November 5, 2010
Camp escapee warned world
Rudolph Vrba, a University of British Colombia biochemist who passed away in 2006, was remembered Oct. 22 as a hero. Vrba’s escape from Auschwitz and ensuing report to the world is credited with helping to save the lives of 260,000 Hungarian Jews. But Vrba’s story has a tragic parallel, because a swifter response to his report might have saved an additional 450,000.
The story of Vrba’s escape from Auschwitz and its consequences were addressed in the Rudolph Vrba Memorial Lecture, presented this year by Robert Jan Van Pelt, professor at the University of Waterloo and an expert in the architecture of Auschwitz. He is the co-author, with Deborah Dwork, of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present.
In 1944, Vrba was at Auschwitz and saw that the crematoria were being repaired and overhauled.
“We are going to eat Hungarian salami soon,” a Nazi told him. Vrba knew this meant that the Jews of Hungary were to be deported. Headed by a Nazi puppet regime controlling an area beyond present-day boundaries, Hungary included Carpathia and Transylvania, home to nearly a million Jews in all.
Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, whose positions in the camp’s hierarchy of slave labor provided them some comparative freedoms, were able to escape to Slovakia, where they produced the Vrba-Wetzler Report, confirming to the world not only what was happening in Auschwitz, but how it was systematically organized. The report took two months to make it to the United States, and was also received by the Vatican, the Red Cross and Allied governments, who ended up pressuring Hungary’s Miklos Horthy to refuse additional demands for deportations.
Between the time when Vrba escaped and when the pressure finally was mounted on Horthy, an estimated 450,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. The failure of the world to act more swiftly was exacerbated by the leadership of the Jewish community in Budapest, who suppressed the report upon receipt. (This suppression was addressed in the Independent. See “Israeli narrative omits Vrba,” jewishindependent.ca, April 21, 2006.)
Vrba’s belief was that, if the victims knew what was going to happen – that they were not merely going to be resettled – they could have done something to prevent or postpone their fate. “If they did know, then the smooth operation of the killing machine would be interrupted,” Van Pelt said.
But Vrba’s hope that a resistance might emerge had its own dark cloud. According to Van Pelt, over those same years, some inmates, mostly non-Jewish political prisoners, had agitated for better conditions at Auschwitz. As a result, some prisoners of the camp saw incremental improvements, which resulted in longer survival, which meant there was less capacity in the camp for new arrivals, which in turn resulted in a higher proportion of arrivals going directly from the trains to the crematoria.
Moreover, even the knowledge of their fate did not always provoke action, Van Pelt said. Auschwitz housed transferees from Theresienstadt, which had been presented to the Red Cross as a model concentration camp, and whose inmates the Nazis suspected the Red Cross might again request to see. But when it was clear to Vrba that, after 18 months, Theresienstadt would be liquidated, he warned a Jewish leader of the group, Freddie Hirsch, hoping that at least the knowledge of their impending end could spark a reaction that would, at the very least, take down a few SS. Instead, after Vrba delivered the news, Hirsch committed suicide.
While the majority of Hungarian Jews were never made aware of their eventual fate, the pressure of neutral governments and others caused Horthy to slow the deportations and an estimated 260,000 lives were eventually spared.
“That is, in the history of rescue, I think an unparalleled achievement,” said Van Pelt.
Auschwitz is at the heart of the Holocaust narrative, Van Pelt explained, more than other camps, and more than the actions of the Einsatzgruppen, who murdered entire communities in the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union, because it represents the ultimate betrayal of science and civilization through its inversion of scientific “progress” in systematizing genocide. Also, Auschwitz assembled Jews from across Europe, unlike most camps, which were regional. Moreover, Auschwitz survivors had the role of telling their stories, where the Einsatzgruppen were thorough in leaving no survivors of entire villages and towns.
After his escape, Vrba fought as a partisan, then studied biochemistry in Prague. His career was devoted to research, in the United Kingdom, Israel, the United States and, for his last 25 years, as a member of the faculty of medicine at UBC. The lecture was created by his family and friends and alternates annually between a topic in biochemistry and the Holocaust.
Pat Johnson is, among other things, director of programs for Hillel in British Columbia.