There is an axiom in storytelling that every good hero requires a formidable villain. Rudolf Vrba’s extraordinary story of perseverance, pluck, luck and ingenuity does not overtly conjure forth Adolf Hitler as his nemesis.
Instead, with a storyteller’s instinct, Vrba and his co-his writer Alan Bestic decided to start I Cannot Forgive (title changed to I Escaped From Auschwitz in 2002) with the second visit that was made to Auschwitz by its top-ranking overseer, Heinrich Himmler, in July of 1942, an event that occurred (according to Vrba’s reckoning) seventeen days after his own arrival in the camp. Himmler had first visited Auschwitz on March 1, 1941 and ordered the camp to be expanded from 10,000 to 30,000 prisoners. At that time , the goal was not genocide; he hoped to increase the viability of the I.G. Farben factory complex at Dwory, a mile away, by supplying a workforce of 10,000 slave labourers.
Because Vrba was still relatively fit, he was placed in the front row of his block of “well-trained zebras” who stood rigidly erect; and because his barracks were closest to the gates with its Arbeit Macht Frei sign, Vrba’s face would be one of the first that Himmler would see upon examining the camp with camp Commandant Rudolf Hoess.
The devil is in the details. Vrba describes how, before Himmler finally appeared, the Auschwitz orchestra, consisting of the finest musicians drawn from the capitals of Europe, with a conductor who had been in charge of the Warsaw Philharmonic orchestra, was playing a superb rendition of ‘Why Should We Not Be Merry, When God Gives Us Strength?’ from the Czech opera The Bartered Bride. On cue, the orchestra started playing “The Triumph March” from the opera Aida as Himmler appeared in his slow-moving, chauffeur-driven Mercedes.
Vrba recalls how Himmler gets out of the vehicle smiling, seemingly charmed by the music. Having anticipated the arrival of an all-powerful ogre, Vrba was disconcerted to see the somewhat portly Himmler parading himself with a grace and charm that made him think of echelons of English royalty at an English garden party. “Like English royalty, too, he seemed to have the knack of putting others at their ease quickly, effortlessly.” As a teenager growing up in smalltown Slovakia, Vrba likely had minimal knowledge of English garden parties. Likely the analogy is derived from the perspective of his Irish-born co-writer Alan Bestic.
The narration continues to describe how the assembled prisoners were awestruck by the Nazi leaders’ razor-edged trouser creases, the clicking of heels as arms speared the air with a Nazi salute, etc., until Vrba’s voice takes over for the climactic face-to-face encounter… “I studied his pale, flaccid face, his expression that was tolerant and condescending, slightly bored and slightly amused. His rimless glasses glinted in the sunshine. His uniform, unlike all the others, did not seem to fit very well and I thought: ‘This man is no monster. He’s more like a schoolteacher. An ordinary, run-of-the-mill schoolteacher!
“Years later I learned that in fact he had been a teacher of mathematics before he became architect of Hitler’s extermination camps. To him, indeed, death was no more than simple arithmetic, row upon row of figures in a neatly kept ledger.”
The photographic sycophants scurried before him, their Leicas and their cine-cinemas clicking and whirring. They postured and pranced backwards, shooting from their knees, from their stomachs, searching frantically for new, improbable angles on a little piece of history, darting to and fro like tugs before an ocean liner.
“He reached the end of the row, turned and came back again, eyeing the prisoners with polite interest. Again, he passed close to me, close enough for me to touch him, and for a moment our eyes met. They were cold, impersonal eyes that seemed to see little; and yet I found myself thinking: ‘If he finds out what’s going on, maybe he’ll improve things. Maybe the food will get better. Maybe there won’t be so many beatings. Maybe . . . maybe we’ll see some justice around here for a change…
“Heinrich Himmler was smiling. I remember thinking: ‘If only they let him see everything! If only he insists on seeing everything. . . the gassings, the burnings, the brutality, the lot!’”
Himmler did proceed to see it all, as Vrba learned only much later when he was sent an advance version of Hoess’ memoir. Vrba learned the two men did proceed to thoroughly witness the emaciated victims of disease, the crowded hospital block, the primitive latrines, the selection process for extermination, the women’s camp, the whipping of a female prostitute…
Vrba also describes Himmler returning in January of 1943 to watch the inauguration of “the world’s first conveyor belt killing, the inauguration of Commandant Hoess’ brand new toy, his crematorium… Commandant Hoess, anxious to display his new toy at its most efficient, had arranged for a special transport of 3,000 Polish Jews to be present for slaughter in the modern, German way.” Vrba elaborates to say, “This time I was glad to see him arrive, though not because I still nursed any faint hope that he would improve our lot through benevolence or any sense of justice. His presence was welcome to us all merely because it meant that for one day there could be no unscheduled beatings or killings.”
Corroboration of this visit is hard to find. Quite likely, Vrba has made an error. Memories are hardly infallible. If this is the case, possibly it is for this reason that editors of the most recently published version of I Escaped from Auschwitz have chosen to omit this opening chapter that describes his encounter with Himmler. If would-be debunkers can find some narrative error, a single miscue can be pounced upon to attack the credibility of the entire book. Possibly, the publishing house buckled under fear of denunciation. [We know Himmler visited Auschwitz on July 17 and 18, 1942. Vrba/Bestic correctly noted Himmler’s inspection of prisoners was on July 17, 1942.] Such is the sad state of affairs whereby some nutter can seek to upset an entire apple cart with tweets about only one particular apple.
Vrba and Bestic’s opening narrative of Vrba Meets Himmler is superb writing. It is well worth seeking out in any earlier edition and ought to be re-inserted in future editions. The storytellers chose to begin their book with Vrba’s eye-to-eye encounter with his nemesis for a very good reason: it’s good storytelling.
Occasionally, one comes across something on the internet that cannot be improved upon. Here, with a link, is one such article on Heinrich Himmler. This digest of his horrific accomplishments as the principal architect and administrator of the concentration camps is uncredited to any individual. The final sentence of this adroit summary states, “Serving as Hitler’s right-hand man, Himmler was a true architect of terror during World War II.” The source is the National WWII Museum of New Orleans. You can visit this site at:
Here is a selection of photos from the article above.
Here is a speech by Heinrich Himmler in October of 1943 about his plans for the extermination of all Jews at: https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-human-behavior/himmler-speech-posen-1943
“We Germans — who are the only people to treat animals decently — will also treat these human animals decently.” Heinrich Himmler, 1943.
Next: VRBA ON THE ESCAPE