Vrba told the world, but for some it didn't help
April 11, 2006 8:50 PM   Subscribe

Rudolf Vrba-RIP --he escaped from Auschwitz with another guy, Wetzler, in April 1944 and got to Slovakia and Hungary, telling the world of the atrocities in the Auschwitz Protocol. Some Hungarian community leaders, however (Hungary was the only country that hadn't had its Jewish population deported yet), were busy making deals with Eichmann for safe passage away. In any case, the result was that about 1,700 Hungarian Jewish leaders, with their families and friends, ended up in Switzerland, while almost half a million unsuspecting Hungarian Jews ended up dead in Auschwitz. Vrba's report first alerted the world (including the Vatican, Red Cross, and US and British authorities) to exactly what was going on, and helped prosecute some who were tried later. ...Knowing perfectly well that it was the secrecy surrounding their actions that allowed the Nazis to herd unsuspecting Jews and transport them like sheep to slaughter, Vrba and Wetzler — as soon as they got in touch with Jewish community representatives in their native Slovakia — compiled a detailed report. They wrote about Auschwitz and what awaited Hungarian Jews once they arrived: immediate death by gassing.
posted by amberglow (17 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Good post. What a man. A somewhat fuller obituary

and, of course

posted by Rumple at 8:57 PM on April 11, 2006

that one is fuller--thanks, Rumple. It's a sin more people don't know of him.
posted by amberglow at 9:09 PM on April 11, 2006

He challenged two very comfortable well-wrapped narratives - that no one could escape from Auschwitz and that the Allies could have done nothing about the death camps. The first is essential to a conventional wisdom about the relative lack of resistance by Jews to their imprisonment and murder; the second is essential to a story of secretive German machinations and a state of benign ignorance in the west abruptly punctured by advancing troops. Disrupting either story was unwelcome and so he was undervalued, if not ignored..

A hero by any definition of the word, but an awkward hero for Jews and Allies alike.
posted by Rumple at 9:37 PM on April 11, 2006

Clearly, Vrba was an important figure in the dissemination of specific knowledge about Auschwitz. His action to save even a thousand lives places him among the eternal heros of humanity.

The thing is, the world already knew and still did nothing. The first recorded commemoration of the Shoah in the United States took place on 2 December 1942 when 500,000 Jews in New York stopped work for ten minutes. Jews across the world were calling attention to this well before Posen and the enactment of the Final Solution, yet no one was listening.
posted by jmgorman at 9:40 PM on April 11, 2006

There were plenty of notifications to the allies-- Jan Karski reported in great detail about Auschwitz in November, 1942. The Allies themselves acknowledged that Jews were being killed en masse in December, 1942. None of this detracts from Vrba.

The slaughter of 500,000 Jews of Hungary took place over just 3 months, they almost survived the war. Though Hungary was brutal to the Jews in areas in conquered (killing over a hundred thousand Jews in areas they occupied), they resisted deporting their own Jewish population for much of the war, until they were directly controlled by Germany. I don't know if the warning would have helped the Hungarian Jews, but the Allies certainly could have bombed Auschwitz in time to stop the slaughter.
posted by blahblahblah at 10:20 PM on April 11, 2006

I saw him speak here at UBC. My grandfather was an Auschwitz survivor; I wanted to speak with Vrba but was ultimately too shy..
posted by ori at 10:50 PM on April 11, 2006

I don't buy that the Vatican only found out about the Holocaust in 1944.
posted by the cuban at 2:57 AM on April 12, 2006

Here in Budapest the word was out about Auschwitz, people knew before 1944. In the Budapest Ghetto there was a lot of denial about what had been heard, but Vrba's message had been heard, and even the Vatican had issued an order to Catholic priests around Europe that they were to actively preach against the deportations. In Hungary, however, the Church officials dithered and remained loyal to the ruling powers, and kept sending the dictat regarding Auschwitz back to the Vatcian requesting clarifications and re-translations (of the latin!) because they claimed they could not understand the order.

One of my relatives, who had become a Christian convert in the 1920s, was pursued by the fascist Arrow Cross in 1944, and ran to her local church for sancutary. She was barred from entering with the words "Go back to your Jews, you mongrel..." She survived but carried the scars of her whipping on her back until her death in 1956 Revolution.
posted by zaelic at 3:26 AM on April 12, 2006

Good post, thanks amberglow.
posted by madamjujujive at 6:40 AM on April 12, 2006

Wow, I had previously heard about the Hungarian leaders' negotiations with Eichmann, and the ensuing libel trial in Israel, but never knew that there was a whistleblower who could've possibly changed the course of history for Hungary's Jews.

posted by greatgefilte at 6:48 AM on April 12, 2006

Can anybody tell me how the rich and powerful in any community become rich and powerful, and how they stay rich and powerful?
posted by davy at 7:08 AM on April 12, 2006

I cut this obit out of the NYTimes and it's sitting on my desk, because there was so much information in it I wanted to go back and reference that I had never heard of or known about. Great post.
posted by docpops at 7:13 AM on April 12, 2006

blahblahblah writes "but the Allies certainly could have bombed Auschwitz in time to stop the slaughter"

Man talk about dilemmas: on one hand you bomb a concentration camp undoubtedly killing thousands of prisoners. On the other you bomb the camp preventing prisoners from being sent to their deaths at that camp.

I wonder how many Jews, gays, and other target groups avoided death because of the Allies bombing of rail yards.
posted by Mitheral at 8:34 AM on April 12, 2006

I wonder how many Jews, gays, and other target groups avoided death because of the Allies bombing of rail yards.

Not that many, given the survivor statistics. I think bombing Auschwitz and the other camps would have been absolutely the right thing, altho i can totally see a case being made otherwise: we'd be destroying people--us, the "good guys"; evidence would be destroyed; and the Nazis probably would have killed us anyway in other ways in other places by other means...

Did everyone really know everything about what was going on inside the camps? I can see leaders and people with connections to Intelligence knowing all the details, but regular people? and people inside ghettos whose contact with the rest of the pop had been curtailed? (it does make that deal with Eichmann ever more slimy tho)
posted by amberglow at 8:48 AM on April 12, 2006

more from Canadian Jewish News: ...He also knew that even that number was bound to rise, and rise substantially. SS guards were talking openly about getting ready to accept “a million units” of “Hungarian sausage,” a euphemism for the expected Hungarian deportees. A new area of the camp, known as Mexico, was under construction to house the huge numbers expected soon.

Ironically, it was a construction site in that soon-to-be-expanded section of Birkenau that provided Vrba and Wetzler with their means of escape.

With the help of the camp underground and using the freedom he had as a camp clerk, he made his way to a pile of lumber that would soon be turned into barracks for the Hungarians. Mexico was outside Birkenau’s barbed wire inner perimeter, but during the day, Nazi guards established an outer perimeter to permit activity in the area. At night they would pull back to the main camp.

With the help of other prisoners Vrba and Wetzler clambered into a hollowed-out hiding place inside the wood pile. Boards were place around them to make it appear untouched and the area was sprinkled with a mixture of tobacco soaked in gasoline, a trick to fool the guard dogs that was learned from Russian POWs.

At the conclusion of the work day on April 7, after the outer guards had pulled back into the camp, their absence was soon discovered at the evening “appel,” or roll call. The search was on.

Fortunately, their subterfuge held up and no one in the camp gave them away.

From previous escape attempts, they knew that camp authorities would not call off the search for three days, so for that period they remained in the wood pile.

On the night of the third day, they climbed out of the wood, and crawled their way to freedom.

Travelling at night, they headed in a southerly direction parallel to the Sola River, toward the Polish border with Slovakia. ...

posted by amberglow at 9:00 AM on April 12, 2006

posted by cass at 9:50 AM on April 12, 2006

I can see leaders and people with connections to Intelligence knowing all the details, but regular people? and people inside ghettos whose contact with the rest of the pop had been curtailed?

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began when all of the competing groups were informed by escapees what happened to the first trainload of people sent to Auschwitz. They put aside their differences and refused to participate in their own destruction. For six months, fighting from the piles of rubble and from the sewers, the Jews of Warsaw violently resisted their own ruination. They knew and they fought.
posted by jmgorman at 3:30 PM on April 12, 2006

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