On January 27, 2020, over 200 Auschwitz and Holocaust Survivors met in front of the Death Gate at the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation.

On January 27, 2020, over 200 Auschwitz and Holocaust Survivors met in front of the Death Gate at the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation. Photo by Wojciech Grabowski

The first death camp to be liberated was Majdenek, where Rudolf Vrba had been imprisoned prior to Auschwitz. Soviet troops opened the gates of Majdenek, located three miles southeast of Lublin, Poland, on July 22, 1944.

It would take another six months of war before Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz I, Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz) on January 27, 1945. Only about 7,000 prisoners were left behind, most of whom were ill and dying; countless others had been evacuated for a death march.

Soviet troops also liberated Gross-Rosen (February, 1945), Ravensbruck (April 1945) Sachsenhausen (April, 1945) and Stutthof (May, 1945). British and Canadian troops liberated Bergen-Belsen in April of 1945, as well as Neuengamme in northern Germany and Westerbork in Holland. American troops liberated Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau (aka Dora-Nordhausen, central Germany), Flossenbürg & Kaufering, (Bavaria), Dachau, Mauthausen, Salzwedel, Ohrdruf, Landsberg, Gunskirchen, Ebensee (subcamp of Mauthausen) and Gusen.

[For details, see Dan Stone’s The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath (Yale University Press).]

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The Soviet Union withheld some of the documentation that was gathered by its advancing troops, verifying the Holocaust, for approximately fifty years. In the 1990s, when Soviet-held records finally became accessible, this trove of concealed knowledge re-ignited debates as to how many Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.

As well, in 1990, the Red Cross completed the process of placing 46 volumes from Auschwitz called Sterbebuch (death books) onto microfilm, further exacerbating disagreements as to death tolls. (Some components of the Sterbebuch library had been made accessible for the Nuremberg trials in 1945, but Holocaust scholars and the general public had never been accorded free access.) The release of this trove of information about Auschwitz – including SS doctors’ death certificates for victims receiving so-called medical treatment at Auschwitz – aided researchers and family members in efforts to identify some of the Auschwitz victims of genocide.

With the acquisition of these records, Yad Vashem’s chief archivist, Dr. Shmuel Krakovski stated the estimate for the number of Holocaust victims overall should rise by 500,000. The New York Times quoted him saying, “I think the number (of Jews killed) must be higher than six million.”

This statement was welcomed by Rudolf Vrba who had closely monitored the influx of Jews with Wetzler. Vrba had long argued that the generally-agreed-upon figure of six million was much too low. In an address he gave in Germany in the early 1990s, he stated, “If you want to know my opinion, it was close to 6,800,000.”

In 1990, the Jewish-Austrian-born American political scientist Raoul Hilberg labelled Krakovski’s claim was absurd. As the author of the three-volume, 1,273-page The Destruction of the European Jews, Hilberg was sometimes considered the world foremost Holocaust scholar because had published one of the first extensive studies of the Holocaust in 1961. [Eventually, Hilberg would go on record to assert that the Shoah was not different from other genocides. In an interview, Hilberg once said, “For me the Holocaust was a vast, single event, but I am never going to use the word unique, because I recognize that when one starts breaking it into pieces, which is my trade, one finds completely recognizable, ordinary ingredients.”]

Yehuda Bauer

Yehuda Bauer, in his essay On Holocaust Education, changed his estimate as to the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust from 5.1 million (as of 1989) to “perhaps 5.7 or 5.8 million.” Photo: Times of Israel.

Likely to curry favour with Hilberg, Yehuda Bauer, when he was still director of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry in Jerusalem, took Hilberg’s side. It was not revealed that Bauer had assisted Hilberg in gaining access to Yad Vashem’s archives. In an article that appeared in the Jerusalem Post on September 27, 1989, the up-‘n’-coming scholar Bauer, at the time, estimated the total number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust to be (only) 5.1 million. Hence, Bauer was bolstering his reputation with Hilberg by reinforcing his conservative estimate.

“There is a proclivity to insist that there were six million killed in the Holocaust ‘because that’s what was said in 1945,” Hilberg had decreed. “People don’t want to let go. But these numbers were calculated quickly and inaccurately at the time.”

In fact, it was precisely Hilberg’s urgency to get quickly out of the gate with landmark magnum opus that had earned his place as a preeminent expert. Major publishing houses had rejected Hilberg’s manuscript, including Princeton University Press, after one of their advance readers, Hannah Arendt, the journalist who had attended the Nuremberg Trials, had recommended Hilberg’s manuscript should not be published. Four other prominent publishers also rejected it. But Hilberg eventually got his book into print due to the deep pockets of a coal baron Frank Petschek, who, according to Wikipedia, “laid out $15,000, a substantial sum at the time, to cover the costs of a print run of 5,500 volumes, of which some 1,300 copies were set aside for distribution to libraries.” With a private donor, Hilberg managed to be almost-first-out-of-the-gate in 1961 via a relatively minor imprint in Chicago named Quadrangle Books.

It is worth noting that Yehuda Bauer takes an unnecessary swipe at Hannah Arendt in his essay On Holocaust Education: “… knowledge by itself does not guarantee a humanistic approach to life, and there is nothing as dangerous as intelligent mass murderers. Eichmann is an excellent example: he fooled brilliant people, such as the philosopher, Hannah Arendt, into accepting his self-description as a mere cog in the machine, a banal personality who did evil because he was no ideologue and did not know any better. As a matter of fact, Eichmann was a member of the Central Reich Security Office, the RSHA, which was composed of highly intelligent, radically racist, radically antisemitic and ideologically motivated individuals, who were the main core of the perpetrators’ machine.”

Yad Vashem had also turned him down. (At the time Bauer had not yet ascended the ladder of Holocaust research and become the foremost Holocaust expert in the hierarchy at Yad Vashem.)

In 1990, almost twenty years after his major work was subsidized by a private donor, Hilberg was an established expert. His position was secure because he was the only academic whose interview with Claude Lanzmann appeared in the final cut of Shoah. Others, such as theologian Richard L. Rubenstein, were left on the cutting room floor.

Given his lack of scholarship, Lanzmann tended to adopt Hilberg’s perspective on the logistics of genocide. Not surprisingly, Lanzmann appears to be puzzled by Vrba’s survivor perspective throughout much of their conversations. The French intellectual knew Auschwitz through the prism of Hilberg’s book; the Slovakian scientist knew Auschwitz after almost two years among the beatings, starvation, disease and corpses.

Shmuel Krakowski

Shmuel Krakowski, former Director of the Yad Vashem Archives

The 1990 statement by chief archivist Dr. Shmuel Krakowski, urging the world to increase the estimate of the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust, was fervently rejected by Hilberg. It is possible that Hilberg’s opinion was influenced by the fact that Krakovski was the spokesperson for an organization that had rejected him and his manuscript.

In 1990, Hilberg countered Krakovski by saying the Nazis “shoved people into the gas chambers without even counting. The only count they had was of people not gassed. They were kept inside the camp as slave labour, and they were counted and counted and counted. And if they died, a record was kept.” Certainly, that was a true statement. The release of a trove of more documents did not necessarily increase the number of people murdered in the gas chambers. However, the number of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis while being forced to undertake slave labour with minimal food in unsanitary conditions was enormous.

Two people who knew that fact far better than either Krakowski or Hilberg were Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler.

Rudolf Vrba’s estimate for the number of people killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz matched the estimate of the number of people killed at Auschwitz that was initially made by the camp’s most well-known commander Rudolf Hoess.

While Yehuda Bauer has admitted that Rudolf Vrba is “one of the Heroes of the Holocaust,” he has consistently denigrated him as “a bitter Auschwitz survivor,” writing that “[t]he trauma of the Holocaust had a severe effect on the internal intra-Jewish discourse, in the form of baseless accusations whose origin lay in the despair and anger over the loss of so many … It is almost pointless to try to quarrel with this anger, since facts and logical arguments cannot assuage it.” By labelling Vrba as traumatized, Bauer has sought to eliminate the validity of Vrba’s superior understanding as a survivor who is willing to admit that many Jewish leaders were complicit. Such honesty was verboten in Israel, so Vrba remained there only two years.

In 1990, in response to the viewpoints of Hilberg and Bauer, Rudolf Vrba said, “Hilberg’s estimate of one million killed is a gross error bordering on ignorance. According to my observations, there were 1,765,000 victims which I counted.”

Overall, Vrba believed the Holocaust death toll ought to be estimated as closer to 7.5 million.

“Yehuda Bauer simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but with his impressive title, he thinks he can throw around the figures without doing any research. Hilberg and Bauer just don’t know enough about the history of Auschwitz or the Einsatzgrupen.”

The enmity between Bauer and Vrba long concerned one of Vrba’s most distinguished admirers who gradually became a close friend, the Vancouver psychiatrist and child survivor Dr. Robert Krell, who was asked by this website to comment on the pair’s antagonism. Krell responded:

“I have met Professor Bauer on a couple of occasions, not that he would remember them. And I have also heard him speak a number of times. I believe he is considered the Dean of Holocaust historians, certainly in Israel. I last heard him in 2017 at the World Gathering of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors. I was particularly interested in his appearance there as I was asked to prepare a keynote address in the event that he might not show up. I think the organizers were concerned about his advanced age. Although I believe he was aged 93 at the time, he not only showed up – he delivered a memorable talk. While slow physically, his mind was functioning at his usual terrific level.

“With respect to Rudi, at a meeting somewhere in the early 2000’s, I saw Professor Bauer sitting alone and took the opportunity to ask him a question. After reintroducing myself, I asked him, ‘Was Rudolf Vrba a Jewish hero?’ He hesitated thoughtfully and responded that Rudi was a very interesting person and within the framework of history, presented a rather passionate portrayal of what had happened to him. I asked him if passion in this case, was reinterpreted as a possible distortion of history? He said that it is the historians’ objective to remain objective. In other words, he did not consider Vrba able to provide objective historical observations.

“My response, ‘Well, Professor Bauer, neither you nor I were there. And I would not expect anything but a passionate response from someone who was in Auschwitz for nearly two years. So tell me, was he or was he not a Jewish hero?’

“Professor Bauer, again appearing thoughtful, responded, ‘Yes, he was.”

 

Soviet soldiers liberating Auschwitz concentration camp.

Soviet soldiers liberating Auschwitz concentration camp.

 

Liberation of Concentration Camps

Liberation of Concentration Camps

POSTSCRIPT

Born in 1926, Yehuda Bauer escaped from Prague as a child, fleeing with his parents on March 15, 1939, the same day the Nazis annexed Czechoslovakia. His family arrived safely in Palestine. “I spent a very calm and quiet childhood in Israel, in Palestine,” he told Claude Lanzmann. Bauer is among the comfortable Israeli elite who have defended Rudolf Kazstner and the Aid and Rescue Committee for failing to communicate the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler Report to the Jews of Hungary, giving rise to a lifelong discord between the “outsider” Vrba who had insider knowledge of Auschwitz and the “insider” Bauer whose bookish knowledge of the Holocaust was outside the realm of experience.

Next: ALFRED WETZLER AND ETA