A Rare Jewish Hero

(First entitled Rudolf Vrba and the Auschwitz Reports:
Conflicting Historical Interpretations*)

by Ruth Linn

I.                   BACKGROUND

The truth about the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp was the best-kept secret of the Nazi architects of the Final Solution. It was kept from discovery by more than two thousand SS personnel, 200 vicious dogs, two lines of electrified fences, and a terrorized and fearful Polish population living in the camp’s vicinity.

Over the five years of the camp’s existence, there were hundreds of attempts by prisoners to escape. Of the 76 Jews who attempted to escape, only five managed to get away, reveal the secrets of Auschwitz, and survive the war to tell their stories. [1] Historians agree that the escape of Rudolf (Rudi) Vrba—who died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 81, and who escaped with his fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler—was the most prominent escapee of the five.

Young Walter at School

Walter at school

Vrba, the son of a sawmill owner, was born in Topolcany, Czechoslovakia, as Walter Rosenberg. In 1939, at the age of 15, he was expelled from high school in Bratislava under the Slovak puppet state’s version of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws. Early in March 1942, he defied the deportation laws. He ripped the yellow Star of David from his clothes and left his Czechoslovakian home in a taxi, heading for Britain via Hungary.

He was intercepted by frontier guards and was sent to the Novaky transit camp in Slovakia, where he tried to escape but again was caught and beaten. On June 14, 1942, he was deported to the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, and two weeks later, on June 30, was sent to Auschwitz. After six months in Auschwitz, he was transferred to Birkenau (Auschwitz II), where the number 44070 was tattooed on his arm.

Both at Auschwitz and at Birkenau, Vrba [still known then as Walter Rosenberg] was assigned to the special slave labor unit that handled the property of those who had been gassed. In camp slang, this unit was known as the “Canada Commando” because it was in charge of collecting the valuables – food, jewelry, money – brought along by the victims. He worked in this unit from August 1942 through June 1943. The Auschwitz treasures collected by this Commando were packaged to be sent to Germany, and the gold was quickly melted into ingots and deposited in the Reich bank.

From this vantage point Vrba was able to assess how little the deportees knew about Auschwitz when they entered the camp. Their luggage contained clothing for all seasons and basic utensils, a clear sign of their naive preparation for a new life in the “resettlement” area in the east.

In the summer of 1943, Vrba was appointed registrar for the quarantine camp for men, thus improving his position for collecting information. Early in 1944, he noticed that preparations were underway for an additional railway line to accommodate expected additional transports of Jews. Vrba would later explain that transports from different countries could be distinguished by the type of long-lasting provisions packed in the prisoners’ luggage for their final journey:

Auschwitz-Kanada

Kanada Compound in Auschwitz, where luggage was sorted.  

“When a series of transports of Jews from the Netherlands arrived, cheeses enriched the wartime rations. It was sardines when a series of transports of French Jews arrived, halva and olives when transports of Jews from Greece reached the camp, and now the SS were talking of ‘Hungarian salami,’ a well-known Hungarian provision suitable for taking along on a long journey.” [2]

For almost two years he had thought about escaping, at first merely as a selfish wish for his freedom. But now, “I had an imperative reason. It was no longer a question of reporting a crime, but of preventing one.” [3]

Vrba realized he needed to search carefully and rigorously for a trustworthy escape partner. He was introduced to Fred Wetzler. “He was from my home town in Trnava [sic]; and, though I had never spoken to him, for he was six years older than I was, I had always admired him, if only for his casual bohemian manner and his easy way with girls.” [4]

Vrba and Wetzler did not underestimate the difficulties that lay ahead. They knew that after their escape the prison guards would remain on duty for three days and nights while the troops and dogs went over the land between the inner and outer perimeter of the camp. If they were not recaptured during that time, the Germans would presume they had escaped beyond the camp, where other SS men would take up the search. Vrba concluded:

“It was clear to me that a man who could remain hidden beyond the inner perimeter for three days and nights had a reasonable chance. It was not so clear to me, however, how this could be accomplished; and therefore I began what was to be my first scientific study: the technique of escape. I began to study every unsuccessful escape attempt, to analyze its flaws and to correct them.” [5]

But there was one inmate who successfully preceded Vrba by two days. On April 5, 1944, a Jewish inmate named Siegfried Lederer fled the camp, dressed in an SS uniform, with the help of an SS guard named Viktor Pestek. This SS guard is known to have fallen in love with a Jewish girl from the Czech “family camp” in Auschwitz named Renée Neumann, whom he wanted to rescue and even marry, but Renée refused to leave the camp without her mother.

Seigfried Lederer

Siegfried Lederer after the war,   (Click)

Renee Neumann after the war

Renee Neumann after the war.

In his search for an escape partner, Pestek approached Vrba and Wetzler. But these veteran prisoners had witnessed numerous incidents of betrayal and refused to believe a Nazi would want to help a single Jew escape from Auschwitz. Pestek then approached Lederer, a former Czech army officer who had come to Auschwitz on December 19, 1943, from Theresienstadt. In return for help in smuggling him out, Lederer offered Pestek the aid of his friends in Bohemia.

The decision of this ethnic German from Bucovina, Romania, a member of the SS, to help a Jew escape may have been self-serving. In March 1944, when his native country was about to be invaded by the advancing Soviet forces, Pestek probably realized he would not be able to return home without solid evidence of his anti-Nazi activity.

Regardless, on April 5, 1944 the disguised Lederer exited the gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau accompanied by Pestek. They traveled by train to Prague, successfully passing through border controls. Pestek then returned to Auschwitz, hoping to organize another escape for Renée and her mother. But he was found out, arrested, and subjected to savage SS interrogation. He was shot on October 8, 1944. [6] Renée Neumann survived the war.

After his escape, Lederer risked his life several times by sneaking into the Theresienstadt ghetto to warn the Jews about the fate awaiting them in Auschwitz. But the ghetto inmates, who had just received (post-dated) postcards from their (already gassed) relatives in the “family camp,” failed to heed his warnings. The Germans tricked them even further. They prepared a propaganda film for the Red Cross, thus deluding the ghetto community into believing its members would be needed alive. Finally, Dr. Leo Baeck, former Chief Rabbi of Germany and member of the ghetto’s Jewish Council, maintained the philosophy of not informing the potential victims given the likelihood of their approaching death. [7]

Rabbi Leo Baeck

Rabbi Leo Baeck 1937 (Click)

Despite Baeck’s morally dubious position “in keeping to himself the information that reached him in the ghetto concerning the fate that awaited those Jews who were being deported to Auschwitz,” [8] he has been ubiquitously mentioned and acknowledged in Holocaust texts in Israel and abroad, and numerous institutions and streets have been named after him. Lederer remained an unknown hero, despite his unsuccessful attempts to inform the leaders of the outside world by means of letters to the Red Cross in Switzerland. He later joined the Tito partisans and fought with them until the end of the war. After the war, Lederer remained in Czechoslovakia, where he died on April 5, 1972, 28 years to the day after his escape, at the age of 68, bitter and forgotten. Not a single notice of his death appeared in the Czech media, let alone in Israel.

Two days after Lederer escaped, it was Vrba and Wetzler’s turn to try to tear down the wall of silence surrounding the secrets of Auschwitz. Historians have no doubt that “by far, the most important escape was that of Walter Rosenberg (Rudolf Vrba) and Alfred Wetzler (Josef Lanik) on April 7, 1944.” [9]

Both escapees had been deported from Slovakia in the spring of 1942. Registered as number 29162, Wetzler was taken to Birkenau and put in the men’s camp. He was later moved permanently to the Birkenau mortuary, except for a very short time in the spring of 1942, when he was in the main camp, Auschwitz. His task was to record the numbers of prisoners who died within the camp (not by gassing) and the number of gold teeth extracted from them.

Vrba and Wetzler had to plan their escape carefully, as the shaven-headed inmates, clad in striped pajamas, with numbers tattooed on their arms and unfamiliar with the necessary languages, could expect little success in the outside world. The would-be escapees carefully considered this frightening scenario, which did not seem as frightening to inmates who were later to become historians: “The condition for an escape from Birkenau was easier in comparison to the other Auschwitz camps.” [10]

On Friday, April 7, 1944, the eve of Passover, Vrba and Wetzler sneaked into a previously used hideout that had been sprinkled with gasoline-soaked tobacco to prevent the dogs from detecting them. They stayed there for three nights, until the camp authorities assumed the two men had already escaped beyond the outer perimeter fence. When the cordon of SS guards surrounding the perimeter was withdrawn, Vrba and Wetzler were ready to make their escape. Vrba explained:

“At the moment of our escape, all connections with whatever friends and social contacts we had in Auschwitz were severed, and we had absolutely no connection waiting for us outside the death camp where we had spent the past two years…. We were de facto written off by the world from the moment we were loaded into a deportation train in the spring of 1942. To start with, we had to step into a complete “social vacuum” outside Auschwitz. The only administrative evidence of our existence was an international warrant about us, issued telegraphically and distributed to all stations of the Gestapo.” [11]

The warrant even reached the desk of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, and most likely the desk of Adolf Eichmann, who later testified prior to his trial: ‘Some 800,000 Jews had to be liquidated, and who knew how much time was available, with [the] German might shrinking on every front?’ To ensure that all went well on the receiving end, Eichmann summoned Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, to Budapest to coordinate arrangements. Hoess thought Eichmann’s program was too ambitious and was not sure he could manage so many people in such a concentrated operation. He wanted Eichmann to space deportations at wider intervals.[12]

 

II.                THE VRBA-WETZLER REPORT

After eleven perilous days spent walking and hiding, the escapees made it back to their native country, Slovakia. Almost at once, they managed to establish contact with the official leaders of what remained of the Slovak Jewish community (around 25,000 of an original population of 88,000). This group, called the Working Group, was founded and headed by Gisi Fleischmann, a Zionist activist, and Michael Dov Weissmandel, an Orthodox rabbi.

Dr. Oscar Neumann

Dr. Oscar Neumann, Chairman of the Jewish Council in Slovakia.

In April 1944, at the time of the escape from Auschwitz, Dr. Oskar Neumann was the chairman of the Jewish Council in Slovakia. As a skillful lawyer, he arranged  that the escapees accounts would be professionally recorded.  Vrba and Wetzler were put in two separate rooms, where for three days, each dictated his account to Dr. Neumann’s aide, Oscar Krasniansky, an engineer who was also a good stenographer. The escapees outlined the geographical plan of Auschwitz-Birkenau, described the specifics of the Germans’ method of mass murder, including tattooing, gassing, and cremation, and recounted events they had witnessed at the camp. Most significantly, they estimated that about 1.75 million Jews had been murdered at Auschwitz between June 1942 and April 1944. [13]

Based on remarks they overheard from SS guards and careful assessments made by loyal friends in the Sonderkommando, they reported their fears that the ovens at Auschwitz-Birkenau were awaiting a massive influx of “Hungarian salami” as well as the 3,000 Czech Jews in the second “family camp.” [14]

After Rabbi Leo Baeck, the Slovak Jewish leaders were the first Jewish leaders to meet Jewish escapees from Auschwitz and to witness a precise and firsthand report from inside the camp about the secret death factory there. Neumann recalled:

“The moment the group in Bratislava was informed about the ‘find’ it sent one of its faithful workers to write down from the [two] chaps all they had to tell. This task was performed by the messenger in the best possible way…. The testimony that he wrote, forty typewritten pages, was one of the most shocking documents the human ear could hear…. our people heard this story and they thought that they would go mad.” [15]

By comparing the data provided by the two escapees with the old lists of deported Jews, the Slovak Jewish leaders were able to test the credibility of the escapees’ knowledge and memory. The escapees were further cross-examined about their statements. The two transcripts, written in the Slovak language, were immediately translated into German and then hastily collated into a single 40-page report. To this, Krasniansky added a one-page introduction containing biographical notes on the anonymous escapees and vouching for the report’s accuracy and authenticity. Vrba’s signature, for example, had to be notarized by a “legal adult” since he was not yet twenty-one years old.

All the above procedures enhanced the validity of the account. The escapees reconstructed a map of the camps from memory, and Krasniansky added a supplement in which he urged the Allies to destroy the crematoria and the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz.

On June 6, 1944, the day of the Normandy landings, two other Jewish inmates, Czeslaw Mordowicz and Arnost Rosin, reached Slovakia after having escaped from Auschwitz on May 27. When the escapees heard about the Allied invasion of Normandy, they assumed the war was over and decided to celebrate in the nearest bar, paying for their drinks with dollars they had smuggled out of Auschwitz. They were promptly arrested and accused of violating the currency laws.

After eight days in prison and the payment of a fine by the Jewish Council of Slovakia, they were released. Three days later, on June 17, 1944, the new Auschwitz escapees were interviewed by Krasniansky.

The members of the Jewish Council soon realized that the new escapees, who had witnessed the gassing of the Hungarian Jews, totally corroborated Vrba and Wetzler, warning that an enormous construction activity had been initiated in the camp. [16] Mordowicz and Rosin confirmed that in the few days between May 15 and their escape on May 27, 1944, over 100,000 Hungarian Jews had reached Birkenau, where most were immediately murdered in the gas chambers. Human fat was used to accelerate the burning of the corpses.

In his postwar testimonies, Krasniansky claimed that Mordowicz and Rosin’s briefer report on Auschwitz was attached to the Vrba and Wetzler report, but there is no evidence of this. [17]

Officially and according to German law, the escapees’ arrival in Slovakia could have profound consequences. If the escapees and/or their report were located, the Jewish Council and their families would most likely be liquidated immediately. The Slovak Jewish Council provided all the escapees with high-quality forged documents and money. The Council also thought the escapees should not stay in Zilina for reasons of safety and arranged a hideout for them in Liptovsky Mikulas, a small Slovak town in the mountains.

Rudi after joining partisans

Vrba after joining partisans

When the escapees parted from the Jewish Council, they were assured their precious information would be disseminated without delay to the Western world and, of course, to the potential Budapest victims who at that time were still freely walking the streets.

Soon thereafter, in September 1944, Vrba joined the partisans, eventually to be awarded the highest medal for valor. Wetzler joined the partisans later, in February 1945. While serving in his partisan unit, Vrba received a note sent to him by Rosin, who was still in Bratislava, reporting that Mordowicz was “again very sick and was sent again to the sanatorium in which he stayed before.”

Indeed, on September 9, 1944, Mordowicz was caught by the Nazis in Bratislava and was again sent to Auschwitz. Although almost five months had elapsed since the secrets of Auschwitz had been revealed, Mordowicz discovered that not one of the passengers in the boxcar with him wanted to believe him and beat him up. But had the message ever been delivered to them? [18]

 

III.             REPERCUSSIONS & QUESTIONS

Was the Message Ever Delivered to the Boxcar Passengers?

Most Holocaust historians believe that Vrba and Wetzler’s alarming assessment had reached the Hungarian Jewish leaders as early as April 28, or at least no later than early May 1944. [19] During May 15 and July 9, 1944, about 437,000 Hungarian Jews boarded the “resettlement trains” in good faith. These trains carried them to the Auschwitz death camps, where most were immediately gassed. Examination of numerous memoirs from a handful of surviving Hungarian deportees, even of those who arrived in Auschwitz as late as July 8, 1944, reveals their total ignorance of their impending fate at the death camp.

Elie Wiesel summarized this as follows: “We were taken just two weeks before D-Day and we did not know that Auschwitz existed…everyone knew except the victims.” [20]

We also know that the Vrba-Wetzler report was the first document about the Auschwitz death camp to reach the free world and to be accepted as credible. Its authenticity broke the barrier of skepticism and apathy that had existed up to that point. Publication of portions of the report in the Swiss press in the final days of June 1944, and by the Western allies shortly thereafter, led to protests from the Pope, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, the International Red Cross, and the King of Sweden. According to some historians, [21] the publication of the report contributed to the decision of Admiral Miklós Horthy to order the deportations stopped on July 7, 1944, and the orders took effect two days later. Almost 200,000 Jews in Budapest were thus saved from deportation.

The surviving Jews of Budapest would subsequently be harassed by members of the indigenous fascist Arrow Cross (Nyilas) Party. They managed to kill approximately 20,000 Jews during their rule, from October 15, 1944 until the arrival of the Red Army on January 17, 1945, but this was a small number compared to those who were deported by the Hungarians and subsequently liquidated by the Germans in less than eight weeks in the spring and early summer of 1944. [22]

Moreover, the Vrba-Wetzler report plays an important role in renewed discussions of “Why wasn’t Auschwitz bombed?” This question, according to some authors, “is one of the most basic questions that students of the Holocaust ask. It ranks alongside ‘Why didn’t the Jews resist?’” [23]

As the memoirs of both Vrba and Wetzler suggest, their long-term experience in the camp left no doubt in their minds that the only power that could have prevented the prospective victims from obediently boarding the “resettlement trains” was specific information about what awaited them at the trains’ last stop. Due to lack of manpower, Eichmann was wary of possible resistance in Hungary, even though he knew quite well that most able-bodied Jewish men were in labor service, that there were few hiding places in the flat Hungarian countryside, and that he would not be confronted by a unified fighting front in this divided community. Still, he took no chances, choosing Dieter Wisliceny to help him carry out the liquidation of the Hungarian Jews.

Dieter Wisliceny

Dieter Wisliceny

In 1942, Wisliceny had managed to lull the 58,000 Slovak Jews into the gas chambers while robbing their leaders and convincing them that the ransom they had paid would suspend the deportations. [24] It was only after the arrival of the Auschwitz escapees that the members of the Working Group realized “that the Nazis were engaging in systematic extermination” and that “the knowledge of a planned extermination policy penetrated the consciousness of the Bratislava activists only after it had become known in the free world.” [25]

Realization of the secrets of Auschwitz was no quicker in Hungary either. From his previous experience, Wisliceny came with a letter of recommendation from Weissmandel in the name of the Slovak Working Group. It was addressed to “trustworthy” people with whom negotiations could be conducted in Hungary, people “who were thought to have enough guts and devotion to negotiate with the SS as the Slovak group had done.” According to Bauer, Wisliceny was told by the Slovak Group that these people included Philip von (Fülöp) Freudiger representing the Orthodox community in the Jewish Council, Dr. Rezső Kasztner, the leader of the local Zionists, and Edith Weiss, an influential figure in the Neolog community, who was in hiding. [26]

Freudiger later reported that Wisliceny closed the door and told me to sit down. Usually, we did not sit but remained standing. He told me: “I have a letter for you, read it…” I read the letter. It was a letter from Rabbi Weissmandel of blessed memory. It was written in Hebrew, and was a short letter. He wrote to me that “finally fate has caught up with Hungarian Jewry” and suggested that I continue to deal with the “Europe Plan”  (a plan envisioned by Weissandle for the purpose of saving all European Jews not only the Slovakians) that they had started with Wisliceny and that was known to me. In general, this was a letter expressing confidence in Wisliceny that we could negotiate with him. I read the letter. Wisliceny asked me: “Did you read it?” I answered: “Yes.” “Did you understand?” “Yes.” “Return the letter to me,” he said. I returned the letter to him. He tore it into small pieces and threw it into the stove. After this he asked me: “What do you have to say to this letter?” I answered: “I am at your disposal.” He told me, “From now on, we need all the money arriving from abroad.” I asked him: “Do you mean `we need’ or ‘I need’?” I wanted to know whether the deal was an official or a private one. He told me: “This is none of your business. I had no reply to this. Thereafter he told me: “You will hear from me again.” That was all and I left. [27]

We are not told whether Freudiger’s deal with Wisliceny was indeed “official” or “private.” We do know, however, that throughout May and June, the critical months for the deportations as well as for dissemination of the Vrba-Wetzler report, Freudiger was “one of the best-informed members of the Jewish community.” He was not only privy to the external dangers and eventually to the Vrba-Wetzler report, but also to the specifics of what names were on the deportation lists. In his memoirs he writes that when he found the name of his lawyer on a list he was quick to counsel him “not to sleep at home that night.”

Following this advice, continues Freudiger, “he immediately contacted his cousin who was a physician working in the largest mental hospital and arranged for immediate admission there. He remained there a few weeks, and when he returned the lists were not timely anymore.” [28]

Acquaintance with the specific details of the report convinced Freudiger his end was near.

I received quite regularly mail from Bratislava, mainly from Rabbi Weissmandel…. I found also a report of several pages of the statement of two Jews who had miraculously succeeded in escaping from Auschwitz, and now described with all the details what was going on in Auschwitz, the particulars about the gas chambers, giving minute lists of when and how many people were gassed—Jews, gypsies, etc., 1,750,000 in all—ending that the gas chambers had now been put in good repair for the awaited Hungarian Jews. Having read the protocol to its end I was shocked—I sat stunned for hours until at last my wife helped me up. The next morning, I took this protocol to the Council and showed it to a few of the members who were all desperate…. We decided—unofficially—to spread the protocol and bring it to the knowledge of the more or less humane personalities of Hungarian society, politicians, etc. [29]

Philippe Freudiger

Philippe Freudiger at the Eichmann trial.  

Seventeen years later, in 1961, Freudiger would testify at Eichmann’s trial that he had received Weissmandel’s warning letter “a few days before the 15th of May, on the 10th or 11th.” He would later report that the Auschwitz protocols were translated into English by his assistants and that on June 19, 1944, they were sent out of Hungary through Kraus’s special connections. He would later emphasize how relevant this information was for him, as prior to this date “no one had any idea about Auschwitz.” [30]

Despite, or possibly because of, this newly gained knowledge, Freudiger reached the conclusion that “there was neither the time nor the possibility for organized resistance” and therefore there was no point in informing the community. Later, however, he would consider it judicious to inform 80 of his relatives, who boarded a train to freedom on August 9, 1944. Upon his arrival in Bucharest he began documenting the chain of events that had led him to flee. He left out any mention of the Vrba-Wetzler report. His memoirs do not include any note of regret regarding the panic that his escape created among “the uninformed Jewish masses,” [31] who thought his departure meant a resumption of the deportations. He would later emigrate to Israel, where he soon came to be regarded as a “distinguished educator.” [32]

Another name given to Wisliceny was that of Dr. Kasztner, a journalist and lawyer and also a leading Labor Zionist activist, first in his hometown of Kolozsvár (Cluj) and then in Budapest, following the annexation of Northern Transylvania by Hungary in August-September,1940. Throughout the war Kasztner had maintained his ties with the Zionist members of the Working Group and visited Bratislava regularly. Aware of Kasztner’s forthcoming regular visit to Bratislava, Krasniansky quickly translated the German version of the report into Hungarian, and, according to one of the (three) versions of his postwar testimony, personally handed the report to Kasztner in late April.

According to Bauer the report must have arrived in Budapest “perhaps through Kasztner at the end of April and been handed over to the leading members of the Judenrat.” But this destination was not promising. “Abandoned by the government, handed over to the mercy of the SS, unaccustomed to and incapable of any illegal work, the Judenrat obeyed the Nazis.” [33]

After reading the Vrba-Wetzler report, Kasztner, like Freudiger, was convinced that the entire community was doomed to liquidation. He believed the only hope was to try to save a few Jews, whether through bribery or by means of an imaginative plan whereby the Hungarian Zionist leaders would offer their Jewish international connections for contact between the Allies and the Germans. During May and June 1944, Kasztner was involved in delicate and intense “negotiations” for the release of 1,684 Jews (in an exchange for money), including 388 members of his family and friends from his hometown of Kolozsvár. The group left Hungary on June 30, 1944 on their way to Switzerland. Kasztner kept the Vrba-Wetzler report a top secret in order not to create panic among the potential deportees to Auschwitz. [34]

It is important to note that some academic historians have alleged that Rudolf Kasztner did promptly deliver a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler Report, as soon as possible, to members of the Jewish Council in Budapest on April 29 during a meeting held at their headquarters at 12 Síp Street and the Jewish Council seemingly made no use of the information. According to Zoltán Tibori Szabó, the members of that Jewish Council were Samu Stern, president (merchant, banker, president of the Hungarian National Israelite Office and of the Neolog Israelite Community of Pest), Ernő Pető (lawyer, vice president of the Neolog Israelite Community of Pest), Ernő Boda (lawyer, vice president of the Neolog Israelite Community of Pest), Károly Wilhelm (lawyer and leader of the Neolog Israelite Community of Pest), Samu Csobádi (president of the Neolog Israelite Community of Buda), Samu Kahán-Frankl (rabbi, president of the Central Orthodox Israelite Office), Fülöp Freudiger (president of the Independent Orthodox Israelite Community of Budapest), Niszon Kahán (lawyer and leader of the Hungarian Zionist Organization.

According to Tibori Szabó, “During the mentioned meeting of April 29, 1944, Samu Stern, the president of the Council, shared his doubts about the credibility of the incidents documented in the report, attributing them to the fertile imagi-nation of two rash young men. The members of the Council were horrified at the thought of revealing the content of the report, believing that they could be arrested by the Germans for spreading false information to the population. They pretended not to know about the fate of the Polish Jews, although Ottó Komoly and others before him had informed them about that. They were holding onto the words of Adolf Eichmann, who assured them that no Jew would be harmed if the Council would guarantee the calm of the community. The Council agreed that the pro-tocol must be handled carefully, and that the community must not be alarmed. They also suggested the translation of the document into Hungarian, which presumably would buy them time to figure out what needed to be done.”

One might concur with the claim made by some historians that Kasztner was not the leader of the Hungarian Jews, and so cannot to be blamed for concealing information in general, and the Vrba-Wetzler Report in particular. But this claim carries little weight with respect to his hometown Kolozsvár. Approximately 16,500 of its 110,000 citizens were Jews, most highly educated. It boasted many politically active Zionist leaders. The internal affairs of the ghetto were entrusted to the Jewish Council. Kasztner’s father-in-law, Dr. József Fischer, was one of the richest people by the standards of those days. His family resided in a huge house, and he owned a private car. He was president of the Kolozsvár Jewish community and chairman of its Zionist society. Unlike in Budapest, many Jews in Kolozsvár were of Zionist orientation, and the Zionist leaders carried significant moral weight for them.

Rudolf Kasztner

Rudolf Kasztner, seven years before he was assassinated on March 4, 1957.

On May 3, 1944, when the ghettoization of the Kolozsvár Jews was about to begin, Kasztner visited Kolozsvár with Eichmann’s permission. Although he was already in possession of the Vrba-Wetzler report, Kasztner did not share its contents with the local Jewish Council. Those 388 Kolozsvár Jews who were designated for rescue on his train were placed in a camp on Columbus Street in Budapest, where they were guarded by SS men. [35]

In postwar accounts, some survivors from Kolozsvár told how they had quietly boarded the train to Auschwitz, mistakenly believing themselves en route to the fictive farm named Kenyérmező for resettlement and entirely oblivious of the fact that they were heading for Auschwitz. Dr. Endre Balázs, the ghetto commander, who would later board the Kasztner train for Switzerland, had informed them that “the government of Hungary decided to evacuate the entire city to Kenyérmező, in order to assemble in it all the Hungarian Jews until the end of the war. Just relax—you will live there with your entire family.” [36]

Hillel Danzig

Hillel Danzig knowingly sent a friend and his family on a train to Auschwitz while he boarded Kasztner’s train to Switzerland and safety.

Jacob Freifeld and his family went on one of the early trains headed for Kenyérmező. “After the first train left Kolozsvár,” he later testified, “all the Jews were assembled in the ghetto. Kohani [one of Kasztner’s group] jumped up on a platform and read aloud a letter he said was from a Jewish family in Kenyérmező. The letter said that the whole family was working at good jobs and were all in good health and being well taken care of. I had a friend, Hillel Danzig. We worked together earlier in the Ukraine camps. In Kolozsvár I asked him, ‘What’s the truth about those letters Kohani read in public? Are they really true?’ He told me, ‘Yes, they are true,’ and he gave me a tip. I should try to go to Kenyérmező as soon as I could. Because the first arrivals there would get the best places.”

Freifeld and his family were sent to Auschwitz. He escaped, but the rest of his family was incinerated. Hillel Danzig did not board that train, but rather Kasztner’s train to Switzerland. He later reluctantly admitted knowing he was being taken to a safe place and also knowing that people like Freifeld were being taken to “a place much worse.” [37]

In his postwar testimony Kasztner did not hide the grim fact that “it was the task of the Judenrat to decide who would go first, who later.” In the Israeli Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, the morality of the Kolozsvár deportation is summarized briefly in the passive voice:

Kasztner, who had been in the midst of controversial negotiations with Eichmann’s Sonderkommando on a rescue arrangement, visited the city on May 4 and 5. Shortly thereafter, 388 Jews, including many of Kasztner’s relatives and closest friends, were taken out of the ghetto and transferred to Budapest. From there, together with some 1,300 other Jews, they were eventually taken to Switzerland via Bergen-Belsen—a rescue mission that engendered great controversy. Braham examines several aspects of this controversy: “Instead of going with the masses to Kenyérmező to provide continued leadership, most of them eagerly joined the Kasztner group that, with the aid of the SS, was taken to Budapest. Some of the other religious and political leaders of the Kolozsvar community found other ways of escaping deportation. [38]

In this context—and it is not the only context—Bauer’s claim that the Auschwitz Protocols received widespread, though unofficial, publicity within Jewish community of Hungary seems quite problematic.

On June 10, 1944, Dr. Imre Varga, a young Budapest physician, questioned the Jewish Council about why they did not organize resistance to halt the “cowardly submission” and adopt more suitable methods to prevent total catastrophe. Samu Stern, head of the Central Jewish Council, answered Varga that “the Jewish Council is doing everything in its power” to prevent the deportations. Although one-and-a-half months had already elapsed since the secret of Auschwitz had been revealed, the “details of the killings” provided by the Vrba-Wetzler report were still not known. Samu Stern could only say that Jews were being taken in freight cars “to unknown places, to extermination.” In his postwar memoirs he further stated that he “knew what they had done in all German-occupied states of Europe” but failed to mention the Vrba-Wetzler report. [39]

Thus, on June 10, 1944, two groups of Jews were given two different types of information. Dr. Varga and his people in Budapest were given general information about the extermination. On that same day, 388 selected prominent Jews from Kolozsvár may have been given specific information about Auschwitz, though there is no clear evidence of this. When the train stopped at the town of Auschpitz in the Czech Moravian Protectorate, all the passengers were panic stricken, not knowing the difference between Auschwitz and Auschpitz, and when it arrived at Linz in Austria they refused to take showers. All the above runs counter to what we know of the secret and selective use of the report. [40]

Professor Georg Klein

Prof. Georg Klein as a young man read the Vrba-Wetzler Report that was in Kasztner’s desk drawer. 

Kasztner’s involvement in the selective rescue lasted until the end of the war. According to Bauer, on March 31, 1945—three days before Soviet troops liberated Bratislava—Kasztner was scheduled to rescue Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel and 27 other people from a hiding place in Slovakia, together with 22 others from Vienna, and take them to Switzerland. The purpose of this rescue mission at that time and place remain (morally) unclear, and its documentation in Dr. Gila Fatran’s writings is even more unclear: Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel [deported in autumn of 1944] managed while still in Slovakian territory to leap from the Auschwitz-bound train. He joined a group of underground refugees in Bratislava and in February, 1945 was moved with the rest of the group to a hideout in Switzerland with Rudolf Kasztner’s assistance. [41]

That the opportunity to read the report opened the eyes of some is demonstrated by the case of Professor George Klein, later a member of the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm. A youngster at the time, Klein worked for the Jewish Council in Budapest. He wrote:

I was shown [the Vrba-Wetzler report] by one of the members of the Jewish Council in Budapest in greatest secrecy, only a few weeks after it had been written. I still remember the mixture of nausea and intellectual satisfaction I felt when I first read what later became known as ‘the Auschwitz Report.’ … The paradoxical but very distinct intellectual satisfaction stemmed from the fact that this was the 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, the naked facts and the seemingly passionless objectivity of the report, made a stronger impact than a thousand emotional outbursts. It was this report that prompted me to escape. [42]

Klein, who had seen Kasztner at work during this critical period, admired him:

I was working there, first as an errand boy and later as secretary to one of the members of the council. I knew that Kasztner was trying to select a number of people for rescue, but that I had no chance of being included in that privileged group. Nevertheless, he was a hero in my eyes, and he remained so in the years that followed. He rescued many while the rest of us tried to save only ourselves or, at best, the members of our families. [43]

Indeed, Kasztner hoped to enlist the Germans for further rescue missions, assuming that small numbers of Jews would make no difference to the Germans in their large-scale murder. This logic is echoed in Eichmann’s explanation to the correspondent from Life magazine:

“In Hungary my basic orders were to ship all the Jews out of Hungary in as short a time as possible. Now after years of working behind a desk, I had come out into the raw reality of the field…they had sent me, the “master” himself, to make sure the Jews did not revolt as they had in the Warsaw Ghetto…. In obedience to Himmler’s directive I now concentrated on negotiations with the Jewish political officials in Budapest… among them Dr. Rudolph Kasztner, authorized representative of the Zionist movement. This Dr. Kasztner was a young man about my age, an ice-cold lawyer and a fanatical Zionist. He agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation—and even keep order in the collection camps—if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain.

“For keeping order in the camps, the price…was not too high for me…. We trusted each other perfectly…with his great polish and reserve he would have made an ideal Gestapo officer himself.”[44]

But not all the uninformed and misinformed Jews agreed with Eichmann’s assessment of Kasztner’s personality and moral philosophy. In 1954, after he immigrated to Israel, Kasztner would have to justify his position directly to an Israeli citizen, Malkiel Greenwald, who had lost 52 family members in the Auschwitz concentration camp and accused Kasztner of collaboration with the Nazis.

Kasztner, who was then a leading Mapai (Labor) Party candidate for the Knesset, brought a legal suit against his accuser who was not from the Mapai. Shmuel Tamir, a brilliant young lawyer, who defended Greenwald, managed to steer the trial toward a thorough examination of the role played by the Yishuv in the efforts to rescue the Hungarian Jews. Tamir had met with Weissmandel in New York and later with Vrba in England, and had become fully convinced that the motives behind the rescue efforts were more complex than they appeared.

On June 22, 1955, the Jerusalem District Court, presided over by Judge Benjamin Halevi, accepted most of Tamir’s arguments, among them an affidavit given by Kasztner on behalf of Kurt Becher. The court ruled that Kasztner had collaborated with the Nazis and “sold his soul to the devil.” This “sale” involved three factors: first, his negotiations with the Nazis to rescue his family, his friends, and a select group of Zionists and rich people; second, his collaboration with the Nazis’ ploy to silence the Hungarian Jews; and third, his voluntary help rendered to Nazi criminals to escape justice after the war. [45]

Judge Benjamin Halevy

Dissenting Judge Benjamin Halevy Kasztner ruled that Kasztner had collaborated with the Nazis.

With massive legal help from Mapai, Kasztner appealed to the Supreme Court. On March 4, 1957, Kasztner was shot by a young extremist near his Tel Aviv home and died ten days later. In a posthumous decision, five Supreme Court judges unanimously upheld Judge Halevi’s verdict on the “criminal and perjurious manner” in which Kasztner had saved Nazi War criminal Becher after the war “without justification.” However, two of the judges upheld Judge Halevi’s finding that Kasztner had collaborated with the Nazis during the war, but the three others did not. The majority opinion, written by Judge Shimon Agranat and read on January 15-17, 1958, cleared Kasztner of the stigma of “collaboration.” Agranat argued that the moral and historical judgments they were being forced to make should never have reached the courtroom, and that the proper forum, if there was such a thing, was a “public commission for historians.” He concluded that Kasztner’s sole motivation had been to rescue all Hungarian Jews, and that his behavior was in line with his devotion to his role as organizer of the rescue in Budapest. [46]

One may wonder whether the five Supreme Court judges would have reasoned the same way had they known that Kasztner gave a postwar affidavit not only on behalf of Kurt Becher and Krumey (Eichmann’s deputy) but, as discovered only later, also on behalf of SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Hans Jüttner, chief of the SS-Führungshauptamt (SS Operational Main Office). [47]

A few years later, the Israeli government did not want Judge Halevi to serve on the panel of judges at the 1961 Eichmann trial for fear that he might probe too closely into the behavior of Jewish leaders during the Holocaust. Neither would the Israeli historiography ever forgive Halevi for his judgment. Over the years leasing Israeli historians have made numerous attempts to provide alternative explanations for Kasztner’s motives in testifying on behalf of these war criminals. [48]

Using the analytical approach of a linguist [49], it may be helpful to examine the role of Becher as a “linguistic event” in Bauer’s 1994 book Jews for Sale:

“Kasztner made his recommendation [on behalf of Becher] at a time when he knew…that Becher had extorted money from Jews, though he could not have known the background of his Nazi protector.”

“We must put things in perspective: Kasztner helped others besides Becher; he was willing to certify the humanity of SS Gen. Hans Juttner, he was willing to help Wisliceny, and he wrote letters whitewashing Krumey (February 5, 1947) and Kettliz (October 13, 1947).”

“From a perusal of these letters and testimonies about Kasztner, the picture emerges of an ambitious and courageous man who wanted to tell the truth about people who had helped him.”

Becher “acted in those days like a convinced Nazi who saw the Third Reich crumbling around him and was trying to maintain his own position by saving lives.” [50]

The Israeli Encyclopedia of the Holocaust inexplicably notes that “Kasztner’s line seems to have been one of noblesse oblige: once the war was over, any Nazi who had made a gesture or taken action in favor of Jews should be recognized for it.” [51]

But these voices of the uninformed and the misinformed could only be temporarily suppressed, certainly not silenced. During Freudiger’s testimony at the Eichmann trial, a Hungarian survivor in the gallery screamed at Freudiger, “You duped us so that you could save yourselves and your families. But our families were killed!”  The man was apparently attacking Freudiger as a representative of the Jewish Council, for he added, referring to another Judenrat member, “He gave us injections to numb our minds. But he took his own parents out of Nyiregyhaza, and left mine there to die.” [52]

The court ordered the uninformed survivor to be silent and later had him removed from the gallery.

 

Is There a Proper Voice of the Survivor?

At the Eichmann trial challenging survivors were silenced and removed from the gallery while questions about the role of the Jewish councils in the deportations were suppressed. To this day, Holocaust narrative has continued to revolve around the thesis that the Jews had been informed but refused to believe. Numerous documents support this thesis, but it fails to explain how uninformed Jews were able to “refuse to believe” information they never even received?

Nathan Schwalb

Nathan Schwalb, Zionist in Switzerland

We know today that the Vrba-Wetzler report, or at least its contents, was sent to Giuseppe Burzio, the papal nuncio in Bratislava (to be forwarded to the Pope), to the Zionist liaison committee in Istanbul and to the main Zionist representative in Switzerland, Nathan Schwalb, who was director of the international Hechalutz office of the World Zionist Organization in Geneva in 1944. Though active in encouraging resistance to the Nazis and involved in numerous rescue efforts, it remains questionable as to whether or not his primary interest was to have the Vrba-Wetzler Report published [53] but did send it along four days later, on May 21st, to Roswell McClelland, the War Refugee Board representative in Switzerland. In the Hungarian Jewish community, it was Miklós (Moshe) Krausz, the executive secretary of the Budapest branch of the Palestine Office and a bitter rival of Kasztner who had contacts with representatives of neutral countries, who took the initiative to disseminate the Vrba-Wetzler report.

On June 18, 1944, Krausz happened to receive the Vrba-Wetzler report from Josef Reisner, a clerk in the Turkish Legation. The following day Krausz forwarded an abbreviated version of the Vrba-Wetzler report to Geneva with the help of Florian Manoliu, a member of the Romanian Legation in Bern, who delivered it to George Mandel-Mantello, a Jewish businessman serving as First Secretary of the General Consulate of El Salvador in Geneva. Mantello disseminated the report further, and also passed on an English translation to Walter Garrett, chief correspondent of the Exchange Press in Zurich. Vouching for the report’s accuracy, Garret delivered a six-page summary to the British, United States, and Czechoslovak governments. [54]

Geza Soos

Geza Soos, of the Hungarian Independence Movement, a resistance group.

Among the Hungarians who received a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler report were Horthy’s daughter-in-law, bishops of the Christian churches, and Ernő Pető, a prominent member of the Central Jewish Council. Pető claimed that he gave the Hungarian version to Horthy’s son, Miklós, Jr., and some other dignitaries. One of the copies of the original German version of the report reached Géza Sóos, who titled himself as the head of a relatively small resistance group called the Hungarian Independent Movement.

During the first few days of May, Sóos handed his copy to Reverend József Éliás, the head of the Good Shepherd Mission, for translation and duplication. Éliás’s secretary, Mária Székely, translated the report into Hungarian and distributed six copies to the top leaders of the Christian churches and the Hungarian state shortly before the mass deportations began on May 15, 1944. The need to translate the report from German suggests that in this case it had not been sent by the Working Group, as Krasniansky had already translated it into Hungarian two weeks previously. [55]

According to Professor Bauer, the Vrba-Wetzler report “had an immediate impact.” [56] But the extraordinary creative and brave efforts made by the wartime Slovak leadership and the Working Group in disseminating the report both to the Western world and the Hungarian people stand in complete contradiction to the lack of historical documentation regarding the dissemination of the report within their own community. When this question was raised by Vrba, he was confronted by a uniform response:

Zionist youths risked their lives and delivered the information.

The information in the report was not relevant.

To prove to Vrba we are right, he is kindly invited to look at archive documents.

A clear example can be found in the writings of Dr. Gila Fatran, a Slovak Israeli Holocaust historian who did her Ph.D. thesis on the wartime Slovak Jewish leadership under the supervision of Professor Bauer. Fatran clearly acknowledges that “the Working Group activists, despite their prophetic prediction in the appeal to the Slovaks, did not foresee what was forthcoming.” Vrba had made the same claim. Fatran seems unintentionally to further support Vrba’s claim regarding the power of information by stating that at least during 1942, “when the Working Group learned that deportation was certain, they did inform the public.”

With respect to 1944, Fatran insists that the wartime leaders disseminated warnings “by dispatching messengers on slow Slovak trains going to towns and small villages all over the country.” But we know that not only were these messengers dispatched before the arrival of the report, they also were not informed about it. Hence, how could they inform others of specific details that had not been provided to them? After this vague explanation, Fatran is forced to admit that the information dispatched by the messengers she mentioned “was warning against deportations, not against certain death.” [58]

Fatran pretends not to understand Vrba’s questions about the uninformed and the misinformed, as after all “the general public knew of deaths by starvation, disease and sporadic murders through receiving the many censored postcards sent by those deported to the Polish ghettos….” She continues:

There was no need to become acquainted with the details of the genocidal process per se in order to realize that Europe contained murderers of Jews. Anyone keeping track of world events through foreign sources (such as BBC broadcasts, although listening to them was forbidden, and word of mouth reports) could have known this; it does not include the countless Polish refugees who escaped to Hungary bringing this news. Youth movement activists undertook to relay messages to provincial towns so as to warn Jews of the imminent danger.

Fatran does not tell us that these brave youth activists carried the report or its content on their mission. [59] Fatran insists that the reports are and were useless. First, she states that “I myself stayed with relatives in a provincial town in Hungary at the time of the German invasion, and without knowing anything of the Wetzler-Vrba ‘Auschwitz protocols,’ we warned the Jews around us that deportations which would lead to death were to be expected. On this occasion, Fatran takes the opportunity to belittle the report by referring to the report’s title in the wrong alphabetical order so as to prioritize Wetzler. Fatran furthers seeks to prove the insignificance of the Vrba-Wetzler or the Wetzler-Vrba Report, when she argues that the information they provided could not have enabled Mordowicz and Weissmandel to overcome the Nazis’ forced incarcerations, even though they both were fully informed about the “terrible secrets.” [60]

But Vrba would argue that these examples prove the opposite. It was precisely because Weissmandel knew what Auschwitz was all about, he was determined to escape the train and did so. And precisely because Mordowicz knew what Auschwitz was all about, he tried to escape his pursuers in Bratislava. In fact, Fatran’s analysis unintentionally provides some support for Vrba’s thesis – that information means inner power that might lead to resistance. According to Fatran, this was known all through the war:

After the first reports on the…arbitrary killings filtered into Slovakia in May and June 1942, Jewish resistance to deportations grew steadily… Jews were no longer willing to be caught. The turnabout in their conduct shows that information on the fate of the deportees had circulated broadly, becoming public property rather than the secret possession of leaders only. [61]

Assuming that the Jews in 1944 had the same cognitive skills as their brethren in 1942, it is not clear why Fatran dismissed the power of the Vrba-Wetzler report.

It is also not clear why Fatran refers to Professor John S. Conway, a member of the Department of History, University of British Columbia, as a poor historian when he reminds her of the power of the report’s information. She dismisses his professional skills, arguing that Conway has been “misled by one piece of testimony” “or was misled by a Slovak language reader who misinterpreted the text, or fabricated some facts.” And finally, for unknown reasons, Fatran sends all these questioning ignorant readers and historians to the “countless archival sources available” that prove her point – a point which she herself was not clear about all along: Do any of the documents in the archive give us a clear answer whether the report was disseminated to the Slovak community? If so, why is it not presented in her historical work? Is there any other reason to send people to an archive containing documents in a language they do not understand? Are the documents there merely for display? [62]

In order to fully convince her readers, Fatran finally calls for relying upon imagination rather than data. “It is inconceivable that individuals [Zionist members of the Working Group] who were so sensitive to their people’s distress… would be indifferent to the fate of their closest brethren merely to spare themselves.” [63]

She is right to do, so as she has no proof that, after “the UZ received the first two escapees from Auschwitz in late April… and passed [the information] on to Hungary, Switzerland, and the Vatican,” [64] that this list included their brethren in Slovakia. We all trust her professional skills that if this had been the case, she would have mentioned it and not send us to the archives.

 

Moral Psychology and the Dissemination of the Report

It is not clear how and why the escapees’ postwar memoirs and documented reports were kept from the Israeli Hebrew-reading public. Although I am a native Israeli and a graduate of one of the best private high schools in the country, I had never heard about the escape from Auschwitz at the numerous Holocaust ceremonies I attended. Nor had I ever read about it in any detail in any of the Hebrew Holocaust textbooks when I was in school or in the books given to my three children, even though Vrba’s memoirs written with Alan Bestic, I Cannot Forgive, were first published in London in 1963.

As an adult, I became acquainted with the escape from Auschwitz through the non-Israeli, Paris-based filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who considered Vrba’s testimony central to understanding the Holocaust in his 1987 documentary film, Shoah. Since 1987, I have not had one single discussion with any Israeli without asking my interlocutor one single question: “Have you ever heard of the escape from Auschwitz?” I have not received even one positive answer to this question.

Seven years later, in 1994, I was teaching at the University of British Columbia. I met my friend Mira Samet there, and, of course, asked her this question. Like the other Israelis I have met, Mira had not been familiar with the story until she left Israel and settled in Vancouver, where she accidentally learned that the remaining survivor of the escape, Rudolf Vrba, lived in the same city. She and Vrba became friends. She told me he was now a professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the medical school at the same university where I was teaching.

Thus, purely by coincidence and after I had been investigating this issue for seven years, Vrba and I first met.

Upon my return to Israel I searched for his memoirs. My university had a German version of the memoirs and Tel Aviv University had the English version. Not less interesting was the situation at Yad Vashem, Israel’s most respected Holocaust documentation center. There the Auschwitz Report was available in German (M-20/153) and in Hungarian (015/9), but without the names of its authors. Both could be found only in Kasztner’s file!

After I failed to find Vrba’s memoirs in bookstores and university libraries in Hebrew translation, I made it my mission as an educator to make Israeli young people aware of this story. Those who found out that this story exists but was not widely published in Hebrew all had similar reactions – anger, questions and a desire to learn more, as well as cynical remark such as “we should not leave history to the historians.”

In 1997, ten years after I first heard about Vrba while watching the Lanzmann documentary, I tried to convince the University of Haifa to publish Vrba’s memoirs in Hebrew and to award him an honorary doctorate in recognition of his heroic escape from Auschwitz and his contribution to Holocaust education.

Elsewhere in Israel, Yehoshua Ben-Ami asked himself the same question: why was the escape from Auschwitz misrepresented in leading Hebrew textbooks? Yehoshua was twenty when his sisters and parents were sent to Auschwitz from Hungary. After escaping from a labor service camp, he joined the underground. At the end of the war, none of his family returned. He immigrated alone to Israel, where he married Irka, an Auschwitz survivor, completed his education and began working as a school counselor. The question of whether there had been any way to save his family gave Yehoshua no peace. Upon his retirement, he started searching for an answer. He came across Vrba’s book in English, as well as the report. From this point on, he began making extraordinary efforts to track down the author. Finally, in 1994 (and with Vrba’s permission), he began to translate the book into Hebrew.

Yehoshua Ben-Ami also inquired about the possibility of translating the Vrba-Wetzler report into Hebrew, and received this response from Yad Vashem:

“Thank you for your letter of June 15, 1997. Indeed, it would have been important to translate the Vrba-Wetzler report, just as it is important to translate other significant documents… Hopefully we will have the money one day.” [65]

Yehoshua and I were not acquainted and we came to know Vrba independently. Despite our different backgrounds, we joined forces to have Vrba’s book published in Hebrew. We each felt we should have heard about the escape from Auschwitz long before. But what we had not considered was that no publishing house would show any interest at all.

Without Vrba’s knowledge I therefore made it my mission to break a 35-year silence by having the book published in Hebrew through the publishing house at my university – albeit not before it had been rejected by Yad Vashem! Professor Yehuda Bauer explained the rejection in a letter to Ben-Ami:

The book is not a memoir in the accepted sense of the word. It contains transcripts of conversations that of course cannot be exact and it has elements of a second-hand story that do not necessarily coincide with reality. However, everything that he relates about himself and his actions is not only the absolute truth, but also a historical document of great importance. I truly regret that Yad Vashem did not translate the book into Hebrew. On the other hand, his whole wild assault on Kasztner and the underground Slovakian leadership is historically and fundamentally mistaken, and for this reason, I am glad that Yad Vashem does not have its name on his book. You can see that I am torn in how I feel about it. [66]

In the fall of 1997, in preparation for Vrba’s arrival in Israel, I met with Professor Yehuda Bauer to make sure there would be no clash between potential award ceremonies. I was confident that Yad Vashem would make similar arrangements. Professor Bauer was later asked by Professor Arieh Kochavi from the University of Haifa to write a letter on behalf of Vrba, which he kindly did, on April, 1, 1998.

On June 1, Vrba arrived in Israel for the honorary award ceremony at the University of Haifa, which was preceded by a conference on the topic of war and emotions in his honor. To my surprise, even at this moment of undeniable historical importance, Israeli Slovak historians did their best to belittle this hero in the eyes of the uninformed Israeli public. When invited to attend the conference in honor of Vrba at the University of Haifa, Professor Hanna Yablonka asked about the identity of the guest and wondered whether he was one of those “bitter survivors who were not invited to testify at the Eichmann trial.” Yablonka was of Slovak origin but was uninformed about Vrba. She hurried to find out more information and arrived at the conference armed with a letter of protest against Vrba, which she chose to read in his presence just before she began her invited lecture.

The following mornings were no less astonishing. The print media published letters of defamation signed anonymously by “Four Historians.” Moreover, anonymous telephone callers phoned the university administration, my home and the office of the university asking why the University of Haifa had not awarded an honorary doctorate to Alfred Wetzler as well. [67]

I was stunned! Where had all these historians been until now, and why had they never taken any steps to ensure that Wetzler received due recognition? Should I be the one to remind them that in 1976 poor Wetzler finally found his way from Slovakia to Israel and begged his Slovak compatriots for some help in publishing his memoirs in Hebrew? Where were they in 1988, when he died bitter, drunk and forgotten, with no recognition from the State of Israel and long before I accidently learned his story?

When the protesting Israeli Slovak historians realized the uninformed Israeli public was not responding to their defamatory letters about Vrba and the University of Haifa, they decided to join forces and make their names public. They included Gila Fatran, Yehoshua Jelinek, Yehoshua Bichler, Livia Rothkirchen, Zvi Erez, Hanna Yablonka and Akiva Nir. I also received telephone protests from Professor Yeshayahu Nir from the field of communications and Giora Amir from the field of law. Zvi Erez, for example, argued that Vrba foolishly believed his report would give rise to organized resistance in Budapest. The protesting historians insisted the public should know that this joint escape was initiated and organized by Alfred Wetzler, and they demanded he be posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate as well. [68]

Yehoshua Jelinek repeated this claim in an individual letter, underlining that Vrba had been a controversial person since the 1960s and this is how he is known by survivors of the Jewish Slovakian community and by historians. [69]

The Slovak historians are not alone in their fight against honoring Vrba. Israeli scholars have volunteered to help. Professor Shlomo Aronson, like Bauer, cannot provide his readers with any valid explanation regarding the omission of Vrba from the Israeli Holocaust historiography but instead he mimics Bauer’s warning that “Professor Linn is an expert on education, not history,” [70]. He tells readers that “quite recently, Professor Ruth Linn from the University of Haifa repeated Vrba’s accusation and added her own,” re-emphasizing the fact that I am “not a historian”  and that I teach education in Haifa [71].

No less interesting was the position of “intellectual bystanders” taken by established Holocaust historians in Israel. Not one of them raised a public protest against the letter-writing campaign against Vrba. It was precisely here, at “the end of history,” that Professor Michael Walzer’s profound question crept into my mind: “What is the use, after all, of a silent intellectual? [72]

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of Fred Stein Archive) 

I was reminded of the case of Dr. Hannah Arendt, a German-Jewish philosopher who had been “for a time, American Jewish Public Enemy Number One.” [73] Her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, like Vrba’s book first published in 1963, was not accessible to the average Hebrew reader for almost the same length of time.

On September 8, 1963, Hannah Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem appeared in The Observer of London, conveying to her readers what she saw as the lessons of the trial. As a non-victim, a non-Zionist, a political philosopher, and an outside observer, Arendt saw the Holocaust as something perpetrated on our planet by “ordinary people,” not even a particular group of “ordinary Germans,” let alone monsters. She viewed Eichmann as a normal and simple “desk-killer” human, though we all know today from his memoirs that he was enthusiastic. She refused to favor the particularistic agenda in which Jewish ethnicity was to take precedence over universal moral concerns.

She would claim, as was later further documented, that keeping the Jews in the dark regarding the real intention of the deportation was not only a widespread policy of the Germans, but in some cases the hidden agenda of the terrorized Jewish Councils, known by the pejorative term Judenrat. If the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was discussed at the trial as a matter of Jewish pride to illustrate the ability of the Jews to resist, then, she argued, it was imperative to study the connection between the functioning of the Jewish Council and the lack of Jewish opposition as well. It certainly should have interested the prosecutor, who mercilessly and repeatedly asked the witnesses: “Why did you not resist?” [74]

Arendt came to see the role of the Judenrat as “undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” No one could answer the question, “Why did you cooperate in the destruction of your own people and eventually in your own ruin?” During Eichmann’s trial, the only witness who would provide her with some answers was a prominent member of the Central Jewish Council of Budapest, Philip (Pinchas) Freudiger. “And during this testimony,” Arendt wrote, “the only serious incidents in the audience took place; people screamed at the witness in Hungarian and in Yiddish, and the court had to interrupt the session.” The presiding judge kept asking: “Why did you not rebel?” [75]

Arendt’s position was severely criticized by Professor Jacob Talmon, a well-known historian associated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He stated, among other things:

In the end, they all went down to a man to death with their brethren, Judenrat or no Judenrat; it would not have made the slightest difference in face of the unshakable resolve of men like Eichmann to track down and to send to the gas chambers the last Jewish baby—a “banal” type on whom Miss Arendt expends all those philosophical acrobatics and psychological profundities… [76]

Vrba entered the debate in support of Arendt’s view.

Professor Talmon says that “they all went down to a man to death with their brethren, Judenrat or no Judenrat.” Is he not aware that, for instance, Dr. Kasztner and his family were honored members of an official Zionistic group in Israel until somebody on a dark night in 1957 shot Kasztner in the streets of Tel Aviv? Is he not aware that they were saved with the help of Eichmann and his deputy (Wisliceny)? Professor Talmon considers that “Miss Arendt’s dissertation on Jewish co-operation is a display of atrocious bad taste” and that “if that ‘collaboration’ was such a very significant fact, all one can do is to hang one’s head in silent shame and grief.” Now Professor Talmon is an historian, and he should understand that if we ponder and speak about the past it is because we think about the future. This historical phenomenon has to be faced if we are to understand mankind. [77]

Vrba did not testify at the Eichmann trial. The court’s position in this case is quite interesting if we consider that 56 out of the 121 prosecution witnesses whose testimony dominated the trial had had nothing whatsoever to do with Eichmann, the accused. Vrba’s absence is even more problematic given the fact that “the prosecution chose its witnesses based on a variety of factors: a good story to tell; representative of Holocaust survivors, originating from specific place; or good verbal ability.” [78]

During the trial, Gideon Hausner, the Attorney General, stated that “an escape from the camp was difficult and therefore, rare.” [79] Nevertheless, when Judge Halevi’s vote in favor of bringing Vrba to testify was rejected by the other two judges, Hausner argued that the government could not cover the travel expenses for its witnesses. As it happens, Vrba was living in London, England, at the time and his whereabouts were known to the Slovak community in Israel. Moreover, larger sums were spent bringing witnesses from more distant places.

Vrba ended up giving a deposition against Eichmann at the Israeli embassy in London, where he was politely requested to complete his written testimony within an hour, as the staff had a dinner engagement that evening. [80]

 

The Struggle over the “Real” Story

As far as we know, Vrba made a promise to future generations to escape from Auschwitz and reveal its secrets. And this he did. He did not promise to escape as a Zionist or as a person who a priori loves his leaders or their historians. But evidently such a promise is not sufficient in the eyes of the protesting Israeli Slovak Holocaust historians as a ticket of entry to the Israeli Holocaust pantheon of heroism. They could not overcome the fact that the University of Haifa honored Vrba as a Holocaust hero. They decided to respond to this “injustice” by hastily compiling a volume of articles in Hebrew. [81] The volume’s contributors include Yehuda Bauer, Hanna Yablonka, Yehoshua Jelinek, Akiva Nir, Gila Fatran and Livia Rothkirchen, and Giora Amir, who is not an historian but rather a lawyer, serving as editor. The contributors claimed the volume was a tribute to the Working Group. Amir presents the rationale for the book as follows:

The Working Group has been put on the stand as defendant by a bunch of mockers, pseudo-historians and historians who have accused them of collaborating with the SS and concealing the truth from their own communities in Slovakia and Hungary. They claim that, had it not been for this collaboration, many could have saved themselves from deportation to Poland. This is a false accusation for which there is no case in facts, at least regarding the Slovak Jews, because it ignores the constraints on the Jews in Slovakia and Hungary in 1944, the topographical conditions of Hungary and the resoluteness of the local helpers to complete the work. And therefore the accusation is baseless. [82]

Amir further emphasises that:

Regretfully, it was given legitimacy when Haifa University awarded an honorary doctorate to the head of these mockers, Peter [sic] Vrba…. The heroism of this person, who, together with the late Alfred Wetzler, was among the first to escape from Auschwitz, is beyond doubt. But the fact is that, just because he was an Auschwitz prisoner endowed with personal heroism, he has crowned himself as knowledgeable to judge all those involved in the noble work of rescue, and accuse them falsely, deeply disturbs us, the Czech community.”

The position put forward by the writers of the above book is reflected in most of the historical writings in Israel regarding the escape. The representation of the escape from Auschwitz in official Israeli historical writing involves two main forms of information bias. The first bias is technical, such as the nonexistent references to anonymous escapees in high school history textbooks in the Hebrew language. [83] The second bias involves a conceptual form of marginalization, in which the escapees and their actions are mentioned, but their contribution is regarded as minimal.

One of the most common forms of omission is failure to recall their names. Oskar Neumann, one of the architects of the report, recalls the following:
News about the horror of Auschwitz had reached Slovakia before, but it was vague…. Who can reach death and come back? But one day this miracle happened. On that day, two young Jewish chaps, Slovakian-born, who had been deported in 1942 to Auschwitz, appeared. Their identity could be verified from their housing report (above the serial number tattooed on their arm). Like in a thriller, they had managed to escape and reached the Slovakian border, at the small town of Cadca….These chaps did also report that recently an enormous construction activity had been initiated in the camp and very recently the SS often spoke about looking forward to the arrival of Hungarian salami. [84]

After Neumann came Oscar Krasniansky, who had spent three intensive days interrogating the escapees and six hours in an important “conference meeting” with the Vatican legate. In his depositions for the Eichmann trial, which are replete with other precise names and details, Krasniansky testified that the report was written “by myself” in the spring of 1944, from the words of “two young people who succeeded in escaping from the death camps of Auschwitz (Birkenau) in April, 1944.”

Livia Rothkirchen, who is regarded by most historians as a prominent expert on the Slovak community, quotes Wetzler’s testimony in her book and refers to Vrba by name. Over time, the escapees’ identities gradually vanish. In her 1974 writings, Rothkirchen refers to the Auschwitz escapees as “two young men” who were the first prisoners to manage to escape from the camp. [85]

Professor Dina Porat, who apparently was not familiar with Vrba’s name when she wrote her doctoral dissertation on the trapped leadership of the Yishuv, wrote:
That the Germans succeeded in concealing the role and central position of Auschwitz and prevented information leaking out until June 1944, is still surprising today. It is hard for people who held various positions in Israel or in the Jewish leadership in the free world to believe that only after April 1944, when two young Slovak Jews escaped from Auschwitz and brought a detailed report and exact drawings to Bratislava—only then did the Western world learn what this place was. [86]

The same reference to the escapees was also repeated by Professor Bauer:

Detailed reports regarding the Auschwitz death camp and the gassing installations in it were received in Slovakia from two Slovak Jews who escaped from the camp on 7 April 1944. [87]

Livia Rothkirchen downplays the fact that the initial information sent to the Hungarian leaders as well as to the West at the end of April or in early May must have been based solely on the Vrba-Wetzler report, since the information provided by the Rosin and Mordowicz report was available only in the middle of June.

Kohn and Cohen report on “two young people who escaped from Auschwitz.” [88] The escapees’ names are also missing from the entry on the Slovak community in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust: “Detailed reports by four Jewish escapees from Auschwitz who reached Slovakia in the spring of 1944 also passed through the hands of the Working Group.” [89]

In Bauer’s 1987 well-known Hebrew textbook, The Holocaust—Some Historical Aspects, young Israeli readers are informed about the escape from Auschwitz in one sentence: “Detailed reports about the death camp in Auschwitz and the gas chambers were received in Slovakia from two Slovak Jews who escaped from Auschwitz on April 7.” These two Slovak Jews are not afforded the credit given to Weissmandel, Kasztner and Mayer, who are described as “persistent and heroic individuals” who “understood the severity of the situation and eventually saved Jews.” [90]

The 2001 Holocaust Encyclopedia reports on “two Jewish prisoners [who] escaped from Auschwitz and passed to the papal representatives in Slovakia a detailed report on the killings in the camp.” [91]

Most significant is a study by Rothkirchen on the Czech and Slovak wartime Jewish leadership in which she mentions the escapees and their report, but Vrba is referred to as “Rudolf Rosenberg-Vrba.” In 2003, four years after Vrba’s book was published in Israel, Jelinek labels the escapees as “Alfred Wetzler” and “Rudolf Rosenberg.” [92]

The real beneficiaries of this misnaming are the Holocaust deniers. While various neo-Nazi authors have made extraordinary efforts to de-legitimize Vrba’s testimony in his report and his memoirs, the belated acknowledgment from some Israeli Holocaust historians serves only to discredit Vrba and Wetzler even further in this respect.

Arthur Butz, the “scholarly” Holocaust denier who examined the postwar memoirs of Oskar Neumann argued that he noticed two crucial facts: First, Neumann does not mention the names of the escapees. Second, Neumann does not mention the Vrba-Wetzler report. He argued that if the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler report were true, Israeli historians would certainly know the escapees’ names and would have publicized their report. [93]

Robert Faurisson, the notorious French Holocaust denier, exploits the misnaming by Israeli Holocaust historians when he comes to explain the Auschwitz myth.

We have known for some time that the Auschwitz myth is of an exclusive Jewish origin…the principal authors of the creation and the peddling of the “rumor of Auschwitz” have been, successively, two Slovaks, Alfred Wetzler (or Weczler) and Rudolf Vrba (or Rosenberg or Rosenthal)…. It is remarkable that from beginning to end, that story comes from essentially or perhaps even exclusively Jewish sources.

Two Jewish liars from Slovakia convinced or seem to have convinced other Jews from Hungary, Switzerland, the United States, Great Britain and Poland. This is not a conspiracy or a plot; it is the story of the birth of a religious belief: the Myth of Auschwitz. [94]

In the 1990s, embarrassed by taunts by Holocaust deniers casting doubt on the existence of the gas chambers, some Israeli Holocaust historians suddenly resurrected the escapees’ names. Thus, exactly fifty years after their escape, and in the face of growing questioning by Holocaust deniers, the jejune vocabulary of “two Slovak Jews” and “two chaps” was replaced by the word “hero.” Yet, readers are still not referred to Vrba’s memoirs, and his ideas are mostly treated as not credible. As a rule, readers are referred to Oskar Neumann’s memoirs, which were found to be “highly reliable when contrasted with the documentation.”

Fatran’s criteria of credibility are presented as the following:

Oskar Neumann survived along with his immediate relatives and, true to the Zionist ideal to which he devoted much of his energy, he immigrated to Israel. For many years, he headed the Association of Czechoslovakian Immigrants and played a central role in all events involving Czechoslovakian Jewry. [95]

One may wonder how is that all those who independently mention the concept of “Hungarian salami” (Vrba, Wetzler, Neumann, Kasztner, Freudiger) are often treated as not credible, with the exception of Neumann and Wetzler? And if at least two credible individuals reported on this, why do historians suggest that Vrba’s idea of “Hungarian salami” is a postwar invention? [96]

Interestingly, the well-informed wartime Jewish leadership is often presented using sterile and sophisticated language obscuring their own past: The Slovakian Judenrat, thus, neither prepared lists nor was it involved in favoritism. It only provided the authorities with the “statistical breakdown of the Jewish population.” [97] The fact that the leaders had to comply with the Nazis, albeit unwillingly, must be inferred from the description of their position as involving a “dual role.” [98]

In the Nazi scheme of things, the Jewish leaders were kept as moral hostages and were often the last to leave for Auschwitz. Knowing that their day would come, they naturally pinned their hopes on an Allied victory in time to save them from the fate of their less fortunate brethren. But this is not an easy topic to discuss. “Since Nazi extermination policy depended to a certain measure on the fortunes of war, there existed an unknown war coefficient—the “time element.” [99]

Fatran further appealed to the reader’s sympathetic acknowledgment of the following:

On the night of September 26 [1944] the UZ [Ústredna Zidov; Jewish Center] offices were broken into and a card index containing a list with details of the remaining Jews was stolen. When the activists reported this to [Alois] Brunner, he frowned sympathetically and promised an investigation and punishment for those responsible. [100]

Fatran does not elaborate on this call for empathy. The members of the Working Group might not have been aware of the atrocities committed at Drancy by Brunner, Eichmann’s most evil henchman, when they “called on him for help.” [101] Yet by now, the average reader of this historical article is likely to know this. Can this sanctimonious style of writing be explained with the same naiveté in 1994?

Vrba asks whether the Working Group can be regarded as an underground group if their lives depended on the deportation list of their community, and if they negotiated with the SS without spelling out what knowledge they would provide and what knowledge they would conceal.

 

The Problem of Remembering the Escape

Many of the builders of the Slovak community in the young State of Israel were Zionist survivors whose first homes in the new state were on collective kibbutzim. Most notable is Lehavot Haviva (Haviva’s Flames), the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz where Wetzler’s surviving Holocaust relatives settled, as did some of the vocal protesters against Vrba, among them Yehoshua Bichler, Gila Fatran, Yeshayahu Nir and Giora Amir. The kibbutz is named after Slovakian born Haviva Reik, one of the seven Yishuv parachutists who lost their lives during the Second World War while attempting to aid European Jews under the Nazis.

Reik was a Zionist and an active member of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in Bratislava and Neumann’s former secretary before she moved in 1939 to Palestine and joined the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz. She managed to make her way to Slovakia, where she provided spiritual assistance to the surviving Slovak Jews. She was murdered in Slovakia on November 20, 1944, and was reburied in the Parachutists’ Section of the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem in 1952. To this day, Reik is commemorated by the Slovak community at the kibbutz, but she has never become a symbol of heroism like her fellow female parachutist, Hanna Szenes.

On March 13, 1944, when Vrba was still in Auschwitz planning his escape and a week before the Germans invaded Hungary, three Jews from Palestine, Hanna Szenes and two men, Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein, were parachuted under British sponsorship into Yugoslavia, where they spent three months with Tito’s partisans. All three had parents and other close friends and relatives living in Hungary. On June 9, 1944, Szenes crossed the border into Hungary with the aim of organizing resistance. She was captured immediately. Her fellow parachutists crossed the border a few days later and managed to get to Budapest. All three infiltrators had been given Kasztner’s name prior to their departure, and now the other two tried to approach him for assistance. But Kasztner was engaged in negotiations over the release of the train (which would eventually leave on June 30, 1944), and it must have been most problematic for him to represent British-sponsored Jewish spies while in the midst of the train negotiations with the Nazis.

On November 7, 1944, after five months in prison, the 23-year-old Szenes was put on trial before a Nyilas court, where she proudly defended herself, but was not saved from the firing squad. Her mother immigrated to Israel after the war. [102]

A “symbol of courage, steadfastness and moral strength,” the “virginal Szenes” [103] is one of the most celebrated Holocaust symbols in Israel. Although her mission was a complete failure, she is described as a passionate Zionist, a woman with a romantic and sensitive soul and a great interest in literature and poetry, who came from a bourgeois assimilated background. Her trial has inspired numerous theatrical narratives in Israel.

In the official Israeli Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Hanna Szenes’s bravery and wisdom are associated with her wish to “organize [the] resistance” of Hungarian Jews. Did her knowledge about the war, her mission, her courage, and the overall plan for the Hungarian Jews differ from that of Vrba? Indeed, Vrba’s mission in escaping from Auschwitz was identical. Like Szenes, he refused to believe that Jews ought to go “like sheep” to the gas chambers. While escaping he dreamed – as he recalled after the war – “of warning the Hungarians, of rousing them, of raising an army one million strong, an army that would fight rather than die.” [104]

Thus, while Wetzler, Vrba and Szenes shared the same ambition and to some extent adopted the same strategy, namely encouraging Jewish resistance, they have been represented entirely differently. Would Szenes’s narrative be remembered if she had criticized the leaders who sent her? Was she ever ridiculed by Israel’s official historians for having the idea of organizing resistance? Why is she never labeled as “a young Hungarian woman,” and why is her name always presented without distortion?

The contribution of Vrba and Wetzler to saving the Budapest Jews or the remaining Slovak Jews is never explicitly mentioned in high school textbooks. Szenes’s mission is always discussed, whereas her failure to save even one single Jew is always missing from that narrative. Vrba’s idea of resistance, namely that informed Jews would hesitate to board the trains to Auschwitz, is uniformly dismissed as unrealistic, insignificant, too simplistic or not applicable under the unique conditions in the Hungarian community. Szenes is glorified for her unquestioning patriotism, while Vrba is denounced for his critical thinking in times of war.

Perhaps Dawidowicz is right when she argues that the only thing that matters for some historians is group pride rather than historical truth. [105]

The staging of Szenes’s and Vrba’s narratives in the Holocaust discourse is most interesting. Szenes is given an entire entry in the Israeli Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vrba and Wetzler are mentioned under the entries “Auschwitz” and “The Auschwitz Protocols.” [106]

Whose voice do the Slovak historians echo in the apologetic writing that describes the Jewish Council as providing only “technical and secretarial help” [to the Nazis] or that indicates that “the [deportation] lists were supplied by Slovak authorities?” [107]

What list do Israeli historians take into consideration when they describe the past: the list of those who were definitely going to be deported? the list of those who might be deported (in case the quota had to be increased)? or the list of those who were definitely exempt from deportation?

With the exception of Gisi Fleischmann, most of the Jewish leaders of Slovakia survived the war. Readers are given no explanation why Fleischmann did not take advantage of a chance to escape her community in the fall of 1944, an option that did not exist for the rest. And who are the readers for whom the following is written?

“Fortunately, the majority of the Slovak Jewish leaders survived the war, and thus, aside from the plethora of correspondence clandestinely forwarded to the free world, they were able to write down their reminiscences.” [108]

For some Holocaust survivors as well as for general readers, the historical truth presented by some Israeli Holocaust historians is nothing more than the Judenrat’s truth that leaves little room for a non-Judenrat narrative. Even scholars who fail to recall Vrba’s name cannot help admit that the Vrba-Wetzler report was kept away from the prospective victims.

Here are some examples:

The testimony of the Auschwitz escapees was kept away from the prospective victims the activists of the working groups were confident that the public knew about the extermination. [109]

Here [in Hungary] the protocol acquired some kind of publication. It was taken to heads of churches and leaders, but it was not distributed among the Jewish communities generally [sic], even though this was May [1944], the time when they were being deported to Auschwitz. [110]

It is beyond question: the “Auschwitz Protocols” did reach the Jewish  Council and Zionist activists, including the Halutz Underground. Yet they did not transmit this information to the Jewish public when the deportation began. [111]

The report remained unknown to the Jewish population inside Hungary itself. [112]

Professor Dina Porat confirms this as follows:

Perhaps they did not know in the sense that the information did not become an internalized awareness, because human beings tend to believe that someone else, not they, is endangered, even when evidence to the contrary is  visible…perhaps in Budapest Jews knew and heard more, but in the more far-flung areas of the country, in the small towns, only the activists knew. [113]

Do these historical statements suggest that Wiesel was right in concluding, “Nobody cared enough to tell us: Don’t go.” [114]

Vrba’s legitimate postwar questioning regarding whether the Jewish leaders could have disseminated the report more effectively and probably have disrupted the smooth deportations by increasing the numbers of those who better informed was silenced at once by Israeli Holocaust historians. He is charged with disrupting the “logic” of the events, as follows.

First, he is not a historian but only a survivor. Second, he tries to influence historians with his ideas. Third, Vrba ought to know that “the Auschwitz report was not disseminated locally since the Working Group knew that the truth about the extermination was already known.” [115] Fourth, Vrba had no access to Holocaust-related documents that are written in Hebrew [sic]. If he had had these sources, he would have known that the compliant and scattered Hungarian Jewish community, without arms or a place to hide in the flat countryside and lacking support from the local underground, had no chance to form a resistance. Fifth, the victims are to blame as well. Vrba and Wetzler “could have done with the information whatever they wanted. At that time, all the Jews in the western part of Slovakia were living in a condensed concentration and the testimony could have been disseminated very easily.” Sixth, his constant argument as to the possibility of resistance in face of the existing data suggests that he is simply a “bitter victim” who refuses to understand that resistance was not an option. [116] Seventh, Vrba had no right to criticize those leaders who had previously helped numerous refugees. Eighth, as a non-Zionist, Vrba’s testimony can never be as credible as Neumann’s.

This long-term tradition of discrediting seems to have affected even the eminent Czech Jewish historian Erich Kulka, who joined the Israeli establishment. While still in Czechoslovakia, Kulka personally interviewed the Auschwitz escapees and wrote about them extensively and favorably, giving full recognition to their names and to their rare historical contribution. He further suggested that the Auschwitz escapees should be recognized on the national level, but this proposal was rejected. After he emigrated to Israel and began writing under the aegis of Yad Vashem, Kulka seems to have adopted the Israeli position of clouding and discrediting. Now he refers to Vrba as “Rosenberg-Vrba” and chooses to tell his Hebrew readers that, unlike other escapees, Vrba’s critical position vis-à-vis the members of the Working Group, who “saved and supported him” was not justified since they were, after all, good Zionists who had lived and worked in Israel for more than 30 years. Kulka further reports that Vrba’s criticism of their wartime leadership so angered the Slovak activists that they protested vehemently in three letters, which they sent to the Archive of the Czechoslovak Immigrants’ Organization in Israel. [117]

Do the above clouding tactics suggest that even historians are not immune to the “antagonism between truth and opinion?” [118]

The case of Vrba seems to echo this thesis. Though Vrba fought as a machine-gunner in a unit commanded by Milan Uher and was awarded the Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery, the Order of Slovak National Insurrection and the Order of Meritorious Fighter, Bauer conveniently forgets this bravery when he writes a letter of recommendation on Vrba’s behalf: “Vrba did not fight with a gun in his hand but escaped in order to testify and this is what he did.” [119]

As we now know, the escape from Auschwitz and the subsequent report had an unexpected conclusion: not the direct bombing of the railway line to Auschwitz or a dramatic uprising in Hungary or the complete revelation of the truth to Slovak Jews, but rather a fairly ponderous diplomatic chain of events that ended in halting the deportations.

Indeed, outside Israel this is often being viewed as a seminal story particularly regarding the question why wasn’t Auschwitz bombed. But in Israel, despite all temporal distance, the past still stubbornly retains its immediacy and, contemporaneity, resists becoming history. It is thus no surprise that all discourse on history in Israel is ipso facto discourse of legitimacy. [120] Could the narrative of an individual escape by a non-Zionist Jew who was critical of his Jewish leaders ever be made to harmonize with the “collective aura” that dominated the State of Israel? Is a story without a Zionist uprising at the end a good Holocaust story?

Hilberg reports on a discussion with Yitzhak Arad, the Chief Education Officer of the Israel Defense Forces, who later became director of Yad Vashem and who, as a 16-year-old, had been a wartime partisan. “You can’t write anything in Israel without leading to an uprising. That is the climax,” Hilberg was told. [121]

It seems that the publication of Vrba’s book in Hebrew has enabled scholars from different disciplines to treat Vrba’s memoirs as an “integrative text” rather than a “reserve text.” [122]

 

A Rare Jewish Hero

In her study on how the Kasztner trial has been represented in the collective national memory, the lawyer Michal Shaked describes Vrba as a “rare Jewish hero” and argues that in spite of his harsh verdict, it was Judge Halevi, not Judge Agranat, who as an Israeli believed Diaspora Jews were capable of organizing resistance. Shaked refers the readers to Vrba’s memoirs in Hebrew, which she believes are essential for understanding Halevi’s faith in the Diaspora Jews. As an Israeli, she views reading Vrba’s account as a must. Not a historian by profession, Shaked is an Israeli lawyer who is primarily concerned about missing testimonies of the uninformed. [123]

 

The Conversion of the Uninformed

Colonel Uri Dromi is one of those many Israelis who had never heard of the escape from Auschwitz. He was born in 1946 in Israel. He served in the Israeli Air Force in 1964-89 as a navigator. He took part in the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon War and has flown many operational missions. He was Chief Education Officer of the Israeli Air Force, director of the Government Press Office, and chief spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments. He had never heard this story until he met me one sunny day in late 2004.

Dromi had earned a degree in history from Ben-Gurion University and at the time of our meeting had begun doctoral studies in the field at the Hebrew University. “This is quite a story,” he immediately told me at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv, promising to write an article about it for the Ha’aretz newspaper. “There is no story here,” he would later tell me in a phone call to Canada after interviewing the Israeli historians.

I knew then that he had been converted.

When reading Dromi’s article [124] one can easily observe the strategies used denigrate and diminish Vrba and his importance:

Not revealing to the readers that he himself had never been informed about the escape from Auschwitz.

Stating to the readers that Vrba’s book does not deserve publication in Hebrew.

Telling the readers that Wetzler’s book is a better book.

Emphasizing what is really important in the tale: that the escape was Wetzler’s idea.

Advising the readers to dismiss the new ideas about Vrba, as Linn is a lousy researcher.

Explaining in simple words why the story of the escape is not important to Holocaust studies.

Emphasizing the non-biased position of the Slovak historians in the case of the escape, which Linn and Vrba do not understand.

In terms of subterfuge, in an otherwise brilliantly written piece, Dromi unintentionally presented the Israeli audience with a group of historians who stand united against anyone who studies Vrba and the escape.

Dromi is led into another trap by historians who did not read my book when they state that I overlooked Wetzler’s book, even though I thoroughly discussed it in chapter 6. [125] Dromi brings up the sympathetic voice of Fatran, who stated that Wetzler wrote a marvelous book about this escape, which, since it was published behind the Iron Curtain, did not receive the same publicity as Vrba’s book. Wetzler died in Slovakia a few years ago, depressed and bitter over how his part in World War II had been forgotten. [126]

Given Vrba’s accusation of collaboration hurled at the Slovak Working Group, Fatran further “cannot understand how Vrba’s account can be granted such unqualified acceptance, without comparing it to Wetzler’s version and to new documents now coming to light in the Slovakian archives.” [127] Dromi eloquently expresses the general atmosphere that dominated Israeli Holocaust historians, as echoed in the words of Gutman that “Vrba is not the only one we didn’t discuss. In a textbook, you summarize and put in only the most fundamental things.”

Dalia Ofer went on to say, “If I had to think of the ten things that should be in a Holocaust textbook, this escape would not necessarily be one of them. Primo Levi, a discussion of the Auschwitz camp itself—these would go in before that.” [128]

I found it important to respond and refute the accusations directed against me and Rudi Vrba by Dromi and several historians, including Hanna Yablonka. [129]

The most distinguished historian Dromi interviewed for his article was Professor Yehuda Bauer, the mentor of so many Israeli Slovak and non-Slovak historians. Before meeting Dromi, Bauer wrote a highly critical review of my book in JewishJournal.com. He warned the readers of my book—noting, among other things, that Professor Linn of Haifa University is an expert on education, not history—that what she claims in her book to be facts are partly errors, partly exaggerations, partly the result of interviewing Rudolf Vrba. [130]

After these opening words, Bauer tells the true and wonderful story of Vrba that we have long wanted to hear in schools, textbooks and Holocaust ceremonies for the last 60 years:

Vrba is the co-author of the famous Auschwitz protocols, undoubtedly a genuine Jewish hero of the Holocaust … [the protocols] were a factor in preventing deportations from Budapest after 437,402 Jews had been sent to Auschwitz from the provinces.

Bauer concludes his review with the old fear of the Slovak historians: “Linn’s effort will make headlines, no doubt, but in the end is a-historical.” [131]

Why is it, Vrba asked after reading the review, that any thesis that negates Bauer’s thesis is a-priori a-historical?

 

Between the “Real” and the “Historical” Story

In 2004, the prestigious Israeli journal Theory and Criticism published my article, “The Escape From Auschwitz: Why Weren’t We Told About it in School?” and invited Professor Bauer to respond to the question posed in the title. [132]

Bauer provides no answer to the question. Instead, he basically repeated Dromi’s arguments by writing that she was not dealing with primary sources, that her quotes were selective, that her accusations were groundless and that she admired Vrba with a blind, uncritical admiration. [133]

He added several critical comments of his own stating, among other things, that “Linn’s argument that the tale of the escape is not being taught in schools is not true” … “totally ignores the book of the second escapee, Alfred Wetzler” … and “Linn accepted Vrba’s opinion without any criticism.” [134]  Nevertheless, he felt compelled to admit that “like Linn, I think that this topic of the escape from Auschwitz ought to be taught in the schools!” [135] But this acknowledgment seems not to last long. In a book published in 2009, Professor Bauer chooses to further inform the readers that “Linn’s research is not more than garbage of gossip [… ] of Don Quixote.” [136]

Professor Bauer also distorts the role I had played in persuading my colleagues at the University of Haifa to grant Vrba an honorary doctorate in recognition of his escape and the important role he had played in informing the world about the realities of Auschwitz. In claiming credit he stated:

Without knowing it, I tried to convince the Hebrew University to award him this degree, because I thought, quite like Linn, that he is eligible to receive this award, perhaps more than others. The committee for the honorary doctorate at the Hebrew University rejected my request… As a result I approached the University of Haifa. [137]

Bauer repeated this thesis, stating that the idea of the honorary doctorate was a joint effort of “Ruth Linn, Professor of Education from the University of Haifa, and me.” [138]

Professor Bauer also presents a confused view of the dispute over the dissemination of the Auschwitz Reports. This dispute falls within his well-known thesis regarding the inability of Diaspora Jewry during the war to translate information about the horror into knowledge:

The information was there all the time…. The point is that this information was rebuffed and people did not want to know, because knowledge would have caused pain and suffering, and there was seemingly no way out. In the Judenrat building itself, an office was established for contact with the provincial communities, later ghettos. [139]

But he then employs an interesting linguistic strategy. Whenever he is called upon to give an answer regarding the report’s dissemination, Bauer links it to the activity of the Zionist youth movements operating at the same time as Kasztner in Budapest. He continues:

From this office, members of Zionist youth movements were sent out to warn the provincial Jews of impending destruction. Not only did their warnings go unheard, but in many instances they were thrown out of the communities by local leaderships for spreading panic. [140]

He further states:

The protocols reached the Judenrat at the beginning of June 9 (probably around June 10), during the deportations, when it was too late. Nevertheless, a group of activists of the Zionist youth tried to warn the provincial towns not to believe the Germans and not to board the trains. [141]

When responding to Vrba’s questioning, Bauer calls the reader’s attention to the fact that we are dealing here with a “bitter survivor” who simply had overvalued the importance of his report. Vrba should know that Zionist representatives in the Hungarian Judenrat sent 13 youngsters to the provinces to warn the communities there about the deportations. Of course, this happened before the arrival of the report, but this fact is not emphasized. Instead, Bauer chooses to ridicule Vrba and send him to the archive to read the testimonies of the survivors of this group of 13 brave Zionist youth, even encouraging him to do so by telling him that “access to these testimonies is free.” [142]

As demonstrated above, Professor Bauer is a strong advocate of the thesis that the Jews were unable to translate information into knowledge. But paradoxically, Bauer has great faith in specific information. After all, had he not believed in the power of specific information, he would not have seen it as a failure of leadership on the part of Weissmandel and Fleischman to inform the people of their communities. He knows quite well that it is still painful for historians to put forward Weissmandel’s failure to inform the people of Nitra, the home town of his father-in-law for whom he had translated the report into Yiddish.

Whereas most historians praise Weissmandel for his plea for help in his heartbreaking letters to the West, no one has indicated, let alone explained, why he excluded this information from his own people.

Fleischman also failed to inform the people of her community in September 1944, and among all the Slovak historians it is only Bauer who bravely reports this. In fact, in this report he seems to agree with Vrba that even beloved and brave Jewish Zionist leaders who wished to rescue Jews were transformed into moral hostages under the Nazis’ satanic reign of terror.

Because the Working Group, under Fleischmann’s leadership, believed that their tactics had worked during the previous regime, they tried to apply the same tactics to the new circumstances. They went to the Nazis and offered them goods in return for a cessation of the deportations of Jews, despite warnings even from some friendly SS contacts not to offer negotiations with SS officer Alois Brunner. When they were told to ask the Jews of Bratislava to report for deportation to Sered, they obeyed. When their community list was taken by the [local Slovak] police, they complained to the SS but did not spread the word to the community to hide in the month of September [1944], the last period of the Working Group activity.

This casts a dark shadow over all of them, and on Gizi as their leader. They could have no illusions by then, but they acted just like many of the Jewish Councils in Poland. They could have warned the Jews, but they did not; they could have refused the demands of the Nazis—even though this would have made no difference—but they did not.

But then, we were not in their place, and we do not know how we would have acted. [143]

Unlike the writings on Fleischman, the writings on Kasztner are not focused on the failure to inform the people but on the inability of the informed to translate information into knowledge. Professor Bauer knows quite well that Kasztner had no intention of disseminating the Vrba-Wetzler report, since he feared it would interfere with the rescue mission, to say nothing of the fact that by the time the report arrived he could no longer act without the permission of the SS. From the testimony of George Klein, we know that the report was kept in his drawer. Moreover, sending youth activists with the report in their hands or its content in their minds stood against Kasztner’s known philosophy and strategy.

In an interview I conducted in March 2010 with David Gur, a survivor active in the Hungarian Zionist youth movements, I learned that not one of them had received any instructions for action from Kasztner regarding the report and that they were quite independent in their activities. At most, he could help them with some money. I received a similar response from Dr. Avihu Ronen who studied the activities of the Zionists. [144]

Bauer refers to the writings of Asher Cohen as the source for his thesis regarding the youth activists. Cohen found that the activists in Hungary indeed received the report’s information but decided not to disseminate it further. [145] The failure to disseminate the reports is also noted by Gila Fatran. She states that during the German invasion of Hungary provincial towns had no knowledge of the Vrba-Wetzler Report, [146] even though the youth activists took it upon themselves to warn the communities. [147]

Gutman and Guterman also subscribe to this thesis emphasizing the artificial and unsubstantiated connection between “Auschwitz escapees” and the “report by youth group activists” in a vaguely worded sentence. It is also not clear why they omit the names of the escapees, whereas many other historical figures are named. [148] In this connection, Professor Bauer states:

It is very difficult to argue that Kasztner or the Judenrat could have warned the Jews in the provincial towns within the two weeks between the initial message about Auschwitz and the onset of the deportations. [149] When non-Israeli historians such as John S. Conway or Sir Martin Gilbert suggest that information about Auschwitz could have helped the Jews survive the Nazi atrocities, they are immediately dismissed for accepting Vrba’s testimony at face value or for being misled by him. [150]

A different yardstick is used in connection with the Israeli Slovak historians, who are described by Professor Hanna Yablonka as people of science who have dedicated their lives to the study of the history of the Jews of Slovakia. They are all Holocaust survivors who are able to read documents and records in Slovak, and would not have lent a hand to concealing information on whose basis their loved ones were murdered. [151]

 

The Israeli Slovak Historians and the Question of Objectivity

From the perspective of the Slovak historians, Vrba’s critical position regarding the Jewish leadership along with his decision not to pursue a career in Israel but rather to live elsewhere contribute to their regarding him as an “other” compared to the “self” of the Israeli Czechoslovak community.

Not only is he a bitter Auschwitz survivor, as Bauer defines him, but also “a very bitter man who does not see the global picture but a survivor who only knows his angle,” as a Yad Vashem scholar explained to me in an e-mail message. The message followed with some professional advice:

Whatever Mr. Vrba wishes to write on pharmacology, he can submit to a journal in his field; it will be assessed by his peers and published, if it deserves to be published. In his writings on the Holocaust, Vrba is not acting as a cold, detached, analytical scholar but as a victim who testifies to an event and gives, therefore, just a partial and one-sided view of what happened. [152]

But not only Vrba is “guilty” of this one-sidedness. It is also a feature of the former Zionist kibbutz, founded by the Slovak immigrants upon their arrival and no longer part of their lives today yet still uniting them in their attempt to exclude Vrba. In fact, he was tailored to their image of the hero. In the 1950s when they were socialistic agricultural workers on the kibbutz and did not value higher education, Vrba came to Israel with a Ph.D. He had risked his life when defecting from totalitarian Slovakia in order to find a new home in the Jewish homeland.

Unfortunately, the members of the kibbutz were notorious in those days, though no longer, for ostracizing those with academic degrees and city people. They further reserved their greatest hatred for those who left Israel, labeling them yordim, literally “those who descended”—a derogative term for someone who emigrated from Israel, in contrast to oleh, “one who ascends” and whose voice is a priori morally credible. [153]

In his 2009 book about his own kibbutz—Lehavot Haviva—where he and other lone survivors started their lives in Israel, Amir, the editor of the 2001 book against Vrba’s honorary doctorate, writes quite genuinely about how his kibbutz members had been fanatically indoctrinated to exclude all those, no matter how they had suffered in the war, who dared to deviate from the collective way of thinking:

We saw the kibbutz as the frontier, and those who left, we labeled—or maybe categorized them—as deserters from the frontier. Over the years, we were accustomed to think that someone who left the kibbutz but nevertheless stayed in Israel was not a deserter. [154]

It was only in 1999, at the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva, and a year after Vrba’s arrival in Israel and the publication of his book, that a major reconciliation took place.

While we know that Vrba managed to cross the gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau, it is doubtful, metaphorically, that the ex-kibbutz Slovak historians will ever let him enter the kibbutz gates, let alone to walk into their main dining room. [155]

At the request of the University of Haifa Professor Bauer wrote a highly positive letter recommending that Vrba be awarded an honorary doctorate. In the letter, Bauer could not help but add that “Vrba did not manage to settle down in Israel.” At his 2005 lecture to Israelis of Hungarian descent he told the audience that Vrba came to Israel right after the war, after completing his studies in Czechoslovakia. He is a chemist. He came to Israel and was accepted to work at the Weizmann Institute, a highly respected institution. Bauer went on to say that Vrba was probably not well received by the director and other people at Weizmann:

Everybody who knows Vrba knows he is a very honest and intelligent person, though not easy to get along with. He began hating Israel and everything related to Israel. [156]

After residing for a short time in Israel, the five escapees chose to live elsewhere (Vrba in England and later in Canada; Wetzler in Slovakia; Mordowicz in Canada; Rosin in Germany and Lederer in Czechoslovakia). If being at home means being acknowledged, Israel was not their home.

The last time I saw Vrba was in his Vancouver apartment in 2006. As usual, I rang his apartment’s buzzer. I was familiar with the absence of his name from the building entrance. Vrba had been chasing Nazis all his life. And their skillful lawyers had been chasing him. As usual, he was sitting on the sofa awaiting my arrival, and, as usual, he welcomed me with his winning smile and intelligent look. But this time, I could sense a slightly different look, as if he was forced to reveal a top secret. “Ruthi,” he said, “the Gestapo has finally gotten to me.”

He could not escape the diagnosis of cancer, which he had managed to hide from me throughout our eight years of intense communication. But he was still eager to learn what the Israelis know about the escape following the publication of my book. I told him that the escape from Auschwitz and the report had become an open topic of discussion in Israeli text books and conferences. I promised him that I would continue his efforts to remain an independent thinker as he had succeeded in doing under fascism, communism, and even in academia.

We discussed the new invented narrative that he had escaped in order to save his life. Rudi smiled. In a low voice he asked me to come toward him, and he whispered in my ear. “If you happen to meet those historians again, please tell them I did not feel so good in Auschwitz-Birkenau and therefore decided to escape.” [157]

 

* First published in The Auschwitz Reports and the Holocaust in Hungary (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) edited by Randolph L. Braham and William J. vanden Heuvel (eds.), pp.153-210

Footnotes

[1] John S. Conway, “The First Report about Auschwitz.” Simon Wiesenthal Center Annual, Los Angeles, (1984)1: 133–151.

[2] Rudolf Vrba, “The Preparations for the Holocaust in Hungary: An Eyewitness Account.” In: The Holocaust in Hungary: Fifty Years Later. Randolph L. Braham and Attila Pók, eds. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 240–41.

[3] Rudolf Vrba, and Alan Bestic. I Cannot Forgive (New York: Grove Press, 1964), p. 252. (Cited hereafter as Vrba and Bestic, I Cannot.)

[4] Ibid., p. 217.

[5] Ibid., p. 256.

[6] Erich Kulka, “Five Escapes from Auschwitz.” In: They Fought Back. Y. Suhl, ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), pp. 212–37. (Cited hereafter as Kulka, Five Escapes.)

[7] Randolph L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981)., pp. 721–22. (Cited hereafter as Braham, Politics.)

[8] Israel Gutman and Robert Rozett, eds. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. (New York: Macmillan, 1990), p. 145. (Cited hereafter as Gutman and Rozett.)

[9] Braham, Politics, p. 709.

[10] Kulka, Five Escapes, p. 314.

[11] Rudolf Vrba. “The Preparations for the Holocaust in Hungary: An Eyewitness Account.” In: The Nazis’ Last Victims: The Holocaust in Hungary. Randolph L. Braham and Scott Miller, eds. (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1998), pp. 72–73. (Cited hereafter as Vrba, The Preparations.)

[12] Moshe Pearlman, The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), p. 357. (Cited hereafter as Pearlman, Capture and Trial).

[13] For the text of the Auschwitz Reports, see Rudolf Vrba, I Escaped from Auschwitz. (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2002), pp. 327–63. (Cited hereafter as Vrba, I Escaped.)

[14] Vrba, The Preparations, p. 80.

[15] Oskar Neumann, Im Schatten des Todes; ein Tatsachenbericht vom Schicksalskampf des slovekischen Judentums. (Tel-Aviv: Edition Olamenu, 1956), p. 166. (Cited hereafter as Neumann.)

[16] Ibid., pp. 166, 178–81.

[17] John S. Conway, “The Significance of the Vrba-Wetzler Report on Auschwitz-Birkenau.” In: Vrba, I Escaped, pp. 289–324.

[18] Czeslaw Mordowicz, I Have Come Out Alive Twice from Auschwitz.” Yalkut Moreshet, Tel Aviv, (October 1968): 7–20.

[19] Yehuda Bauer, “Hearot leduach Auschwitz shel Rudolph Vrba” (Comments of Rudolph Vrba’s Auschwitz Report). In: Manhigut ba’et Metsuka: Kvutsat Ha’avoda beSlovakia 1942-1944 (Leadership in Time of Distress: The Working Group in Slovakia, 1942–1944). Giora Amir, ed. (Kibbutz Dalia: Ma’arechet, 2001), p. 141. (Cited hereafter as Amir, Leadership.)

[20] Quoted in W. Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate. (Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson Nicholls, 1993), p. 353. (Cited hereafter as Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism.)

[21] See, for example, Thomas L. Sakmyster, Hungary’s Admiral on Horseback: Miklos Horthy 1918-1944. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[22] Braham, Politics, pp. 1143–47.

[23] Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum, eds. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted It? (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), p. x. (Cited hereafter as Neufeld and Berenbaum.)

[24] Amir, Leadership, p. 23.

[25] Gila Fatran, The “Working Group.” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Oxford, 8 (1994) 2: 183. (Cited hereafter as Fatran, Working Group.)

[26] Yehuda Bauer, Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 154. (Cited hereafter as Bauer, Jews.)

[27] Quoted in Jacob Robinson’s And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight: The Eichmann Trial, the Jewish Catastrophe, and Hannah Arendt’s Narrative. (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1965), pp. 176–77. (Cited hereafter as Robinson, Crooked.)

[28] Fülöp Freudiger, “Five Months.” In: The Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry: Essays, Documents, Depositions. Randolph L. Braham, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 237–94.

[29] Ibid., pp. 262–63.

[30] Ibid., p. 257.

[31] Braham, Politics, p. 792.

[32] Pearlman, Capture and Trial, p. 357.

[33] Bauer, Jews, pp. 156–57.

[34] Vrba, The Preparations, p. 82.

[35] Yechiam Weitz, The Man Who Was Murdered Twice. (Tel Aviv: Keter Publishing, 1995), p. 192.

[36] Ibid, p. 192.

[37] Ben Hecht, Perfidy. (New York: Messner, 1961), pp. 105-7.

[38] Robinson, Crooked, p. 180; Gutman and Rozett, p. 303; Braham, Politics, pp. 972–973.

[39] Randolph L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary. Abridged Edition. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000), p. 92. (Cited hereafter as Braham, Politics-Abridged.)

[40] Braham, Politics, p. 629.

[41] Fatran, Working Group, p. 201.

[42] George Klein, Pieta). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), p. 494.

[43] Ibid., p. 129.

[44] Life magazine, December 28, 1960.

[45] “Kasztner, Rezső Yisrael.” In: The Holocaust Lexicon. Itamar Levin, ed. (Tel Aviv: Yediot Achronot and Hemed Books, 2005), pp. 253–54.

[46] Ibid, p. 306.

[47] Tamir, Shmuel. Son of this Land. (Tel Aviv: Zmora-Bitan, 2002), pp. 1107–1113.

[48] Shaked, M. Historia b’beit hamishpat ve-beit hamishpat bahistoria: piskei din bemish-pat Kasztner vehanarativim shel hazikaron (History in the Court and the Court in History: Verdicts in Kasztner’s Trial and the Narratives of Memory). Alpayim, 20 (2001): 36–80. See also Shoshana Ishoni-Beri, The Kasztner affair: Testifying on Behalf of War Criminals – an Attempt to Provide a Different Explanation. Yalkut Moreshet, Tel Aviv, (1995) 59: 85-107.

[49] M. A. Cabera, Linguistic Approach or Return to Subjectivism? In Search of an Alternative to Social History.” Social History, (1999)24: 74–89.

[50] Bauer, Jews, p. 250.

[51] Gutman and Rozett, p. 799.

[52] Pearlman, Capture and Trial, p. 358.

[53] Leni Yahil, The Holocaust—The Fate of European Jewry 1932-1945. (Tel Aviv: Schoken Publishing House and Yad Vashem, 1987), p. 829. See also Braham, Politics, pp. 708-16.

[54] Braham, Politics, Abridged Edition, p. 276, note 53.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Bauer, Jews, p. 157.

[57] Fatran, Gila. Letters to the Editor: Response, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 9(1995)2: 272. (Cited hereinafter as Fatran, Letters.)

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., pp. 274–75.

[60] Ibid., p. 275.

[61] Fatran, Working Group, p. 192.

[62] Ibid., p. 187; Fatran, Letters, p. 276.

[63] Fatran, Working Group, p. 186.

[64] Ibid., p. 188.

[65] Letter to Yehoshua Ben-Ami from Yaacov Lozowick, Director of Yad Vashem Archive, dated June 16, 1997.

[66] Letter to Ben-Ami from Yehuda Bauer dated June 15, 1997. (Cited hereafter as Bauer, June 15, 1997.)

[67] Yediot Aharonot, June 2, 1998.

[68] Letter to the Editor, Ha’aretz, June 9, 1998.

[69] Ha’aretz, June 9, 1998; Ha’aretz, June 21, 1998.

[70] Bauer, JewishJournal.com.

[71] Shlomo Aronson, “The ‘Quadruple Trap’ and the Holocaust in Hungary.” In: Genocide and Rescue: The Holocaust in Hungary 1944. David Cesarani, ed. (New York: Berg,

1997), pp. 93–121.

[72] Michael Walzer, The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century. (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 148.

[73] Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), p. 134.

[74] Gideon Hausner, The Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, (Jerusalem: Hidekel Publishing House, 2011), p. 195. (Cited hereinafter as Hausner, Eichmann Trial.). See also Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust: from Auschwitz to Schindler: How History is Bought, Packaged, and Sold. (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 121-45.

[75] Hannah Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem appeared in The Observer, September 8, 1963.

[76] The Observer, September 15, 1963.

[77] Rudolf Vrba. Letter to the Editor, The Observer, September 22, 1963.

[78] Hanna Yablonka, Medina Yisrael neged Adolf Eichmann (State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann). (Tel Aviv: Yedioth Aharonoth and Yad Ben Zvi, 2001), p. 379.

[79] Hausner, Eichmann Trial, p. 204.

[80] For text see, Vrba, I Escaped, pp. 365–69.

[81] Amir, Leadership.

[82] Ibid, pp. 11-12.

[83] Israel Gutman and Chaim Schatzker, The Holocaust and its Significance. (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center: Historical Society of Israel, 1984).

[84] Neumann, pp. 166, 178–81.

[85] Oskar Krasnansky, A Declaration under Oath. (Cologne: Israel Consulate, 1961); Rothkirchen, Livia. Hurban yahadut Slovakia (The Destruction of Slovakian Jewry). (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1961, 1974), p. 427.

[86] Dina Porat, “The Greek Jews – an example for the relation between awareness to rescuing during the Holocaust 1939-1945.” Dapim: Studies on the Shoa, 8 (1990): 123–134.

[87] Yehuda Bauer, The Holocaust in Historical Perspective. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), p. 138. (Cited hereafter as Bauer, Historical Perspective.)

[88] Kohn, Y. and Asher Cohen. “Auschwitz Protocols and the Expulsion of the Hungarian Jews.” In: Dapim: Studies on the Shoa, 8(1990): 205. (Cited hereafter as Kohn and Cohen, Auschwitz Protocols.)

[89] Gutman and Rozett, p. 1369.

[90] Yehuda Bauer, HaShoah—Hebetim Histori’im (The Holocaust—Some Historical Aspects). (Tel Aviv: Sifriyat HaPoalim, 1987), pp. 146, 175.

[91] Holocaust Encyclopedia. Walter Lacquer and Judith Taylor Baumel, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2001, p. xxxiv.

[92] Livia Rothkirchen, “Czech and Slovak Wartime Jewish Leadership: Variants in Strategy and Tactics.” In: The Holocaust and History: The Known, The Unknown, The Disputed and The Reexamined, Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck, eds. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), pp. 636, 640, 830, 833, 835. (Cited hereafter as Rothkirchen, Jewish Leadership.)

[93] Arthur Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. (Richmond: Historical Review Press, 1975), pp. 95, 146.

[94] Robert Faurisson, How the British Obtained the Confessions of Rudolf Hoss. Journal of Historical Review, 7(1986)4: 400-1.

[95] Fatran, Working Group, p. 200.

[96] Miroslav Karny. “Doch Vrba-Wetzler.” (The Vrba–Wetzler Report.) In: Anatomia shel machine mavet. Israel Gutman and Michael Bernbaum, eds. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2003), p. 597.

[97] Rothkirchen, Jewish Leadership, p. 637.

[98] Ibid., p. 633.

[99] Ibid., p. 629.

[100] Fatran, “Working Group,” p. 92.

[101] Yehuda Bauer, “Gizi Fleischmann.” In: Women in the Holocaust. Dalia Ofer and L. J. Weitzman, eds. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 262. (Cited hereafter as Bauer, Gizi.)

[102] Braham, Politics, p. 993.

[103] Judith Taylor Baumel, “The ‘Parachutist’s Mission’ from a Gender Perspective.” In: Resisting the Holocaust. R. Rohrlich, ed. (New York: Berg, 1998), p. xxxiv.

[104] Vrba and Bestic, I Cannot, p. 252.

[105] Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The Holocaust and the Historians. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 134.

[106] Gutman and Rozett, pp. 107–22.

[107] Bauer, Jews, p. 73.

[108] Rothkirchen, Jewish Leadership, p. 644.

[109] Gila Fatran, Struggle for Surviving? The Leadership of Slovakian Jews in the Holocaust 1938-1944 (Tel Aviv: Moreshet, 1992), p. 238. (Cited hereafter as Fatran, Struggle.)

[110] Kohn and Cohen, Auschwitz Protocols, p. 205.

[111] Asher Cohen, “The Holocaust Hungarian Jews in Light of the Research of Randolph Braham.” In: Yad Vashem Studies, vol. xxv: (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1996), p. 381. (Cited hereafter as Cohen, Hungarian Jews.)

[112] Asher Cohen, “Resistance and Rescue in Hungary.” In: Genocide and Rescue: The Holocaust in Hungary 1944. David Cesarani, ed. (New York: Berg, 1997), p. 131.

[113] Dina Porat, “19 March to 19 July 1944—What Did the Yishuv Know?” In: Genocide and Rescue: The Holocaust in Hungary 1944, David Cesarani, ed. (New York: Berg, 1997), p. 189.

[114] Nicholls, Christian Antisemitism, p. 353.

[115] Fatran, Struggle, pp. 235, 237.

[116] Yehuda Bauer, Anmerkungen zum ‘Auschwitz-Bericht’ von Rudolf Vrba, Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Munich, (1997)45: 307.

[117] Erich Kulka, “The Escape of Jewish Prisoners and Their Attempts to Stop the Annihilation.” In: The Nazi Concentration Camps: Lectures and Discussions. Israel Gutman and A. Saf, eds. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1984), pp. 313-26.

[118] Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics.” In: Philosophy, Politics and Society. P. Laslett and W. G. Runciman, eds. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967), p. 109.

[119] Professor Bauer’s letter of recommendation addressed to Haifa University is dated April 1, 1998.

[120] Dan Diner, Cumulative Contingency: Historicizing Legitimacy on Israeli Discourse. History and Memory, 7(1995)1: 149.

[121] Ibid., p. 164; A. Falk, A Psychoanalytic History of the Jews. (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996), pp. 721-22).

[122] Yael Zur, “Carnival Fears: Moroccans Immigrants and the Ethnic Problem in the Young State of Israel.” Journal of Israeli History, 18(1997)1: 73–103.

[123] M. Shaked, Historia bebeit hamishpat vebeit hamishpat bahistoris: piskei din bemish-pat Kasztner vehanarativim shel hazikaron (History in the Court and the Court in History: Verdicts in Kasztner’s Trial and the Narratives of Memory). Alpayim, 20(2001):36–80.

[124] Dromi, Uri. Liars and Other Eyewitnesses. Ha’aretz, January 25, 2005.

[125] Linn, Ruth. Escaping Auschwitz – A Culture of Forgetting. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

[126] Dromi, Liars.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Ibid.

[129] Ruth Linn, Letter to the editor, Ha’aretz, February 2, 2005.

[130] Bauer, Letter to JewishJournal.com, October 29, 2004.

[131] Ibid.

[132] Linn, Ruth. Habricha meuschwitz – madua lo sipru lani al kach bebeit hasefer? (The Escape From Auschwitz: Why Weren’t We Told About It in School?). Theory and Criticism, 24(2004): 163–84.

[133] Dromi, Liars.

[134] All quotes are from: Bauer’s Tguva al maamara shel rut linn (Response to Ruth Linn’s Article). Theory and criticism, 24(2004): 185–89. (Cited hereafter as Bauer, Response.)

[135] Ibid., p. 185.

[136] Bauer, Hirhurim al hashoa (Rethinking the Holocaust). (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2009), p. 242. (Cited hereafter as Bauer, Rethinking.)

[137] Bauer, Response, p. 185.

[138] Yehuda Bauer, Haprotokolim shel Auschwitz (The Auschwitz Protocols). Yalkut Moreshet, Tel Aviv, November 2005 p. 160. (Cited hereafter as Bauer, Protocols.)

[139] Bauer, Historical Perspective, p. 106

[140] Ibid.

[141] Bauer, Response, p. 187.

[142] Bauer, in Amir, Leadership, 137-54.

[143] Bauer, “Gizi,” pp. 253-64.

[144] Avihu Ronen, Hakrav al hahayim – hashomer hatsair behungaria 1944 (The Battle for Life: Hashomer Hatzair in Hungary 1994). (Givat Haviva: Ya’ad Yaari, 1994), p. 100.

[145] Cohen, Hungarian Jews, pp. 360–82.

[146] Fatran, Letters, p. 164.

[147] See Amir, Leadership, p. 164.

[148] Israel Gutman and B. Guterman, eds. Album Auschwitz: Sipuro shel transport (The Auschwitz Album: The Story of a Transport). (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2003), p. 40.

[149] Bauer in Amir, Leadership, pp. 137-45.

[150] Fatran, Working Group; Fatran, Letters.

[151] Dromi, Uri. Article in Ha’aretz, January 28, 2005.

[152] Bauer in Amir, Leadership, p. 230; Bauer, Yehuda, e-mail message to the author, June 14, 2000.

[153] Gila Fatran, “The Working Group.” In Kibbutz Oleh min Hashoah-Sipur Meyasdei Lehavot Haviva (Kibbutz Rises from the Holocaust: The Story of the Founders of Lehavot Haviva). G. Amir, ed. (Kibbutz Dalia: Ma’arechet, 2009), pp. 30-78, note 89.

[154] Ibid.

[155] Ibid.

[156] Bauer, Protocols, p. 160. Bauer is mistaken about Vrba having been association with the Weizmann Institute.

[157] He made this sardonic comment with reference to some Israeli historians’ claim that he had escaped to save himself.

The world’s foremost defender of Rudolf Vrba, academic Ruth Linn, at Rudolf Vrba’s burial site with Rabbi Yosef Wosk, 2021.

Speakers of Hebrew may wish to listen to- this interview from 2005.

Next: VRBA AND HUNGARY