John Conway was a rare person at the University of British Columbia who could appreciate Rudolf Vrba beyond Vrba’s professional expertise in pharmacology. Having published the 474-page, landmark study, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933–1945 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1968), Conway was an expert on the Holocaust in Hungary and Slovakia, as well as Jewish-Christian relations, German churches during the Holocaust and the role of the Vatican during World War, as pertaining to the Holocaust. His book was translated into German, French and Spanish, and reissued in 1997. As a noted scholar and researcher in modern Church History, John Conway was permitted to deliver a lecture at Yad Vashem in 1993.
Born in London in 1929, John Seymour Conway (December 31, 1929 – June 23, 2017) was sent to public school in northern England at Sedbergh because his father knew the headmaster there. Like most young British men in 1948, he was conscripted. As an eighteen-year-old private in the British army, he was sent to Austria and posted on the Russian frontier where his daily job was to interview refugees rounded up by the Austrian police. “These were mainly Hungarians fleeing Soviet collectivization,” he said. “There were some families, but mostly it was single men, peasants really. Some of them were in a very sorry state.” Conway served only 18 months in the army, instead of the regular two years. “I got out early,” he said, “basically because they didn’t want all these conscripts anymore.”
Conway took all his studies at St John’s College Cambridge. With a Ph.D in International Relations and History, specializing in Germany, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in 1955, where he soon became active in organizations such as the World University Service and the Student Christian Movement. In the following year, when Hungarian refugees began arriving in Canada after the failed Hungarian Revolution, history repeated itself. “I was drawn into helping all over again,” he said. “By the time I came to UBC to teach International Relations in 1957, I had joined the Canadian Institute of International Affairs and the United Nations Associations. So my NGO pedigree was firmly established.”
While returning from England during a summer vacation, Conway met his wife, Ann, a physiotherapist, aboard the CPR liner, Empress of France. He proposed to her in Winnipeg and they were married in a country church in Essex. In 1957, the newlywed couple took a train from Montreal to Winnipeg, and drove to Vancouver in September where Conway commenced teaching International Relations at UBC. Conway remained continuously active in international aid work.
In 1970, Conway was a founding member of the Scholars’ Conference on the German Church and the Holocaust, and wrote a large number of articles dealing with the role of the European churches and the Vatican during the Holocaust, as well as on the topic of Christian-Jewish relations during the twentieth century. He paid three visits to Israel, and lectured at the Yad Vashem Memorial Foundation in Jerusalem in 1993. In 1995 he stopped teaching and became the Director of the Association of Contemporary Church Historians, and editor of its monthly Newsletter which has a worldwide audience and is available on e-mail. He was also a member of the editorial boards of the journals Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte and the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
In 1998, Conway was appointed the Smallman Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario. His research took him frequently to Germany, which he visited almost every year, including several sabbatical periods at various German universities.
During his visits to India in 1971, 1972, 1974 and 1977, Conway, a UBC history professor, became increasingly aware that job training for Tibetan refugees should become his top priority in terms of international aid work. In 1977, he was awarded the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal for his services and undertook the sponsorship of a Tibetan youth, Samten Wangmo [she eventually moved to London, England]. Conway and his wife met the Dalai Lama on several occasions. As well, Conway travelled to Dharmasala in 1995 and visited the Dalai Lama’s winter palace.
For 25 years, John Conway was also the unsung administrative hero of the Tibetan Refugee Aid Society, aka TRAS. As one of several people semi-commandeered by its founders Ingeborg and George Woodcock, who began the organization in 1962 (after meeting the Dalai Lama in exile, in India), Conway served on the first TRAS board of directors and became the organization’s first secretary. When the anarchist and prolific author George Woodcock had a heart attack in 1971, Conway volunteered to replace George at the helm as Vice-Chairman. For the next ten years Conway micro-managed a remarkable growth period, stimulated by productive liaisons with the Canadian International Development Agency. Conway was also solely responsible for the deposit of TRAS archives in the Special Collections section of the University of British Columbia, a massive undertaking in itself, comprising 43 boxes of carefully organized materials, chronologically pre-arranged by Conway. John Conway also served as the chief executive of TRAS during the first visit of the Dalai Lama to Vancouver in 1980.
[When the creator this website wrote a book about the Woodcocks and their still existing Aid Society–founded after the Woodcocks were among the first Westerners to befriend the Dalai Lama in exile–he met John Conway but Rudolf Vrba was not discussed. Vrba’s other trusted associate, Robert Krell, has suggested that possibly Conway had some influence in convincing Vrba, on his deathbed not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, with a Jewish ceremony, but instead to be buried in an undisclosed location as a citizen of the world.]
For seven years, Conway was also the Chairman of the Refugee Committee of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster (Vancouver) which sponsored refugees to resettle in B.C. He also served for many years as the editor of the Newsletter of the Association of Contemporary Church Historians and was a faithful member of St James’ Anglican Parish, Vancouver.
One might assume Vrba, a scientist and atheist, and Conway, a Christian historian, would not see eye-to-eye. In fact, works by Conway often complemented Vrba’s perspectives and at times mirrored them.
THE FIRST REPORT ABOUT AUSCHWITZ
by JOHN S. CONWAY
The extermination of European Jewry during World War II was the greatest genocide ever deliberately organized and executed. Why then was so little known about it and still less believed?
At the latest, enough was known by 1944. But even authentic eyewitness reports were dismissed at the time with incredulity and have been denounced as spurious lies or politically motivated fabrications ever since. The revelation in 1944 of the mass murders in Auschwitz affords a striking case history of these attitudes.
By the autumn of 1942, reports began to circulate in Germany about Nazi atrocities committed in the eastern occupied areas against Poles, Russians, and Jews. The majority of Germans, fully persuaded by the Nazi party line, dismissed them as the falsifications of enemy propaganda. A few with more sensitive consciences regarded them as unsubstantiated rumors. Either such reports were too exaggerated to be credible or, even if credible, could only reflect isolated instances of abuse perpetrated by overly zealous underlings.
Even in Allied and neutral countries, where no such readiness to believe in German good intentions existed, the average citizen had no means of discriminating between deliberately propagated stories of enemy atrocities and factually accurate accounts of the sufferings of Nazi victims. After the hysterical outbursts of World War I, when, for example, German troops were alleged to have hacked the limbs off Belgian children, a judicious skepticism prevailed toward all such unverified reports. Even when authenticated cases were revealed, the majority could not believe the evidence, or more probably did not want to believe what could be known.
It was therefore not until the spring of 1945 that these illusions were abandoned. The revelations of the Nazi concentration camps and the evidence piled up at the subsequent Nuremberg trials were incontrovertible proof of the Nazis’ brutalities and their deliberate plan of genocide against the Jews. A wave of moral indignation swept the world. But it was accompanied, at least in the minds of some, by feelings of remorse that the earlier atrocity warnings had not been believed, still less acted upon.
The mass of subsequent literature on Auschwitz and other extermination camps only proved that Nazi depravity was even more extreme than the most gullible anti-Nazis had imagined. In retrospect, wartime skepticism appeared unwarranted, even a culpable dereliction hindering possible rescue. The resulting confusion did little to resolve the question as to how truths and falsehoods were to be distinguished in the circumstances of total war, or how reliable information could be separated from the manipulations and exaggerations of political propaganda.
Let us examine how the facts about Auschwitz first became known to the wider world.
At the Nuremberg trials, one of the principal documents used was a fifty-nine-page mimeographed report published in November 1944 by the War Refugee Board in Washington, D.C. It consisted of two eyewitness accounts, “both received from a representative close to the scene,” the first based on the experiences of two young Slovakian Jews who escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 (Part 1, pp. 1-33), and the second by a non-Jewish Polish major (Part II, pp. 1-19).
In addition, a later statement (Part 1, pp. 33-40) submitted by two other escapees related the events in Auschwitz between April and the end of May 1944, the period in which the extermination of the Hungarian deportees began. The identity of these eyewitnesses was not revealed “in the interest of their own safety.”
The report provided for the first time, and with official endorsement, a detailed description of the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps, a breakdown of the numbers and classifications of the prisoners, the methods of extermination used in the gas chambers, the treatment of the surviving prisoners, and a careful estimate of the numbers of Jews gassed in Birkenau in the period April 1942 to June 1944. Strangely, however, none of the authors were called to testify at the Nuremberg trials, or even at the later trial of Adolf Eichmann.
However, three of the witnesses are still living [this essay was written in 1984] and able to authenticate their experiences; further, virtually identical copies of their report still exist in European archives, notably in Geneva and the Vatican, as well as the copy published in Washington by the War Refugee Board.
THE ORIGINS OF THE REPORT
On April 7, 1944, two Slovak Jewish inmates of Auschwitz, Alfred Wetzler (registration number, as tattooed onto his forearm, 29,192) and Walter Rosenberg, later known as Rudolf Vrba (registration number 44,070), escaped from the heavily guarded camp after two years of imprisonment and fled to their native village in neighboring Slovakia.
They knew that Auschwitz was at that moment being prepared for the mass extermination of the remaining Jews of Europe, especially those from Hungary, which had been occupied by the Germans in March 1944. Preparations were far advanced for what was to become the largest-scale operation ever undertaken by the Nazi authorities, resulting in the execution of no fewer than 500,000 Jews between May 16 and the beginning of October 1944.
Extensive preparations had been made since January to increase the daily capacity of the camp to kill 20,000 victims. “It was no secret in Auschwitz,” Vrba claimed, “that these extraordinary preparations were designed for the rapid annihilation of Hungary’s Jews.” It was clear to Vrba and Wetzler that their inside information about these plans must be used immediately to warn their fellow Jews of their impending fate. It was their belief that the whole annihilation procedure could be halted, or at least slowed down, by revealing the secrecy of the “resettlement areas” to the potential victims and by exposing the extermination machinery to the world in general and the Jews in particular.
It was this concern to inform the Jewish authorities that prompted Vrba and Wetzler not to choose the easier course of joining the partisans hiding in the mountains, but to risk contacting Slovak Jewish authorities in the more inhabited areas. On April 24, 1944, they reached Zilina in northern Slovakia, where they established contact with the Jewish Council of Slovakia, the Ustredna Zidov, whose leading members, Dr. Oskar Neumann, engineer Oskar Krasnansky, Erwin Steiner, and others, were immediately summoned from Bratislava to interrogate the two men.
The meeting was fraught with tension. Vrba and Wetzler knew that they required the help of the Jewish Council to alert the Jews in Hungary and elsewhere to their imminent peril. On the other hand, they also knew that these men, collaborating with Slovakian government and Nazi deportation experts, had been co-responsible in 1942 for the preparation of lists of Jews “available” to be deported to “work camps” at unknown destinations.
Vrba and Wetzler had themselves been among the 58,000 Slovak Jews deported in 1942 on the basis of these lists supplied by the Jewish Council. At that time, the Council had encouraged compliance with the Nazi plans and had warned against any resistance, giving assurances that such labor service would bring no harm to the deported Jews. They had hoped to avert a worse fate for the remainder of Slovakia’s Jews by accepting the responsibilities placed on them by the Nazis. The ominous silence that followed the deportations was sinister. But even by 1944, the Jewish leaders still deluded themselves that they could somehow escape the same fate themselves.
Vrba’s and Wetzler’s new revelations made such wishful thinking impossible.
The Jewish leaders’ first reaction was skeptical disbelief. However, the personal authenticity of the young men was soon established. Their statements about the fate of other Slovak Jews were corroborated from the copies of the deportation lists supplied to the Nazis and from the copies of personal identity cards retained by the Jewish Council.
Their detailed description of the system of mechanized mass murder in Auschwitz forced the Jewish Council leaders to realize the full extent of the Nazi annihilation program, evoking a reaction of shocked horror. Vrba and Wetzler were then directed to dictate separate statements—in Slovakian—describing the operations in Auschwitz: the mass executions; the disposal of the victims’ property; the sequence of deportation, selection, gassing, and cremating the corpses; as well as details about the arrival of Jews from all parts of Europe, which they had personally witnessed during their period of imprisonment.
Because Vrba was only twenty years old, his testimony had to be notarized by a “responsible adult.”
Subsequently, the two statements, both written in the first person, were put together in a composite report, and each of the two men provided details while the other was not present. As rapidly as possible, the whole report, some sixty pages of typescript, was prepared simultaneously in Slovak and German.
Their names, or even their aliases, were not appended, not so much for their safety as because the Jewish Council was endorsing their account. This gave the report more credibility in the eyes of its intended recipients, the leaders of Hungarian Jewry.
THE CONTENTS OF THE REPORT
The final published report contained three sections: first, the account by Vrba and Wetzler given to the Jewish Council at the end of April 1944; second, an account supplied to the same authorities by Rosin and Mordowicz at the beginning of June 1944; and third, a text written by a Polish major. It is not known by what route the third section of the report reached the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, which transmitted all three sections to American diplomatic representatives in Bern.
All three sections emphasize factual description. There is a complete absence of emotional language, and the details given were as observed by each participant. These detailed descriptions also include the names of many prisoners and some guards; they were intended as verifiable identifications that would prove the authenticity of these eyewitness reports.
The truth of these reports was later substantiated by the enormous amount of information on conditions in Auschwitz procured by interviews with other survivors, the mass of captured German records, the interrogations of leading perpetrators like Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, the evidence given at the Nuremberg trials, and substantial studies published in subsequent years.
Some of the information was already known at the time. Hilberg has noted that the great extent of industrial activity in Auschwitz resulted in a constant stream of incoming and outgoing personnel, all potential carriers of gossip to the farthest corners of the Reich.
The Polish Jews had premonitions of their probable fate before their deportation to the extermination camps. And the fragmentary contacts between the inmates, the Polish Home Army, and other resistance units was sufficient for at least some information, however inexact or sensational, to be widely circulated, reaching even Allied countries. The significance of the 1944 reports lay in their providing graphic and exact descriptions that turned fearful rumors into confirmed fact.
Equally significant, especially for the purpose of later verification, were those sections of the report that reveal details known until then only to the Nazi authorities: the calculations, based on the consecutive enumeration system of prisoners sent to the work force in the camp, about the number and origin of the trainloads of deportees sent to Auschwitz. This information had been carefully collated by the prisoners for two reasons: first, to establish the identities of the victims, and second, with a vain hope that the extermination process had an upper limit beyond which the Germans would not proceed.
At first, it was believed that no more than 500,000 people would be “processed”; later, this figure was revised upwards to one million. By 1943, this number was already exceeded, and early in 1944, extensive preparations were being made to annihilate the remaining one million Jews from Hungary.
It was this realization that lent urgency to Vrba and Wetzler in their determination to escape and report these facts to the world.
The arbitrary “selection” procedure when transports arrived at Auschwitz does not allow us to reconstruct the number of those immediately gassed, who were never allocated prisoner numbers. From their own personal participation in the “selection” procedure, Vrba and Wetzler observed that approximately 10 percent of the male and 5 percent of the female deportees were registered in the camp, while the remainder were immediately exterminated. A computation of these figures enabled both men, after their escape, to make a careful estimate of the total number of Jews, by nationality, who were gassed in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the period between April 1942 and April 1944.
Following the Warmsee Conference in January 1942, the schedule for deportation and extermination was put in motion. The first major transports arrived in Auschwitz in March and April 1942 from France and Slovakia. The French allotted to the camp were numbered from 27,400 onwards, and the Slovakians (including Wetzler), who were transported a week later, began with 28,600.
The report tabulated many of the successive transports, with the approximate numbers allotted to the survivors and with short comments on their origins, characteristics, and fate. These listings went from March-April 1942 until March 1944, when the prisoner numbers had reached 174,000. In the later section of the report, added by the two further ‘escapees at the end of May, the details of the transports were updated to prisoner number 189,000.
These calculations were rounded off to the nearest hundred. Vrba’s assessments of these statistics were based on his personal observation as a member of the “clearance squad,” detailed to transfer the possessions taken from the deportees for deposit in the warehouse—barracks named “Canada” and later shipment to Germany.
In several cases, Vrba and Wetzler added the dates on which these transports reached Auschwitz, and in the case of Slovakian transports, the names of individuals were frequently mentioned. They recorded that at the end of 1942, beginning with the number 80,000, the systematic extermination of the Polish ghettos started. About 4,000 Jews daily were driven into the gas chambers.
They also noted that the pressure of numbers forced the Germans to discontinue the previous system of burning the corpses in mass ditches dug in the Birkenau forest. Instead, after February 1943, four new modern crematoria were put into operation in two large and two smaller buildings, with a total capacity of 6,000 daily. Prominent guests from Berlin were present at the inauguration of the first new crematorium in March 1943 to witness the gassing and burning of 8,000 Cracow Jews. “They were lavish in their praise of this newly erected installation.”
The Vrba-Wetzler report also supplied other information that has been verified by later investigations: the treatment of Soviet POWs, the methods of collecting Jewish property, and the efforts of the Germans to deceive the deportees about their fate. For example, they gave details of the family transports of Jews from Theresienstadt, who were allocated the numbers 148,000 to 152,000 on their arrival in September 1943, and who “enjoyed quite an exceptional status which was incomprehensible to us.” They were not subject to “selection,” the families were allowed to stay together, and they were ordered to write postcards to relatives in Theresienstadt about their good treatment. After six months of such “quarantine,” they were all taken to the gas chambers.
Other attempts made by the Nazis to conceal the facts about Auschwitz were noted, for, despite the strictest orders for secrecy, the Germans were aware that news of these atrocities might leak out. They recorded that at the beginning of 1943 no less than 500,000 discharge certificates were sent to the political department at Auschwitz. “We thought with ill-concealed JOY that at least a few of us would be liberated. But the forms were simply filled out with the names of those gassed and filed away in the archives.”
They witnessed another move to conceal the scale of the exterminations when the camp authorities ordered indiscriminate murder of prisoners by the Kapos and “block elders” to stop, obliging them to sign written declarations assuming responsibility for the killings they had committed. Even before the German defeat at Stalingrad, Vrba and Wetzler recognized that the Germans were seeking to create alibis for themselves, a practice that grew enormously in the final stages of the war and was compounded by the destruction of a major part of Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with its records, on orders from Himmler between November 1944 and January 1945.
Thus, all post-1945 evidence has corroborated the Vrba-Wetzler reports, the accurate first account.
THE DISPOSITION OF THE REPORT
The representatives of the Jewish Council from Bratislava had to decide what to do with this vital information. At Vrba’s personal insistence, they promised to contact the Hungarian Jewish leaders immediately. At the same time, they agreed that measures must be taken to halt the extermination process in Auschwitz itself. On the basis of his inside knowledge Vrba knew that one effective way would be to bomb the connecting railway lines. Such aerial bombardment would require the intervention of the Allied powers, and therefore they had to be informed at once.
On the day following the meeting of the Jewish leaders with Vrba and Wetzler, the Jewish Council members returned to Bratislava, and, as Krasnansky later recorded, they decided to forward the protocol supplied by Vrba and Wetzler to a number of other Jewish and non-Jewish authorities.
Copies were prepared in German for the liaison committee in Istanbul; for Nathan Schwalb of the Jewish Agency in Geneva; for Dr. Weissmandel, the orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, who had it translated into Yiddish to send to his orthodox liaison contacts in Switzerland; and for the Papal Nuncio in Bratislava for the Vatican.
Although it is not clear when these reports were forwarded, Krasnansky later affirmed that the information was given immediately to Dr. Kiistner, one of the prominent members of the Budapest Rescue Committee, who had been summoned to Bratislava and for whom Krasnansky personally translated the document into Hungarian.
At this same meeting, the leaders of the Jewish Council were faced with the crucial problem of their own future. The return of the two deportees, determined not only to reveal the Nazi extermination policies in Auschwitz but also to expose the collaboration of the Jewish Council with the Germans, placed Krasnansky, Neumann, and their colleagues in a highly precarious position.
The only hope for preventing further annihilation of the remaining Jews in Europe was to broadcast these authenticated eyewitness reports as quickly as possible. But such action would also raise, in an excruciating manner, unavoidable questions about the Jewish Council’s role in this tragedy. The Council explained to Vrba that he was too valuable a witness to risk recapture. Furthermore, to avoid creating panic, he should not seek to discuss the facts about Auschwitz with anyone.
In order to retain the initiative, the leaders of the Jewish Council therefore strongly advised Vrba and Wetzler to seek refuge in the safer and remoter settlement of Liptovsky Svaty Mikulas in the Tatras mountains. They were given new identities and papers describing them as young Protestant students taking a holiday in the mountains. They were repeatedly told that they should be grateful for this help and should leave matters in the hands of older and wiser men.
Vrba’s expectations that, once this news reached Hungary, the Jews there would rebel and thereby escape deportation to Auschwitz were cruelly disappointed. His warning did not reach the Hungarian Jews in time. The responsibility for this failure has been long disputed. Since the Slovak Jewish leaders claimed that the full facts supplied by Vrba and Wetzler were given to their Hungarian counterparts by the end of April, suspicion for their subsequent suppression has fallen on the latter, in particular on Dr. Kastner. As the man appointed by the Central Council of Hungarian Jews to negotiate with the SS, Dr. Kastner and others have been accused of withholding the facts.
By early May, Vrba and his friends in Zilina became aware that his report on Auschwitz had failed to achieve the desired result. Because the town lay on the railway line linking Hungary and Silesia, they learned about the first deportation trains carrying Hungarian Jews even before they left for Svaty Mikulas. It seemed only too clear that the Jewish Council had again betrayed them. The victims in Hungary—as earlier in Slovakia—continued to be reassured and mollified.
Vrba and Wetzler remained in and around Mikulas for nearly six weeks. To their great astonishment they were informed on June 6, 1944—the day of the Normandy invasion—that two further former inmates of Auschwitz, Czeslaw Mordowicz and Arnost Rosin, had been brought into town under arrest, having been captured on the frontier by Slovakian guards. Luckily, they succeeded in keeping their successful escape from Auschwitz secret and were charged instead as currency smugglers. After a week, Mordowicz and Rosin were released by bribing local officials. After dictating their own statement to the Jewish Council’s representatives, Rosin and Mordowicz, along with Vrba and Wetzler, decided to leave at once for Bratislava in order to disappear.
Wetzler’s and Vrba’s report had warned in unmistakable terms of the imminent annihilation of the Hungarian Jews. Mordowicz and Rosin, who escaped on May 27, 1944, were able to verify these facts. From the end of April, but particularly after May 16, when the mass deportations began from various parts of Hungary, tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews had already met their deaths. It was vital that authentic reports reach the outside world without delay. In Bratislava, they hoped contacts with more influential circles would be possible.
Shortly after their arrival in Bratislava, they were summoned by Oskar Krasnansky, who informed them that, as decided, he had supplied a copy of Vrba’s report to the Papal Apostolic Delegate in Slovakia, Monsignor Angelo Burzio, and arranged a secret meeting to be held in the Piaristic monastery near Svaty Jur, some twenty miles outside Bratislava. In order not to attract attention, only Vrba, Morclowicz, Krasnansky and his interpreter Kalb went in the middle of June to Svaty jur, where they were courteously received.
At the time, Vrba believed he was speaking with the Papal Nuncio himself. In fact, the interview was handled by Msgr. Mario Martilotti, a member of the Vatican’s nunciature in Switzerland, who had been temporarily posted to Bratislava. For six hours, Vrba states, Martilotti cross-examined the young Slovak in German with the skill of an experienced lawyer; he used a German translation of the report to satisfy himself about its authenticity and that of its authors.
As an independent witness who had escaped later, Mordowicz added further evidence that the massacres in Auschwitz were indeed taking place as Vrba had predicted. Both men were insistent that the secrecy surrounding the extermination processes in Auschwitz ensured its success. Therefore, the widest publicity must be given at once to the facts. Not only would the Germans be faced with a worldwide outburst of indignation, but also their prospective victims could be warned to escape in time. Furthermore, in Hungary itself, where the Catholic Church was strong, its representatives could be instructed to give all possible assistance to their Jewish fellow citizens.
In Liptovsky Svaty Mikulas and Bratislava, Vrba clandestinely distributed further copies of his report, without the knowledge of the Jewish Council, to other Jews in Slovakia who were in contact with Hungary. These copies were prepared secretly with the assistance of one of Vrba’s friends, Josef Weiss, who was then employed by the Ministry of Health in Bratislava. Four copies were made at a time in Slovakian from the original, which had been retained by the four escapees and kept hidden behind a devotional picture of the Virgin Mary in their rented Bratislava apartment. These copies were then translated into Hungarian for dissemination in Hungary.
Contemporary evidence that this report also reached other sympathizers, who were ready to give it wider publicity in Western countries, is provided by at least three independent initiatives taken at this time.
First, late in 1944 an officer of the Hungarian Air Force flew his plane from Hungary to southern Italy, landing behind the Allied lines. He was interrogated there by an American Intelligence officer of Hungarian descent, E. Foder, to whom he handed a microfilmed copy of the Auschwitz report, explaining that this information about the Nazi atrocities had led him to defect and join the Allied cause. By this time, however, the Western powers had already received the same information from other channels.
Second, a courier of the Czechoslovak underground movement delivered a copy of the Wetzler-Vrba report on June 19 and 20, 1944, to the Czechoslovak Minister to Switzerland in Bern, Dr. Jaromir Kopacky. It was immediately sent to the World Jewish Congress in Geneva and to the Swiss press, which published extensive extracts.
Third, at the same time, Georges Mandel-Mantello, acting First Secretary of the El Salvador Consulate in Geneva, received a copy from Budapest. It had originated in the Palestine Office in Hungary and included not only the Wetzler-Vrba material but also new and detailed information about the first month’s deportations of Hungarian Jews. Mantello immediately gave this material to the chief correspondent of the Exchange Press in Zurich, Walter Garrett, an Englishman, whose Hungarian-speaking secretary recalls translating the documents from Hungarian into English. It is clear that this particular copy could not have come from either the Jewish Council or the Vatican representatives in Slovakia, who would not have forwarded a Hungarian version to Switzerland.
In four lengthy telegrams dispatched to London on June 24, 1944, Garrett described “ONE DARKEST CHAPTERS MODERN HISTORY REVEALING HOW ONE MILLION 715 THOUSAND JEWS PUT DEATH ANNIHILATION CAMP AUSCHWITZ BIRKENAU AND HARMANSEE.”
Garrett added that the absolute exactness of this report was unquestionable and vouched for by a neutral diplomat, presumably Mandel-Mantello, and by unnamed Catholic church functionaries who were well-known to the Vatican and who desired the widest diffusion on a worldwide scale.
On the same day, the General Secretary of the World Jewish Congress, Gerhard Riegner, telegraphed a six-page summary of this information to the British, United States, and Czechoslovak governments. He called for military action to impede the extermination procedures and for the widest possible press and radio coverage of the atrocities. Riegner specifically urged that the Holy See should be asked to issue a strong condemnation of these crimes.
On the same day, the World Council of Churches issued a press release calling on its worldwide ecumenical fellowship to protest the deportation and murder of the Hungarian Jews. “Christians cannot remain silent in face of these atrocities.” Ten days later, a circular sent out by four of Switzerland’s most prominent Protestant leaders gave extensive details of the Auschwitz exterminations verbatim from Vrba’s report. It can be assumed that this copy was supplied through the World Jewish Congress from the original brought by Mantello.
The results were immediate and effective. On the following day, June 25, 1944, the Pope issued an unprecedented appeal in an open telegram to the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, calling on him to “spare so many unfortunate people further sufferings.” The King of Sweden, as well as the Swiss, Turkish, and Spanish authorities, made similar representations.
Possibly the most effective intimidation came from the Allied threat to bomb Budapest. On July 6, 1944, Admiral Horthy ordered the deportations to Auschwitz to cease. There can be no doubt that the breaking of the conspiracy of silence, which the Germans and their collaborators had tried to maintain, was due to the widespread publication of the reports supplied by the four escapees.
For a few months, deportations from Slovakia and Hungary to Auschwitz were halted. During this period, urgent negotiations were conducted in London and Washington about possible means of rescue; the results were highly ambivalent.
Nothing of this was known to the four young escapees from Auschwitz. They were still bitterly disappointed that their warnings had not been forwarded and had not led to resistance of the Hungarian Jews. Moreover, they were under the daily threat of being arrested.
Shortly thereafter, Vrba left secretly to join partisan groups fighting under Czechoslovak auspices in the mountains of western Slovakia and was joined six months later by Wetzler. Mordowicz had the misfortune of being discovered; he was re-transported to Auschwitz under a different name but successfully concealed his previous identity and thus escaped death.
After the war, Wetzler returned to Bratislava and became a journalist on one of the local papers. A few months later, he and Vrba produced a short account of their experiences in Auschwitz, which also included the testimony given by Rosin and Mordowicz. After the war, Vrba studied chemistry in Bratislava and at the University of Prague, Rosin entered business in Prague, and Mordowicz became the manager of a factory in Bratislava, emigrating to Israel in 1966.
Portions of this essay appeared in the article “Fruhe Augenzeugenberichte aus Auschwitz. Glaubwurdigkeit und Wirkungsgeschichte,” Viertel- jahrshefte fur Zeitgeschicte 27, no. 2 (1979): 260-284. (Early eyewitness reports from Auschwitz. Credibility and impact history. Quarterly journals for contemporary history.)
1. The text was originally published in November 1944 by the Executive Office of the President, War Refugee Board, Washington, D.C., entitled German Extermination Camps-Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was extensively quoted and reviewed in the New York Times on November 26, 1944, under the headline: U.S. BOARD BARES ATROCITY DETAILS TOLD BY WITNESSES AT POLISH CAMPS. In the record of the Nuremberg trials, only one page of this report was printed in the documentary collections Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal [Blue Series] (42 vols.; Nuremberg, 1947-49) [hereafter cited as TMWC] 37: 433, and Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression [Red Series] (8 vols. and 2 suppl.; Washington 1946-47) 7: 771.
2. They are: Dr. R. Vrba, Vancouver, Canada; F. Wetzler, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia; and C. Mordowicz, Jerusalem, Israel. The fourth witness, Arnost Rosin, died recently in West Germany. Dr. Vrba was interviewed by the BBC and appeared in the documentary “Auschwitz and the Allies,” broadcast in September 1982. In 1980, both Vrba and Mordowicz amplified their testimony to the distinguished British historian Martin Gilbert: see his Auschwitz and the Allies (London, 1981), 193-97, 202-5, 215-16, 327-29. 1 am grateful for the collaboration of Dr. R. Vrba, whose personal involvement in these events has helped enormously to clarify the details, supplementing his account in his book: R. Vrba and A. Bestic, I Cannot Forgive (London, 1963).
3. One complete text-in Gcrman – is in the Vatican Archives, Report no. 2144 (A.E~S. 7679/44), sent from Bratislava May 22, 1944, and annotated in the Vatican October 22 and 24, 1944. The covering letter from the Apostolic Delegate in Slovakia, Msgr. Burzio, is reprinted in A ctes et Documents du Saint Si~pe relatifs a la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, vol. 10, Le Saint Siege et les victimes de la guerre, Janvier 1944-Juillet 1945 (Vatican City, 1980), Document no. 204, p. 281. Other identical copies are to be found in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (in Hungarian), in the files of the World Jewish Congress, Geneva (in German), and in the Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York: War Refugee Board report, Box 61: General Correspondence of R. McClelland: F: Miscellaneous Documents and Reports re Extermination Camps for Jews in Poland (in German).
4. For the details of their escape, see Vrba and Bestic, I Cannot Forgive; also M. Gilbert, Auschwitz, 193-97, with accompanying map. For a survey of escapees from Auschwitz, see H. Langbein, Menschen in Auschwitz (Vienna, 1972), 295- 303.
5. See R. Vrba, “Footnote to Auschwitz Report,” Jewish Currents (March 1966): 23.
6. Oskar Neumann’s autobiography, Im Schatten des Todes (Tel Aviv, 1956), gives a full description of the Jewish Council’s activities and mentions the arrival of Vrba and Wetzler; see also Gilbert, Auschwitz, 203-4; also E. Kulka, “Five Escapes from Auschwitz,” in They Fought Back, The Story of Jewish Resistance in Nazi’Europe, ed. Yuri Suhl (London, 1968), 233.
7. The account by the Polish major was clearly written earlier than 1944, and its existence could not have been known to the Jewish escapees. This witness was interviewed anonymously in Poland by the BBC in 1982.
8. When the report was published in Washington in November 1944, the possibility of reprisals against these prisoners or their surviving relatives was considered too great to allow their names to be included. An officer of the War Refugee Board noted in an internal memorandum of November 22, 1944: “Before releasing the reports members of Mr. Pehle’s staff [Executive Director, War Refugee Board] had together gone over them page by page, deleting the names of people who might still be alive and might possibly be harmed by publicity. They had also carefully considered the advisability of deleting references to Jews inflicting cruelty upon other Jews but had decided not to edit the original text.” War Refugee Board files, Box 6: German Extermination Camps, folder 9. In the other surviving copies of this report these names were not deleted.
9. See particularly R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (New York, 1961); R. Hoss, Kommandant in Auschwitz (Stuttgart, 1958); Anatomt . e des SS-Staates, ed. H. Buchheim and others (2 vols.; Olten, 1965); B. Naumann, A uschwitz (London, 1966); H. Langbein, Der A uschwitz-Prozess (2 vols.; Frankfurt, 1965); J. Selm, 0swiecim-Brzezinka (Auschwitz-Birkenau) Concentration Camp (Warsaw, 1961); TMWC, esp. 11: 396-422.
10. Hilberg, Destruction, 623. J. Garlinski, Fighting Auschwitz: The Resistance Movement in the Concentration Camp (London, 1975), 55, states that factual evidence on conditions in Auschwitz was given to the Polish resistance movement and to the Polish General Staff in London as early as November 1940.
11. For a discussion of the total number of Jews exterminated, see R. Henkys, Die nationalsozialistischen Gewaltverbrechen (Stuttgart, 1964); Hilberg, Destruction, 767. For Auschwitz, see also Miss, Kommandant, 162-3 and Langbein, Menschen in Auschwitz, 78-80.
12. R. Hoss, Kommandant, 159 and n. on p. 159, claimed that the percentage of those selected for work service “was 25-30 percent on average for all the transports, but varied widely. “The Polish investigating judge, J. Selm, however, supported the lower figure of 10 percent: Selm, 0cwiecim-Brzezinka, 119. In his later evidence prepared for the “Auschwitz” trial, Vrba stated: “Sometimes 10 percent of the new arrivals were sent to the camp; it varied greatly”: Langbein, Der AuschwitzProzess 1: 7 7.
13. This “careful estimate” appeared in War Refugee Board report, p. 33, and was incorporated in Nuremberg Document L-22 and later printed in TMWC, see footnote 1.
14. Vrba and Wetzler stated (p. 7) that the French convoy contained 1,320 naturalized French Jews from Paris. Henkys, Gewaltverbrechen, 154, gives the date of arrival as March 30, and the number as 1, 112.
15. See Hoss, Kommandant, 163-65; Langbein, Menschen in Auschwitz, 158-68.
16. See Hoss, Kommandant, 159-61.
17. War Refugee Board report, German Extermination Camps, 16.
18. Ibid., 19.
19. See Henkys, Gewaltverbrechen, 155.
20. See Hilberg, Destruction, 619-24. Hoss himself later admitted that it was impossible to prevent news being smuggled in or out of the camp: Hoss, Kommandant, 99. Garlinski, Fighting Auschwitz, passim, gives details of this flow of information. In early 1942, a Silesian monk, Fr. Karl Golda, from a nearby monastery, was arrested by the Gestapo for compiling details on conditions in Auschwitz. He was himself sent to the camp and died there on May 14, 1942, presumably put to death by the camp authorities: Berichte des SD und der Gestapo Rber Kirchen und Kirchenvolk in Deutschland, 1934-1944, ed. H. Boberach (Mainz, 1971), 633.
21. War Refugee Board report, 17.
23. See E. Kulka, “Five Escapes,” 234. 150 JOHN S. CONWA Y
24. Testimony of 0. Krasnansky, taken on June 8, 1964: Archives of the Institute for the History of Contemporary Jewry, Jerusalem: reprinted in Terezin (Prague, 1965), 195-96.
25. Kastner’s version of these events was first given in 1946 as the Rapport du Comite Juif d’assistance de Budapest 1942-1945 and later appeared as Rapport Kdstner, ed. A. Landau, (Munich, n.d.). A fuller account is given by A. Biss, A Million Jews to Save (London, 1973); see also R. Braham, The Politics of Genocide. The Holocaust in Hungary; (2 vols.; New York, 1981) 2: 709-31.
26. See Gilbert, Auschwitz, 231-32.
27. There was no nunciature in Slovakia. Because the Vatican had refused to accept the Slovak proposal for a revised concordat with the newly established republic, the papal representative was at the lower rank of an Apostolic Delegation. Msgr. Angelo Burzio, formerly Apostolic Delegate in Kaunas, Lithuania, had been transferred to Bratislava early in 1942. 1 am grateful to Fr. R. Graham, SJ, for identifying this papal representative.
28. Since both Msgr. Martilotti and Mordowicz spoke better French than German, this part of the interview was conducted in the former language.
29. Evidence of this distribution in Hungary is to be found in the fact that this report was reprinted verbatim from a Hungarian source in one of the first postwar publications on this subject: J. Levai, Zsidosors Europaban (Budapest, 1948).
30. No less than 383 articles and reprints appeared in the following eighteen days in the Swiss press; W. Rings, Advokaten des Feindes (Vienna, 1966), 146. This was the first time the Swiss censor allowed such reports to be printed.
31. Ibid., 144.
32. Garrett’s telegrams were reprinted in English and in Hungarian translation in J. Levai, Zsidosors, 68-72.
33. Telegram from World Jewish Congress to Washington, via U.S. Legation, Bern, June 24, 1944: from the files of the General Secretary, World Jewish Congress, Geneva; see also Gilbert, Auschwitz, 232-33; for a discussion of the question why Auschwitz was never bombed see D.S. Wyman, “Why Auschwitz was never bombed,” Commentary 65, no. 5 (May 1978): 37-46, and Gilbert, Auschwitz, passim.
34. Archives of the World Council of Churches, Geneva: Freudenberg Papers: Documents Hungary 1944. A telegram to the same effect was dispatched via the British Legation in Bern to the Archbishop of Canterbury: Public Record Office, London: Foreign Office General Correspondence, FO 371/42807 June 1944.
35. Text of the Papal telegram and reply from the Regent, in Acts et Documents du Saint Siege, vol. 10, document nos. 243 and 250, pp. 328 and 329.
36. See John S. Conway, “Between Apprehension and Indifference: Allied Attitudes to the Destruction of Hungarian Jewry, “Wiener Library Bulletin 27, no. 30-31 (1973-74): 37-48.
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