Who is B.C.’s most important author? You’ll be surprised
— an opinion by Vancouver Sun columnist Douglas Todd —
B.C.’s most famous authors include Douglas Coupland, Eckhart Tolle, Pauline Johnson, William Gibson and Alice Munro. Despite their global renown, however, a strong case can be made that the province’s most important author, in light of both historical impact and value, is someone about whom most British Columbians have not heard.
It’s a new name for me, too.
But I’m comfortable with the case being made that the writings of Rudolf (Rudi) Vrba — a Slovak Jew who escaped Auschwitz and lived, wrote and worked as a biochemist in Vancouver from 1967 until his death in 2006 — has exerted more influence on world affairs than any other B.C. author.
Vrba’s insider’s report on the detailed workings of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp saved up to 200,000 lives.
It’s hard for the shocking reality of that to sink in today in Canada, which has a moderate history in comparison to the Nazis’ systematic horrors, as well as Imperial Japan’s mass atrocities, during the Second World War.
This summer, a significant book about Vrba has been published. It’s titled The Escape Artist, by Guardian columnist and thriller writer Jonathan Freedland. It describes Vrba’s harrowing, astonishing saga, including the 1944 concentration-camp report he wrote from first-hand experience, which finally convinced Allied forces about the extermination of Hungarian Jews.
I was first alerted to Vrba’s history-shaping story by Vancouverite Alan Twigg, however, through his new book, Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia, with an afterword by Rabbi Yosef Wosk.
The book explores the contributions that scores of British Columbians have made to the literature of the Holocaust, also known as The Shoah, the Nazi extermination of six million Jews.
The book describes the offerings of British Columbians Robert Waisman, Robert Krell, Caroline Adderson, Lisa Hobbs Birnie, Jan Drabek, Rene Goldman, Peter Oberlander, Peter Suedfeld and many others. But Vrba’s story leads off — because it is so extraordinary.
It is Twigg who makes the argument that Vrba is the province’s “most important” author, even while he admires others. He does so from his unique perspective as the founder of B.C. Bookworld, a long-standing newspaper about books.
The report about the concentration camp that Vrba put together, with assistance from fellow Auschwitz escaper Alfred Wetzler, was the document, Twigg says, “that finally revealed to the Allies the true nature and extent of the Holocaust.”
Titled the Vrba-Wetzler Report II, it “not only attempted to rationally estimate the scale of mass murder at Auschwitz, it also described the methodology. As such, it’s one of the most important documents of the 20th century.”
More than one million prisoners in that camp were murdered.
“Due to his ability to speak German, Vrba first worked sorting the belongings of gassed victims” in a section of Auschwitz known as Kanada, where the Nazis stole prisoners’ valuables. “He was therefore able to count incoming trains and maintain a tally as to the number of victims.”
Then Vrba and Wetzler were appointed cellblock registrars with relative freedom of movement.
“They were able to observe preparation for the new Birkenau compound for the eradication of Europe’s last remaining Jewish community, the 800,000 Jews of Hungary,” says Twigg.
After Vrba and Wetzler made their daring and exceedingly rare escape in 1944 from Auschwitz-Birkenau, they wrote a 33-page report. In meticulous detail they described how the Nazis were “exterminating” up to 2,000 prisoners a day. Vrba even provided drawings of the gas chambers.
Constantly risking their lives, and facing immense political obstacles, they managed to get their report into the hands of people who could, if they so chose, make a difference, including Hungarian authorities, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, the Vatican and U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt.
Eventually, as a result, tens of thousands of Jews were given false passports that made it possible to escape Hungary. And Jewish deportations from the country slowly halted.
Vrba’s report was published in the New York Times on Nov. 26, 1944, one of many developments that inspire Twigg to dub it “one of the most important documents of the 20th century,” with Vrba as “perhaps the most important witness of the Holocaust.”
In 1963, Vrba also wrote his autobiography, I Cannot Forgive, which was updated with a new title in 2002 to I Escaped from Auschwitz. Both were translated countless times.
Vrba’s remarkable escape also formed the centre of 2020 Slovakia’s submission for best international film, The Auschwitz Report, directed by Peter Bejak. He was also featured in leading documentaries of the 1980s and ‘90s, including Shoah, Genocide, Auschwitz and the Allies, and Witness to Auschwitz. Along the way he testified at the 1964 Frankfurt Auschwitz trial and the 1985 trial in Canada of Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel.
Vrba accomplished all this while living quietly in Vancouver for four decades, serving as a professor of pharmacology at the University of B.C., specializing in the chemistry of the brain. He published more than 50 scientific papers. Few of his students knew his story. Yet he sometimes gave talks about the Holocaust, where he maintained theft of property was a prime motivation for the murders of millions.
When Twigg had coffee with Vrba years ago, the history-maker came across as “fine, jovial, fatherly.” And he offered some parting advice, which Twigg took to heart: “Whenever something bad happens, something upsetting or irritating, like locking your keys inside your car, or somebody steals your bicycle, stop and ask yourself, am I going to remember this a year from now? The anxiety will subside.”
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