WHY VRBA REALLY ESCAPED
It is generally assumed that Rudolf Vrba’s primary motivation for escaping from Auschwitz was to inform the world about the forthcoming mass murder of approximately 800,000 Hungarian Jews. This might not be true.
Knowing what it is like to be a nineteen-year-old man deeply in love for the first time, I am increasingly inclined to consider a less noble, psychological rationale: Quite simply, Rudolf Vrba escaped from Auschwitz because he wanted revenge.
Affirmation for this theory can be found in Chapter 9 of Wetzler’s Escape from Hell and in the opinions of the academic Ruth Linn and his first wife, Gerta Vrbova, also a Holocaust survivor. Confirmation for this theory can be found in the essential interviews conducted by documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann with Filip Müller and Rudolf Vrba, the most famous informants who survived to tell the tale.
In Escape from Hell, as the would-be escapees huddle in their Mexico hideout, even before the siren has sounded, Wetzler forestalls the getaway drama with a flashback to a life-shattering event that happened one month before–the mass-murder of nearly all the members of the so-called Czech Family Camp, including Vrba’s lover Alice Munk.
Wetzler interrupts the drama to recall the shipment of Czech Jews who arrived six months earlier, from Terezin, and how they had been allowed to live together as families in Block-II B, writing postcards, receiving “special treatment,” keeping their hair, dressing in their own clothes, until they, too, were sent to the “Zyklon showers.”
Wetzler claims that one of the Czechs being sent on the 400-metre-march to death had shouted out, “Avenge us!”
Whether that outcry was really heard or not, it provides the narrator with the catalyst for this passage that immediately follows: “There’s nothing we want more than revenge. But how can such endless streams of people into the gas be avenged? Where would you find a just measure for revenge? Well, yes, there is the just measure of death for death. But death is only an instant, perhaps the most painless and most unexpected result. A full stop after suffering. But how to you avenge grief and unimaginable suffering? How indeed? When you have saved your life, too? Will you live in order to perform prolonged and frightful torture and then slow and frightful death? No, you could not live like that. But equally you could not live on this earth along with the murderers. So what will you do to them? Of course, you will have your revenge. Somehow or other you will have your revenge.”
That rhetorical speech could be one that a scriptwriter in Hollywood might dream up. In its syntax, it verges on overblown, even hokey. People don’t talk that way unless they are on a podium, a lectern or perhaps running for political office. It is certainly not the language that one would hear in a gas chamber. But Wetzler was not chiefly concerned with journalistic standards for truth. He freely melded and mixed the truth from multiple viewpoints. [Case in point: Whereas Vrba mentions how fortunate they were to have excellent boots, Wetzler opts to include severe footwear problems endured by the pair of subsequent escapees, Mordowicz and Rosin, thereby heightening the privations experienced by his fictionalized duo of Karol and Val.] But Wetzler’s sometimes clunky prose, released under a pen name, was issued as a novel, not as a factual news report. He was seeking to capture emotional truths as well as attempting to serve history. Hence, the references to the mass murder of the Czech Family Camp in the novel, and its impact on the two escapees, as they were escaping, is telling. Clearly, both Vrba and Wetzler sought to avenge them. They could never forget.
“All day long, until late evening,” Wetzler wrote, recalling the annihilation of their fellow Czechoslovakian Jews, “hissing flames shot out from the chimneys.”
Whereas Wetzler’s perspective is subjective, Ruth Linn’s viewpoint in line with academic standards: if it can’t be substantiated, it cannot be stated.
As Rudolf Vrba’s most trusted confidante, Linn, too, has recognized the extreme importance of the so-called “Family Camp” or “Czech Family Camp” at Auschwitz with regards to Vrba’s desire to escape. The underground movement in Auschwitz had deduced that when arrivals to the family camp were marked “SB6,” this was a somewhat cryptic designation for Special Treatment of Sonderbehandlung. The abbreviation meant those who were privileged to receive the comforts of the Family Camp were meant to be murdered six months after their arrival. During an interview for Israeli television, Ruth Linn provided a synopsis of Vrba’s relations with the openly gay but universally admired Fredy Hirsch (translated here from Hebrew):
Auschwitz includes the story of one of the Germans’ most successful organized deceptions – the so-called “family camp” that was built by the Nazis. About 4,000 Jews were brought from the Theresienstadt ghetto to Auschwitz on Sept 1943. All were exempted from the camp ordeal of tattooing, hair cutting, shaving and spraying. They were allowed to remain as families with their own clothing. They were also allowed to maintain some sort of social activities. Of course, no one could fully understand what motivated the Germans to preserve these families as families.
Later, as we all know, this was just a misleading device of the Nazis – a conspiracy – so the Red Cross would not learn the true nature of Auschwitz. In January 1944, six months after their arrival, they were all gassed, and another transport of about 4,000 Czech inmates was brought to Auschwitz. This second family camp replaced the first one. In this second family camp, there was an admirable counselor named Fredy Hirsch. At the eve of the liquidation of this second family camp, it was Rudolf Vrba who came over to this camp, as a messenger of the underground in Auschwitz–Birkenau, and informed Fredy Hirsch that tomorrow the entire family camp was going to be gassed. Vrba assured him that the information came from the zonder commando and was based on their estimation of the amount of resources that would be needed for the liquidation.
Vrba carried one message from the underground to Fredy: “go and revolt.” Hirsch turned to Vrba and asked him: “Whom should I revolt with? Children? Give me an hour to think about it.”
Vrba returns after an hour and finds Hirsch dead. He could not make the decision. Maybe there are other interpretations. As has been noticed by Mark Bloch, the Jewish historian who also died in the Holocaust, war story is not just the story of shooting, cannons, and dead bodies. It is also a psychological story of individuals who are forced to make decisions within such hard conditions.
And here comes the part that intrigued me: I could find Fredy Hirsch’s story in many Hebrew history books, but Vrba’s story was not. I also couldn’t find his book in Hebrew. In Lanzmann’s documentary, Vrba’s short testimony was stunning but what his personal story? We know that on the 7th of April, he escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau with his friend, Alfred Wetzler. But what else? The mystery fired up my curiosity….
In June of 1942, he was deported to Auschwitz where he was selected to work in ‘commando Canada’ where his first job was to empty the suitcases and to clean the wagons so they would be ready for shipping the new victims. Throughout his work on the ramp, Vrba came to realize that the prospective victims did not know where they were heading. He noticed that their suitcases contained clothing for all seasons, for the next year ahead.
His second role was that of a registrar. This was relatively convenient in terms of mobility. This enabled him to deliver the warning to Fredy Hirsch. Although dangerous, this mobility enabled him to get familiar with the camp. One day, probably on January 15, 1943, Vrba happened to talk with a drunken SS who joked about the forthcoming ‘Hungarian Salami.’ This was one of the common camp slangs. The Italians were known as sardines, the Greek as olives. It was at that moment, when Vrba learned the Hungarian Jews would be next, that he told himself that if he succeeded in escaping, he would inform the Hungarians about Auschwitz, and if possible – the entire world.
In April 1944, there was still a possibility to save the second ‘family camp.’ It was assumed that the Germans would proceed as they had done with the first ‘family camp’ in January, and all would be liquidated exactly six months after their arrival, meaning in June.
Ruth Linn concludes with an assessment that rescuing the latest shipment of Czechoslovakian Jews was a primary motive for Vrba’s escape. And she is in good company. In a new biography about the Auschwitz escapee Mordowicz, The Auschwitz Protocols, Fred B. Bleakley provides a fascinating footnote. He records that Martin Gilbert’s wife, Lady Esther Gilbert, sent an email to him on July 26, 2017, in which she confided that her husband Sir Martin Gilbert privately believed that Rudolf Vrba’s primary motive for escape was to possibly save the lives of the latest shipment of Czech Jews who constituted the new version of Family Camp (to be maintained by the Nazis, near the entrance to the concentration camp, as a ruse to fool the Red Cross). Hence, Ruth Linn and Sir Martin Gilbert were like-minded in this regard: Rudolf Vrba’s love affair with Alice Munk was as much the major catalyst for this resolve to escape as the stated resolve to save 800,000 Hungarian Jews.
At age 87, in an interview conducted by Emily Retter for an article that appeared in The Mirror on May 3, 2014, Vrba’s first wife Gerta Vrbova confirmed Gilbert’s private opinion and Linn’s public one. Retter records: He [Vrba] told Gerta what had finally pushed him to risk his dangerous escape. “There had been a ‘family camp’ at Auschwitz, a place where families were kept together that the Nazis had set up only to fool the Red Cross in case they visited,” she recalls. “There were 3,000 Jews there and Rudi had fallen in love with one of them. Then one night, after six months with no sign of the Red Cross, the Nazis rounded them all up and gassed them. Children, women, everyone. That was it. He knew he had to escape. For himself, but also to tell the world what was happening. He’d heard rumours the Hungarian Jews would be next and the Nazis were building new gas chambers.”
Claude Lanzmann’s essential interviews with Filip Müller and Vrba are the most powerful and persuasive evidence to support a claim that Gerta Vrbova, Sir Martin Gilbert and this website are most likely right in emphasizing the extent to which fate of the Czech Family Camp motivated Rudolf Vrba’s desire to escape. [For transcriptions, visit VRBA IN SHOAH on this site.]
From the majority of books and articles pertaining to the Vrba-Wetzler Report, it seems clear that both Holocaust experts and Auschwitz memoirists have been reluctant to speculate on the enormous impact of Rudolf Vrba’s ultra-tragic love affair with the slightly older Alice Munk. But the Nazis not only stole billions of dollars-worth of properties, art, household, gold, silver and art. They also stole something far more precious to him. The Nazis stole his first love. Then they gassed her to death. Then they incinerated her. If it is crass to include the fact that his first love literally went up in smoke, one still needs to be crass. If it is crass to mention that some of his teenage seed might have still been inside her when she was murdered, the conjecture must still be made. This, more than the imminent deaths of possibly 800,000 people he did not know, could have been Rudolf Vrba’s primary motive for escaping Auschwitz—to avenge the death of Alice Munk.
In terms of maintaining Vrba’s own sanity and self-esteem within a hideous landscape of cruelty and degradation, the Family Camp was a potent and constant reminder that “normal life” could still exist, that Auschwitz really was an aberration. Consequently, it is hard not to conclude that the suicide of the Family Camp’s most universally-admired personality Fredy Hirsch, after Vrba has served as the chief intermediary between Hirsch and the camp underground, also would have had a significant impact on Vrba’s psyche. If Alice Munk was the most beautiful personality, there are many viewpoints to suggest that Hirsch was the most admirable. From all reports, Hirsch attended to the youths in the Family Camp with remarkable charm and wisdom; he managed to keep many of the Czech youngsters miraculously sane and even occasionally happy. Tasked with the mission of convincing Hirsch to serve as the leader of an uprising within the Family Camp, Vrba felt obliged to assert some pressure on Hirsch to comply as quickly as possible. When Hirsch demurred, when Vrba’s arguments for action failed, and when Hirsch chose to commit suicide instead, negating the slim viability of an uprising, Vrba, to put it crudely, had blood on his hands. That is, at the very least, he must have felt at least partially responsible for Hirsch’s untimely demise. If he had succeeded in convincing Hirsch to lead a rebellion, could there have been–by some miracle–a different outcome for the Czech Family Camp? Could he have handled the negotiations with Hirsch any differently?
One can only speculate on such matters. Some historians have suggested that possibly Hirsch had only asked for some medication to calm his nerves. If the Nazis had got wind of the plan to designate the most widely-admired person in the Czech Family Camp to lead a revolt, quite possibly they might have overdosed or poisoned him with medication without his knowledge. Even the Nazis admired and liked Hirsch. The likes of Dr. Mengele and Eichmann had visited his compound to witness the education of youngsters and they had voiced their approval. Hirsch was something of a miracle worker. The death rate of children under his direction and care was near zero. He was such an inspirational figure that even the fact that he was openly gay did not provoke enmity. Therefore, if the Nazis knew that such a charismatic figure was to foment an uprising, their own efforts to quell any such a revolt could not only result in the death of many German soldiers; it could be a black mark on the record of the Auschwitz administration.
To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Rudolf Vrba never wrote about such things. He did, however, describe and celebrate the positive aspects of both Munk and Hirsch. Vrba’s love affair with Alice Munk, tenderly described with Alan Bestic’s prose, affirmed for him—after more than a year of degrading and constant compromise to appease hostile captors within the boundaries of a collective nightmare—that his own feelings and thoughts could still triumph, that his heart could still serve as a compass. Alice Munk, in particular, served him as a radiant beacon for reality and redemption.
“Vengeance is mine,” saith the Lord—but Vrba was an atheist, so he sought to generate vengeance with his own heroism.
Hence, blowing the whistle on the Holocaust was Rudolf Vrba’s ultimate act of revenge.
POSTSCRIPT RE: VRBA-WETZLER REPORT.
While the original versions of the Vrba-Wetzler Report don’t contain specific warnings about the need to prevent the wholescale slaughter of Europe’s largest remaining Jewish populace within a national boundary, there are obvious reasons why this was the case. First and foremost, Vrba and Wetzler, both relatively young men, were strongly advised by their elders in Zilina to concentrate on providing only factual information. Given that Vrba and Wetzler had been well-placed within the camp structure to maintain an ongoing statistical tally of mass murder, they were persuaded to accentuate their unique and astonishing mathematical tallies. Consequently, the Vrba-Wetzler Report is remarkably devoid of emotional responses to the horrors they had witnessed, devoid of any ghastly descriptions of the countless tortures and cruelties they observed, and devoid of predictions or opinions.
The pair’s mathematical tallies (literally columns of numbers), along with their precise detailing of the camp’s physical structures and their descriptions for the methodology of unprecedented genocide, provided an almost scientific perspective. It was this objective rather than subjective approach—offering bloodless and severely logical matching reportage devoid of moralism and outrage—that ultimately forced both Winston Churchill and even the feckless Franklin Delano Roosevelt to express the moral outrage that ultimately led to the Hungarian leader Admiral Horthy ordering the cessation of trains bound for Auschwitz.
It can therefore be easily argued, retroactively, that Vrba and Wetzler risked their lives to save 800,000 Jews in the overall scheme of things. This assumption is compounded by the subsequent and current assessment that their escape and reportage must be credited with saving the lives of 200,000 Hungarian Jews. Without the reportage provided by Vrba, Wetzler, Mordowicz and Rosin, the Allies and the Pope would have not been motivated to pressure Admiral Horthy in Hungary to finally halt the mass shipments of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. (Arguably, the Pope only complied because he knew the winds of war were changing in favour of the Allies and it would be imprudent for the Vatican not to end the war on the winning side.) Given the enormous and unprecedented impact of the factual Vrba-Wetzler report in world history, it has been common for more than seven decades for historians to under-estimate or completely deny its emotional underpinnings.
A poet might put it more succinctly. Rudolf Vrba was motivated by love.
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