean-Claude Pressac, a French specialist on the mechanics of the mass murder, examined the report and concluded that, while "somewhat unreliable and even quite wrong on some points, [it] has the merit of describing exactly the gassing process in type II/III Krematorien as from mid-March 1943. It made the mistake of generalizing internal and external descriptions and the operating method to Krematorien IV and V. Far from invalidating it, the discrepancies confirm its authenticity, as the descriptions are clearly based on what the witnesses could actually have seen and heard." Auschwitz scholar Robert Jan van Pelt agreed with Pressac: "The description of the crematoria in the War Refugee Board report contains errors, but given the conditions under which information was obtained, the lack of architectural training of Vrba and Wetzlar, and the situation in which the report was compiled, one would become suspicious if it did not contain errors." Kárný writes that the report is an invaluable historical document because it provides details that were known only to prisoners, most of whom died—including, for example, that discharge forms were filled out for prisoners who were gassed, indicating that death rates in the camp were actively falsified.

How the report was distributed

According to Kárný, the report was written and translated by April 28, 1944, at the latest. Oscar Krasniansky had heard that Rudolf Kastner, a Jewish lawyer and journalist, and de facto head of the Zionist Aid and Rescue Committee (Va'adat Ezrah Vehatzalah) in Budapest, was about to visit Bratislava. According to one of Krasniansky's postwar statements, he personally handed a copy of the report to Kastner at the end of April. According to British writer Laurence Rees, Kastner received a copy during his visit to Bratislava on April 28.

The dates on which the report was handed over to Kastner and others are important, because Vrba and other Holocaust survivors and writers alleged that the report was not distributed quickly enough. Kastner chose not to make its contents public for reasons that are complex and unclear, 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. When Vrba arrived in Slovakia, Kastner was involved in a series of complex negotiations with Eichmann, who was offering to trade as many as one million Jews—who were supposedly to be allowed to settle anywhere but Palestine—in exchange for 10,000 trucks and other goods from either the US or UK.

Although Kastner did not make the report public, he did pass it on. Yehuda Bauer writes that Kastner gave a copy to Geza Soos, a Hungarian Foreign Ministry official who ran a resistance group, almost as soon as he received it on or around April 28. Soos gave it to Joszef Elias, head of the Good Shepherd Mission, a Protestant missionary organization, and his secretary, Maria Szekely, translated it into Hungarian and prepared six copies (though Vrba said it had already been translated into Hungarian by Krasniansky). These copies made their way to various Hungarian officials.

On June 20, Vrba met Vatican legate Monsignor Mario Martilotti at the Svaty Jur monastery. Martilotti had already been given a copy of the report, and he questioned Vrba about it for six hours. Deciding that it was credible, he sent it to the Vatican via Switzerland. A few days later, Vrba was taken to meet Rabbi Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl, regarded as the leader of the Orthodox community in Slovakia, at his Yeshiva in Bratislava. Vrba wrote that it was clear during the meeting that Weissmandl was already familiar with the contents of the report. He wrote of Weissmandl: "The visibility of Yeshiva life in the center of Bratislava, less than 150 miles [250 km.] south of Auschwitz, was in my eyes a typical piece of Goebbels-inspired activity and brazen Nazi humor. 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. At that time, only two months and 150 miles away from an Auschwitz working at highest capacity, this Yeshiva struck me as merely a circus with Rabbi Weissmandel as its main, albeit tragicomic, clown."

Deportations to Auschwitz continue

On June 6, 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 May 27. Hearing about the Battle of Normandy and believing the war was over, they got drunk to celebrate, using dollars they'd smuggled out of Auschwitz. They were promptly arrested for violating the currency laws, and spent eight days in prison before the Jewish Council paid their fines. Rosin and Mordowicz already knew Vrba and Wetzler; Vrba wrote in his memoir that any inmate who managed to survive more than a year in Auschwitz was regarded as a senior member of what he called the "old hands Mafia," and were all known to each other. On June 15, the men were interviewed by Oscar Krasniansky, the engineer who had translated the Vrba-Wetzler report into German. They told Krasniansky that, between May 15 and May 27, 100,000 Hungarian Jews had arrived at Birkenau, and that most of them were killed on arrival, apparently with no knowledge of what was about to happen to them. Historian John Conway writes that, because Rosin and Mordowicz were saying Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz still had no idea what awaited them, Vrba and Wetzler concluded that their report had been suppressed.

Report broadcast, deportations halted

The Vrba-Wetzler report is known to have reached the British and US governments by mid-June 1944. Elizabeth Wiskemann of the British Legation in Bern sent it to Allen Dulles, the head of US intelligence, who sent it to the US Department of State in Washington, D.C. on June 16. Details from it were broadcast by the BBC World Service on June 15, and on June 20 The New York Times published the first of three stories about the existence of "gas chambers in the notorious German concentration camps at Birkenau and Oświęcim [Auschwitz]." Several world leaders, including Pope Pius XII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the King of Sweden, appealed to Admiral Miklós Horthy to stop the deportations. On June 26, Richard Lichtheim, a member of the Jewish Agency in Geneva, sent a telegram to England calling on the Allies to hold members of the Hungarian government personally responsible for the killings. The cable was intercepted by the Hungarian government and shown to Prime Minister Döme Sztójay, who passed it to Horthy; on July 7 Horthy ordered an end to the deportations, and they stopped two days later.

The Auschwitz Protocols

The text of the Vrba-Wetzler report, under the title "German Extermination Camps—Auschwitz and Birkenau", was first published in full in English on November 26, 1944, by the Executive Office of the US War Refugee Board. The document combined the material from Vrba and Wetzler with two other reports, known jointly as the Auschwitz Protocols and submitted in evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, document number 022-L. The Protocols included an earlier two-part report from August 10 and August 12, 1943, by Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish underground in Auschwitz, which was sent to the Office of Strategic Services in London. The Pilecki report included details of the gas chambers, "selection," and the sterilization experiments. It said there were three crematoria in Birkenau able to incinerate 10,000 bodies daily, and that 30,000 people had been gassed in one day. The author wrote: "History knows no parallel of such destruction of human life." Raul Hilberg writes that the report was filed away with a note that there was no indication as to its reliability. The four-to-seven page report from Arnost Rosin and Czesław Mordowicz, who escaped from Auschwitz on May 27, 1944, also became part of the Protocols. The full text of the Protocols is in the archives of the War Refugee Board at the F.D. Roosevelt Library in New York.

After the report

Resistance activities

After handing his information to the Slovakian Jewish Council, Vrba 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 August 29, 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, taking Rudolf Vrba as his nom de guerre. He fought as a machine-gunner in a unit commanded by Milan Uher, and received the Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery, the Order of Slovak National Insurrection, and the Order of Meritorious Fighter.

After the war, move to Canada

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 they 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, working for the next two years at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. He found he could not continue to live in Israel, because the same men who had, in his view, betrayed the Jewish community in Hungary were now in positions of power there, so he decided to move to England in 1960, becoming a British citizen in 1966. In England, he worked for two years in the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit in Carshalton, Surrey, and seven years for the British Medical Research Council.

On May 11, 1960, 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. With Bestic's help, he wrote up the rest of his story for his memoir, Escape from Auschwitz: I cannot forgive (1963), later republished as I Escaped from Auschwitz (2002). He also appeared as a witness at one of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in 1964.

Vrba moved to Canada in 1967, 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, where he met his second wife, Robin. They returned to Vancouver, where she became a real estate agent, and he became an associate professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia until the early 1990s, specializing in neurology; he became known internationally for more than 50 research papers on the chemistry of the brain, and for his work on diabetes and cancer. He testified in 1985 at the seven-week trial in Toronto of Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel. Zündel was charged with knowingly publishing false material likely to cause harm to racial or social tolerance. His lawyer accused Vrba of lying about his experiences in Auschwitz, and asked whether he had actually seen anyone gassed. Vrba replied that he had watched people being taken into the buildings and saw 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."

British historian Sir Martin Gilbert supported a campaign in 1992 to have him awarded the Order of Canada, and solicited letters from well-known Canadians on his behalf, but was unsuccessful. In 1998, at the instigation of Ruth Linn, Vrba received the title of Doctor of Philosophy Honoris Causa from the University of Haifa. He died of cancer on March 27, 2006, in Vancouver. He was survived by his first wife Gerta, his second wife Robin, his daughter Zuza Vrbová Jackson, and his grandchildren Hannah and Jan. He was pre-deceased by his older daughter Dr. Helena Vrbová. His fellow escapee, Alfréd Wetzler, died in Slovakia in 1988.

Several documentaries have told Vrba's story: Genocide (1973) for ITV in the UK; Auschwitz and the Allies (1982), directed by Rex Bloomstein and Martin Gilbert for the BBC; Shoah (1985) by Claude Lanzmann; Witness to Auschwitz (1990) by Robin Taylor for CBC; Auschwitz: The Great Escape (2007) for the UK's Channel Five, and "Escape From Auschwitz" (2008) for PBS. The Czech One World festival annually presents the "Rudolf Vrba Award" to 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 Vaclav Havel, then President of the Czech Republic.


Vrba's allegations

Vrba believed that many of the 437,000 Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz between May 15 and July 7, 1944—when 12,000 Jews were being dispatched by train every day—would have resisted or hidden had they known they were to be killed and not resettled. He wrote: "It is my contention that a small group of informed people, by their silence, deprived others of the possibility or privilege of making their own decisions in the face of mortal danger." He wrote in his memoirs that, as the Germans were preparing the mass deportations to Auschwitz, the Jewish communities in Slovakia and Hungary placed their trust either in the Zionist leadership, such as Kastner of the Aid and Rescue Committee, or in Orthodox Jewish leaders, such as Weissmandl. The Nazis were aware of this, which is why they lured precisely those members of the community into various negotiations, supposedly designed to lead to the release of some, or even most, of the Jews, but probably regarded by the Nazis as a way of placating the Jewish leadership into not spreading panic.

Rudolf Kastner, the de facto head of the Budapest Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee, had his first meeting with Eichmann about the so-called "blood for goods" proposal on April 25, 1944. Three days later, on April 28—the same day the first trainload of Hungarian Jews left for Auschwitz, although not as part of the mass transports—Kastner is believed to have received a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler report, though possibly in German and not yet translated. Vrba alleged that Kastner failed to distribute it in order not to jeopardize the Eichmann deal, but acted on it privately by arranging for a trainload of 1,684 Hungarian Jews to escape to Switzerland. 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," though other historians have argued against this. Professor of German Ladislaus Löb writes that the party included 285 children under 14, many of them orphans; 126 Orthodox Jews, including 17 rabbis; and hundreds of ordinary people such as teachers and nurses.

Yehuda Bauer argues against Vrba's interpretation of Kastner's motives, writing that Kastner put his own family on the train only to prove to the other passengers that it was safe. The allegations against Kastner were heard by the Supreme Court of Israel in 1957, after Malchiel Gruenwald, an Israeli amateur writer, 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 the writer for libel, and although Kastner was eventually partially exonerated by the Supreme Court, the lower court ruled against him, and he was assassinated in March 1957.

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 regarded as worthy of action—arguing that this is a complicated process: "During the Holocaust, countless individuals received information and rejected it, suppressed it, or rationalized about it, were thrown into despair without any possibility of acting on it, or seemingly internalized it and then behaved as though it had never reached them." Bauer has written that Vrba's "wild attacks on Kastner and on the Slovak underground are 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.

Survivor versus expert discourse

Vrba was criticized in 2001 in a series of articles—Leadership under Duress: The Working Group in Slovakia, 1942–1944—edited by a group of leading Israeli historians with ties to the Slovak community, including Yehuda Bauer, Hanna Yablonka, Gila Fatran, and Livia Rothkirchen. The introduction by Giora Amir refers to those who argue that the Slovakian Jewish Council may have collaborated with the Nazis, as "a bunch of mockers and pseudo-historians ..." Amir writes that the "baseless" accusation was lent credence when 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 tension between what Linn calls "survivor discourse" and "expert discourse" lies at the heart of this criticism of Vrba. Bauer has called Vrba's memoir "not a memoir in the usual sense," alleging that it "contains excerpts of conversations of which there is no chance that they are accurate and it has elements of a second-hand story that does not necessarily correspond with reality." When writing about himself and his personal experiences, Vrba's account is an important one, argues Bauer. "Everything he tells about himself and about his actions ... is not only the truth, but also [forms] a document of significant historical value." But he continues: "I admired Vrba, with true admiration—though mixed with resistance to his thoughts in historical matters in which he thinks he is an expert, though I am not sure he is justified in thinking so." For his part, Vrba often dismissed the opinion of Holocaust historians; 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."

It has also been alleged that Vrba embellished what he said was his eyewitness account. Vrba wrote in his memoir in 1963 that he overheard SS officers in Auschwitz discuss how they would soon have "Hungarian salami ... by the ton," allegedly a reference to the imminent arrival of hundreds of thousands of deported Hungarian Jews, but he did not mention this in the Vrba-Wetzler report in April 1944. 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, Vbra 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, although not in the Vrba-Wetzler report itself. 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. He wrote that he recalled Oscar Krasniansky of the Slovakian Jewish Council, who translated the report into German, arguing that only actual deaths should be recorded, and not speculation, in order to lend the report maximum credibility. Vrba speculates this was the reason Krasniansky omitted the references to Hungary from the German translation the latter prepared, which was the main version that was copied around the world. The original version in Slovak did not survive.

Vrba's story allegedly suppressed

Vrba believed that successive Israeli historians had virtually erased his story from the Israeli Holocaust narrative, because of his controversial views about Rudolf Kastner and the Hungarian Judenrat, many of whom went on to hold prominent positions in Israel. Ruth Linn writes: "Ever since I saw the Lanzmann documentary, this question stayed in my mind: Am I the only crazy Israeli who fell asleep in class when we studied this in the Holocaust? Or maybe we never studied it ... In terms of literature, [Escape from Auschwitz: I cannot forgive] is in the class of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, first-class novelists of the Holocaust. But then I turned the book back and forth and I see on the cover, 'First published 1963.' And the year is 1994. I said to myself, 'Where has this book been for 31 years? I never read about it in Israel."

Linn alleges that a "family of Israeli historians" have misnamed, misreported, miscredited, and misrepresented Vrba's story. She writes that the story is misrepresented in Hebrew textbooks by omitting Vrba's and Wetzler's names or by minimizing their contribution. Standard histories of the Holocaust typically refer only to the escape by "two young Slovak Jews," "two chaps," or "two young people," and represent Vrba and Wetzler as emissaries of the Polish underground in Auschwitz, as mere messengers. She cites the fact that 35 years after Vrba's memoirs had been published in English they had still not been published in Hebrew, and that the Vrba-Wetzler report itself had not been translated into Hebrew. Yad Vashem holds one of the world's most extensive collections of Holocaust documentation, but as of 2004 there was no English or Hebrew version there of the Vrba-Wetzler report, an issue the museum has attributed to lack of funding.

Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute writes that Vrba's story has, in fact, been told, citing at least four popular Israeli books on the Holocaust that mention Vrba and Wetzler's escape, and that Wetzler's testimony is recounted at length in Livia Rothkirchen's Hurban yahadut Slovakia (The Destruction of Slovakian Jewry), published by Yad Vashem in 1961. Yeshayahu Jelinek, a historian of Slovakia's Jewish community, credits Vrba's obscurity to the general obscurity of Slovakian Jews: "Who ever thinks about the Jews of Slovakia? A medium-size ghetto in Poland was larger than our whole community. Everyone knows about Hannah Szenes. How many people know about Haviva Raik?" Robert Rozett, head librarian at Yad Vashem and author of the entry on the "Auschwitz Report" in Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, has said of the Vrba controversy: "There are people who come into the subject from a certain angle and think that they've uncovered the truth. A historian who deals seriously with the subject understands that the truth is complex and multifaceted."

See also

  • Bibliography of The Holocaust
  • Alfréd Wetzler
  • Vrba-Wetzler report
  • Jan Karski
  • The Deputy (1963)


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  • Bauer, Yehuda et al (eds.). Leadership in Time of Distress: The Working Group in Slovakia, 1942–1944. Kibbutz Dalia:Maarecht, 2001.
  • Bauer, Yehuda. "Anmerkungen zum 'Auschwitz-Bericht' von Rudolf Vrba," Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Vol. 45, 1997.
  • Bauer, Yehuda. Jews for Sale? Nazi–Jewish Negotiations 1933–1945. Yale University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-300-06852-2
  • Barkat, Amiram. "Death camp escapee Vrba dies at 82", Haaretz, April 2, 2006, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Conway, John. "Escaping Auschwitz: Sixty years later", Vierteljahrshefte fuer Zeitgeschichte, Vol. 53, no. 3, 2005, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Conway, John S. "The First Report about Auschwitz", Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Annual 1, Chapter 7, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Czech, Danuta (ed) Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau 1939–1945. Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1989.
  • Dromi, Uri. "Deaf Ears, Blind Eyes", Haaretz, January 30, 2005, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Dwork, Debórah & Van Pelt, Robert Jan. Holocaust: A History. W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. ISBN 978-0-393-05188-9
  • Fatran, Gila. "The Working Group," Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 8:2 (1994).
  • Gilbert, Martin. "What Was Known and When," in Berenbaum, Michael & Gutman, Yisrael (eds). Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-253-20884-X
  • Gutman, Yisrael. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Macmillan, 1990. ISBN 0-02-896090-4
  • Hecht, Ben. Perfidy. Milah Press, first published 1961; this edition 1999. ISBN 0-9646886-3-8
  • Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. First published in 1961, this edition Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-300-09557-0
  • Johnson, Pat. "Israeli narrative omits Vrba", Jewish Independent, April 21, 2006, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Kárný, Miroslav. "The Vrba and Wetzler report", in Berenbaum, Michael & Gutman, Yisrael (eds). Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994; this edition 1998. ISBN 0-253-20884-X
  • Kulka, Erich. "Attempts by Jewish Escapees to Stop Mass Extermination", Jewish Social Studies 47:3/4, Summer/Fall 1985, pp. 295–306, accessed November 10, 2010
  • Lévai, Jenö (ed). Eichmann in Hungary: Documents. Howard Fertig, 1987. ISBN 978-0-86527-352-8
  • Levine, Alan J. Captivity, Flight, and Survival in World War II. Praeger Publishers, August 30, 2000. ISBN 0-275-96955-X
  • Linn, Ruth. Escaping Auschwitz. A Culture of Forgetting. Cornell University Press, August 30, 2004. ISBN 0-8014-4130-7
  • ________. "Genocide and the Politics of Remembering: The Nameless, the Celebrated and the Would-Be Holocaust Heroes," Journal of Genocide Research, 5, 4 (December 2003) pp. 565–586.
  • ________. "Naked victims, dressed-up memory: The escape from Auschwitz and the Israeli historiography," in Israel Studies Bulletin.
  • Löb, Ladislaus. Dealing with Satan. Jonathan Cape, 2008. ISBN 978-0-224-07792-7
  • Martin, Douglas. "Rudolf Vrba, 82, Auschwitz Witness, Dies", The New York Times, April 7, 2006, accessed November 10, 2010.
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  • Proudfoot, Shannon. "Auschwitz escapee alerted world to horrors of the Holocaust", Ottawa Citizen, March 31, 2006.
  • Rees, Laurence. Auschwitz: A New History. PublicAffairs, 2006. ISBN 1-58648-357-9
  • Rose, Hilary and Steven. "Letter: Rudolf Vrba", The Guardian, April 25, 2006, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Sanderson, David and Smith, Lewis. "Witness to Auschwitz horror dies at 82", The Times, April 1, 2006, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Sakmyster, T.L. Hungary's Admiral on Horseback: Miklos Horthy, 1918–1944. Columbia University Press, 1994.
  • Strzelecki, Andrzej. "The Plunder of Victims and Their Corpses," in Berenbaum, Michael & Gutman, Yisrael (eds.). Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1998.
  • Świebocki, Henryk. "Prisoner Escapes" in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp in Gutman, Yisrael & Berenbaum, Michael (eds.). Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1998. ISBN 0-253-20884-X
  • The Daily Telegraph. Rudolf Vrba, April 12, 2006.
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  • Vrba, Rudolf. First published as I Cannot Forgive by Sidgwick and Jackson, Grove Press, 1963, ISBN 0-394-62133-6; also published as Escape from Auschwitz: I Cannot Forgive; this edition entitled I Escaped from Auschwitz. Barricade Books, 2002. ISBN 1-56980-232-7
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Further reading

  • Berenbaum, Michael. "Righteous Anger Fuels ‘Auschwitz’", Jewishjournal.com, October 14, 2004, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Bilsky, Leora. "Judging Evil in the Trial of Kastner", Law and History Review, Vol 19, No. 1, Spring 2001, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Cohen, Asher. "The Holocaust of Hungarian Jews in light of the research of Randolph Braham," Yad Vashem studies, 1996, Vol XXV.
  • Davies, Matthew. "Why didn't the Allies bomb Auschwitz?", BBC News, January 23, 2005.
  • Fraser, Christian. "Vatican Holocaust claim disputed", BBC News, December 5, 2006.
  • Fried, S. "The Kasztner Trial", Dei'ah veDibur, July 23, 2003, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Laor, Yitzhak. "Auschwitz, They Tell Me You’ve Become Popular", Haaretz, December 26, 2004 (review of Ruth Linn's Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting, Cornell University Press), accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Linn, Ruth. "The Escape from Auschwitz: Why didn't they teach us about it in school", Theory and Criticism, 24:163–184, 2004 (in Hebrew).
  • Linn, Ruth. "Rudolf Vrba", The Guardian, April 13, 2006, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Lungen, Paul. "Auschwitz escapee hoped to warn Hungarian Jews", Canadian Jewish News, January 20, 2005, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • McMaster, Geoff. "Holocaust survivor recounts days at Auschwitz", University of Alberta ExpressNEWS, October 28, 2003, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Medoff, Rafael. "The Unmentionable Victims of Auschwitz", The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, December 2004, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Medoff, Rafael. "In memoriam: the man who exposed Auschwitz", The Jewish Tribune, April 20, 2006, accessed November 11, 2010.
  • Świebocki, Henryk. London has been informed. Reports by Auschwitz Escapees, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum: the first full publication of the report, 1997, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Teicholz, Tom. "Tommywood - Unanswered Questions", Jewishjournal.com, April 21, 2006, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • UCL News. "‘Trust and Deceit’ launched", University College London, June 9, 2006, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "Sources of Funding for UK & EU Applicants", Helena Vrbová Scholarship, accessed November 11, 2010.
  • Vrba, Rudolf. "Personal Memories of Actions of SS-Doctors of Medicine in Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau)" in Roland, Charles G. et al. (eds). Medical Science without Compassion, Past and Present. Hamburger Stiftung für Sozialgeschichte des 20.Jahrhunderts, 1992.
  • __________. "Die Missachtete Warnung. Betrachtungen über den Auschwitz-Bericht 1944," Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, vol. 44, Heft 1/1996, pp. 1–24.
  • __________. "The Preparations For The Holocaust In Hungary: An Eyewitness Account" in Randolph L. Braham with Scott Miller (eds.). The Nazis' Last Victims: The Holocaust in Hungary. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1998, pp. 55–102. Also published in Randolph L. Braham and Attila Pok (eds.). The Holocaust in Hungary. Fifty years later. Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 227–285.
  • __________. "Science and the Holocaust", Focus, University of Haifa; an edited version of Vrba's address when he received his honorary doctorate, 1998, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • __________. "The one that got away", extract from I Escaped from Auschwitz, The Guardian, April 14, 2006, accessed November 10, 2010.
  • Yad Vashem. "April 25: Blood for trucks", accessed November 9, 2010.

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