This site with over 1,000,000 words, plus video interviews, can be a tad daunting even though we have opted for an easy-to-read style and lots of images. What is missing, needed and now provided below, is a concise and perceptive summary of what Rudolf Vrba accomplished and why he ought to be considered a major twentieth century figure. The Ontario journalist Paul McKay provided the Canadian public with this SUMMARY for the Ottawa Citizen less than a year before Vrba died. For anyone in the general public, and especially for teachers, this generously donated piece by McKay is likely preferable to the intricate Wikipedia** entry for galvanizing interest. We are grateful to Paul McKay for granting permission to share this article that is effective for introducing students to Rudolf Vrba.

 

“A brave teenager, now a Canadian…”

by Paul McKay

A brave teenager, who became a Canadian, made a daring escape from Auschwitz and first warned the world of its horrific secret. His report saved countless lives.

Rudolf Vrba was once imprisoned in halls of hell beyond imagination – the Nazi clockwork slaughterhouse, Auschwitz. After 21 harrowing months there, the teenager and a fellow Slovak Jew escaped to alert Europe about the diabolical death factory in Poland.

No one believed its first escapees until their chillingly exact account – based on details they memorized as slave labourers on the infamous arrival ramps, and keepers of crematoria and gas chamber statistics – was matched to previous train shipments of Jews deported from all across Europe.

Historical scholars generally agree that their 60-page report, including diagrams of the death camp layout and defenses, halted Nazi death trains poised to send some 700,000 Hungarian Jews to oblivion three months later. They escaped in April, 1944 by hiding for three days in a pile of building planks soaked in petrol and Russian tobacco [in fact, they spread dried Russian tobacco previously soaked in petrol, mainly around the perimeter of their hideout. — A.T.] – the only scent known to thwart SS Alsatians. It took another three weeks to steal their way on foot through the Nazi-controlled mountains of southern Poland, freezing in the spring snow, starving and dressed in rags. At one point they barely escaped the sniper fire of an SS patrol. Crossing the border into Slovakia with the aid of Polisartisans, the pair found a safe house. Almost a year before World War Two ended, they dictated a report that would eventually reach Churchill, Roosevelt and Pope Pius X11, and become one of the most important annals of the Holocaust.

As they did, Nazi police and army patrols were scouring eastern Europe with telegraphed orders to execute the pair. Berlin knew that otherwise Auschwitz would soon be a synonym for sadism and mechanized genocide.

“The strength of the Final Solution was its secrecy, its impossibility,” Mr. Vrba recalls with soft-spoken modesty. “I escaped to break that belief that it was not possible. And to stop more killings.

“I knew there was a war on, that others were dying fighting the Nazi’s. I wanted to be among the privileged ones who could fight them, as a soldier, however I could. To make them pay, personally.”

Sixty years ago this week, Mr. Vrba celebrated the surrender of Nazi Germany while fighting, with decorations for valour, as a soldier with the Allied-affiliated Czechoslovak Partisan Army. He later earned a science degree in Prague, then emigrated to Canada and became a citizen here.

Now age 81 and an esteemed professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, there is nothing about the grandfather’s gentle visage or manner which hints at the evil he faced long ago. No visible or psychic scars appear to mar him. Revenge does not edge his voice.

Unglick's Belt

Unglick’s Belt. Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The strapping, broad-shouldered physique which helped him survive as a ‘Sonderkommando’ slave labourer at Auschwitz-Birkenau is still discernible. He has a hearty, wide smile and a singsong way of speaking. The only physical mementos of the hell he endured are the number 44070 still tattooed on his arm, and the belt of a beloved, brave fellow prisoner executed  then sadistically defiled before other inmates, after a failed attempted escape. [Vrba donated Unglick’s belt to the Imperial War Museum. — A.T.] Mr. Vrba’s ordeal began in early 1942, at age 17, after antisemitic edicts had already forced Slovak Jews out of schools and public places, then stripped them of their property and citizenship.

They were imposed by Slovakia’s fascist priest-president, Josef Tiso, who had earlier signed a pact with Hitler which split Czechoslovakia, and allowed the Luftwaffe to treacherously strike Poland from Slovak airfields in September, 1939. As an Axis ally, Slovakia became the only state to make a diabolical deal with Berlin: Tiso formally agreed to pay Germany 500 Reichsmarks for each of 60,000 Slovak Jews deported for “re-settlement” in Poland. A Nazi named Adolf Eichmann soon arrived to supervise the collection camps and train schedules. Mr. Vrba was among the first imprisoned passengers. Tiso would later be convicted and hanged as a war criminal. Several of his top advisors were also convicted as war criminals, but escaped to find safe haven, even prosperity and prestige, in Canada.

One was Joseph Kirschbaum, a Toronto insurance executive and protégé of the Slovak-born uranium magnate, Stephen Roman. Backed by documentary evidence and court records, Mr. Vrba vividly recalls Kirschbaum as a high-level Tiso advisor who drafted the Slovak code to confiscate Jewish property, and incited anti-Semitic pogroms in weekly movie newsreels and at public rallies. At one, Mr. Vrba recalls, Kirschbaum urged a mob to beat him.

“The Holocaust started with Slovakia deporting all the men (male Jews) between 16 and 45 for slave labour, and to prevent resistance. Tiso paid Germany to take away these ‘parasites’, then he and his collaborators transferred all their property and possessions into the right hands: honest Slovak, Catholic, Aryan people with no Jewish relations and no connections to Bolsheviks.

“After the men were gone, the (Jewish) women and children were a burden to the state. So they were put on trains, leaving behind most of the 20 kilos of luggage they couldn’t carry. That was another prize for friends of Tiso and fascist collaborators.” Evicted from high school and with his family home facing seizure, Mr. Vrba was caught in an escape attempt at the Slovak/Hungary border, badly beaten, then imprisoned in a Slovak labour camp. He briefly escaped, then was re- captured. Transferred to another, he shared a fleeting glance with his older brother Sammy through a barbed-wire fence, then never saw his doomed brother again.

In June, 1942, he was herded with broken, bewildered prisoners into a cattle car bound for Poland. His 1963 memoir, I Cannot Forget [This an error; the title was I Cannot Forgive — A.T.], relates the rest of his ordeal with precision, pathos and vignettes of startling humour and poignancy. His lucid, literate eye-witness journalism is all the more compelling because his portraits of how people faced such desperate depravity, or inflicted it, are faithfully complex, often chaotic, often riven with psychic conflict.

One scene, set in the filthy crowded cattle car which took him to Auschwitz, describes how its 80 Jewish passengers discovered a pair of newlyweds among them, threw an impromptu wedding party, then made a bridal suite from sheets so the couple could discreetly consummate their ardour in privacy. The Tomasovs disappeared days later.

In another, one of the elderly cattle car prisoners, Yankel Geisel, is clubbed to death at Auschwitz for the crime of having buttons missing from his threadbare zebra tunic. It occurred minutes before SS chief Himmler arrived for an inspection, to the orchestral strains of “The Triumphant March” theme from the opera Aida. Under a sweltering sun, Himmler passed within inches of Mr. Vrba, and their eyes made contact for an eternal instant.

“I knew exactly who he was,” recalls Mr. Vrba. “He arrived in a black Mercedes, surrounded by (Nazi) photographers who even crawled at our feet to get the best angle. It was like a garden party which could be spoiled because a guard didn’t know how to kill a prisoner with one blow.”

Later, he was working at the Auschwitz unloading ramp one midnight, and saw how arc lights briefly exposed to new arrivals, against all camp orders, a truck overloaded with piled, dead bodies as it heaved across railway tracks.

“The neatly packaged bodies began to shift. A hundred, two hundred scrawny arms and legs flopped over the side, waving wildly, limply in a terrible, mocking farewell; simultaneously from 3,000 men, women and children rose a thin, hopeless wail that swept from one end of the orderly queue to another, an almost inhuman cry of despair that neither threats, nor blows, nor bullets could silence.

“With one last, desperate lurch the lorry cleared the tracks, disappearing out of the arc lights into the darkness; then there was silence, absolute and all-embracing. For three seconds, four at most, those French people had glimpsed the true horror of Auschwitz; but now it was gone and they could not believe what their eyes had told them. Already their minds, untrained to mass murder, had rejected the existence of the lorry; and with that they marched quietly towards the gas chambers which claimed them half an hour later.”

Initially assigned to the unloading platforms where the infamous ‘Angel of Death’ presided, Mr. Vrba helped unload, cart and sort the forlorn treasures left by those sent to immediate death, or to barracks where others would be stripped, searched, and shorn of hair before becoming slave labourers. He made mental notes of the train arrival dates, the number of boxcars, and the country or region of origin.

By a stroke of ironic luck, Mr. Vrba obtained coveted work in the main Auschwitz warehouse, dubbed ‘Kanada’ because it held almost mythical riches: the stolen plunder from more than a million victims, and fancy foodstuffs from all over Europe destined for the plates of the 2,000 SS staff and commanders who ran the death camp. This allowed Mr. Vrba to steal food for himself and his closest friends, and win protection from Nazi-deputized fellow inmates, called kapos, who were conscripted to terrify, torment and smell out potential insurrection.

After a near fatal battle with the typhus epidemics which swept through the filthy barracks, and some brave deceptions by loyal friends, Mr. Vrba won a transfer to the camp mortuary office, where he helped count bodies and tally the crematoria and gas chamber death tolls [Vrba was never an official mortuary accountant. See his court testimony in the preceding page, Vrba & Nuremberg, in which he outlines his various tasks in Auschwitz — A.T.] There, his ability to speak Slovak, German, Polish, Hungarian, and even Russian was a prized asset.

Maniacally meticulous, the Auschwitz SS insisted that every inmate and tattoo number be documented on arrival, verified in roll calls twice daily, and checked once again as some 12,000 were driven daily into the engines of death. Mr. Vrba and his Slovak mortuary boss, Alfred Wetzler, were left to do the ceaseless counting [In fact, it was only Wetlzer who was officially tasked with keeping track of the corpses of those who were not murdered in the gas chambers – A.T.]. One list went in ledgers; a duplicate went in their heads.

The clerical work allowed Mr. Vrba to visit other sections of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and he soon became a clandestine courier between camp underground leaders. He was among only a handful of inmates who knew the full scale and scope of the Nazi extermination machine.

Mr. Vrba’s will was never broken, but his teen-age heart was. Another train-load of Czech Jewish families arrived, among which was a beautiful young woman named Alice Munk. Their romance grew despite the barbed-wire fence which separated off a special barracks for this group, which the Nazi’s used as a cunning deception. Under SS orders, postcards, letters and photos were mailed from them to relatives to verify the “resettlement” hoax, and request valuables by return mail. They were timed to arrive after the senders had been executed.

After several months, a way was devised to allow visits for some couples and underground leaders under darkness. Mr. Vrba and his first love had only a single, tragically tender night together. The next morning she and thousands of other women and children were trucked to the gas chambers. Hours later, Mr. Vrba learned that Alice Munk was among a trio who defied the SS to the death by singing forbidden Czech and Jewish anthems.

In the spring of 1944, Mr. Vrba gleaned that new buildings were being built at Auschwitz, and its gas chambers expanded, in order to speed up its murderous pace. The intended target was one million Hungarian Jews, which had so far been spared from Hitler’s lebensraum edicts. The SS staff laughed that ‘Hungarian salami’ would be arriving soon.

Despite the macabre, sadistic displays the SS had made of earlier inmates who had attempted escapes, Mr. Vrba and Mr. Wetzler vowed to each other they would either do so, or die trying. It was not a question of personal survival, but of preventing a pending slaughter.

They did escape and alert the world in May, 1944. Within days their horrific, eye-witness report reached Jewish leaders in Budapest. Another copy, obtained by a papal envoy who wept after a personal briefing by Mr. Vrba, prompted Pope Pius X11 to write a direct plea to Hungary’s leader, who had the death trains halted in July, 1944. But in the intervening eight weeks, the deportations to Auschwitz had accelerated after Eichmann learned of the Vrba-Wetzler report, and began wheeling and dealing to stall its disclosure.

In what became one of the bitterest chapters in Holocaust history, and a personal torment to Mr. Vrba, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported that spring and early summer, while Eichmann and his henchmen took bribes and arranged for an elite few (1,684) to be given safe passage to Switzerland. The Jewish leader who dealt with Eichmann, and deliberately delayed wide dissemination of the Vrba-Wetzler report in Hungary, was later the central figure in a searing libel trial in Israel. He was assassinated soon after.

Some historians and Holocaust analysts have also argued that the Allies were lamentably slow acting on the Vrba-Wetzler report. It reached the Red Cross in Geneva in May, 1944, then was relayed through diplomatic channels to London, Washington and the Vatican by mid-June. Its authenticity and accuracy were never at question. After being briefed on the report and requests for Auschwitz to be bombed, Winston Churchill short-circuited normal British cabinet approval and told his foreign minister: “Get anything out of the airforce you can, and invoke me if you must.”

After reading the Vrba-Wetzler report, Churchill wrote: “There is no doubt this is the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe. It is quite clear that all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death after their association with the murders has been proved.”

Yet pleas for Allied bombers to destroy the rail tracks leading to Auschwitz, or the camp itself, came to nothing. British bombers concentrated on other military targets; senior American military officials refused to consider it. So the death trains, principally from within Poland, continued. The main rail lines from Hungary led through Slovakia, which resumed deporting Slovak Jews with the consent of Tiso and his top officials. Mr. Vrba knew some were hurtling by as he served as a soldier in the anti-Nazi resistance there. In the fall of 1944, they clashed with SS and Slovak troops, after which the priest-president Tiso decorated Nazi soldiers and gave a special communion and mass for the Catholic members of the SS.

Russian troops reached the ruins of Auschwitz, which the Nazis had evacuated and tried to obliterate, in January, 1945. But it was months before the world learned the true scale of brutality documented in Mr. Vrba’s account. Then it learned of Dachau. Bergen-Belsen. Treblinka. Malthausen.

The tragedy of the last doomed Hungarian and Slovakian deportees, and his 1963 memoir explicitly decrying how it was aided by compliant, Nazi-approved Jewish councils, left Mr. Vrba as something of an outcast among Holocaust chroniclers.

His famous report fell into obscurity, and I Cannot Forget failed to become included in the general Holocaust canon. It was not translated into Hebrew until 1998, when he also received an honourary doctorate from Haifa University. Even though it prevented 200,000 Jewish deaths, Israeli schoolchildren still don’t know the heroic story of its co- author, or recognize his name.

The historical trail of how the Vrba-Wetzler report was circulated, then largely ignored, was re-evaluated in a scholarly 2004 text written by Israeli academic Ruth Linn, and earlier by UBC historian John Conway. Both lament that Mr. Vrba’s uncommon valour saved far fewer lives that it could have.

Mr. Vrba remains proud of his fiercely honest, unflinching account of the depravity he faced, and survived. The lesson, he says, is that overtly evil acts are often abetted by other invisible failures to act.

His memoir ends with a scriptural passage he learned as a youth: “IT IS EVIL TO ASSENT ACTIVELY OR PASSIVELY TO EVIL AS ITS INSTRUMENT, AS ITS OBSERVER, OR AS ITS VICTIM.”

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen, May 2005]

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** God created the earth in six days, then He rested. Lots of time later, Jimmy Wales and some highly enlightened associates created an almost equally marvellous universe for understanding what God hath wrought—Wikipedia—for the purposes of free, public education. The two main makers of this website, Alan Twigg and Sharon Jackson, are also old-school believers in free, public education. We love Wikipedia BUT the entry about Rudolf Vrba has been cobbled back and forth and sideways by would-be experts. Behind the scenes, they squabble over details, rendering the comprehensive but changeable entry to be a tad dry and even boring. Meanwhile, the British journalist Jonathan Freedland has succeeded in ripping off Vrba’s own 1963 narrative with a 2022 book that avoids mentioning Vrba on its cover, while emphasizing Vrba’s sensational role as an “escape artist.” Its well-publicized release has over-shadowed the re-release of Vrba’s original work, recently co-edited by Vrba’s wife Robin and Nikola Zimring. This latter work has been expanded to include Vrba’s own essential, 54-page essay, “The Preparation For The Holocaust In Hungary: An Eyewitness Account,” reprinted from Randolph L. Braham and Scott Miller’s The Nazis’ Last Victims: The Holocaust in Hungary (1998).

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