TWO RUDOLFS & ONE WALTER

Dr. Stephan Horny, nephew

Dr. Stephan Horny, nephew

After he died of bladder cancer on March 27, 2006, Rudolf Vrba was buried on the outskirts of Vancouver. His father-in-law said kaddish, the prayer of mourning, but there were not enough Jewish men present to form the traditional quorum, or minyan. His nephew named Stefan Horny, a medical doctor from Montreal, could only make it to the West Coast of Canada on a Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, hence Robin Vrba had found one of the few cemeteries that could undertake a Saturday burial.

Some forty people would assemble for a memorial event in Vancouver nine months later, but attendance at the burial near the Canada-U.S. border was limited. There, Dr. Stefan Horny explained to the few mourners why they were witnessing a triple funeral for two Rudolf Vrbas and one Walter Rosenberg…

Following Vrba’s escape from Auschwitz in April of 1944, Nazi officials distributed WANTED telegrams that included the names of Rosenberg and his co-escapee, Alfréd Wetzler, as well as their respective dates of entry into Auschwitz. After Walter and Alfréd had jointly provided convincing reportage, rendering unprecedented mass murders at Auschwitz indisputable, they were convinced to adopt alternate identities for their own safety. In the Slovakian border town of Žilina, they were accorded convincing but false identity papers.

Walter Rosenberg adopted the pseudonym Rudolf Vrba at the behest of the elders who sheltered and questioned him. It has been suggested but not proved that a local Jewish doctor had refrained from signing a death certificate for a young Slovak man named Rudolf Vrba. Consequently, for his own safety, Walter became known as Rudolf Vrba in the spring of 1944. Trusting their Jewish elders, the pair of renamed fugitives were sent to recover in the remote village of Liptovský Svätý Mikuláš, about fifty miles east of Žilina, where they pretended to be students. Given a stipend from the Jewish Council, the re-born version of Walter Rosenberg (a Germanic-sounding surname for a Jew that Vrba didn’t much like) set about recovering from 22 months within the world’s most lethal prison camp. Alfréd Wetzler had been imprisoned two months longer. He adopted the identity of Josef Lanik, his future pen name.

Telegram

Auschwitz telegram seeking recapture of  the escapees Walter Rosenberg and Alfréd Wetzler. The underlined word on the bottom is “special arrest book”

Nobody they met in Slovakia could imagine where they had been. “You’re a dreadful son,” Vrba’s mother (reputedly) admonished when they were eventually re-united. “You know you never wrote to me once. You never even sent me your address.” Vrba had a keen sense of humour so this anecdote could be apocryphal but it makes a point. [His mother was briefly incarcerated in Theresienstadt, a hybrid of ghetto and a concentration camp in the town of Terezin, so it’s likely the reunion of mother and son did not occur until war’s end.]

Six weeks passed. Two more Auschwitz escapees, Czeslaw Mordowicz and Arnošt Rosin, reached Bratislava and reported that the death trains from Budapest to Auschwitz were now arriving daily at the new Birkenau ramp. Vrba and Lanik had seen that ramp under construction in preparation for 800,000 Hungarian Jews and they had been keen to sound the alarm prior to these transports.  The first pair of Auschwitz whistleblowers could only conclude that the contents of their anonymous report had NOT been properly distributed, as hoped and promised.

Rudolf Vrba joined the armed militia of the rebel patriots, retaining his alias. The more he excelled as a freedom fighter, the more he became comfortable with his ‘nom de guerre.’ Decorated at war’s end for his courageous military service as a Slovak partisan, the boy who was born as Walter Rosenberg, and who had illegally changed his name to Rudolf Vrba as a youth, undertook another metamorphosis as an adult. He took upon himself a third, legalized identity, one that coincided with his freedom, and in doing so he adopted the date of his escape from Auschwitz as his new birth date.

Hence, on April 1, 2006, April Fool’s Day, Stefan Horny, the son of Vrba’s half-sister, advised mourners at a little-known cemetery beyond Vancouver, British Columbia, where Vrba had lived for more than a third of his life, that they were witnessing a triple funeral.

They were burying two Rudolfs and one Walter.

Next: THE TREK