Rudolf Vrba’s good fortune in having Wetzler as an escape partner was only matched by having Alan Bestic as a writing partner.
Whereas it’s often difficult to reference Vrba without bringing Wetzler into the equation, Bestic’s essential role in Vrba’s story remains astonishingly under-recognized. Vrba’s memoir is easily one of “best-written” (most readable, most penetrating and most engaging) Holocaust books you can ever find. It is steeped in humanity, rich in details, capturing some of Vrba’s humour while not shirking on the horrors of Auschwitz. Precious little content can be deemed extraneous.
The collaboration of these two men was a remarkable fluke of human chemistry. They obviously got along and shared a mission. And yet there is almost zero recognition for Bestic’s essential co-creativity. Possibly, that’s partly due to the fact that most commentators on the Holocaust now tend to be academic historians who are taught to write in an almost regimental style that is antithetical to lively writing. Few could ever become successful as journalists or novelists because they have been trained to pay more attention to footnotes than drama or compassion.
As centuries pass, how is the Holocaust going to be remembered? Which books are going to continue to be read and studied? It is very possible that Bestic and Vrba’s co-written memoir could reverberate through the ages if it is not over-shadowed by Jonathan Freedland’s piggy-backed version. Meanwhile, Bestic deserves to be credited and respected for his fundamental role in creating the first iteration of Vrba’s story.
We begin with this obituary from the Irish Times, originally published Saturday, Jun 14 2014.
Newsman and anatomist of 1960s Ireland
Alan Bestic: July 11th, 1921 – May 12th, 2014
Alan “Sammy” Bestic, who has died aged 92, knew from an early age that he wanted to be a journalist. His trade remained one of the loves of his life from the first day he entered the Irish Times building on the eve of the second World War to his death last month in Surrey.
On the day he started work with The Irish Times he had been so nervous that he paced up and down for an hour before entering. The lessons he learned inside that ramshackle old building took him on a lifelong adventure that saw him travel the world. He wrote five books based on what he saw and heard.
His death breaks a link with a golden generation of writers and writing in The Irish Times. Among colleagues in the dusty old Westmoreland Street offices were humorous writers like Patrick Campbell and columnist Brian O’Nolan, more “serious” journalists like Cathal O’Shannon, Lionel Fleming and Jack White, and those who combined the two facets, like Sammy Bestic (named after a cartoon charter of the 1930s), Brian Inglis and Tony Gray. All eventually moved on to pastures new, much to the chagrin of idiosyncratic editor Bertie Smyllie. Lusitania sinking Few should have been surprised that Sammy outlived them all. His father – also Alan – survived the German torpedo which hit the liner Lusitania (he was third officer) off Kinsale in 1915, and the Luftwaffe sinking of the Irish Lights tender Isolda (he was captain) off Wexford in 1940.
Alan senior was a sailor of the old school, making one of the last sail journeys to Australia, where he signed off. The Denbigh Castle sank on the return journey. He contributed articles about marine matters to The Irish Times into old age.
Sammy Bestic’s love of writing came from Johnny Draper, his English teacher at Kingstown Grammar school, now part of Newpark Comprehensive in south Dublin, where the Bestic family lived. He studied shorthand and typing at night school, where he met his wife-to-be, Patricia Geraghty. They were married in the sacristy of her parish church, as Catholic girls could not be encouraged to marry Protestants.
Smyllie sent Sammy to Poland as the second World War ended. He was among the first wave to report from Soviet-occupied Poland and East Germany. Out of this came the remarkable co-written tale of Rudolf Vrba in I Cannot Forgive, about a young Slovakian Jewish boy who not only survived Auschwitz but escaped from it.
In 1951, Bestic left Dublin to work in London’s Fleet Street and his work appeared in the Daily Herald and the Daily Telegraph, and later, when he became a freelance, in many other British national papers and magazines. Along the way he had a Mark Twain episode – he was reported to have died in the Congo while covering the Niemba ambush in 1961.
A brief return to Ireland decades later gave him material for one of his five books, The Importance of Being Irish (1969): “The scampi belt, the Bacardi brigade … they own a house in Foxrock and have a Mercedes on the firm. The wife has a Mini for shopping and a swimming pool in the garden is on order. There is a cottage in Connemara – ‘I can really think down there’ – wine name-droppers, BA (pass), top convent wife with Ulysses in the handbag.” Paul Howard later mined that seam with his character Ross O’Carroll Kelly – Sammy Bestic just got there a few decades earlier. His Sex and the Singular English gave the stiff-upper-lip brigade a similar seeing to.
Bestic also wrote a very early exposé of Britain’s drugs problem, Turn Me On Man, published in 1966 as soft drugs became popular with the young. Fighting drug abuse remained high on his personal radar. He lived to see the Surrey Drug and Alcohol Care charity he founded given the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2011. Throughout his long life as an exile he maintained a lively interest in all Ireland’s sporting teams – particularly rugby ones – failing dismally the so-called “Tebbit test” for immigrants: “If you live in England you should support the English national teams”.
In the weeks before his death he said: “If I could, I’d do it all over again.” His son TV reporter Richard Bestic said: ” My father never became a rich man in monetary terms. Instead, with the skills he learned at The Irish Times, he travelled the world with his reporter’s notebook and pen and wrote some terrific tales of his adventures. He had a trained eye for the absurd.”
Alan “Sammy” Bestic died in Surrey following a chest infection. He is survived by his children, Paul, Penny (Fabb), Richard and Patrick.
Meanwhile, it has been reported in 2020 that screenwriters Evan Parter and Paul Hilborn were working on an adaptation of Vrba’s memoir for a film in conjunction with film producer Ben Shields Catlin. According to an industry publication called Deadline, there were plans afoot to mount the project via Catlin’s Story in the Sky studio. The rights for film adaptation were reportedly accorded by Robin Vrba, who manages her late husband’s estate. “Rudi considered it his duty to help the world fully realize the horror of Nazism and recognize the alarming signs in the future,” she said. The sale of film rights was in conjunction with the re-release of Vrba’s 1963 classic memoir, I Cannot Forgive, on April 21, 2020, under its second title, I Escaped from Auschwitz. In a statement on behalf of the project, the creative team announced, “The book, I Escaped from Auschwitz, which tells about a person’s desire to uncover the monstrous truth and save his people, can be called the most inspiring memoir ever read by us. We are very grateful to Robin for entrusting us with sharing Rudy’s story with the world. ” [Rudolf Vrba preferred people who did not know him to refer to him as Rudolf Vrba. If someone who did know him wished to shorten his first name as a sign of familiarity, he preferred the name Rudi, not Rudy. Hence Robin Vrba uses the term Rudi; the press release assumes familiarity but the first name is misspelled.]
In August of 2022, it was further reported that Next Productions was aligned for production, financing and sales of the project and the movie adaptation of the book would be titled Untold, to be directed by Aaron Schneider who directed Tom Hanks in Greyhound and has won an Oscar for best live-action short for Two Soldiers. Next Productions and parent company The Exchange had jointly optioned feature script and book rights. It was announced that Alex Wolff was slated to star as Vrba.
Next: VRBA IN GERMANY