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. A less noble explanation is that Vrba was heartsick over the murder of his first lover and his escape from Auschwitz was a form of revenge against the Nazis. This lover Alice Munk, approximately age 22 (according to Vrba), who died at age 23, was introduced to Vrba by Fredy Hirsch who described the brown-eyed beauty as “one of my assistants.”
Corroboration for Alice Munk’s relationship with Rudolf Vrba has been provided by the academic Ruth Linn, Vrba’s first wife, Gerta Vrbová and the Terezín Memorial Museum. Also, supportive information can be found in the essential interviews conducted by documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann with Filip Müller and Rudolf Vrba. [In Chapter 9 of Alfred Wetzler’s semi-fictionalized 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 (or Munková).
The Israeli academic Ruth Linn was contacted by the sister of Alice Munk who had survived the war. This sister named Hanna Fabian wanted to know if Linn could shed any further light on the disappearance of her sister in Auschwitz. Linn says she subsequently met Alice Munk’s sister at a home for elders in Haifa, somewhere around 2002-to-2005. Hana (or Hanna) Munk confirmed that she had been in the Terezín (aka Theresienstadt) ghetto with her sister Alice but it remains unclear as to why she, too, was not sent with her sister to the Czech Family Camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
At age 87, Gerta Vrbová told British journalist Emily Ritter, in 2014, “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.”
As well, historian Radana Rutová at the Terezín Memorial Museum has provided access to a Czech document in the archive of the Jewish Museum in Prague that corroborates Alice Munk’s role as a teacher within the children’s barrack in Terezín, where there was a school, and where children prepared for the presentation of theatrical plays. The document mentions some male teachers, some of whom were lost from the school due to transports, including leader Moshe Stein. Then, in the top paragraph of the second page, according to a translation from Czech by Helen Karsai of Vancouver, it states: “We were strengthened by arrival of Alice Munková, who became the head person of their barrack. She made sure that everything was in order in their barrack and she looked after many ill people. There were hard times in their Home, or barrack which they called #9.”
Alice Munk remains largely a mystery. We know she was born in Trutnov on November 30, 1920 and lived in Hořice, now a town of about 9,000 residents in the Hradec Králové Region of the Czech Republic. Located in the Jičín District, it’s about 20 kilometres northwest of the larger town of Hradec Králové. Vrba describes her as the daughter of wealthy industrialists “in a town north of Prague.” Her father, also named Rudolf, was born on November 2, 1876 in the Náchod district of Hradec Králové Region and died or was murdered on November 1, 1940 at age 63. Her mother Emma/Emilie (born with the surname Spitzer on March 24, 1887) died alongside Alice in Auschwitz. Alice’s twice-married, older sister Johanna (or Hanna) Ottilie Munk (later married to Hans Fabian, later remarried to Otto Mautner) was born on November 14, 1911 and survived the Holocaust. She died at age 98 on October 7, 2010 in Israel (where she met the historian Ruth Linn).
According to the Terezín Ghetto Museum, Alice Munk was commandeered to be on Transport Ch, no. 173 (December 17, 1942, Hradec Králové > Terezín). It is known she helped at the unsanctioned school in Terezín [where Jewish children were educated illegally]. The fact that she was willing to serve in this capacity, at the risk of punishment, lends further credibility to Vrba’s depictions of her in I Escaped From Auschwitz.
Born on November 30, 1920, Alice Munková was possibly related to the prominent Prague physician Dr. Erich Munk who became chief medical officer at Terezín. There is a camp card that states he was born on March 21, 1904 in Uherské Hradiště, 250 kilometres from the birthplace of Alice. His parents were Berthold Munk and Ottilie Munk. His siblings were Max Munk, Olga Munk (Kapp) and Erna Munk (Jelinek). He married Emilie Freiberger and they were transported, on December 4, 1941, to the Thereseinstadt Ghetto (aka Terezín), 30 miles north of Prague, where Dr. Munk, a radiologist, was selected by the Jewish leadership to become chief of the Health Department and a Member of the Council of the Elders of the Jews in Terezín. He was subject of a caricature by the dermatologist Dr. Karel Fleischmann, a fellow Terezín physician, from Bohemia. In 1943, Munk married Prague-born Emily Tausková (b. September 22, 1914) who later arrived on Ellis Island, New York, in 1951, and remarried to a Dr. Schliessner. She died near Los Angeles on April 7, 2012 at age age 97. Dr. Erich Munk was eventually sent to his murder at Auschwitz from Terezín on Transport Ev, No. 1786 on October 28, 1944.
Alice Munk was raised in Hořice, presently a town of about 9,000 residents in the Hradec Králové Region of the Czech Republic, north of the larger town of Uherské Hradiště and approximately 170 kilometres west of Terezín.
Trutnov, circa 1920, where and when Alice Munková was born.
In Terezín, according to the Terezín Ghetto Museum, Alice Munk (or Munková) worked with children as Betreuerin [responsible child minder] and took care of boys in Room IX (heim L 417). Children in Terezin lived separately from their parents in children’s housing. “Alice worked there as a governess,” according to Radana Rutová, “taking care of the children. Within these homes, the adults who cared for the children tried to provide them with some education and taught them in secret.” Alice was deported to Auschwitz on Transport Dl, no. 1472 (06. 09. 1943, Terezín > Auschwitz) where she befriended the sisters Helena and Vera Rezek from Prague. With this pair she served as an intermediary between the Auschwitz underground and the Czech family camp.
“For six months,” Vrba recalled, “I had been in love with Alice. All that time, a few strands of wire had kept us apart. All that time, we had never so much as held hands.” There was a secret “tunnel of love” between the Family Camp and the main Birkenau men’s camp but Vrba never used it. Still a virgin, he yearned for her from afar. The situation changed soon after Vrba’s main contact to the underground, Schmulewski, conveyed the news that the Sonderkommandos had been told to prepare the furnaces for the incineration of four thousand prisoners on the night of March 8 [Vrba incorrectly recorded the date as March 7].
Some 4,000 new Czech Jews had arrived from Terezín in December so it was not difficult for the ‘old-timers’ in the camp to discern that the original batch of Czech inmates who had been forced into ‘regular’ accommodations were soon to be murdered. These changing and dire circumstances would enable Vrba and Alice to become lovers. “Suddenly, the SS moved all new prisoners out of Camp A, leaving only members of the permanent staff, like myself. As soon as it was cleared, the four thousand Czechs who had arrived in September [including Alice] were moved in among us.”
They shared a first kiss in Vrba’s room. “It was not much of a kiss because I had never had a great deal of practice in my life,” he recalled, “but somehow my clumsiness did not seem to matter, and that night I fell asleep, thinking, Soon, maybe, the war will be over.” But the Nazis had a time table that would take precedence. In the morning, the resistance leader Schmulewski told Vrba that mass executions were likely to commence the next day. Vrba passed this dire news to Alice, Helena and Vera when they came to his room.
“I made no attempt to break the news gently, to soft-pedal,” he recalled, “for now it was too late. Now we all had to think fast.” For an hour or so, the foursome discuss all aspects of the predicament, getting nowhere. Helena eventually stood and told her sister Vera to leave with her, giving Vrba and Alice precious privacy. “We were alone,” he recalled. “For me, it was the first time I had ever been alone with a girl in my bedroom… She was curled up on the bed now, and I do not think I have ever seen anyone lovelier.”
After making love for the first and only time, on the night of March 7, the young lovers’ only hope was to help mount a resistance, to prepare for a fight. The veterans in the Auschwitz Resistance hastily decided that the charismatic German Jew, Fredy Hirsch, who be best suited to galvanize a revolt among the doomed members of the ‘old’ Czech Family Camp. Vrba was designated by the Auschwitz underground to serve as their intermediary with Hirsch. The fact that Rudi was entrusted as the messenger between Fredy (The Family Camp) and the organized Resistance or Underground in Auschwitz is significant; it has been frequently suggested that Rudi was too much of a “hothead” to be fully integrated into the Resistance; he was, after all, still a teenager. But the fact that he was the link in this situation would tend to negate that accusation.
The two men conferred at about 11 a.m.
“Fredy, you’re the only man who can do it,” Vrba said. “The only man they’ll follow.” Fraught with tense drama, this conversation brought forth an agony of indecision in Hirsch. He could not believe the Nazis would exterminate even the precious children who worshipped him as a teacher, as a friend, as a second father.
Hirsch asked for an hour to think over.
Alice was waiting outside. She and Rudi talked about a future beyond Auschwitz. But it was never to be. When Vrba returned to talk to Fredy Hirsch, he was lying on his bed, unconscious. Vrba recalled, “His heavy breath was growling in his throat. His face was blue-gray. Flecks of froth hung from his lips, and I saw all the signs of luminal poisoning.” Vrba realized he had asked Fredy Hirsch to do too much. Unable to see his beloved children suffer, the athlete, gay leader had taken his own life as the only antidote to suffering.
To reduce panic prior to the mass execution of the Family Camp Jews, the Nazis told them they were to be transferred en masse to the Heyebreck labour camp. There were some minor attempts made by the doomed Family Camp members to resist, but mostly the mass executions went smoothly. On their way to their deaths on the night between March 8th and 9th, 1944, they sang the Czechoslovak anthem, the Jewish anthem Hatikva and the Internationale. Alice and nearly all of her Czech companions were murdered by the Nazis . There would be another mass execution of the second contingent of Czechoslovak Jews on July 10-12. These were the largest mass murders of Czechoslovak citizens during World War II.
Alice Munková was murdered at age 23.
Also, possibly a relative, Jan Munk, born in 1946, was director of the Terezín Memorial between 1990 and 2017. Before he died in 2019, he was at the forefront of activities to memorialize and expand the site as an education centre. Aided by a team of historians, Munk expanded exhibitions at the Terezín Memorial and encouraged research into subjects such as Gestapo Police Prison in the Small Fortress and the concentration camp in Litoměřice. Under his direction, the Terezín Memorial’s Department of Education (established in 1993) greatly enhanced communication with youth and teachers. Dr. Munk also served as a Chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities (1995–2005) and later a Chairman of the Jewish Community Prague.
Upon his arrival at Terezín, Dr. Erich Munk wrote in a journal: “We had not yet freed ourselves from the needs of comfort, social norms, social stratas, prejudices… I needed two nights and two days to overcome my deep depression, to be able to overcome my own self. I was unable to concentrate my thoughts on work…. It was at noon of the third day that I suddenly succeeded in breaking through and submerged myself straight into work. Work saved me…ever since then I haven’t stopped working.” When the Nazis curtailed most medical treatments in the ghetto, most of its leading physicians (Klapp, Fleischmann, Rhenisch) were also sent to Auschwitz but Dr. Munk was retained in Terezín after his immediate family was sent to Auschwitz. We know that the Jewish hero Jakob Edelstein, the first Judenältester (Jewish Elder) of the Jewish Council of Elders in Terezín, was forced to send at letter to Dr. Munk from Auschwitz, dated January 27, 1944, during Edelstein’s isolation in the infamous Block 11 punishment block for half a year, before Edelstein was forced to watch the murder of his wife, mother and son prior to his own murder. The most extensive information on Dr. Munk’s activities in Terezín can be found in The Last Ghetto: An Everyday History of Thereseinstadt (Oxford University Press 2020) by the Czech-British historian Anna Hájková and in H.G. Adler’s landmark study Theresienstadt 1941-1945 but neither makes any reference to Alice Munk….
The search for additional information about Alice Munk continues.
As Rudolf Vrba’s most trusted confidante, Ruth Linn has recognized the 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 has 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.”
Of the 2,484 Jews sent to comprise the so-called Czech Family camp, only 32 were not murdered.
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 in his eyes; many viewpoints 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.
A MORE COMPLEX VIEWPOINT OF EVENTS IN THE CZECH FAMILY CAMP, INCLUDING THE DEATH OF FREDY HIRSCH, HAS BEEN OFFERED BY JEWISH AUSCHWITZ SURVIVOR MICHAEL HONEY (BORN HONIGWACHS). BORN IN SUDETELAND IN 1929, HE SURVIVED IN THE CZECH FAMILY CAMP BY MOVING OUT OF IT AND SOMETIMES SERVING AS DR. MENGELE’S ERRAND BOY. LIKE VRBA’S VERSION OF EVENTS, HIS STORY CANNOT BE SUBSTANTIATED BUT IT IS SO EXTENSIVELY DETAILED THAT IT IS MOSTLY BELIEVABLE.
“I have now learned through Jacov Tzur and Ota B. Kraus, see my report of my visit to the latter on Friday 7th May 1999 in the attachment, that Fredy Hirsch did not commit suicide but was poisoned with an overdose of Luminalets (sleeping pills then used to quieten children). Hellmann and Mengele arranged a list called the Sanitätsmanschaft (Sanitary Personnel). This list was read out on the 7th March to the assembled September transport people. Fredy was on this list. The people on the list, it was announced, would go to Heidebrek later and were to report on 8th March, next day to be returned to the Familienlager (family camp). This actually did happen. Jacov Tzur has remade this list during the analysis of all entries in the Theresienstadt index held at Givat Chaim Ichud. The list was made as part of the work of computerising all entries available which resulted in the publishing of the Theresienstadt book.
“Fredy was given an impossible choice by the circumstances. He could not return because he felt that he had to stay with the children, he regarded them as his responsibility. Then the consequences of any action of open revolt would be disastrous for the children. Perhaps also to the rest of the family camp still remaining in BIIb, which now contained the people of the December transport from Thereseinstadt to Auschwitz. The Germans were known to take revenge and the December transport were hostages to any action by Fredy. The Germans were successful in convincing the majority of his people that they were going to a new camp at Heidebrek. From the 7th to the 8th he did not sleep. He woke up with a headache. The situation was grave enough to give a headache. He was visited by Hanus Hellmann and the Krankenbau apothecary Ludvik Sand. Both on the Sanitätsmanschaft list. Any rash action by Fredy would mean that shooting would start. In such an event the list arrangement would be forfeit. So they gave Fredy an overdose. There is more about the Sanitätsmanschaft to be written but it does not concern the comments I am making here on Vrba’s part in this sad analysis of the events.”
An alternate reflection of the Czech Family Camp was published in 2013 by Otto Dov Kulka as Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death. Otto Dov Kulka is not to be confused with the survivor-historian Erich Kulka who co-authored The Death Factory: Document on Auschwitz with Ota Kraus in 1946. A very astute commentary on Otto Dov Kulka’s problematic memoir of the Czech Family Camp has been provided by Anna Hájková, professor of modern European continental history at the University of Warwick. [Her dissertation on Theresienstadt was awarded the Irma Rosenberg Prize.] See https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/israeli-historian-otto-dov-kulka-tells-auschwitz-story-of-czech-fami/.
In 2014, Hájková noted, “Today, this generation of eyewitnesses who later became researchers is nearly all gone: Miroslav Kárný, the doyen of the Czech Holocaust research; Rudolf Vrba, the Slovak Jew who escaped Auschwitz in spring 1944 and spent the second part of his life working as an unafraid historian and witness; Misha Honey; and last spring, my friend Tzur. By the time (Otta Dov) Kulka published his book, all of these men, who loved to criticize and to pick fights, had died.” In 2021, a Guardian obituary for Otto Dov Kulka (1933-2021) noted: “He was born in Nový Hrozenkov, Czechoslovakia (now in the Czech Republic), as Otto Deutelbaum, to a Jewish couple, Rudolf Deutelbaum, owner of a wood mill, and his wife, Elly (nee Kulka). Elly divorced Rudolf in 1938, and gained custody of Otto after a court ruled that the boy’s biological father was Rudolf’s nephew and apprentice Erich Schön, whom she then married. Rudolf, his second wife, Ilona, and their daughter, Eva, were murdered in the Treblinka death camp in October 1942. The previous month, the nine-year-old Otto and his mother had been transported to the “model camp” at Theresienstadt; from there, a year later, they were sent to Birkenau and placed in a special “family camp” designed by the Nazis to show to the Red Cross that prisoners in Theresienstadt and its satellite camp were well treated. Six months later, when the Red Cross declared itself satisfied with conditions in Theresienstadt, the family camp was “liquidated” and its 5,000 inmates murdered in the Birkenau gas chamber. Otto was not among them because he was in the camp infirmary being looked after by his mother. By the time he had recovered, the Nazis had decided that he was fit to work at pulling handcarts, and he survived again. As the Red Army approached he was sent out of the camp with the remaining prisoners, including his father, on a “death march”, where anyone who lagged behind was shot.”
Other worthwhile sources on Theresienstadt include Vera Schiff’s memoir Theresienstadt: The Town the Nazis Gave to the Jews (Toronto: Lugus, 1996) and Ruth Bondy’s Jakob Edelstein. Elder of the Jews (New York: Grove Press, 1981). The pre-eminent study for decades was H.G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941-1945 (Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft Theresienstadt 1941-1945): The Face of an Enforced Community), first published in 1955, enlarged in 1960, and re-issued by Cambridge University Press in 2017.
In his semi-fictionalized Escape from Hell, Wetzler interrupts the drama to recall the shipment of Czech Jews who arrived six months earlier, from Terezín, 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.]
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, Wetzler felt they were seeking to avenge the murders of the Czech Family Group in particular. Wetzler wrote, recalling the annihilation of their fellow Czechoslovakian Jews, “All day long, until late evening,”hissing flames shot out from the chimneys.”
Hence the title of his novel.
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