The harrowing history of Ukraine’s past was recounted recently in the annual lecture honouring Rudolf Vrba, the late Vancouver scientist whose 1944 escape from Auschwitz brought the most concrete proof of the Nazi “Final Solution” to the world.
Dr. Nataliia Ivchyk delivered the 2023 Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture, titled The Holocaust in Ukraine: Violence, Gender and Memory. Ivchyk is at the University of British Columbia on a visiting fellowship that was created by Dr. Richard Menkis and Dr. Heidi Tworek to bring to Vancouver a Ukrainian scholar at risk. Ivchyk is associate professor in the department of political sciences at Rivne State University for the Humanities in her hometown of Rivne, Ukraine, and her work is focused on public history and memory politics.
Ivchyk’s presentation was based on survivor testimonies held at the USC Shoah Foundation, and narrowed in on the experiences of Jews in the western Ukrainian region of Volhynia and Podilia. Of the approximately 27,000 Jews who lived in Rivne (then known as Rovno) in 1937, it is estimated that just around 1,200 survived to the 1944 liberation by the Red Army. In a single day, on Nov. 6, 1941, about 21,000 Jews were murdered by Einsatzgruppe C and Ukrainian collaborators. The surviving Jews were imprisoned in the Rovno Ghetto, which was created the following month. In July 1942, remaining Jews, about 5,000, were transported to a stone quarry and murdered.
About 1.5 million Jews died in Ukrainian territory during the war years, most of them shot in what has been called the “Holocaust by bullets.”
“The Holocaust has long remained on the margins of collective memory in Ukraine,” said Ivchyk. Babyn Yar, a ravine outside Kyiv where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered over two days in 1941, has become a national symbol of Holocaust remembrance, she said. “However, the local level of remembrance remained low.”
There are many other sites of atrocities that were committed in Ukraine. “Some are marked by monuments, others are still forgotten and lost,” she said.
Of the several thousand Jews who survived the initial mass executions, anyone over the age of 13 was forced into slave labour.
“Nobody wanted to work for the Germans,” Ivchyk quoted one survivor, “but we had to. We hoped it would somehow balance our relationship with the Germans and would help us survive.”
Violence against women was mainly carried out by Ukrainian collaborators, she said, though Nazis also took part.
“I remember many times Germans came at night, knocked on the windows, took away beautiful girls,” Ivchyk quoted a survivor. “Sometimes, they raped and killed them right away. Sometimes, they said we will come again.”
Rabbis became a particular target of violence against men, given their social and symbolic status, and their role as spiritual leaders.
In the Soviet era, historical memorialization was subordinated to the priorities of the regime.
“The Holodomor [the deliberate Soviet famine that killed millions of Ukrainians], the deportation of Crimean Tatars, the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma – all of these events were suppressed in collective memory by the Soviet regime,” she said.
Today, support in Ukraine for Holocaust memorialization is ambivalent.
“The activities of the state today do not prohibit academic, educational or public activities in the field of Holocaust remembrance, but neither does it act as a financial or ideological initiator,” she said.
The Vrba event was funded by the Holocaust education committee of UBC’s department of history, which is responsible for the annual lecture, as well as a number of other organizations, including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics.
Menkis, associate professor of modern Jewish history at UBC and chair of the Holocaust education committee, noted that the event recognizes Vrba’s contributions to two primary areas to which Vrba’s life was devoted: Holocaust education and science, particularly pharmacology. The annual lectures alternate between these topics.
Menkis told the audience how Vrba and his friend Alfréd Wetzler made the momentous decision to escape from Auschwitz after overhearing conversations around the planned deportation of Hungarian Jewry. After a difficult and dangerous trek, the pair reached northern Slovakia, where they compiled a report documenting the layout of Auschwitz and the extermination process there.
“Although the report is credited with saving many lives,” said Menkis, “Vrba and Wetzler were keenly aware that more decisive action could have saved more. After the war, Dr. Vrba continued to speak about Auschwitz and his experiences. His book, I Cannot Forgive, written with Alan Bestic, was first published in 1963 and has been issued in a number of translations and re-editions since. He is also well known for his unforgettable testimony in Claude Lanzmann’s [documentary film] Shoah and perhaps less well-known but also important was his effective testimony in the Canadian trials against Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.”
Vrba’s widow, Robin, attended the event virtually. Vrba died in 2006.
Anyone who knows more than a little bit about Holocaust hero Rudolf Vrba – a Vancouverite for 31 years – will approach Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (London, UK: John Murray, 2022) with delight and apprehension.
Will this Guardian journalist and thriller writer take the high road, encouraging everyone to seek out Vrba’s own fascinating, still-in-print memoir? Or will he be more like Elvis swinging his hips, simulating Black-style music, because, hey, most people won’t know the difference?
Rudolf Vrba’s name is nowhere to be found on the cover. At the top of the jacket is the subtitle. At the bottom, Freedland’s name. The main title, front and centre, implies 19-year-old Vrba was Houdini-like but, as Freedland well knows, Vrba and his co-escapee Alfred Wetzler took advantage of an escape plan and a hideout conceived and built by others.
The pair’s report on Auschwitz was by far Vrba’s greater achievement – exposing the vast scale of murder at Auschwitz to the world-at-large, convincing everyone who read it. The pair is now credited with saving 200,000 lives.
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As someone who knew Vrba, I am sympathetic to Freedland’s undertaking. How do we get more people, including academics and even Jewish community members, to celebrate one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century?
Thankfully, The Escape Artist is clear and precise storytelling. With access to Vrba’s archival materials in New York’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library and input from both of Vrba’s wives, Freedland has also been able to add a good deal of fresh information to the public record.
It will be enlightening for most readers to learn that four other men actually planned and built Vrba’s getaway hideout (where Vrba and his cohort Wetzler hid for three days). This seldom-cited quartet tested it for real, escaping for several days before being caught and tortured, but not killed.
Vrba’s own narrative – first entitled I Cannot Forgive and later changed to I Escaped From Auschwitz – omitted crediting the extreme courage of these men. Without them, Vrba would never have reached Slovakia and co-written the Vrba-Wetzler Report, intended to forewarn 800,000 Jews of Hungary not to get on those trains. From Freedland, not from Vrba, we also learn how one of the tortured members of that quartet was able to assure Vrba that he and his escapees had not divulged their undiscovered hideout in the “Mexico” section of the camp.
“Mexico” was so-named, Freedland tells us, because poor souls marooned in the construction zone with makeshift shelters were not given clothes; consequently, naked prisoners had to drape themselves in blankets and other prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau thought they looked like New Mexico Indians.
Vrba did make clear, however, that in order to travel over land through hostile territory for a grueling 14 days, he and Wetzler had followed explicit directives that Vrba had received from a Russian prisoner named Dimitri Volkov. Hence, it was Volkov who was the master of escapology; Vrba was his disciple.
For virtually all of the people on the planet who have not sought out the two volumes of fascinating, self-published memoirs by Vrba’s first wife, Gerta, The Escape Artist will be welcomed for divulging details of Vrba’s first marriage. Gerta had to take her leave, penniless, with their two daughters, to escape from a philandering and distrustful husband who was clearly still in recovery after almost two years in Auschwitz.
The extent to which both his daughters felt estranged from him is touched upon. We also learn more about his eldest daughter Helena’s apparent suicide in Papua New Guinea in 1982 (an overdose of chloroquine in response to her love affair with a married man who left her) after she had all but severed ties with her father three years earlier.
Freedland notes there is a distinct possibility that Vrba’s father might have died by suicide as a failed businessman (when Vrba was aged 4).
Vrba was his mother’s only child (he had two, much older step-brothers and a step-sister from his father’s previous marriage).
After his father’s death, Vrba’s mother was a traveling saleswoman for much of his early childhood, absent for much of his formative years.
Vrba’s penchant for science might have emerged after all Jewish children were told to return their textbooks, but a friend named Erwin Eisler managed to keep his organic chemistry text by Czech scientist Emil Votocek.
Gerta’s books have already revealed that Vrba, as a youth, emerged as a leader in a self-teaching circle of friends and that, when Gerta was 13, she was enraptured by his precocious intelligence and confidence. Vrba was 15 and sometimes dismissed her as childish.
Gerta Vrbova and Vrba’s second wife, former Vancouver realtor Robin Vrba, were invaluable informants for Freedland but we have no idea who told him what. Their contributions to history are invisiblized, not unlike what could have happened to Vrba and Wetzler, who were advised by Jewish elders in their native Slovakia not to have their names attached to their momentous reportage.
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One error must be cited: on page 8, Freedland states that Vrba and Wetzler were “the first Jews to break out of Auschwitz.” Freedland later devotes three pages to Siegfried Lederer’s marvelous escape on April 5, 1944, when Lederer [tattoo # 170521] outwitted Nazi guards by donning an SS uniform provided by SS officer Viktor Pestek.
Google will tell you that Siegfried Lederer, aka Vítězslav Lederer (March 6, 1904-April 5, 1972), was born to a Jewish family in Písařova Vesce in the Sudetenland. Czech sites convey he was a Resistance fighter who was transported from the Terezín Ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau (arrival on Dece. 18, 1943). He was forced to wear both yellow and red triangles, marking him as a Jew and as a political prisoner. After he escaped, he warned Judenrat elders at Theresienstadt about the mass murder of Jews at Auschwitz – but he was both disbelieved and told to remain quiet.
If Freedland has some contradictory information to prove that Lederer is not Jewish, he might well have provided it. Certainly, for marketing purposes, it sounds better to imply Vrba and Wetzler were first. Sure enough, an uncredited review now permanently appears on the Guardian/Observer website and it baldly asserts: it took until 10 April, 1944, but eventually Vrba and fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler “achieved what no Jew had ever done before: they had broken out of Auschwitz.”
One has to wonder who wrote that uncredited summary. On page 171 of his book, Freedland slyly covers himself by saying, “Fred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg [Vrba’s birth name] were on their way to becoming ‘the first Jews to engineer their own escape from Auschwitz.’” Trouble is, he has already told us that four prisoners – named Citrinm, Eisenbach, Gotzel and Balaban – ought to be chiefly credited for building (ie. engineering) the hideout, not Vrba and Wetzler.
We like to assume people who write for the Guardian must have higher standards, but, hmm, maybe not. Now people all over the world can watch Freedland’s June 18th promotional video on YouTube in which he self-assuredly states, “I know, since I’ve nailed this down, that only four Jews ever escaped from Auschwitz, and Vrba and Wetzler were the first.” Either this is a lie or research standards at the Guardian have drastically plummeted.
Overall, The Escape Artist is an intelligent, valuable and easy-to-read account by someone who is bright enough to know that a warts-’n’-all portrayal of Vrba’s life is the best possible way to get the world interested.
If Freedland treads lightly when it comes to defending Vrba and foremost Vrba expert Ruth Linn in their battle with Yad Vashem historian Yehuda Bauer, well, perhaps he can be excused for wanting as many readers as possible in Israel. Robert Krell, as the founding force behind the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, was interviewed but he appears on only one page. Two other Vancouverites, Dr. Joseph Ragaz and Prof. Chris Friedrichs, were interviewed by Freedland, but their input is not cited except in an acknowledgements section. Linn, an Israeli academic and a part-time Vancouverite, who was for eight years the only scholar that Vrba permitted to interview him, declined to be interviewed. Linn and Freedland both first became aware of Vrba’s existence by watching Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-a-half-hour documentary Shoah.
* * *
I greatly appreciate the effort it took to fashion a potential bestseller for a new generation that knows increasingly less about the Holocaust. I am certain Vrba’s co-author Alan Bestic, who overcame different obstacles for his time, would likewise approve. Unfortunately, the bibliography omits any mention of Bestic’s co-writing of the memoir I Cannot Forgive and it’s only mentioned once in the text, on page 272. For that matter, Vrba’s own book, with its current title, is cited precisely once in small print within the depths of a seven-page bibliography. (There it is, on page 358, included alongside a scientific paper Vrba published about his research on rat brains.)
London-based Bestic was a fantastic writer. Freedland is a very fine one, too. He can turn a phrase. He can step back and be invisible. He has poise and tact. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Bestic’s essential role as Vrba’s co-writer has been ignored and even somewhat denigrated (“a supremely skilled Fleet Street journalist of the old school”). We don’t learn anything about him. If Freedland has the means to undertake research in New York and Vancouver, why is there no apparent digging to tell us anything about the man who wrote most of the text upon which The Escape Artist itself is necessarily based?
As a writer, Freedland has a very cool, even calculating hand. That’s good for journalism; it might even be good for thriller writing. But the drama of Vrba’s story has been subdued in this modern version. The Escape Artist is nonetheless an essential and welcome work, if it gets the world aware of one of the greatest whistleblowers of the 20th century. Ideally, the book will lead more people to seek out the latest version of Vrba’s own narrative, I Escaped From Auschwitz: The Shocking True Story of the World War II Hero Who Escaped the Nazis and Helped Save Over 200,000 Jews, released in 2020, co-edited by Nikola Zimring and Robin Vrba, minus its original opening chapter.
Alan Twigg’s 20th book is Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia (Ronsdale Press, 2022). This year, he received an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University.
University of Ottawa’s Prof. Jan Grabowski delivered the Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15. (photo by Pat Johnson)
Jan Grabowski, a University of Ottawa professor who is a leading scholar of the Holocaust, delivered the annual Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture at the University of British Columbia Nov. 15 – the same day he filed a libel suit against an organization aligned with Poland’s far-right government.
The Polish League Against Defamation, which is allied with the country’s governing Law and Justice Party, initiated a campaign against Grabowski last year, accusing him of ignoring the number of Poles who saved Jews and exaggerating the number of Jews killed by their Polish compatriots. Grabowski’s book, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, won the 2014 Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Research. An English translation of an even more compendious multi-year analysis undertaken by a team of researchers under Grabowski’s leadership will be published next year. His Vrba lecture provided an overview of some of the findings in the new work. It is a harrowing survey that brought condemnation from Polish-Canadians in the Vancouver audience.
The new book, which does not yet have an English title, is a work of “microhistory,” Grabowski said. Holocaust studies is one of the fastest-growing fields of historical research, he said, partly because it got off to a slow start and really only picked up in the 1980s. Much of the written work being completed today is in the area of survivor memoirs, second- and third-generation experiences, including inherited trauma, and “meta-history,” the study of the study of the Holocaust.
“This assumes that we actually know what has happened,” he said. Grabowski maintains there is still much primary research to be done. “We are still far away from knowing as much as we should about this, one of the greatest tragedies in human history.”
There are millions of pages of relevant historical documentation almost completely untapped – primarily in provincial Polish archives, police records and town halls – that spell out in detail the often-enthusiastic complicity of Poles in turning on their
Jewish neighbours. By combing through these previously ignored records, Grabowski and his co-authors have amassed evidence of widespread – and eager – involvement of Polish police and other Poles in assisting Germans to identify, hunt down and murder Polish Jews.
The work has been met with official condemnation. Earlier this year, the Polish government adopted a law that would expose scholars involved in the study of the Holocaust to fines and prison terms of up to three years. The criminal component of the law, including imprisonment, was rescinded after international backlash, but the atmosphere around Holocaust inquiry in Poland remains repressive.
Grabowski said that the “explosion of right-wing extremists, xenophobia and blatant antisemitism” in Poland is related to the “undigested, unlearned and/or rejected legacy of the Holocaust” – the fact that Polish society has, by and large, refused to acknowledge the wounds of the past or to deal with its own role in the extermination of three million of its Jewish citizens between 1939 to 1945.
The concept of microhistory, which is the approach Grabowski’s team uses, is not local history, he said, “it is an attempt to follow trajectories of people.” He instructed his researchers to focus on the exact day, often hour by hour, when liquidation actions took place in hundreds of Polish shtetls and ghettoes. To do so upends a conspiracy of silence that has existed for decades.
“Why the silence?” he asked the audience. “There were three parts to the silence. One was the Jews. They were dead. They had no voice … 98.5% of Polish Jews who remained under German occupation, who never fled, died. You have a 1.5% survival rate for the Polish Jews. So, the Jews couldn’t really, after the war, ask for justice, because they were gone.”
The communist regime that dominated Poland for a half-century after the war was viewed not only as a foreign power inflicted on Poles from the Soviet Union, Grabowski said, “but, more importantly, as Jewish lackeys – that was a term that was used.
“So, it wouldn’t really stand to have trials of those accused of complicity with the Germans for murdering the Jews,” he said. “That would only confirm the widespread accusations that the communists were here doing the Jewish bidding.”
The third factor in the silence were the interests of Polish nationalists, whose ideology is inherently antisemitic, and who are the dominant political force in the country today.
While clearly not all Poles were collaborators, it would have been impossible for almost anyone in the country to claim ignorance of what was happening.
“Mass killing was taking place in the streets,” the professor said. Researchers found bills of sale charging city officials for the sand municipal workers needed to cover the blood on sidewalks.
“When you say that blood was running in the streets, it’s not a metaphor, it’s just a description of what really happened,” he said.
In some ghettos, as many as half the Jewish population was killed on the day of the action, with massive participation from Polish society.
“One area more, one area less,” he said. “Usually between 10 and 20% of Jews were slaughtered simply in order to frighten the remaining 80% to go to the trains, to be herded to the trains,” said Grabowski.
In Poland’s smaller communities, centuries of Jewish and Polish social, commercial and civic interactions did not result in camaraderie – on the contrary.
“The deadliest places of all [were] small shtetls, small towns, where anonymity was not available when the authorities were not far away,” he said. In one instance, a Jew in hiding heard his neighbour assure the Nazis he would return with a hatchet to help them break into the hiding place seconds before the door was axed down.
In another example, Grabowski described in minute detail the atrocities committed by Germans, Poles and Ukrainian recruits in Węgrów, a town in eastern central Poland with a Jewish population of about “10,000 starving Jews who have been terrorized for nearly three years and now the final moment has come.”
Rumours of liquidation swirled for months, as Jews fleeing neighbouring communities brought narratives of destruction. In the day or two before the liquidation, wives of Polish military and other officials rushed to their Jewish tailors, shoemakers and others craftspeople to obtain the items they knew would soon become unavailable.
“With mounting panic, people started to prepare themselves for a siege,” said Grabowski. “They built hideouts to survive the initial German fury, they started to seek out contacts on the Aryan side of the city, looking for help from former neighbours, sometimes friends and former business partners.”
On the eve of Yom Kippur in 1942, Polish officials in the town were instructed to assemble horses, wagons and volunteers. A cordon of Nazis and collaborators surrounded the city at intervals of no more than 100 metres.
The mayor of the town wrote: “Jews who woke up to the terrible news ran like mad around the city, half-naked, looking for shelter.” The same leader noted that, when the Germans demanded he produce volunteers to help with the task of rounding up their Jewish neighbours, he feared he would not be able to meet their needs.
“Before I was able to leave my office, in order to assess the situation and issue orders for the removal of the bodies,” the mayor testified, “removal of the bodies had already started. There were carts and people ready. They volunteered for the job without any pressure.”
For Jews, the Germans were to be feared, but their Polish neighbours were also a threat.
“The greatest danger was not associated with the Germans, but with the Poles,” said Grabowski. “Unlike the former, the latter could easily tell a Jew from a non-Jew by their accent, customs and physical appearance.”
Poles were rewarded with a quarter-kilo of sugar for every Jew they turned in.
“The searches were conducted with extreme brutality and violence … the streets were soon filled with crowds of Jews being driven toward the market square, which the Germans had transformed into a holding pen for thousands of ghetto inmates,” he said.
On the streets, “the cries of Jews mixed with the shouts of the Germans and the laughter of the Poles,” according to an eyewitness.
“All of this was done in a small town where everybody knows each other,” said Grabowski. “It’s not only the question of geographic proximity, it’s social proximity. These people knew each other.”
People were taking clothes, jewelry and other possessions from the dead bodies. A husband would toss a body in the air while the wife pulled off articles of clothing until what was left was a pile of naked cadavers.
“They even pulled out golden teeth with pliers,” said Grabowski. A court clerk responded defensively to accusations that the gold he was trying to sell was soaked in human blood. “I personally washed the stuff,” he protested.
The prevalence in the Polish imagination of a Jewish association with gold partly accounted for the actions.
“This betrayal, due to widespread antisemitism and hatred of the Jews, was combined with the seemingly universal conviction that Jewish gold was just waiting to be transferred to new owners,” Grabowski said. “The myth of Jewish gold was so popular and so deeply rooted among Poles that it sealed the fate of [many Jews].”
The historical records indicate many Poles saw no need to cover their collaborationist tracks. Police and others who took it upon themselves to aid the Nazis without pressure defended their actions.
One policeman, after the war, depicted the killing of Jews as a patriotic act, one that saved Polish villagers from the wrath of the Nazis, who would have learned sooner or later about Jews in hiding and who then, he claimed, would have burned down the entire village.
As efficient as the Nazi killing machine was, Grabowski contends it could not have been as effective without the enthusiastic complicity of so many in Poland and other occupied countries.
“It was their participation that, in a variety of ways, made the German system of murder as efficient as it was,” he said.
With trepidation, Grabowski and his fellow researchers followed the documents and met with people in the towns. They would review documents from a 1947 trial, for instance, then go to the village in question.
The entire village would be conscious of its war-era history, he said. And the people who are, decades later, ostracized by their neighbours are not those who collaborated in the murder of Jews.
“The person that is ostracized is the family who tried to rescue the Jews, because they broke a certain social taboo and it still visible 75 or 76 years after the fact,” he said.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide.”
In the question-and-answer session, Grabowski shut down a persistent audience member who identified as Polish and who took exception with Grabowski’s research, arguing that Poland has more Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem than any other country.
“Every time I present a speech to a Polish audience, the question of Polish righteous is presented as if it is a fig leaf behind which everyone else can hide,” said Grabowski, who was born and educated in Warsaw. “The thing is, do you know how many Jews needed to be rescued? Poland had the largest Jewish community and using today Polish righteous as a universal and, let’s say, fig leaf behind which situations like I described here can be hidden is absolutely unconscionable. I protest against any attempt to overshadow the tragedy of Jewish people [with] the sacrifice of very, very few Poles.”
While Poland’s far-right government removed the mandated jail sentence for anyone found guilty of “slandering” Poland or Poles with complicity in Nazi war crimes, acknowledging the participation of Polish collaborators in the Holocaust remains a civil offence and Holocaust scholars in the country – and in Canada – face death threats and intimidation.
In introducing Grabowski, Richard Menkis, associate professor in the department of history at UBC, paid tribute to Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakian Jew who escaped Auschwitz and brought to the world inside information about the death camp, its operations and physical layout. Vrba, with fellow escapee Albert Wetzler, warned in 1944 that Hungarian Jews were about to face mass transport to the death camps. The news is credited with saving as many as 200,000 lives.
Vrba migrated to Canada and became a professor of pharmacology at UBC. He died in 2006.
The Vrba lecture alternates annually between an issue relevant to the Holocaust and an issue chosen by the pharmacology department in the faculty of medicine.