Most of the world refers to the worst crime against humanity as the Holocaust.

For Jews it is known as the Shoah.

Shoah is the Hebrew word for catastrophe.

Shoah is also the title for Claude Lanzmann’s documentary dedicated to examining and never forgetting the Holocaust.

As a star witness for Lanzmann’s seemingly aloof, ground-breaking, celluloid examination of man’s inhumanity to man, Vrba appears better dressed than Lanzmann as he holds court. Vrba, a man of science, avoids any expression of emotion that might be equated with weakness. With nervous smiles and bizarre chuckles, Vrba emphasizes his clarity as a rational thinker. He cannot be manipulated.

Of course, nobody who spends almost two years in Auschwitz comes out unscathed. But anyone expecting Rudolf Vrba to break down and be overwhelmed by upsetting memories, or to veer into sentimentality of any kind — even anger — will be surprised. Whatever his wounds might have been, Vrba was predisposed to not letting them be seen in the documentary.

Sixty years later, when Vrba was battling cancer, Dr. Arthur Dodek accompanied him to his medical appointments as a friend, not as a physician, and Dodek saw first hand how Vrba handled his vulnerability in the face of impending death.

“He was a unique survivor,” Dodek said in 2022. “I have met many other [Holocaust] survivors and nobody ever wanted to talk about anything. He was the first survivor who wanted to tell me. Every survivor has hidden things. How he survived, only he knew. But Rudi did tell me: ‘You have to be strong. If you show any weakness, you’re finished. At all times I had to show I was strong.'”

The weak in Auschwitz simply did not survive.


Claude Lanzmann has commented: “Rudolf Vrba… saved his own life. Of all the witnesses, he is the one whose demeanour, whose frank, ironic smile, whose precise, organized speech, would lend support to the theory that some people, given the circumstances, are innate survivors.

“Vrba tells the story of the Theresienstadt ‘family group’ which was kept at Auschwitz for an unprecedented six months before being exterminated in March 1944, and of how on the day before they were due to die he helped prepare for a coordinated rebellion in the camp. The story is involved and dramatic. It ends with the attempted suicide of one, Freddy Hirsch, the leader of the family group, who, for fear of what would happen to the children under his care, according to Vrba, chose suicide over revolt.

“Vrba tells this story with a notable sense of his own detachment from it, even though he was, it seems, in the role of go-between, one of the leading participants. A month after the extermination of the Czech family group, Rudolf Vrba, concluding that a rebellion was impossible, made a successful escape. It was a logical decision, reached only after he had tried, as far as he was able, everything else. Vrba speaks in English; after the war, it appears, he emigrated to North America and, judging from what we see, made a success of his life. All of which decisively colours his story. On the page it would have read very differently.”

Lanzmann and Vrba talked for many hours. Only a small portion of their conversations were presented in the documentary. Fortunately, out-takes have been preserved. In this video sequence [below], Vrba — not nattily-dressed but instead relaxed, smoking a cigarette — describes the train transports of Jews to Auschwitz, the duties of the Sonderkommando units, Nazi humour and deceit, as well as the unforgettable experience of hearing the death cries of ten thousand naked women awaiting their murder while forced to stand in rows for hours on a frozen field on a bitterly cold December morning, an experience he also chillingly describes in his memoir. The final segment concludes with the story of a rabbi in Auschwitz who is ultimately forced to conclude, “There is no God.”

[To slow this video down slightly, start the video, then click the cog shape next to the word YouTube. Select Playback Speed and pick .75]



Vrba being interviewed by Claude Lanzmann

Vrba being interviewed by Claude Lanzmann


Rudolf Vrba interviewed in New York



Jan Karski, university professor, former courier of the Polish government in exile, interviewed in Warsaw.

Karski Testimony

Karski Testimony

Karski Testimony

Karski Testimony



A Slovak Jew describes the arrivals of Jews in Auschwitz

Report detailing the systematic genocide at the camp publicized


Train to Treblinka

Henryk Gawkowski was a locomotive conductor at the Treblinka station and estimates that he transported approximately 18,000 Jews to the camp. He drank vodka all the time because it was the only way to make bearable his job and the smell of burning corpses. You can read more about Henryk here.