The Bombardment of Horthy’s Conscience

By Ruth Linn

Likely the best summation of how the Vrba-Wetzler report was circulated in Hungary has been researched and offered by Ruth Linn. This summation has been generously offered herein for the public record. For the original version including footnotes, visit the DEFENDING VRBA section and buy her book, or consult an online version provided therein at her request. Meanwhile…


The record is ambiguous as to the exact date the Vrba-Wetzler report was forwarded to the West and the representatives of the Christian Church. The evidence is clear that the members of the Working Group had been very creative in this regard.

Shortly after the two sets of escapees arrived in Bratislava, Krasniansky arranged a secret meeting with a member of the Vatican, who had been temporarily posted to Bratislava, to have him question them personally and pass the report to the Pope. On June 20, Vrba and Mordowicz met with Vatican legate Monsignor Mario Martilotti (whom they mistakenly thought was Burzio) at a remote Slovakian monastery. The meeting lasted for several hours. The papal diplomat promised to take their report back to Switzerland on the next day, and then to forward its ominous contents to his superiors in the Vatican. This he did, and on June 25, 1944, the Pope issued an unprecedented appeal in an open telegram to the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, calling on him to “spare so many unfortunate people further sufferings,” without explicitly mentioning Jews.

Norman Schwalb

Nathan Schwalb (left), director of the international Hechalutz office of the World Zionist Organization in Geneva, with Jizchak Schwersenz (right), former Hehalutz leader in Berlin, soon after his escape to Switzerland. 

The Pope was not the only one whom the informed Slovak Jewish leaders aimed at warning. They also sent the Vrba-Wetzler Report to the Zionist liaison committee in Istanbul and to the Zionist representative in Switzerland, Nathan Schwalb. Although he was active in encouraging resistance to the Nazis and was involved in numerous rescue efforts, some researchers argue that apparently Schwalb’s primary interest in this instance was to prevent the Vrba-Wetzler Report from being published so as not to disrupt Kasztner’s negotiation with Eichmann.

There is evidence that on June 10 the Vrba-Wetzler Report reached the Czechoslovak embassy in Switzerland, together with the “Polish Major’s Report,” which was sent from the underground organization in Slovakia. It is not clear how this report reached the members of the informed Working Group. It had been written by Jerzy Tabeau, a non-Jewish Polish medical student, who had been sent to Auschwitz on March 24, 1942, from Krakow and had escaped from Birkenau on November 19, 1943.

Like Vrba, Tabeau wanted to get to London through Hungary. Yet, he reached Budapest on March 19, 1944, the exact day of the German invasion of Hungary. He managed to report to the Polish committee there, before quickly leaving Budapest and returning to Poland. There he wrote a detailed nineteen-page report on Auschwitz “of which three pages dealt entirely with the Jews. He, too, [like Vrba and Wetzler] gave one-and-a-half million as the number of Jews gassed at Birkenau since the spring of 1942” until November 1943. According to Henryk Swiebocki, it was the Polish underground that made sure that Tabeau’s report was sent to Switzerland in June 1944. Tabeau joined the partisans and fought until the liberation. After the war he continued his medical studies and eventually became a cardiologist in Krakow, unaware that his anonymous testimony had become “the Polish Major’s Report.”

Theresienstadt-Red Cross Visit. 

When the reports reached the Czechoslovak embassy in Bern on June 10, 1944, Dr. Jaromir Kopecky, the Geneva representative of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, found the Vrba-Wetzler Report of great interest; of all the information in it, the prospective fate of the inmates of the Czech “family camp” was the most pressing for Kopecky. On September 8, 1943, 2,293 men and 2,713 women, altogether 5,006 Czechoslovak Jews from Theresienstadt, had arrived there. On March 3, 1944, more than a month before Vrba and Wetzler escaped, inmates of the family camp were told to write postcards, which they had to date March 25, 26, and 27, asking their relatives abroad to send them food parcels. On March 8, exactly six months after their arrival, the surviving 3,791 Jews of that September transport were gassed. The second transport of another 2,473 Theresienstadt deportees (1,137 men and 1,336 women) had been added to the family camp on December 20, 1943. This brought the total to almost 7,500 people. Dr. Kopecky realized that he had to act at once if he wanted to avert the murder of these Czech citizens.

Because of its high level of credibility, Kopecky used the Vrba-Wetzler Report as grounds for an alarming telegram in which he stated, among other things:

Allen Dulles

Allen Dulles, head of United States intelligence in Switzerland.

According [to the] report made by two Slovakian Jews who escaped from Birkenau to Bratislava and whose reliability is assured by Jewish leaders there, 3000 Czechoslovakian Jews who were brought from Terezin to Birkenau on December 20, 1943 . . . will be gassed after six months’ quarantine on about June 20, 1944. Appealing most urgently that this news may be broadcast immediately through the BBC and American radio in order to prevent at the last moment this new massacre. . . . Please issue without delay most impressive warning to German butchers who [are] directing slaughters [in] Upper Silesia. Do not mention Bratislava as source. Further reports following. Please inform immediately also the Czechoslovakian government.

The message reached the British Legation in Bern, the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, and Allen Dulles, head of United States intelligence in Switzerland; Dulles conveyed it to the War Refugee Board representative in Bern, Roswell McClelland, who received it on June 16. On June 18, it was at last broadcast by the BBC. The reliability of the report seemed to convince even the Swiss censor, who for the first time allowed such reports to be printed, an action that resulted in no fewer than 383 articles and reprints in the following eighteen days in the Swiss press.

It was only in November 1944, after the gas chambers at Birkenau had almost ceased to function, that the full texts of the Vrba-Wetzler Report, the Mordowicz-Rosin report, and the Polish Major’s Report actually reached the War Refugee Board in Washington, D.C.

The Vrba-Wetzler Report may be credited with making three major breakthroughs. First, before its arrival, the Allies thought that Auschwitz was a huge labor concentration camp mainly for Poles. Second, unlike previous Polish reports, it was the first detailed and reliable report. Third, it shook Swiss (pro-German) neutrality and jolted the Swiss into undertaking wide publication of the German mass killing at Auschwitz.

Josef Korbel

Though Joseph Korbel had relatives in the Auschwitz-Birkenau family camp, he seems to have dissociated himself from The Vrba-Wetzler Report.

Among those who were fully informed about the Vrba-Wetzler Report in London but kept it secret was Joseph Korbel, a Czechoslovak diplomat and the father of the future U.S. Secretary of state under President Clinton, Madeleine Albright. Madeleine was nearly two years old when her parents whisked her out of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, less than two weeks after the start of the Nazi occupation, giving up the life they had been living of a prominent Czech diplomatic family and escaping to London. There, Joseph Korbel converted to Christianity and joined Benes’ government in exile that was to become the focal point of Czech resistance to the Nazis.

As the head of its information department, Korbel received the information about the Vrba-Wetzler Report on June 19. Though he himself had relatives in the Auschwitz-Birkenau family camp, he seems to have dissociated himself from its content. Michael Dobbs, Albright’s biographer, hypothesizes that the reason may have been that acknowledging familiarity with the horrors of the report would have led Korbel to face the question “why are you concerned [about your relatives]?” and he would have to admit, “They are Jews.” But that he was not prepared to say.

It was only during the second half of June, a month-and-a-half after the Hungarian Jewish leaders had become informed and when the deportations were in full swing (and already 300,000 Jews had been gassed), that they started disseminating copies of the report to the Hungarian authorities and to the Swiss representatives.31 It was Miklos (Moshe) Krausz, the executive secretary of the Budapest branch of the Palestine Office and a bitter rival of Kasztner, who took the initiative. Krausz, like Kasztner, was exempted from the anti-Jewish laws (for example, wearing the yellow star) and had retained his freedom of movement. He further had the privilege of finding refuge in the Swiss Legation in Budapest. His contact with representatives of neutral countries helped him to save Jews in various ways.

The  Glass House operation of Miklos Moshe Krausz, Kasztner’s rival, saved over 40,000 Jews. 

On June 18, Krausz happened to receive the Vrba-Wetzler Report from Josef Reisner, a clerk in the Turkish Legation. It is possible that the copy that reached Reisner and Krausz was one of the several that Vrba’s friend, Josef Weiss, then an employee of the Ministry of Health in Bratislava, helped to disseminate. 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 the first secretary of the El Salvador consulate general in Geneva. Mandel-Mantello disseminated the report further to the media and also passed it on to Walter Garrett, a chief correspondent of the British Exchange Press in Zurich, whose Hungarian-speaking secretary translated the documents from Hungarian into English and immediately informed his London

On June 19, a detailed summary of the Vrba-Wetzler Report was sent by Richard Lichtheim of the Jewish Agency’s Geneva office to the Jewish Agency leadership in Jerusalem. There is some evidence that on receiving this information, the Jewish Agency leadership promptly launched a concerted lobbying effort to persuade the Allies to bomb Auschwitz.

One of the copies of the original German version of the Vrba-Wetzler Report reached Geza Soos, head of a relatively small resistance group called the Hungarian Independent Movement. Soos handed his copy for translation and duplication to the Reverend Jozsef Elias, the head of the Good Shepherd Mission, perhaps during the first few days of May. His secretary, Maria Szekely, translated the report into Hungarian and English in six copies and distributed them to the top leaders of the Christian churches and the Hungarian state shortly before the start of the mass deportations in the middle of May.

The recurring need for translation of the Vrba-Wetzler Report helps us not only to locate it historically but also to detect the psychological impact it had on its various readers and the action plans they subsequently made. The need of the Hungarian underground to translate the report from German suggests that it was not sent in this case by the Working Group, as Krasniansky had already translated it into Hungarian two weeks before. Bauer argues that the copy that was supposedly given to Otto Komoly, the leader of the Zionist group in Budapest, seems not to have come from the Working Group either since Komoly’s daughter testified that she translated the protocols from German into Hungarian for her father and it was handed to him on June 14, 1944.

Among the Hungarians who received a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler Report were Horthy’s daughter-in-law, cardinals in the Catholic Church, Lutheran bishops, and Erno Peto, a prominent Judenrat member. Peto claimed that he gave the Hungarian translation to Horthy’s son and some other officials. But why would Hungarian dignitaries need a translated version of the Vrba-Wetzler Report as they were educated in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and could read the German text of the report just as well?

The Vrba-Wetzler Report had an immediate impact. The publication of portions of the report in the Swiss press in the final days of June and by the Western Allies shortly afterward produced a spontaneous international denunciation, which led to protests from the pope, the U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, the International Red Cross, and the King of Sweden, amounting to a “bombardment of Horthy’s conscience.”

On July 5, Eden stated that the BBC would be employed to warn the Hungarian leaders. On July 7, 1944, Admiral Miklos Horthy ordered a halt to the deportations from Hungary, which became effective only on July 9. Almost 200,000 Jews in Budapest were thus saved from deportation. They were subsequently to be harassed by members of the Arrow Cross (Nyilas) movement, whose anti-Semitic butchery, however, was no match for German efficiency: They managed to kill approximately 50,000 Jews during their three months of fearsome rule, a small number compared with the approximately 437,000 Hungarian Jews smoothly liquidated by the Germans in less than eight weeks in the spring of 1944.

Admiral Miklos Horthy

Admiral Miklos Horthy, described by Ruth Linn as an armchair anti-semite

Was there a way to intervene before Horthy stopped the deportations? Bauer is skeptical: “How else could he [Kasztner] have warned the Jews in Hungary? By radio? Through the press? By giving lectures? These questions are so ridiculous that they do not deserve an answer.” Horthy remained the key figure in this drama “But Horthy kept silent”—until he was faced with the specific details of the Vrba-Wetzler Report. As Bauer puts it: “through the protocols he must have learned details about what was already known in general—that with his connivance a mass murder was being committed against Hungarian citizens.”

Considering that Admiral Horthy’s position was what one might call armchair anti-semitism, and given the political impact of the reports sent to the West from Bratislava, one can only wonder how many more Jewish lives could have been saved had Horthy read the Vrba-Wetzler Report earlier. As Bauer notes, “Clearly, if Horthy stopped the deportations in early July, he could have stopped them earlier as well. There were no German troops of consequence in Budapest, and the Germans were otherwise occupied. Rescue was possible, and it seems that had information about Auschwitz arrived in Switzerland and elsewhere earlier and made the impression it did when it finally arrived, perhaps more people could have been saved.”


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