Vrba said, from the moment he arrived, that he was going to be an optimist. – Otto Pressburger, fellow Auschwitz survivor
Compared to his adventures, The Great Escape is a fairy tale. – Elie Wiesel
As a person, Rudi was amazing. He was gorgeous. He was funny. And he was totally charismatic…. I remember we were in Auschwitz for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary. The producers were Canadian but we had a Polish film crew. They were great. We were travelling with them in this old Polish bus that was always breaking down. We were doing the film inside the camp. Then it was about 5:30 and it was time to leave. We were trying to get out. The gate had been locked. It was really muddy. Everybody started to really fret. How are we going to get out! And Rudi said, loudly, so everyone could hear, ‘Never mind. I know another way out!’ – Robin Vrba
After his escape from Auschwitz, he convinced his sister—my mother—to run away with me somewhere into the woods. And that is why I am able to stand here in front of you as a sexagenarian. – Stefan Horny
Rudolf Vrba did not correspond to the image that people usually have of a person from Auschwitz. His face shows relatively few wrinkles and his hair shows no trace of gray. In any case, he looks younger than his thirty-nine years, and his eyes reflect humor rather than tragic experience. His appearance really matches who he is, which is a mix of world citizen, intellectual and scientist.
– Alan Bestic, Rudolf Vrba’s co-author
Rudi was wonderful. He was very open. He didn’t talk down to kids. He wasn’t dismissive as a lot of adults were in those days.” – Richard Bestic (son of Alan Bestic)
He was a good friend to me, and I always gained immensely from his wise advice. As you know, he did not suffer fools gladly, so we tried not to be a fool! He led me along several rich historical paths, and I shall always treasure his vigorous, informative letters… He, Wetzler, Rosin and Mordowicz, all four of them Jews, did as much as anyone could—or did—in actually saving Jews. That is one astonishing achievement. – Sir Martin Gilbert
A lot of people think they know about the Holocaust… Six million people died. There were gas chambers. People got off the train. They were gassed. But that’s sort of it. Actually, the depth of the crime is only really graspable, as [filmmaker Claude] Lanzmann realized, if you really get into it [the details]. Tell me about how the train arrives. The doors open. Then what happens? That’s what Vrba saw. In a way, I think we’ve numbed ourselves by thinking, ‘Yup. I get it. Gas chambers. Six million. Awful.’ To be reminded what that actually meant, you do have to go to the detail. There is no clearer way to see it than through the eyes of Rudolf Vrba. – Jonathan Freedland, author of The Escape Artist
The first time I encountered Dr. Vrba was in 1980 as a second-year UBC medical student. I was late for the first of a series of pharmacology lectures given by this vigorous, thickly-accented professor of unknown origins. I was immediately struck by how unusual it was for someone to have risen to the level of teaching faculty in this otherwise waspy and notoriously bureaucratic Canadian medical school when his mastery of English, and perhaps also his academic accomplishments, seemed relatively recent achievements. But his commanding presence and personal dignity garnered great respect – even some intimidation – amongst my medical school classmates. Knowing nothing of his background at the time, neither that he was Jewish (Rudolf Vrba did not seem to be a Jewish name) nor that he was a survivor, I found his enthusiasm in the subject matter motivating; and ended up winning an academic award in Pharmacology that year, which I attributed to his influence. It was many years later that I heard of his background, read his book and thereafter nearly worshipped his bravery, determination and heroism. – Jeffrey Claman MD FRCPC, Clinical Associate Professor, UBC Department of Psychiatry
Biochemistry, as a subject, can be intimidating, but I never remember it being that way with him. It is interesting that with his having the experience that he did, his past life was completely unknown to us as students. I’m sure we would have been in awe of him had we known what he accomplished. He must have been very humble and private about his difficult past. – Dr. Gary Jackson, UBC student in 1975-76
My husband, who taught at UBC, knew Rudi Vrba. We went once to hear one of Rudi’s talks at Hillel house on campus. What I remember most was him saying that one of the strongest motivations for the Shoah, in addition to antisemitism, was plunder. He compared this to the burning of the witches in Europe, when all their assets went to the Church after their death. Once the law changed and the family inherited instead of the Church, the burning stopped. – Pnina Granirer
It’s striking how much Vrba and Wetzler got right about the layout of the camps, the mechanics of mass extermination and even down to the name of individual prisoners. – Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
Rudolf Vrba embodied the tension between action and words, reason and emotion, that is at the heart of Holocaust studies. He and others have given us powerful models of how to combine scholarly rigor and human engagement in pursuit of truth. – Doris L. Bergen
In contrast to the trickling news items available, the [Vrba-Wetzler] report revealed the total and terrible reality of the extermination of human beings, organized methodically and pedantically, planned as a crime of massive proportions. . . This report is exempt from feeling; the text is dry, as if the authors simply wrote about how one should bake bread. – Maria Szekely, translator of the report in Budapest in 1944
Rudi was a man of towering, uncompromising intellectual honesty. – Christopher Friedrichs
Vrba’s experience as a Sonderkommando was key to the report having the authority that it did. His story was breath-taking. He had what’s described as a photographic memory. He was able to give eyewitness testimony that was unshakeable and he played a key role in the [Ernst] Zundel conviction. He was able to tell the story with such clarity that people were able to understand the Holocaust. He remembered the languages that [the prisoners] spoke and he knew how many could be crammed into a railroad car. – Bernie M. Farber, CEO, Canadian Jewish Congress, 2006
Rudolf ranks up there with the giants of Jewish history. – Arnold Ages, Canada’s first synagogue scholar-in-residence, Beth Tzedec Congregation
[My wife] Marilyn and I will forever remember Rudi’s tour of Prague after we met there by chance at a Conference. He came to find us later to show us his Prague where he studied and drank, where he sat and contemplated, where Smetana was inspired to compose the Moldau and where Dvorak lay buried, all this with dinner in between and lectures on Czech democracy and gossip about the Havel family. Rudi knew so much and shared his knowledge with his eager listeners.
Even when I was made aware of the seriousness of his illness, I thought Rudi would overcome it as he had overcome so much in his lifetime. He expressed to me his determination to live ten more years. He said the age of 92 would suit him fine. I agreed totally because I thought it was doable. Rudi looked so young, so vigorous, and I trusted his mental and physical strength. But it was not to be.
I first met Rudi when he attended a high school symposia on the Holocaust in the late ’70s. Later he spoke to one of the smaller school groups, about 50 students who had been given his book to read. That was the price of admission to hear him in person. He received a standing ovation.
After that, Rudi and I worked together on bringing to justice a Nazi war criminal; he advised me on some hard-hitting articles; we participated in a panel at Hillel House; and we occasionally managed to go for lunch at the Faculty Club. It was only occasional because I had to find enough hours in my schedule. That was the minimal amount of time needed to get through contemporary political events, the nuances of European history, the origins of Jewish names on which Rudi was expert, and the wealth of stories and observations from the war, as well as before and after.
I tried to have Rudi honoured. He would have none of it. But I claim a partial success at an evening where I was thanked for my work in Holocaust Education. Since Sir Martin Gilbert was the guest speaker, I asked Rudi to participate by introducing Sir Martin’s lecture. He did so very powerfully. He agreed only because of his special relationship with the renowned historian. Can you imagine those two together on one podium? It was a truly historic occasion.
So, I remember Rudi for many reasons: for his flair, his erudition, his modesty, his rage, his humour, his heroism, his loyalty, his authority, and his honesty. Talk about not mincing words!
I felt privileged to have him in my life. His knowledge was vast, the passion with which he imparted it, a delight. I often relied on Rudi’s strength in some tough situations by just thinking about how he would have handled it. He made me a smarter and tougher person.
In the middle of the 1990s, I was sitting with Rudi in the garden restaurant at Prague’s island in the river called Zofin. We were devouring excellent Wienerschnitzels, washing them down with the original Pilsner. Rudi tells how as a former partisan he used to go to the nearby Bartolomejska Street, where every month he was paid money for his studies. In the 1950s he once attended a commemoration of Auschwitz victims where not a word was said about any Jews. The talk was about Communist heroes. Some man next to him asked him if he noticed that the stage is ‘lousy with Jews.’ Rudi did not respond because it was the time of the antisemitic Slansky trial and he did not want to ‘provoke his own fate.’ But he never attended another meeting of the anti-fascist fighters.
Probably the least happy with his excellent memory were the Gestapo and SS men against whom he gave testimony… When the neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel was tried in Toronto in 1985, his lawyer, Doug Christie, asked Rudi about watching the long lines of Jews, waiting for their demise in front of the gas chambers.
You watched them and watched them not coming out,” Christie said, insinuating that Vrba therefore could not prove allegation of mass murder. “Yes,” Rudi replied, unperturbed. “A quarter of a million people went in and I never saw one civilian come out. So, it is possible that they are still there, or that there is a tunnel and they are now in China. Otherwise, they were gassed.”
[Here, below, Jan Drabek shares a very important story about Alfréd Wetzler]
My father was in Auschwitz. In 1947, when he went back to Poland with a group of Czechoslovaks to give testimony for the trial of the Auschwitz commandant Hoess, their hosts took them on a trip around Auschwitz environs. Among the former Czechoslovak prisoners that day was also a certain Alfréd Wetzler. When they were passing a small cottage, Wetzler suddenly cried out, ‘Stop! Please stop!’ Wetzler proceeded to knock on door of the cottage. An old lady opened it. He took her in his arms and kissed her.
Greatly moved, Wetzler came back to the car and asked his colleagues to give him all the money they had. He gave it all, along with his watch, to the surprised lady. His eyes were filled with tears. He explained to her that when he and Rudi were escaping from Auschwitz, in desperation, against all advice, they had knocked on her door and asked for help. This was the same woman who had given them food and clothing and valuable directions. This was the woman who had saved their lives. – Jan Drabek
HISTORIANS PLEASE TAKE NOTE:
This anecdote [above] about Wetzler’s return to Auschwitz is vital. It proves the extent to which Wetzler’s novelized memoir about the escape is indeed fiction. In Chapter 12 of his Escape from Hell, Wetzler goes to great lengths, for most of the chapter, to describe the pair’s meeting in a forest with a young mother and her young boy named Wladek. Eventually, the less likeable character of Val [depicting Vrba] castigates the more admirable character of Karol [Wetzler] for being insufficiently wary. “You trust the first person we’ve met,” Val says reproachfully–whereupon the more noble character in the novel, Karol, replies, “If you want to live, you’ve got to trust.”
That forest meeting is pure fiction. The first person that Vrba and Wetzler actually met as they were heading towards the Bezikyd Mountains was clearly the older woman in the cottage, the same person to whom Wetzler so eagerly provided money and his watch. The trial of Hoess at Auschwitz lasted from March 11 to March 29 in 1947, so the person who actually took pity on them is completely absent from Wetzler’s version of events. Whereas, Rudolf Vrba has written: “We chose a house more or less at random. As we made our way round to the yard at the back, chickens darted around our feet and somewhere a goose honked indignantly. An old woman, dressed in the voluminous black frock and white head scarf of a Polish peasant, came to the door and behind her we could see the worried face of a girl about eighteen. In our best Polish, we greeted her in traditional fashion: “Praise be to the name of Christ.”
In Vrba’s version, the pair are told by the old woman that they still have a long way to go to reach the mountains. They slept in her house, chopped wood for her the following day, and were replenished by potato soup. Later this old woman woke them at 3 a.m. and gave them several cups of coffee. They refused her offer of money (“four marks, about a pound”) before recommencing their trek at night. Vrba writes, “For two reasons I did not want to take her money. In the first place, I felt I owed her much more than she did us. Secondly, I was thinking of Volkov’s cardinal rule–take no money or you’ll be tempted to spend it–and was determined not to break it.”
It would take the pair two more days to reach the halfway point of their journey–the town of Porebka “where Sandor Eisenbach and his three friends had been captured.” Wetzler never references the preceding escape attempt by the foursome who constructed the hideout in Mexico. The lengthy story that Wetzler tells in his novel about the duo’s first meeting with anyone–that young woman in the woods with her son, during the fictionalized escape of Karol and Val–can only be regarded as pure fiction. Hence, the anecdote related by Jan Drabek’s father, a non-Jewish lawyer who had been incarcerated in Auschwitz, is evidence as to how fanciful Wetzler’s novel can be. Wetzler’s book has since been misconstrued as history for the making of a feature film.
[Seeing a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler Report in May of 1944 convinced Georg Klein he must either flee from Budapest or go into hiding.] “I still remember the feeling of nausea and intellectual satisfaction I felt when I first read what later became known as The Auschwitz Protocols. Nausea because I realized that I was reading about the fate of my beloved grandmother, my uncles, and many other relatives and friends who had already been deported from my father’s village in the northeast. I also knew I was reading about my own probable fate. The paradoxical but very distinct intellectual satisfaction stemmed from the fact that this was first text that made sense. Nothing else that we were told or were telling each other made any sense whatsoever. The dry, nearly scientific language of the report made a stronger impact than a thousand emotional outbursts. It was this report that prompted me to escape. The definite knowledge of what was waiting at the other end of the railway line overcame my fear of being caught and shot. I tried to warn all my relatives and friends, but no one believed me.”
[For decades after the Holocaust, Klein (1925-2016) assumed Rudolf Vrba must be dead. Then, in 1987, the Karolinska Institute professor and Nobel Prize committee member saw Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, realized that Vrba was alive, and promptly bought a plane ticket from Stockholm to Vancouver to meet the man who he credited with saving his life.] “I first ‘met’ him on the cinema screen in Shoah,” Klein recalled. “When he spoke about his escape from Auschwitz with his friend Wetzler and of the report he had written to warn Hungarian Jews against entering the trains from Auschwitz, I immediately realized that this was the report I had been shown by one of the members of the Jewish Council in Budapest in greatest secrecy, only a few weeks after it has been written.
“Apart from its historical significance as the first authentic eyewitness account from the largest death camp, the Vrba-Wetzler Report significantly and perhaps decisively contributed to the survival of approximately 200,000 Hungarian Jews (out of 800,000), representing most of the Jewish population of the capital, Budapest. The information conveyed by that report both directly and indirectly contributed to the veto of the continued deportations, by the Hungarian head of state, Horthy, in the first week of July, 1944.”
When the Swedish-Hungarian scientist asked Vrba how he could manage to live in such a docile place like Vancouver, where hardly anyone knew about his heroism, Vrba told him about a colleague who, after seeing him featured in Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, had asked if the story was true.
‘I do not know,’ Vrba had said. ‘I was only an actor reciting my lines.’ Missing the sarcasm, the man replied, ‘I didn’t know you were an actor. Why did they say that film was made without any actors?’“
“Only then did I understand that this was the same man who lay quiet and motionless for three days in the hollow pile of lumber while Auschwitz was on maximum alert, only a few yards from the armed SS men and their dogs combing the area so thoroughly. If he could do that, then he certainly could also don the mask of a professor and manage everyday conversation with his colleagues in Vancouver, Canada, that paradise land that is never fully appreciated by its own citizens, a people without the slightest notion of the planet Auschwitz.”
“It is in no small part due to Rudolf Vrba that I am alive today.”
[Edited excerpts from an essay written in Swedish, translated by Peter Stenberg and Lena Karlsröm, from Contemporary Jewish Writing in Sweden (University of Nebraska Press 2004)].
During the last few months of Ruolf Vrba’s life, three women were mainly at his bedside — his wife Robin, his daughter Zuzka, who came from Cambridge, England. and Helen Karsai. Ruth Linn from Haifa University also came to visit. “I was present at his home,” recalls Karsai, “when he could not walk anymore and was receiving daily nursing aid care. Rudi lived with Robin in the penthouse apartment beside UBC with a gorgeous view of the mountains but Rudi was a patient at the BC Cancer Agency clinic, where I worked, I was able to arrange day stay for his different treatments, at his request. He was in pain, but he wanted to live as long as possible. ”
In 1986, when Helen Karsai first met Rudolf Vrba in the Czechoslovakia pavilion during Vancouver’s Expo 86, she was astonished to discover he could talk about “this dreadful part of his life without emotion.” Vrba encouraged her to learn about the Holocaust. With Renia Perel, Karsai subsequently co-founded and co-chaired a group entitled the Western Association of Holocaust Survivor Families and Friends, active from 1989 to 1993.
Dr. Helen Karsai was born in 1948 in Žilina. In 1944, her paternal grandparents Leon and Helen Wertheim (nee Grun) were taken to Auschwitz and gassed to death upon arrival and her maternal grandparents Leo and Margit Kulka (nee Kohn) went into hiding and survived in snow bunkers above the Slovakian village of Kaliště (now in the Vysočina Region of the Slovak Republic). Helen Karsai’s parents Klara Kulka and Kornel Wertheim did not talk to her about what happened to her grandparents when she was growing up. She immigrated with her mother to Canada in 1968.
Helen Karsai became a medical doctor. As noted in Zachor magazine in 2022, Dr. Helen Karsai once visited Auschwitz escapee Arnost Rosin in Dusseldorf and his co-escapee Czelaw Mordowicz in Toronto. This pair escaped on May 27, 1944 and produced their own report that corroborated the more expansive Vrba-Wetzler Report, verifying the slaughter of Hungarian Jews as Vrba and Wetzler had forewarned upon their own arrival in Slovakia on June 6, 1944. Karsai also once visited Rudolf Vrba’s mother in Bratislava. Dr. Karsai’s comments on Rudolf Vrba’s personality are recorded in the INTERVIEWS section of the site.
“Rudi was unrecognisable [after his experience in Auschwitz] because he was a sort of very attractive young boy. Trusting and with a wonderful sense of humour before. And a very, sort of… engaging person. And then when I saw him again, there was tremendous change. He looked quite different. And not only because he was two years older and strong and muscular, but it was in his eyes, they were sort of quite different…
“Although Rudi and I were married and lived together in Prague, Czechoslovakia, we were terribly lonely, and bruised by our experiences during the Holocaust. Our marriage couldn’t withstand those stresses. At first, Rudi wanted to forget all about it but he couldn’t. He wouldn’t talk about it to anyone but me and that was too much to deal with.
“I found it very difficult to live with Rudi. Because of what he had been through, he was very suspicious and couldn’t trust anyone. He would accuse me of having affairs. Any friend I had, he thought they would take me away from him. Eventually, Rudi remarried to a younger girl, someone who hadn’t been through it all. I think that helped him… Rudi was always concerned with beauty. He was much too interested in appearances…
“I am so proud of what Rudi achieved. He saved more people than anyone. We couldn’t stay married, but I miss him.”
May Rudi Vrba’s testimony concerning Auschwitz-Birkenau be preserved and ever remembered. – Message sent in memory of Alice Munk, “a beautiful young Czechoslovakian woman slain at Auschwitz on March 7, 1944.” International Remembrance Day post, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum contribution, from Manchester, New Hampshire (2010)
If Rudolf Vrba had had a nemesis, it is the Prague-born Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer (born April 6, 1926) who alleged that Vrba’s memoirs were a psychological defense mechanism seeking to suppress his unpleasant wartime experiences, and to be taken lightly by historians. To which Vrba responded: “The question is not whether my opinions are bitter or sweet. The issue is whether they are right or wrong.”
“The value of his eye-witness account is now becoming ever more widely recognized, as can be seen from the growing number of invitations he [Rudi] has received to speak on this subject, not only from Jewish organizations, such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, but also from audiences in Germany, such as his recent address to the Police Academy in Berlin. Jokingly he reminded these policemen that the order issued for his apprehension immediately after his escape—a copy of which he was able to produce—has never been officially revoked!” (1997)
“The Vrba-Wetzler Report, by breaking the wall of silence in 1944 about the extent of the Nazi atrocities, and by successfully challenging the disbelief and skepticism of the wider world, deserves its true place as one of the key documents of the Holocaust.”
“I only heard it from Rudi, but I gather that the two of them [Vrba & Wetzler] didn’t see eye to eye.”
Christopher Browning is the author of The Origins of the Final Solution and Remembering Survival: Remembering Survival Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp. He fondly recalls his dinners with Rudolf and Robin Vrba at the Budapest Restaurant, formerly on Main Street in Vancouver.
In 2021, while delivering the annual Rudolf Vrba Lecture in 2021, Browning described how he and Vrba had appeared as expert witnesses at the two Canadian hate crime trials that initially convicted the Toronto-based, neo-Nazi publisher Ernst Zundel as a Holocaust denialist in 1985 and 1988.
While attempting to cross-examine Vrba, the “demonic Doug Christie,” according to Browning, attempted to unsettle Vrba by insinuating Vrba might not be a trustworthy because he had had two surnames—as if one of his names therefore had to be false. Christie sneeringly began his cross-examination by asking if he ought to address him as Rudolf Vrba or as Walter Rosenberg. Christie took care to derisively pronounce the overtly Jewish surname with exaggerated slowness… R-o-s-e-n-b-e-r-g. Unphased by this juvenile attack, Vrba calmly replied without any hesitation: “My students and fellow professors call me Dr. Vrba,” he said, “but you can call me sir.”
John Horgan, Premier of British Columbia
On Yom HaShoah, we are challenged to ensure the words ‘never again’ are supported by action. Over the past few years, there has been an increase in anti-Semitism in B.C., and the Jewish community is one of the most frequently targeted groups in police-reported hate crimes. That’s why our government will continue working to address racism and discrimination in all its forms. Today, as we remember and honour those who were lost and those who survived, we must recommit to building a more just and inclusive province where everyone is safe and the horrors of the past are never repeated.
On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, we also pay tribute to those their lives to protect others from Nazi persecution. One such hero was Rudolf Vrba, a Holocaust survivor who escaped the Auschwitz concentration camp and later became a pharmacology professor at the University of British Columbia. He was credited with saving at least 110,000 lives after the release of his report on the atrocities at Auschwitz led to the end of the mass deportation of Jewish people from Hungary.
After the war, many Holocaust survivors settled here in British Columbia. People like David and Aurelia Goldberger, who started the legendary Gold’s Fashion Fabrics on Granville Street in Vancouver, and Dr. Robert Krell, who pursued a career in psychiatry that focused on treating trauma, are a testament to the resilience of Holocaust survivors. [April 28, 2022]
We met after my friend in London, Stephen Vizinczey, author of In Praise of Older Woman, wrote to me and said if I had the good fortune to live in the same city as Rudi Vrba, I absolutely must meet him. Not being Jewish, I had never heard him of him.
My schooling in Canada taught me precisely nil about the Holocaust. Stephen Vizinczey was easily one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known so I heeded his advice and contacted Rudi with the intention of inviting him to be guest speaker for a literary awards dinner I was organizing.
I had been forewarned that Rudi could be ‘difficult’ but having been told the same thing about Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies, I’ve come to the conclusion that, after convivial conversations, being difficult simply means someone doesn’t wish to waste their precious time with a fool.
I knew immediately that Rudi was deeply wise. How could he not be after Auschwitz and his escape? He knew things that ordinary people could never know. He had a deeper awareness of what it means to be alive. I remain grateful to him for one piece of advice in particular. For some reason, we were standing on the sidewalk, on West 10th Avenue, when he told me:
‘Alan, if you ever have a problem in life, if you ever have something happen that upsets you… let’s say you lose your car keys, let’s say someone says something stupid… Whatever it is, don’t panic. Just stop and ask yourself one simple question: ‘Is this going to be a problem for me a year from now?’ You will discover most of the time your problem stops being a problem.’
Before we met, I had a seizure following a soccer game. I was rushed to the hospital where I was told I would need brain surgery to remove a tumour. When I mentioned this to Rudi, when we met for an extended lunch at the UBC Faculty Club, Rudi asked approximately where the tumour was located. I more or less guessed, pointing to my head. As a biochemist, researcher and professor of pharmacology, Rudi was highly knowledgeable about brain tumours. He scoffed and reassured me, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine.’ We returned to whatever it was he was keen to talk about.
Rudi’s apparent of interest in my upcoming surgery struck me as odd at the time. Only later did I come to appreciate it. I realized it was much better to be dismissive of something that neither of us could fix. During our long and convivial lunch, Rudi’s disinterest in my life-threatening tumour became strangely fortifying. Clearly, it was better to laugh and enjoy dessert.
There was a bon vivant aspect to Rudi that I found charming. I assumed he could be a rascal and I assumed he was a lady’s man. I have a photo of us together, grinning, arms around each other’s shoulders. We look like two rascals.
Rudolf Vrba Memorial gathering, UBC, April 26, 2007
“Most people call me Chris, but Rudi preferred to use my full name. I think he simply liked the sound of it. When he called, I would pick it up the phone and hear him rolling out my name: Chrrrreees–toe—pher!!
I will miss those calls. But, of course, we miss Rudi for more important reasons than that. We miss him because of what he taught the world, both as a scientist and as a person whose experiences between 1942 and 1945 made him a unique figure in the history of the Holocaust. And we miss him because of his unforgettable personality and character.
When somebody great is gone, it is not always the things that made that person great that one misses the most. We also miss some of those ordinary things that made that person different from others. With Rudi Vrba it is things like his remarkable eyebrows . . . his voice . . . and his delight in choosing the right words. Rudi was a man of towering, uncompromising intellectual honesty. That makes is all the more interesting that one of the conversations with him that I recall with the greatest pleasure was one in which, in fact, Rudi told me a lie. This took place at the retirement party for my colleague John Conway. I was chatting with Rudi and I asked him this question: “Suppose you were to take the total amount of your ‘professional time’ and then calculate how much of that time you devote to your scientific research and teaching and how much of that time you devote to research and writing and teaching about the Holocaust – well, how much of the time is spent on that second subject, the Holocaust?”
“Rudi looked at me with a penetrating gaze and replied, slowly and firmly: “Less than one half of one percent of my time….”
Now although Rudi was a meticulous scientist, in fact this statement cannot have been statistically quite accurate. If I think of the enormous amount of time Rudi devoted to writing and speaking about the Holocaust, it certainly occupied more than one half of one percent of his working time. But it was a powerful statement nonetheless, because it reflected the fact that Rudi wanted to be thought of, above all, as a scientist.
He never wanted to be thought of as a professional survivor. He was a professional scientist who just happened to have played an enormously significant personal role in the one of the central events of the 20th century and he had some obligation to tell the world about it.
Unfortunately, I am not qualified to comment on the “99.5%” of Rudi’s time that he devoted to science, though I do know that his achievements were very substantial. But I do know something about some of the vitally important contributions Rudi made in the “less than one half of one percent” of his time that he devoted to that other subject – the Holocaust.
Obviously, I cannot begin to enumerate all the publications and lectures and interviews which Rudi devoted to this topic. So, I will mention just one example.
For eight years I had the privilege of chairing the Vancouver Kristallnacht Commemorative Lecture program. We had many fine speakers, but during those eight years by far the best attended and best received of the lectures was the one given by Rudolf Vrba in 1997. It was not about his escape from Auschwitz and the Vrba-Wetzler report, though the audience would have been perfectly glad to hear about that.
Instead, the lecture presented Rudi’s very carefully researched and considered conclusions about the causes of the Holocaust, above all his argument that the main reason that six million Jews were murdered was due not primarily to ideology and racism but to economic greed – that people all over Europe used racism and ideology as excuses to plunder the property of their Jewish neighbors and to send them away so that their property could never be reclaimed.
No doubt Rudi’s interpretation was influenced by the ceiling-high piles of looted Jewish possessions he had seen in the notorious warehouses of Auschwitz, but it was also a deeply researched – and passionately defended – proposition. And it made a profound impression on everyone who was there.
One might think Rudi would be a vindictive person but he wasn’t. He just happened to think that men who murdered hundreds and even thousands of children, women and men should not be allowed to run businesses, retire and die comfortably. He lived across the street from the Regent (bookstore) and often frequented the Atrium. After I Cannot Forgive finally went out of print, the Regent Bookstore kept it in print [published it] for a number of years until it was picked up by a New York publisher and re-titled I Escaped from Auschwitz. We thought we might catch a bit of flak, a Christian college publishing a book with the title ‘I Cannot Forgive,’ but no one ever cut us out of their will over it.
I met Rudy Vrba through the poet Joe Rosenblatt because his partner, Fay, knew him. A UBC colleague in the history department, Ted Hill, who had written a biography of the German aristocrat Ernst Heinrich Freiherr von Weizsäcker and I thought Vrba and Ted might like to meet. I presumed Vrba must have known about Weizsäcker because he had been State Secretary at the Foreign Office of Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1943 as well as Hitler’s Ambassador to the Pope in Rome from 1943 to 1945. Weizsäcker was sentenced to seven years in prison at Nuremberg in 1949 but the U.S. High Commissioner John J. McCloy had him released after three years. We met at the faculty club. After Vrba learned about Ted’s work about Weizsäcker, Rudi’s response was: “I will say only one thing. Better men than him were hanged.”
Rabbi Karol Efraim Sidon
[rough translation from Czech]
Years later, when I re-read the preface of the Irish journalist Alan Bestic, whose initiative led to the creation of the English version of Rudolf Vrba’s book in 1963, I realized better than thirty years ago, when Rudi dedicated the German version to me, how far the preface and the book are marked by time, when the book was published.
In 1962, Adolf Eichmann was convicted and executed in Jerusalem, and the Shoah became an interesting and sought-after topic after seventeen years of remarkable oblivion. A series of interviews that a young journalist conducted with a refugee from Auschwit was the first swallow in England, but Rudi’s remark in the Czech edition that the newspaper that printed it increased the circulation by forty percent is also not without significance.
First, the world woke up from the buried dreams of Nazi monsters to civilian reality: the organizer of the mass murder was apparently an orderly person and a reliable official without sadistic tendencies. And, similarly right after that, he discovered that even his victims, people like Rudolf Vrba, are not tragic monsters with suffering permanently written on their faces. And so it’s no wonder that Bestic was taken aback.
Fascinated by this first meeting of his kind, the journalist did not yet realize that he was meeting similar people on the street, or even on the steps of the house where he lived, and that everything extraordinary that he discovered about this man characterized most of them. He found it remarkable that the successful and successful Vrba began his career by “having to leave school at the age of fifteen and earn his living as an untrained day laborer.” He did not realize that there were tens of thousands of such boys and girls after the war, not to mention hundreds of thousands of those who did not have the opportunity to catch up on the missed years.
Rudi was not exceptional in that “in 1945 he enrolled in the department of chemical technology at the Czech Technical University in Prague, where he graduated in 1949 and became a doctor of technical sciences in 1951”, and to a certain extent also by the fact that “his works aroused the interest of the scientific world and in his field, neurochemistry, he wrote a number of scientific treatises and gave lectures not only in Great Britain, where he continues his research.” He even went further and considered his “success in the scientific field more remarkable in its own way than the dramatic escape from Auschwitz. “Of course, even that wouldn’t be possible,” Bestic wrote, “if Vrba were not endowed with a sharp, cold-blooded intellect. But while escape required supreme physical courage, for his academic achievements he required qualities perhaps even more unusual. In his case, talent alone was not enough, he had to suppress, if not outright destroy, his memories of the past. He had to lock away, if not erase, the smell of the crematoria, the sight of unparalleled suffering, the experience of the deepest humiliation, and perhaps more importantly, even more difficult, the thoughts of the men who were responsible for it all.”
“Everyone who survived and wanted to live had to prove all this. Even thousands of scientific workers in scientific workplaces all over the world, around whose “Jewish origin” in the West people walked around with their fingers in their mouths. Each and every one of them did it by starting families. In 1963, a young Irish journalist was wrong to attribute these qualities to the first Jew whose identity he brought to light, but in doing so he unwittingly paid tribute to all his ilk.
The fact that, in his youth, he could not distinguish between the admirable vitality of the entire nation and this quality, which also characterized his Jew, was not his fault. It was a characteristic symptom of the times, a sign that until now no one had admitted or wanted to admit the obvious presence of people like Rudi, and that they themselves had a number of reasons why they did not want to draw attention to themselves. Therefore, thousands of them changed their distinctive Jewish surnames to less conspicuous ones after the war. Even Walter Rosenberg took the name Rudolf Vrba after escaping from Auschwitz and kept it in order to hide his Jewishness from the fighting men in the partisan unit. He claimed that he meant the Slovak town of Vrbové, but I can’t get the willow out of my mind, which shuts up everything it learned about people.
Having already mentioned our contacts in the Fifties, I must add that I do not remember much of them. My other father tirelessly waited for it to explode within a month, so Rudi and Gerta didn’t have to be communists to disagree with him on political views. The fact that Dad also managed to escape from the concentration camp could also play a role, and one wanted to trump the other. In fact, I don’t even remember participating in their debates. Either they were afraid to speak in front of me, or I was so preoccupied by my paternal cousin’s presence with my ideas about her uncle, my dead father, that I had no idea what she was talking about. And my father must have been jealous of my own father, who in my eyes had an unrivaled victory over him. I better remember how surprised the parents were when they found out that the two young ones “idealists” turned out to be enemies of the regime. Apparently, they had no idea about their marital problems, so they considered their divorce and almost simultaneous escape from Czechoslovakia to be evidence of sophisticated and all the more admirable preparations. In fact, they divorced for the usual reasons, and “… when Gerti managed to lure both children out of the country to a conference in Poland and then came to England with them via Denmark, Rudi had no choice but to sign up for the next conference and stay in the West as well, so that he did not lose the children….
Although they had plenty of personal reasons for not wanting to hear from each other, over the last few years I got the impression from talking to each separately that their bond was much stronger than they wanted to admit. Gerti knew Rudi from Trnava, where they both grew up. Their acquaintance began already during the war, before Rudi’s, actually Walter’s, failed escape to Budapest, when he taught himself Russian and passed on his new knowledge for a fee, including to her.
So, there was a common origin, a common homeland, a common culture, a common fate and similar courage, because Gerti also miraculously escaped from the Gestapo and, unlike Rudi, did not get caught again, a whole series of seemingly very strong reasons for them to stick to each other until the end of life. But the same, including post-war abandonment and passionate love, was undeniably the reason why they couldn’t live together and not hurt each other.
When I reconnected with my cousin’s ex-husband from childhood, I was struck by the same thing as Alan Bestic in 1963, his youthful appearance, underlined by jet black hair without a trace of gray, but this time it was reasonable to doubt its natural color. I obviously didn’t ask him why he dyed his hair, and I wouldn’t have brought it up now if I didn’t think I knew the answer. It was not the face of a successful man from the sixties, which he tried to preserve until his seventies and eighties, but already at thirty-nine he wanted to remain a young man who was able to survive and escape from Auschwitz and bear witness to that which, for human laziness and selfishness, interests lost purpose.
He had two exceptional qualities, one of which he often recalled. The boy’s credo was to fight and he fought through all the defeats he suffered. Therefore, Rudi had plenty of good reasons to admire the boy and to think and act as he would think and act.
The second characteristic was, and Bestic was not mistaken, his “sharp, cold-blooded intellect.” This view is already evident from reading the scientifically dense report of the Jewish youth and is indeed more admirable than his courage. He got this implacable masculine look while sorting through the luggage and clothes of those who had just stopped at Auschwitz on the way from the train to the chimney. He understood what he otherwise could not have understood, that he was not witnessing a crime committed because of a dubious ideology, but that people were being murdered for the purpose of theft. He recognized in ideology, in any ideology, the guise of selfishness and greed.
According to him, the Zionist leaders in Hungary behaved no differently when they withheld from the Hungarian Jews his scrupulously accurate report about the cleaned and oiled crematoria, ready to receive the goods. Riots in the Budapest ghetto would have dashed hopes for the Nazis’ promised extradition of prominent families to Switzerland – and so Eichmann’s trains could also leave Budapest. But even after the war no one wanted to hear about it! Among Jewish historians of the Shoah, regardless of whether they were loyal to communist or Zionist ideology, Rudolf Vrba was and remained a lone accuser, whose testimony was swept under the carpet in detail and as a whole.
However, he did not excuse them, he remained true to his knowledge that when suppressing unacceptable truths, they fulfill party tasks with similar selfishness as their predecessors. Because no one could convince him otherwise, could reverse the logic of the black-haired boy, sorting the luggage after those who arrived at the place of special treatment. It’s hard to live with such a person by your side for someone who has no idea why he will dye his hair one day – if he dyed it at all.
Rudolf Vrba was and remained a lone prosecutor, whose testimony was swept under the carpet in detail and as a whole. However, he did not excuse them, he remained true to his knowledge that when suppressing unacceptable truths, they fulfill party tasks with similar selfishness as their predecessors. Because no one could convince him otherwise, could reverse the logic of the black-haired boy, sorting the luggage after those who arrived at the place of special treatment. It’s hard to live with such a person by your side for someone who has no idea why he will dye his hair one day – if he dyed it at all.
Rudolf Vrba was and remained a lone prosecutor, whose testimony was swept under the carpet in detail and as a whole. However, he did not excuse them, he remained true to his knowledge that when suppressing unacceptable truths, they fulfill party tasks with similar selfishness as their predecessors. Because no one could convince him otherwise, could reverse the logic of the black-haired boy, sorting the luggage after those who arrived at the place of special treatment. It’s hard to live with such a person by your side for someone who has no idea why he will dye his hair one day – if he dyed it at all. No one could convince him otherwise, could reverse the logic of the black-haired boy sorting the luggage after those who arrived at the place of special treatment.
[Born on August 9, 1942, Czech playwright Karol Efraim Sidon–Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic, former Chief Rabbi of the city of Prague–was the cousin of Rudolf Vrba’s first wife, Gerta Sidonová. His father Alexander Sidon, who came from Rudolf Vrba’s hometown of Trnava, was arrested in 1944 and imprisoned by the Gestapo in Pankrác and in Terezin, where he was tortured to death in the same year. Karol was hidden until the end of the occupation. His mother raised him alone until 1948. His daughter is actress Magdalena Sidonová.]
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch
Edited excerpts only, from a much longer address, Reflections On Antisemitism (Rosh Hashanah 2021/5782), posted by Stephen Wise Free Synagogue
“Rudolf Vrba lived in two countries: Canada and Kanada.”
One of the lucky breaks that contributed to Vrba’s survival in Auschwitz was his assignment to what the prisoners called “Kanada,” the warehouse designated for processing the stolen goods of the transported Jews. Whatever valuables could fit into luggage was there: food, clothing, money, jewelry hidden in coat linings and even in tubes of toothpaste.
Those who had the great fortune to work in Kanada could sneak away enough food to increase dramatically their chances of survival. The prisoners called the warehouses “Kanada” because they heard that Canada was fabulously wealthy — and Kanada was filled with figs, dates, lemons, oranges, chocolate, cheeses, butter, cakes and other luxuries like soap, cosmetics, and silk shirts from the finest stores in Paris.
Perhaps it was fate that Rudi Vrba ended up in the real Canada. Or maybe in some mysterious psychological way he was drawn to Canada after Kanada saved him. He picked himself from the valley of death, and got on with life. He had two daughters, one of whom, sadly, predeceased him. He had two grandchildren. He was successful, accomplished and respected. It is the best response to those who hate Jews. Keep moving forward. Find meaning and purpose. Help others. Show compassion. Fight for justice. Defend your people. Resist evil. Warn the world.
Vrba said the prisoners at Auschwitz were slaughtered like pigs. “Better,” he felt, “that the Jews of Europe be hunted down like deer, than slaughtered like pigs.” To force the Nazis to hunt them down would disrupt the machinery of death, and increase their chance of survival. Lack of resistance only aided the Nazis, and facilitated the mass murder of Jews.
Rudi Vrba was convinced that most German functionaries in the death camps were not driven by ideology. He knew them. He saw them up close. Two years in Auschwitz bestowed upon him an expertise in human nature that even a career in psychotherapy or philosophy will never grant. You can have five PhDs in psychiatry and have written a dozen books on mass murderers. It will never give you access to the depravity lurking in the hearts of men and women as two years in Auschwitz.
Vrba felt that human nature — our emotions, anxieties, insecurities, ego and self-interest — influence our actions more than ideology. He noted that no German was required to work at Auschwitz. Requests for transfers were almost always granted. Many of the death camp administrators knew how horrible it was. They were there and stayed there, Vrba said, because it was good for them. They had an abundance of cigarettes, bountiful food and meaningful friendships. They had opportunities at Auschwitz to further their careers.
Even the infamous Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele, who conducted brutal and inhuman experiments on living human beings, and with the flick of a wrist, sentenced multitudes to extermination — even he, according to Vrba, exploited Auschwitz to enhance his reputation and advance his career. He may have also been convinced of Nazi racial superiority, but he was a small-time climber, Vrba thought, who didn’t hesitate to murder. He ingratiated himself with prominent German scientists.
“Since you are killing all those people anyway,” said one prominent professor to an SS doctor, “you might just as well send me their brains.” Even the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, the most prolific mass murderer in the history of mankind, used Auschwitz to advance his career. In prison after the war, he wrote with pride about the technology of death that he administered. He considered it a great achievement, an outstanding professional accomplishment.
Hoess made no attempt to move his family away, even after he was reassigned to Berlin. His wife, Hedwig, testified that these years were the best and most comfortable years of their lives. The family would spend afternoons and pastoral weekends together on family outings. They had abundant food. The children later described the strawberries they grew in the garden, and they remembered their mother’s insistence that they rinse the fruit thoroughly because they were covered in dust — the dust of human beings.
They had free slaves, plucked directly from the endless supply a few hundred meters away. Why move to Berlin? They had a mansion. You can still see that house, right over the fence that separated all that is pleasant and pleasing about life from the nine circles of Hell. It is true that there would have been no Holocaust if leading Nazis did not believe in Aryan racial supremacy, but ideology alone was not enough. Most people are not ideologues. We are followers, driven by our own needs and deep-seated insecurities. Everyone feels vulnerable.
Everyone is susceptible to suspicion, manipulation, hate, fear, envy, anxiety, uncertainty, flattery, and conspiracy. If granted permission by authority figures to act upon these impulses — if the Pandora’s Box of all manner of human evil cracks open even a little bit — our worst qualities will escape and find their way onto the political jet stream, polluting and contaminating the atmosphere of the globe. This is why antisemitism is so dangerous. The Jewish people is and has always been the perfect scapegoat around which to organize and rally people to extreme political causes.
It is nefarious Jewish power somehow centrally organized that stands in the way of peace, prosperity, liberation, or justice. Thus, communists could accuse the Jews of being capitalists. Capitalists could accuse the Jews of being communists. Nationalists could accuse the Jews of cosmopolitanism, and cosmopolitans could accuse the Jews of blind loyalty to the Jewish
people. The hard left can accuse the Jews of being white and complicit in racial inequality, and the extreme right can accuse the Jews of being an insidious enemy of the white race.
Do you think that centuries-old hatred of the Jewish people has disappeared? Why? Because you live in the world now and do not know — or care to forget — the 2,000-year history of antisemitism?
Toni Morrison wrote: “Before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.” Read the Vrba-Wetzler report. Visit Auschwitz yourself. See the mountains of human hair the Nazis used to stuff pillows and furniture. Look at the piles of shoes, the dolls seized from children, the eyeglasses. See the luggage with the names and addresses of the condemned from every European city of high culture and advanced philosophy – belonging to people, who, as Rudi Vrba described, were convinced that they would need this luggage upon relocation and who couldn’t fathom that the most cultivated society in the history of the world would kill them upon arrival.
That was the Nazis…
It was important to know, said Rudi’s wife, Robin, that even though he went through all that misery, he still had a very nice life. “He had a lot of humor and a lot of joy. He enjoyed every moment of his life.” It pleases me that this was so. If anyone deserved peace and tranquility, if anyone deserved a full life, it was Rudi Vrba.
Those two years in Auschwitz remained inside of him for all the rest of his days. He lived in two countries, Canada and Kanada. He never forgot and never forgave. The original title of his book was “I Cannot Forgive.” Still, he overcame. Nothing that life would serve up could be worse than what he already endured. It granted him perspective — the kind that only the deepest
suffering gives. He learned to appreciate every gift of life and never to take anything for granted.
Many of my visits to Eastern Europe and the concentration camps have been in winter. I always think how unbearable it must have been for prisoners to endure the elements — undernourished and inadequately protected from the brutal cold, the steel winds and the sweeping rains. Rudi Vrba must have spent many days shivering outside in the cold rain of Southern Poland.
I was moved, therefore, to have heard Robin say that even the incessant rain of Vancouver never depressed her husband. While others would complain, Rudi Vrba’s response to a storm was always: “Isn’t it nice to be inside.”
Rudolf Vrba died in 2006, at the age of 81. He rests in a little-visited cemetery on the outskirts of Vancouver. A simple footstone marks his grave: “Rudolf Vrba — September 11, 1924 –— March 27, 2006.” There is nothing to mark the heroism, the sheer force of will, the daring and courage of this extraordinary man. Perhaps it is fitting. The best of us are driven by life forces so deep, and so unfathomable, that words never do justice.
Rabbi Hanoch Teller, a senior docent in Yad Vashem (2019)
All who entered Auschwitz dreamed of escaping. And all of them understood the futility of such an attempt. The Germans invested a lot of their brain power into torture techniques and seeing to it that no one should escape. And yet, it was attempted, albeit very infrequently, and the public display that the SS offered (attendance compulsory) of the poor soul who was caught trying to escape was aimed to be a compelling and unforgettable lesson that no fate could be worse.
Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler were the exception to the Auschwitz escape attempts. They committed to escape not for their freedom, but because they had a sacred mission to execute. These two Slovakian Jews had been in the camp for two years, making them very senior veterans and statistical anomalies. The lifespan of an inmate in Auschwitz could usually be counted in hours; for the majority of the “fortunate,” in days.
There were probably no other two prisoners who knew the workings of Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as Vrba and Wetzler did. This information they felt they had to reveal to the free world – somehow, someway – despite the impossibility. They believed that the world would listen to their eyewitness testimony that the Nazis were gassing and burning Jews by the tens of thousands daily, and that if the Jews knew what fate awaited them in Auschwitz, they would rebel and refuse to board the deportation trains.
Links to Obituaries
Auschwitz Museum Obituary
Jewish Journal Obituary
Los Angeles Times Obituary
New York Times Obituary
Washington Post Obituary
Next: DEFENDING VRBA