The notion that Rudolf Vrba could be “difficult” is easily dispelled if one talks to individuals with whom he came into contact. Yes, he did not suffer fools—but then who does? In terms of everyday encounters, Vrba was amiable, helpful, polite and kind. Such was the case when Suzy Konigsberg and her sister contacted the founder of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Robert Krell, seeking a translator for their Czech mother’s Holocaust memoir. Krell directed them to Rudolf Vrba.

According to Suzy Konigsberg, who has lived in Vancouver since the late 1970s, Vrba was unfailingly generous and accommodating. He graciously agreed to cooperate and diligently undertook the translation work from Czech into English, and he wanted nothing in return. Vrba’s services as a multilinguist were essential for his survival in Auschwitz. His translation of the manuscript left by Rosa Konigsberg was a continuation of these services.

No doubt to accentuate its poignancy as a private document, the Konigsberg sisters referred to the following document as a diary. In fact, it is an astutely drawn memoir in which its narrator has placed her life within a broad, sociological context. Vrba would have distinguished that one of the valuable aspects of this document is that it was written in the immediate aftermath of World War II, towards the end of 1945.

Although one can suggest there is nothing extraordinary about this story and there is nothing unusually heroic about its narrator, it encapsulates the despair of a “typical” Auschwitz survivor—if we dare to countenance such a term—and, as such, reflects the sense of bewilderment that concentration camp survivors must have encountered. Its narrator, born as Rosa Neuman in Dovhe, Czechoslovakia in 1925, often contemplated suicide until she was transferred from Auschwitz, in October of 1944, to a sub camp of Buchenwald called “Altenburg,” where she worked at a nearby HASAG munitions factory making “cannons.” [Owned by Paul Budin, HASAG was the third largest “employer” of slave labor after Farben and the Goring Werke.] Altenburg was a city in Thuringia, in eastern Germany, about 25 miles south of Dresden, near the Czech border. It was Albert Speer (Reichsminister für Bewaffnung und Munition) who gave HASAG authority to massively increase the production of Panzerfäuste.

During her arduous work at Altenburg, Rosa broke one of her hands, but continued working one-handed. As bombardments by American and Russian planes increased, she was forced to join a death march away from the factory on April 12, 1945. Prisoners were led into a forest only to have the American planes bombard the forest. Eventually, she lay in a water-filled ditch all night; German soldiers took flight; she was informed she was free on April 14, 1945 at 6 a.m.

Free to do what?

“Sadly, many of us died after the first or second food,” she recalls, “because our stomachs were not accustomed to eating proper food.”

Forlorn, she regrets she didn’t kill herself in Auschwitz.

After being constantly duped for years, Rosa discovers reality is a far from an ideal alternative. Possibly her most poignant and chilling comment comes after she has been liberated: “I am not afraid of death. Death is not so bad but I am afraid of the process of dying, because during dying everybody must be alone.”

On September 18, 1945, Rosa was re-united with some uncles who had escaped to fight with the partisans in what she refers to as the Czechoslovac Foreign Army. She concludes her memoir with some patriotic optimism, but her final message—“we will go bravely and without mercy because truth and justice always win”—can be regarded as wishful thinking. The Jews did not get to win World War II.

Rosa Konigsberg, with the number 18070 tattooed on her left hand, would not talk about the Holocaust with her children. As Montreal native Suzy Konigsberg recalls, her mother shielded her children from the reality of her Holocaust memoirs by only speaking about it to friends and acquaintance in languages other than English. Suzy and her siblings never even knew her mother’s memoir existed until after her mother died in Montreal in 1991, at age 65, having remarried to become Rosa Lowy. Consequently, the first person to ever read her account in its original Czech version was Rudolf Vrba.

Vrba’s translation is often clunky, literal. “From pleasure the tears came out from my eyes like pearls.” But we get the gist of the narrative without any embellishment. Here follows Rudolf Vrba’s translation of the document into English.

A Terrible Dream

Here are four of the beautifully written Czech pages from which Vrba translated the above. Click to enlarge.