Sign at US Holocaust Museum

Whereas this quote from Rudolf Vrba has been prominently displayed within the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., the main Holocaust Museum in Israel, Yad Vashem, has done as little as possible to publicize Vrba’s importance. [This placard is derived from a photo provided by Michelle Madden.]

Who’s afraid of the man who escaped from Auschwitz?

Herewith, Ruth Linn, the world’s leading academic authority on Rudolf Vrba, provides a contemporary history and analysis as to how and why the heroism of Rudolf Vrba has mostly been deep-sixed or diminished by the Israeli establishment.

Chief among the “Vrba-deniers” has been the leading authority on World War II at the Yad Vashem memorial museum complex in Jerusalem, Yehuda  Bauer.

This 2023 piece is reprinted by permission and first appeared as “Who is afraid of the man who escaped Auschwitz?” in Studies in Education: Journal for Study and Research in Education, 22, 177-196.

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Ruth Linn begins with a synopsis:

Ruth Linn and Robin Vrba

Ruth Linn and Robin Vrba on the occasion of Rudolf Vrba being awarded his honourary degree at the University of Haifa in 1998.

In the spring of 1944, two Jewish inmates, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp after two years of enslavement there. Their individual testimonies were conflated into what came to be known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report, which was smuggled to the West and played an important role in Admiral Horthy’s decision to stop the deportations from Hungary – albeit, only after sending 437,000 Hungarian Jews to their deaths. Their escape is an event that has been omitted from the Hebrew-language history textbooks for Israeli schools. Both it and its protagonists entered the Israeli consciousness only in 1998, when I arranged for my home university (University of Haifa) to award Vrba an honorary doctorate and to publish his memoirs and the well-known Vrba-Wetzler Report in Hebrew for the first time, after it was rejected by Yad Vashem. In this article I delve into this mystery of Vrba’s and Wetzler’s disappearance not only from Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp but also from the awareness of Israeli students, history teachers, school principals and Israeli academics until 2023. Robin Vrba actively contributed to the composition of this paper.

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Introduction: A Brief Correspondence

Feb 1, 2020

Shalom Prof. Linn,

My name is Rona [pseudonym]…

… I have worked as an educator for the past 35 years, including 20 years as a principal of a school in Jerusalem… Last year, and regretfully, only for the first time, I came across the names Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler [two Jewish escapees from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp who revealed its secrets in a document titled] ‘the Auschwitz protocols’, which was delivered [to the West]…. I made a decision to learn more about this story… [I feel that] the public, and particularly school children, ought to be familiar with it…

Feb 2, 2020

Shalom Prof. Linn,

Thank you for your prompt response…Could you please help me understand…why…Vrba’s [1998] book was not translated into Hebrew by Yad Vashem, and why Wetzler’s [2007] book was? …Can I find a translation of your book [Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting] on this suppression? Can I find a translation into Hebrew of the Vrba-Wetzler Report or some of it?… Patiently awaiting your response.

Rona.

Feb 7, 2020

Dear Ruth,

…. I could not find Vrba’s memoir in the bookstores – only Wetzler’s. I had to travel to Vrba’s publishing house… They are printing only a few copies. I was asking myself – Why?

 These letters are translated from the Hebrew. The originals are on file with me.

Aug. 1, 2023

Dear Rona,

This article is a response to the many letters including yours, that I have received over the years asking why the experiences of Rudolph Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau with Alfred Wetzler in April 1944, was not integrated into the prevailing Israeli Holocaust narrative.

I was born and raised in Israel and educated at the prestigious Hebrew Reali School, where I was repeatedly taught that Auschwitz-Birkenau was the most guarded secret of the architects of the Final Solution. However, I do not recall being told that five Jewish inmates managed to escape this death camp, to reveal its secrets, and to survive the war to tell their stories (Braham, 2000). At the numerous Holocaust memorial ceremonies I attended, I had never heard the names Rudolf Vrba or Alfred Wetzler. Neither had my children.

In 1987, I became acquainted with their escape as a result of Rudolf Vrba’s short account in the epic film Shoah, produced by non-Israeli Paris-based filmmaker Claude Lanzmann (1985). Surprised by the absence of this event from Israel’s pantheon of heroism, I was determined to locate the Auschwitz-Birkenau escapees on my own and have the state of Israel honor them. I wondered why this had not yet been done.

For seven years (1987-1994), I asked numerous Israeli citizens, academics, friends and random travelers whether they were familiar with the event and/or the escapees’ names.

Vrba and Wetzler were names they had never heard.

In 1994, when I was a visiting professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology at the University of British Columbia (U.B.C.) in Vancouver, Canada, I continued researching what Israelis knew about the escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau. One woman I interviewed was an Israeli teacher named Mira Samet, who immigrated to Vancouver from Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in Israel and whose two brothers were killed in the Six-Day War of 1967. She first heard the name Rudolf Vrba only after she arrived in Vancouver, as the man who escaped Auschwitz-Birkenau was actually the husband of her real estate agent (Robin Vrba), and they had become friendly.

I was surprised to learn that Vrba was a brilliant biochemist, a brain researcher, and a professor of pharmacology at U.B.C.’s school of medicine, and that his office was just one building away from mine. I asked Mira to introduce us, and to do so immediately: Holocaust survivors had little time left. Mira promised to do so.

To my surprise and disappointment, Vrba was not as excited about our meeting as I was. He saw me as an Israeli researcher belonging to an establishment that had erased him from the historiography of the Holocaust. I explained to him clearly that I wished to meet with him primarily as an Israeli citizen who, for all these years, had been deprived of any knowledge of the escape. I also shared with him my academic interest in moral psychology and suppressed testimonies in times of war (Linn, 1989, 1996).

Once assured of my integrity, Vrba welcomed me into his office and urged me to read his autobiographical memoir I Cannot Forgive, which was first published in London in 1963 (Vrba and Bestic, 1963). Reading his memoir, I wondered how it came to pass that, in spite of the Israeli Holocaust narrative’s overwhelming focus on Auschwitz-Birkenau, Vrba’s and Wetzler’s memoirs had been inaccessible to readers of Hebrew for more than 30 years and its heroes had never been mentioned or celebrated in Yad Vashem’s countless Holocaust ceremonies. Why could the English edition of Vrba’s memoirs not be found in Yad Vashem bookstore? And why was there no Hebrew version in existence?

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In search of the missing story

Evidence regarding the escapees’ absence from the Israeli historiography is widely documented in my 2004 book Escaping Auschwitz based on six years of interviews with Rudolf Vrba.

I sought to demarcate the complex connection between the extremely rare escape from Auschwitz- Birkenau on April 7, 1944, and the fading away of the Vrba-Wetzler report. Historians have no doubt that “by far, the most important [Jewish] escape [out of the 5 successful escapes] was that of Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler” (Braham, 1981, p. 709).

Two days prior their escape, on April 5, 1944, a Jewish Slovak inmate named Siegfried Lederer escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau dressed in SS uniform, subsequently making his way to Prague, risking his life several times sneaking into the Theresienstadt ghetto, and revealing the secret of Auschwitz-Birkenau to its Jewish leaders, among them the most respected Judenrat member, Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck, who decided to conceal the information from the prospective victims. Lederer also tried to inform the world about the horrors underway in letters to the Red Cross in Switzerland, although there is no record that these documents ever reached their destination. He later joined the Czech partisans, in whose ranks he fought until the end of the war. After the war, Lederer remained in Czechoslovakia, where he died on April 5, 1972, bitter and forgotten, at the age of 68. Despite this morally dubious position, Baeck came to be widely known, with his contributions acknowledged in Holocaust texts in Israel and abroad, and numerous educational institutions and city streets bearing his name.

On April 7, 1944, two days after Lederer’s escape, two Jewish Slovak Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, entered a predesignated hiding place inside the camp that was immediately covered with planks of wood soaked in gasoline mixed with Russian tobacco, to confuse 200 SS sniffer dogs. On April 10, after remaining hidden for three days, and after the SS guards assumed that the two had already crossed the outer perimeter fence, Vrba and Wetzler boldly escaped the camp. They walked and hid for eleven days before reaching their country of origin, Slovakia. There, they immediately asked to meet with members of the Jewish underground known as the “Working Group,” who regarded themselves as the official leadership of the surviving Slovak Jewish community (Bauer, 1994).

In the spring of 1944, reliable information provided by Jewish prisoners from within the death camp was an exceptional commodity (Fleming, 2020). Dr. Oskar Neumann (1956), the group’s official chairman (starosta) and a skilled lawyer, immediately ordered that the escapees be put in two separate rooms, where each dictated his account to Neumann’s aide, Oscar Krasniansky, an engineer who was also a good stenographer. The two transcripts, written in the Slovak language, were immediately translated into German and then hastily collated into a single report that came to be known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report. This 33-page document contained a notably accurate description of the death machinery at the camp and the specifics of the Germans’ methods of mass murder, including tattooing, gassing, and cremation. They also voiced their concerns about the imminent extermination of the 3,000 Czech Jews being held at the second, “family camp” (Gilbert, 1981).

The escapees repeatedly warned that it was their impression, as experienced slave laborer in the camp for almost two years, that special preparations were underway in the camp for a massive influx of Hungarian Jews (based, for example, on hearing a guard saying with delight that they would soon be receiving “Hungarian Salami”) (Vrba, 1998 a, b).

The Vrba-Wetzler Report was successfully smuggled to the free world, where it was accepted as credible (Braham & Vanden Heuvel, 2011).

In the spring of 1944, everyone was racing the clock: Eichmann was pushing to expand the gas chambers for the planned extermination of the Hungarian Jews, and those who remained sought to buy time until the arrival of the advancing Red Army. On June 6, 1944, the day of the Normandy landings, two other Jewish inmates, Polish Jew Czeslaw Mordowicz and Slovak Jew Arnost Rosin, reached Slovakia after escaping from Auschwitz–Birkenau on May 27. They confirmed Vrba and Wetzler’s earlier prediction based on the mention of “Hungarian Salami” (Neumann, 1956), reporting that, during the two weeks prior to their escape, over 100,000 Hungarian Jews had arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau; most were immediately murdered in the gas chambers; human fat was used to accelerate the burning of the corpses (Gilbert, 1981). However, Mordowicz and Rosin’s testimonies were documented only by mid-June, and there is no documentation indicating that their report reached the West as early as the Vrba-Wetzler Report.

Most Holocaust historians believe that Vrba and Wetzler’s alarming warning reached Slovakian and Hungarian Jewish leaders at some point between April 28 and early May 1944 (Bauer, 1994; 1997a; 1997b; 2001; 2008). The publication of parts of the Vrba-Wetzler Report in the Swiss press in the final days of June 1944, and by the Western Allies shortly afterward, elicited spontaneous international denunciation and contributed to the decision of the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, to stop the deportations from his country – albeit only after he had already sent 437,000 Jews to their deaths (Conway, 1996).

The vague telling of the story

Whereas Vrba and Wetzler were extremely accurate in their prediction about the fate of the Hungarian Jews (Braham, 2000), they could not have predicted that their postwar memoirs and documented report would be kept from the Israeli Hebrew-reading public.

Today, we know that neither the report nor its contents ever reached more than a small number of the prospective victims (Braham, 2000). We also know that the escape was an event that has been omitted from the Hebrew-language history textbooks for schools in Israel. Both it and its heroes entered the Israeli consciousness only in 1998, when I arranged for my home university (University of Haifa) to award Dr. Rudolf Vrba an honorary doctorate and to have its academic press publish his memoirs and the well-known Vrba-Wetzler Report in Hebrew for the first time, after it was rejected by Yad Vashem (Vrba, 1998b).

Vrba and Wetzler’s names had never been noticeable at Yad Vashem’s national museum in Jerusalem. Israeli visitors and tourists from all over the world were only informed (in a relatively obscure place) that “two young Slovak Jews” escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau (Linn, 2004, pp. 58, 63). This kind of reference seems strange, given the fact that the exhibition’s curator could have retrieved the escapees’ exact names from Rothkirchen’s (1961) book, which was published by Yad Vashem and was located in Yad Vashem’s library.

The escape and its protagonists had never been mentioned in a Hebrew-language history textbook for Israeli schools (Linn, 2004a, b). The most striking example is the leading Hebrew textbook for high schools, titled The Holocaust and its Significance. One of its authors, Israel Gutman (with Chaim Schatzker,1984), who was an Auschwitz survivor who also served for many years as the academic adviser and chief historian of Yad Vashem, explained this absence as follows: “Vrba is not the only one we did not discuss. In a textbook, one summarizes and puts in only the most fundamental things.” His colleague, Prof. Dalia Ofer, further justified such deliberate omission by echoing Gutman: “If I had to think of 10 things that should be in the Holocaust textbook, this escape wouldn’t necessarily be one of them” (Dromi, 2005).

Unlike Ofer, Prof. Dina Porat (1990, pp. 123-124) emphasizes the new information that the groundbreaking testimony provided to the world:

“The Germans’ success in concealing the role and central position of Auschwitz and the prevention of information leaking out until June 1944 is still surprising today. It is difficult for people who held various positions in Israel or in the Jewish leadership in the free world to believe that only after April 1944, when two young Slovak Jews escaped from Auschwitz and brought a detailed report and exact drawings to Bratislava – only then did the Western world learn what this place was.”

Most notable is the absence of the escapees’ names from the post- war accounts of the leading war-time Jewish Slovak activists. Dr. Neumann (1956, pp. 178-181), chair of the “Working Group” in 1944 and architect of the Vrba-Wetzler Report, referred to Vrba and Wetzler as “two young Jewish chaps, Slovakian-born, who had been deported in 1942 to Auschwitz.”

A similar pattern of recollection is found in the testimony of Oskar Krasniansky, who served as Neumann’s aid and spent three days and nights rigorously interrogating the escapees. In his 1961 deposition at the Eichmann Trial, Krasniansky referred to Vrba and Wetzler simply as “two young people who succeeded in escaping from the death camps of Auschwitz (Birkenau) in April 1944.” Other than the omission of the escapees’ names, however, Krasniasky’s text contains all the other accurate details (Linn, 2004, pp. 57-8).

No less astonishing was the finding that the escapees’ names and memoirs were not referenced In Yad Vashe’s training curriculum for Holocaust teachers and tour guides. Ironically, these trainees accompany tens of thousands of youth to Auschwitz-Birkenau each year in a pilgrimage subsidized by Israel’s Ministry of Education. And if these students wished to read the Vrba-Wetzler Report in Hebrew, such a translation was nowhere to be found in the Yad Vashem Archive. It existed in the archive only in German (M-20/153) or Hungarian (015/9) and with the author’ names omitted (Ben Ami, 1994). Furthermore, even these documents were not stored in a file of their own but remained hidden in a file dealing with Rudolf Kasztner, the wartime leader of the Hungarian Zionist faction in Budapest who delayed the report’s dissemination during his attempts to convince Eichmann to spare the lives of 1,685 Hungarian Jews (Braham, 2000). In a letter dated June 15, 1997, Dr. Lozowick, the head of Yad Vashem’s archive department, attributed the absence of a translated Hebrew version of the 33-page report to a lack of funding. “Indeed, it would have been important to translate the Vrba Wetzler report,” he wrote, “just as it is important to translate other significant documents… Hopefully we will have the money one day” (Linn, 2004, pp. 71-72).

Lack of funding was also one of the official explanations for not inviting Vrba to testify provided by Israeli Attorney General Gideon Hausner, who headed the team of prosecutors in the Eichmann trial. Prof. Yehuda Bauer of Yad Vashem reiterated Hausner’s claim that the Israeli government most likely lacked the money to subsidize Vrba’s flight from Vancouver to testify at the Eichmann trial. This response appears odd, however, given the fact that, at the time of the trial, Vrba was living in London, his whereabouts were known to the Slovak community and its historians in Israel, and larger sums were spent bringing witnesses from more distant places (Linn, 2011, p. 185). Regretfully, such forms of obfuscation often played into the hands of Holocaust deniers, who argued, among other things, that if the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler Report were true, Israeli historians would certainly know the escapees’ names and would have published their report (Butz, 1975, pp. 95, 146). It is worth noting, however, that Hausner (2011, p. 204) also drew the audience’s attention to the fact that “an escape from the camp was complex and therefore rare.”

Yad Vashem’s rejection of Vrba’s book

In 1997, Yad Vashem’s publishing house declined to introduce Vrba’s book to Israeli readers of Hebrew (Linn, 2004, 2004a). Professor Bauer justified this decision by maintaining that “Vrba’s wild assault on Kasztner and on the Slovak underground are all a-historical and simply wrong from the start, and in this respect, I am glad [the book] does not carry the name of Yad Vashem” (Linn, 2004, p. 111).

Faced with Yad Vashem’s 1997 stamp of disapproval, I initiated a successful effort to award Vrba with an honorary doctorate for his heroism during the Holocaust. I also worked with the publishing house of the University of Haifa to bring about the publication of the first Hebrew-language edition of Vrba’s book (voluntarily translated by Yehoshua Ben Ami, also a Holocaust survivor).

The award ceremony was planned to coincide with the initial publication of the book, allowing the author to meet the honored guests and sign copies for them. In the course of the preparations for these two events, not a single person with whom I spoke was familiar with the escape or the names of the escapee. The University of Haifa’s President, Prof. Yehuda Hayut, disclosed that he was not familiar with Vrba’s name but assured me that we saw eye to eye, and that awarding an honorary doctorate to this hero would be a great honor for the University of Haifa. To further ensure Vrba’s visibility, I decided to personally sponsor his trip to Israel as the keynote speaker at the UNESCO- organized conference on war and moral emotions that was scheduled for June 1998. I informed Vrba of each of these efforts and arrangements. He asked that his book include a preface written by British historian Martin Gilbert (1981) and by myself, and that the Vrba-Wetzler Report appear in the index (Vrba, 1998b). Once Vrba confirmed his attendance, I immediately organized meetings with various scholars who had been interested in meeting him. All were provided with the exact details of the visit, in case they were interested in attending the award ceremony or the book signing.

To avoid conflicts between Vrba’s scheduled visit to the University of Haifa and the possibility of ad hoc interest of Yad Vashem scholars in meeting Vrba or honoring him, I requested a special meeting with Prof. Bauer in his Jerusalem office, where I explicitly informed him of the details of Vrba’s visit and my efforts to arrange for his upcoming award and the book launching. My one hour meeting with Prof. Bauer was followed by an official request by the University of Haifa for a letter of endorsement for Vrba. In his letter, dated April 1, 1998, Bauer wrote that Vrba deserved the honorary doctorate, although he “did not fight with a gun in his hand,” but rather escaped in order to testify. Bauer appeared to not have been familiar with Vrba’s courageous service as a machine-gunner in a Slovak partisan unit (commanded by Milan Uher) or the fact that he had been awarded the Czechoslovak medal for Bravery (Linn, 2011).

Vrba’s 1998 visit to the University of Haifa

Vrba arrived in Israel in June 1998. At his first formal dinner in the country, I introduced Vrba to distinguished Technion biochemist Professor Ahron Ciechanover (who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2004).

However, though known by Yad Vashem officials, Vrba’s 10 days visit went largely unrecognized by the institution. The only public acknowledgement of Vrba came in the form of a series of disparaging letters sent to leading Hebrew-language Israeli newspapers, initially signed anonymously by “four historians” (all of Slovak origin and affiliated in some way with Yad Vashem). The letter’s authors demanded that the University of Haifa also grant an honorary degree to the second escapee, the late Alfred Wetzler, whom they regarded as even more deserving of the award (Linn, 2011). One of the organizers of the letter, Bauer’s former doctoral students and colleague, Dr. Gila Fatran, later identified herself in a phone call to my office, expressing the primarily Slovak historians’ displeasure with the event. The Israeli public was uninformed and could not respond. In the face of the silence, these historians decided to use their full names in their second denigrating letter to the press (Yediot Acharonot, June 2, 1998). No less interesting was the position of intellectual bystanders assumed at this undeniably historic moment by the institutional Holocaust historians, none of whom publicly protested the campaign against Vrba. It was here, I wrote in 2004 (p. 7), that “Michael Walzer’s profound question crept into my mind: ‘What is the use, after all, of a silent intellectual’?”

Contrary to the silence of Yad Vashem, the Israeli public was emotionally vocal. Citizens from all walks of life – students and teachers of history included – flooded my office with phone calls and letters claiming that the story was new to them, and that they had never heard about it in their high school textbooks or at public Holocaust ceremonies. All were deeply troubled by Yad Vashem’s silence. One of the callers was Hanna Horovits, a retired history teacher who lived near Jerusalem and would later write to the press:

“How is it possible that such a book was not published by the University history department? I am unable to understand why neither Yad Vashem, nor Lochamei Hagetaot, nor any other respected publishing house found interest (all these years) in publishing the book. Am I to believe that this is accidental?” (Haaretz, August 19, 1998).

It seems that Vrba’s brief visit to Israel in 1998 did not bring an end to the historians’ state of agitation. After he left Israel, some authors of the defaming letters and others joined forces to publish a derisive book against Vrba, in the Hebrew language, with Prof. Bauer serving as its senior editor (Bauer et al, 2001). Among its contributors, readers could find Israeli historians of Slovak origin, such as Bauer, Fatran, Rothkirchen, Yablonka, and Jelinek. In the book’s introductory chapter, claimed to be written in the name of the Czechoslovak community in Israel, survivor and attorney Giora Amir informed readers that by awarding Vrba an honorary doctorate, the University of Haifa had provided legitimacy to “an Auschwitz prisoner”… who “has crowned himself as knowledgeable to judge all those involved in the noble work of rescue,” while in fact the real heroes are the members of the Slovak Jewish leadership, the “working group”. Vrba’s heroic wartime escape, he further explained, was insignificant in comparison to the audacity of his postwar criticism of the Slovak wartime underground leadership and their selective dissemination of the Vrba-Wetzler Report (Linn, 2004, pp. 109-110).

To blame the University of Haifa for the ‘sin’ of honoring Vrba is extremely problematic, given the fact that Bauer, the volume’s senior editor, bewilderingly takes credit for being the sole instigator of Vrba’s honorary doctoral degree from that university. No less problematic, however, is the story which the above group of historians and activists chose not to tell. In 1976, Alfred Wetzler courageously and illegally made his way from communist Czechoslovakia to Israel, desperately begging this group of professionals, masters of both the Hebrew and the Slovak languages, to help him translate his Slovak historical fiction on the escape into Hebrew and have it published (Wetzler, 2007/1964). Wetzler received no help and returned to Bratislava, back to his life as a poor alcoholic and a bitter survivor. He died a nameless hero in 1988, long before any Israeli Hebrew readers had a chance to learn his name and his version of the escape (Linn, 2011).

Between the ‘history maker’ and the ‘history writer’

Vrba’s 1998 visit to Israel appears to have reenergized the old tension between the ‘history maker’ and the ‘history writer’ and the forming of a suitable “narrative community” (Lowenthal, 1985). But who should decide what is to be maintained, forgotten, dismissed, suppressed, disregarded, discredited, and left nameless? What moral truth might bridge the gap between the “known” and the “could be known” (Friedlander, 1997)? And where is the right crossroad- where ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Auschwitz’ meet” (Gorni, 2003)?

As a gatekeeper, Bauer (2004; 2006; 2008) articulated no remorse regarding his rejection of Vrba’s memoirs in the Hebrew language. It is right, he held, to reject a text that “contains excerpts of conversations and…had elements of hearsay that does not necessarily correspond with reality” (Linn, 2004, p. 111).

In Bauer’s ‘expert discourse’, the wartime Jewish leaders did their best: “There was information on the liquidation”, but the helpless Diaspora Jews were cognitively unable to translate the “information into knowledge” and ultimately into action (Bauer, 2004, pp. 187-188). He has been teaching this thesis for “over 40 years” (Bauer, 2006, p. 167) without any convincing opposition. According to Vrba’s ‘survivor discourse’ the claim that the information had reached the helpless Diaspora Jews is false; if it had, they would have been cognitively able to translate the report’s content into knowledge. If only the leaders had shared the information with them (Landau, 2022;

Vrba, 1998, a,b, Shaked, 2000).

Historically, it is notable that Vrba’s 1998 visit to Israel occurred without a single Israeli Holocaust historian expressing an interest to interview him. Psychologically, his visit appears to have served as a reminder that it had become a “disrupting story” (Gilligan, 2020) – one that suggests how much, we are “haunted” by the past, which is repeatedly being reinvented and reconstructed by the present (Assmann 1997; Confino, 2012; Olick, 2008; Winter, 2006). Indeed, Bauer appears to have been ‘disrupted’ by the story told by Vrba, claiming it is filled with “thoughts in historical matters in which he thinks he is an expert, though I [Bauer] am not sure he is justified in thinking so” (Linn, 2004, p. 111). In the ‘expert discourse,’ Vrba remains a “bitter Auschwitz survivor” who is “not credible,” who is “embittered and furious,” and whose “despair and bitterness are overdone” (Bauer, 2008, pp. 230-237).

Vrba’s “failure” to provide the historical establishment with the “correct” and “desired” testimony or a valid good reason for not doing so is further echoed in a 2001 letter sent to me by one of Bauer’s students and close colleagues. In it, the writer offers his help in disparaging Vrba’s role as a reliable witness meeting Yad Vashem’s scientific criteria as follows:

“Whatever Mr. Vrba wishes to write on pharmacology he can submit to a journal in his field; it will be assessed by his peers and published if it deserves to be published. In his writings on the Holocaust, Vrba is not acting as a cold, detached, analytical scholar but as a victim who testifies to an event and gives, therefore, just a partial and one-sided view of what happened.”

It should be noted that, in this letter, Vrba is addressed as “Mr.” rather than “Dr.” (Linn, 2011, p. 207). But is there only one psychological style for a survivor to document a ‘proper’ Holocaust story (Goldberg, 2017)? And who is a better storyteller of the past – the one who was “there’ or the one who was “not there”?

In a 2005 lecture at Tel Aviv University marking 60 years since the destruction of Hungarian Jewry, Bauer (2006) informed the audience that in 1958, “Vrba arrived in Israel” (emphasis added) while in reality he not only “arrived” but rather fearlessly defected to the West from Communist Czechoslovakia. In fact, this “arrival” marked Vrba’s third successful escape, following his 1942 escape from the Novaky forced-labor camp and his 1944 escape (with Wetzler) from Auschwitz- Birkenau. In this lecture, Bauer (2006) maintained to his audience that Vrba left Israel (after working there between 1958 and 1960) because he “did not get along with his employers” at the Weizmann Institute of Science where he worked as a professor (Bauer, 2006, p.160). But what was the source of his information? Did he interview Vrba’s former supervisor or co-workers, or did he simply reach this conclusion based on the legitimate use of “in” and “out” sources of gossip, whereas the primary source is missing (Tebbutt, 1997)? We do not know.

Careful reading of his text (which is based on a taped public lecture) provides the reader with interesting psychological insight into the powerful role of the historian’s voice in creating an atmosphere of exclusion or inclusion of a specific hero (Feeley and Frost, 2014). Unlike ‘Vrba’s arrival’, when it comes to Vrba’s decision to leave Israel, Bauer goes into detail, telling his audience that he left due to his failure to get along not only with his employers at the Weizmann Institute but also “with some other people who did not treat him nicely…in fact, he did not get along with anyone… he started hating Israel and everything related to it” (Bauer, 2006, p. 160). Unfortunately, Bauer did not take the professional measure of verifying the data; Vrba had never worked at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Restaging Vrba

In 1999, Prof. Israel Gutman, Yad Vashem’s leading Holocaust scholar, finally acknowledged the relevance of a Hebrew version of the Vrba-Wetzler Report and incorporated it into his Hebrew writings for the first time (though Vrba’s memoir was not referenced) (Gutman, 1999). On September 4, 2005, one year after the publication of Escaping Auschwitz (Linn, 2004 a,b), Yad Vashem finally decided to publish Wetzler’s (2007) memoirs in Hebrew, and the two escapees’ names were finally inscribed in its new museum of the Holocaust – this time, in a visible location. Around the same time, and in a strange move, Slovak activist and lawyer Giora Amir replaced Prof. Bauer as the senior editor of the 2001 Hebrew-language collection that attacked Vrba. But the mystery behind these changes remained: Why is it the case that, more than 50 years after the founding of the state of Israel, the Israeli Holocaust establishment had to be reminded by Israeli educators from outside their profession:

  1. Of the exact names of the escapees?
  2. Of the possibility of publicly honoring them?
  3. Of the necessity of translating the 33-page report into Hebrew?
  4. Of the educational relevance of making the escapees’ memoirs accessible to Israeli Hebrew readers and to the museum’s visitors?

These questions have yet to be researched. According to Bauer (2008), suppression never occurred, and such concerns are no more than “trash gossip” (p. 247) by researchers who are non-Zionist, non-critical, and most likely “blind admirers” of Vrba (Bauer, 2004, pp. 185-186). There was “no truth”, he argued, in Linn’s finding that “the subject [of the escape] is not taught in schools” (p. 185). In the next sentence, however, Bauer switched sides, arguing that “quite like Linn,” he believed that “the escape from Auschwitz ought to be inserted and taught in the schools’ Holocaust curriculum” but provided no explanation for why he failed to do so during the many years he served as a respected historian of Yad Vashem.

Vrba’s 1998 visit to Israel appears to have reenergized an interesting tension between Prof. Vrba the ‘history maker’ and Prof. Bauer, the ‘history writer’. Aware of the power of naming, Bauer seems conflicted. He knows that he is the scholar who stood behind the rejection of Vrba’s book; In fact, he stated in writings that he is quite pleased that the name Yad Vashem does not appear on the book cover (Bauer, 2004, p. 189).

Above all, Bauer (2004) is conflicted, so it seems, since he wishes to be credited as the scholar who brought Vrba to Israel, telling readers that, over the years, he made “endless efforts to bring him [Vrba] to Israel” (p. 185), even though his record of action shows just the opposite – that, throughout his career, he blocked Vrba’s positive exposure to Israeli Hebrew readers on three major occasions: in 1997, when he rejected the publication of Vrba’s memoirs in Hebrew by Yad Vashem; in 1998, when he refused to denounce the defaming letters against Vrba; and in 2001, when he assumed the role of senior editor of a Hebrew book that attacked Vrba (Bauer et al., 2001). No less problematic is Bauer’s written record, which repeatedly discusses Vrba’s personality and writing style as if these were essential criteria for assessing Vrba’s wartime heroism (Bauer 2004, 2006, 2008). He implores his audience to not be impressed by Vrba’s academic title of “professor,” as he is only a professor of chemistry, not of history (Bauer, 2006, p. 160). Vrba’s memoir is problematic, Bauer is confident, because he is “musing on historiographical issues” (Bauer, 2004, p. 186), but in reality, he is just a “bitter Auschwitz survivor” (Bauer, 2001b, p. 230).

In spite of the above, Bauer wanted his name to be carved in history as the instigator of Vrba’s 1998 visit to Israel. He is fully aware of the power of naming, which resulted in his endless efforts to rewrite his autobiographical narrative (Fivush, 2011), of which there have been at least three versions.

In the first version (2004), published six years after Vrba’s 1998 visit in Israel, Bauer states that he “was surprised” to learn that Linn “and others initiated Vrba’s receipt of an honorary doctorate by the University of Haifa” (Bauer, 2004, p. 185); in doing so, he deliberately ‘forgot’ that it was not at all a surprise, and that in 1998 Linn had already directly and fully informed him of her success in securing the Hebrew-language publication of Vrba’s memoir and of her instigation of his honorary award ceremony.

In the second version (2006), eight years after Vrba’s 1998 visit to Israel, Bauer states that Vrba’s arrival in the country was a “joint project of Linn, an education professor from the University of Haifa, and myself” (Bauer, 2006, p. 160).

In the third version (2008), two years after Vrba’s death, Bauer assures his readers that Vrba’s arrival in Israel was exclusively his project, and that he alone did it all, knowing nothing “of Linn’s existence”, let alone that “quite by chance she had appealed [for Vrba’s honorary award] to the same university [Haifa] as I did” (Bauer, 2008, p. 247).

As an Auschwitz escapee, Vrba had vast experience in assessing the reliability of a given story. As a scholar in the field of the exact sciences (biochemistry), he valued precise facts. After reading the first version of Bauer’s words regarding his honorary doctorate, Vrba needed to read no more. He immediately identified the falsely formulated award narrative, categorically identifying it as yet another attempt of the Israeli Holocaust establishment to defame him and his heroism. But Bauer insisted on being not only a professional historian with a good memory but also the initiator of an altruistic action, writing: “The fact that Vrba hates me and attributes to me all of his bad experience in Israel had no impact on my admiration for this person or on my efforts to bring him to Israel” (Bauer, 2004, p. 185).

Common sense dictates that if Bauer were indeed the award’s instigator, he would have contacted Vrba to get his consent, as is ethically expected in the academic world. However, Vrba stated that he was not approached by Bauer.

Very much like Jurek Becker’s (2002) novel, Bauer may have imagined more than one ending for his own “desired” story of being the one who brought Vrba to Israel.

Perhaps he attended the honorary award ceremony for Vrba at the University of Haifa. Perhaps he shook hands with ‘his’ nominee and congratulated him. Perhaps he invited Vrba to tour Yad Vashem’s museum after the ceremony. Perhaps he took the opportunity to convey an apology for Yad Vashem’s rejection of the Hebrew edition of his memoirs and its decision to not fund the translation of the 33-page Vrba-Wetzler Report. Perhaps he expressed his apology for being a silent bystander in face of the 1998 defamation letters against Vrba on the eve of his award ceremony. Or perhaps he expressed his regret for assuming the role of senior editor of a book aimed at belittling Vrba’s heroism. But he did none of these things.

Unlike Becker’s novel, it seems that Bauer (2008, p. 247) had only one predesigned ending in hand: on the evening of the award ceremony, the ‘history writer’ planned on hiding from the ‘history maker’: “When the award was approved in Haifa, I kept away, I hid, because I feared that Vrba would refuse to accept the honorary doctorate if he knew that I was even just partially behind this event”.

Vrba would have probably regretted that Bauer spent his award ceremony in hiding, for had he attended, he could have met Vrba’s supervisor from his 1958 workplace in Israel, who made special efforts to get a ticket to the packed hall at the University of Haifa. Had he attended the award ceremony, he could have also met with Wetzler’s Israeli relatives, who made special efforts to attend the ceremony asking for my help in translating and publishing Wetzler’s Slovak memoirs, given its concealment by the Israeli Holocaust establishment up to that point.

Yad Vashem’s Expert discourse (2022-2023)

In 2022, 24 years after Vrba’s 1998 public visit to Israel, his memoir was transformed into a best-selling thriller by Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland (2022). This thriller echoes Yad Vashem’s ‘expert discourse’:

“Freedland allows that Vrba’s expectations were naïve citing the Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, who argues that by early 1944, the Jews of Hungary already had enough information to piece together their fate. The problem, in Bauer’s view, wasn’t “inadequate publication of information so much as inadequate absorption of it” (Franklin, 2022).

A mid-Jan 2023 installment of Yad Vashem’s podcast Making Memory titled “Stop the Destruction Machine: The Escape of Wetzler and Vrba” (Yad Vashem, 2023a) aims, for the first time, to provide the Hebrew-speaking audience with what Yad Vashem’s believes to be an accurate account of the escape – which, in fact, is Wetzler’s misleading story:

  1. The podcast title refers to the escape of “Wetzler and Vrba,” even though the report is known as the “Vrba-Wetzler” Report.
  2. The podcast offers a photo of Wetzler but not of Vrba.
  3. The podcast depicts Wetzler’s 1964 fictive novel, with its Communist adjusted facts, as a reliable source on the escape and provides its full name. Vrba’s 1963 book, on the other hand, is not mentioned and the Hebrew readers among the listeners are not referred to its 1998 Hebrew edition. Brief information sourced from his book is described as being gleaned from his [unknown] “testimony.”
  4. The podcast contains endless fictional names, from Wetzler’s novel, such as Adek, Uta, Paul, Wasil, Bulek Admak, Philip, Pavel, Ota, Lausman, and Antek Kozlovsk, as if they hold any relevance for understanding the escape. Listeners are further informed that “Valer” is Vrba and “Karol” is Wetzler, whose pen name is Josef Lanik. At the end – even the podcast narrator gets confused and Wetzler is finally named “Rudolf Wetzler”. The Jewish leaders who postponed the dissemination of the Vrba-Wetzler report – are nameless. They are defined as “agents”.
  5. Wetzler is portrayed as the “brain” and the “living spirit” behind the escape, although we know that it was actually a joint effort that was heavily inspired by the “brains” of Russian escapee Dimitry Volkov and others (Vrba, 1998, pp. 210-212).
  6. The podcast presents Eta, Wetzler’s wife, as the primary source for assessing Vrba’s personality. The narrator, Prof. Greif, never interviewed Vrba. He nevertheless adopts her view and maintains that Vrba unjustifiably took credit for the escape and that he loves fame. He is confident that “only few” know about it
  7. The narrator asserts that Vrba simply “turned to” the West after the war, even though he actually courageously defected to the West from a scientific delegation (and was the only escapee to acquire a doctorate).
  8. Listeners are inaccurately informed that Vrba found success in the United States. In fact, he built his career in Canada.
  9. The information contained in the report is disparaged as follows: “What could the [informed] Jew do [in face of the information]? Would he choose to stand holding a sign reading: ‘I will not attend the deportation, I am staying here’?”.

How can it be that in the year 2023, a Yad Vashem web page titled “Jews Who Saved Jews in Slovakia during the Holocaust” continued to inform the public that four [rather than five] Jewish prisoners escaped the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in the spring of 1944,” and that “Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler reached Slovakia in May 1944” [rather than April]?” (Yad Vashem, 2023b).

[In fact, this site has revealed there were six Jewish escapees. See The SIXTH JEW to Escape.]

The End

I interviewed Vrba for eight years – from 1998 until his death in 2006. Dr. Rudolf Vrba was the only academic of the five escapees, and it is perhaps unsurprising that he chose biochemistry for his life’s work, after he was saved by the mixture of tobacco and gasoline. But as I have written in The Guardian (Linn, 2006), it seems that,

“It was not just tobacco and gasoline that saved Vrba’s life. It was also saved because Vrba admired knowledge. He was a scholar who knew its power and believed that the deportees should have been given that power too. He felt that many lives would have been saved if they had known the fate that awaited them in Auschwitz. He promised himself to bring them that knowledge, and he kept his promise.”

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About Professor Ruth Linn

Former Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Haifa, Israel (2001-2006). An expert in the field of moral psychology and resistance to authority in times of war and peace. She is a winner of the Erikson Prize of the International Society of Political Psychology for her pioneering studies on Israeli soldiers who were selective conscientious. Linn is the only Israeli researcher permitted by Dr. Rudolf Vrba to record his heroic escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau, an event omitted in Hebrew-language Israeli history school textbooks. In 1998, she arranged for the University of Haifa to award him an honorary doctorate and further arranged for the first publication of Vrba’s memoir and the famous “Vrba-Wetzler report” in Hebrew by the University of Haifa Press after its rejection by Yad Vashem. Linn has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University, the University of Maryland, and the University of British Columbia.