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Rudolf Vrba

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Rudolf Vrba, the son of a sawmill owner, was born in Slovakia on 11th September, 1924. At the age of fifteen he was expelled from his high school in Bratislava, under the Slovak puppet state's version of the Nazis' anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Vrba, like other Jews in countries occupied in Nazi Germany, was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. In 1942 Vrba arrived in Auschwitz. On 9th April 1944, Vrba and his friend, Alfred Wetzler, managed to escape. The two men spent eleven days walking and hiding before they got back to Slovakia.

Vrba and Wetzler made contact with the local Jewish Council. They provided details of the Holocaust that was taking place in Eastern Europe. They also gave an estimate of the number of Jews killed in Auschwitz between June 1942 and April 1944: about 1.75 million. In June, 1944, the 32-page Vrba-Wetzler Report was published. It was the first information about the extermination camps to reach the free world and to be accepted as credible.

In September 1944 Vrba joined the Czechoslovak partisans and was later decorated for bravery. After the war he read biology and chemistry at Charles University, Prague, took a doctorate and then escaped to the west. He worked in Israel from 1958 to 1960 at the biological research institute in Beit Dagan. He then moved to Britain and worked for the Medical Research Council.

Vrba's memoirs, I Cannot Forgive, appeared in 1963. They were later republished as I Escaped from Auschwitz. In 1967 Vrba became professor of biochemistry in the pharmacology department of the medical school of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada.

Rudolf Vrba died of cancer on 26th March, 2006.

I thought teachers might be able to use this extract from his biography: I Cannot Forgive:

Heinrich Himmler visited Auschwitz camp again in January 1943. This time I was glad to see him arrive, though not because I still nursed any faint hope that he would improve our lot through benevolence or any sense of justice. His presence was welcome to us all merely because it meant that for one day there would be no unscheduled beatings or killings.

He was to watch the world's first conveyor-belt killing, the inauguration of Commandant Hoess's brand new toy, his crematorium. It was truly a splendid affair, 100 yards long and 50 yards wide, containing 15 ovens which could burn three bodies each simultaneously in 20 minutes, a monument in concrete, indeed, to its builder, Herr Walter Dejaco.

Himmler certainly saw an impressive demonstration, marred only by a timetable that would have caused concern in many a small German railway station. Commandant Hoess, anxious to display his new toy at its most efficient, had arranged for a special transport of 3,000 Polish Jews to be present for slaughter in the modern, German way. Himmler arrived at eight o'clock that morning and the show was to start an hour later. By 8.45, the new gas chambers, with their clever dummy showers and their notices - "Keep Clean", "Keep Quiet" and so on - were packed to capacity. The SS guards, indeed, had made sure that not an inch of space would be wasted by firing a few shots at the entrance.

An SS man, wearing a heavy service gas mask, stood on the roof of the chamber, waiting to drop in the Zyklon B pellets, which released a hydrogen cyanide gas. His was a post of honour that day, for seldom would he have had such a distinguished audience, and he probably felt as tense as the starter of the Derby.

By 8.55, the tension was almost unbearable. The man in the gas mask was fidgeting with his boxes of pellets. Somewhere a phone rang. Every head turned towards it. A junior NCO clattered over to the officer in charge of the operation, saluted hastily, and panted out a message. The officer's face stiffened, but he said not a word. The message was: "The Reichsführer has not finished his breakfast yet."

At last, however, everything was ready for action. A sharp command was given to the SS man on the roof. He opened a circular lid and dropped the pellets quickly on to the heads below him. He knew, everyone knew, that the heat of those packed bodies would cause these pellets to release their gases in a few minutes; and so he closed the lid quickly.

The gassing had begun. Having waited for a while so that the poison would have circulated properly, Hoess courteously invited his guest to have another peep through the observation window. For some minutes Himmler peered into the death chamber, obviously impressed, and then turned with new interest to his commandant with a fresh batch of questions.

Special lifts took the bodies to the crematorium, but the burning did not follow immediately. Gold teeth had to be removed. Hair, which was used to make the warheads of torpedoes watertight, had to be cut from the heads of the women. The bodies of wealthy Jews, noted early for their potential, had to be set aside for dissection in case any of them had been cunning enough to conceal jewellery - diamonds, perhaps - about their person.

Himmler waited until the smoke began to thicken over the chimneys and glanced at his watch. It was one o'clock. Lunchtime, in fact. He shook hands with the senior officers, returned the salutes of the lower ranks casually and cheerfully, and climbed back into the car with Hoess. Auschwitz was in business.



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Interesting follow-up to Vrba's obituary that appeared in the Guardian:

Hilary and Steven Rose write: We first met Rudolf "Rudi" Vrba (obituary, April 13) in the early 1960s when he was working as a biochemist in Carshalton, and Steven saw him a couple of years ago in Vancouver. It is difficult to find the words to describe someone who has confronted and escaped Auschwitz, followed by the experience of being systematically disbelieved. For good reason, Rudi held himself slightly apart. The only time we saw the guard down was during an exchange between him and our then 13-year-old son, who had read Rudi's account of his arrest by the Nazis at 15 and the Auschwitz escape. The boy's straightforward recognition of the hero and the truth-speaker was accepted and not held at a distance.

But Ruth Linn's courageous obituary, pointing out the challenge for Israel's preferred self-narrative of Rudi's life, still excludes some terrain that he would not wish to be forgotten. First, the role of the Communist party in Auschwitz, which selflessly helped create the circumstances for his and Alfred Wetzler's escape. It was with the CP that he ended the war as a machine-gunner, and it was the anti-semitic purges in Stalinist Czechoslovakia, culminating in the 1952 trial of Rudolph Slansky, the Czechoslovak Communist party secretary, that drove him to emigrate to Israel.

Rudi's mission, once he had escaped from Auschwitz, was to warn the surviving Jewish community of Budapest of the impending deportations, but he had not anticipated the collusion between sections of the Zionist leadership and the Nazis, especially their senior Budapest administrator, Adolph Eichmann, which ensured that nothing was to disturb the orderly deportation of some 400,000 of the Jewish population, while sparing many of the leaders, notably Rudolph Kastner, who survived to emigrate to the nascent Israeli state. The details of these secret dealings were published in Israel by Malkhiel Gruenevald, and in 1954-55 Kastner sued Gruenevald for libel. He lost, although the judgment was reversed on appeal. Vrba's accounts of his experiences, as in the Eichmann trial of 1961, were vital to exposing this collaborationist network.

So, as he told us, when he escaped from Prague for Israel, and found some of the same Zionist leaders in positions of power who had helped betray the Jews of Budapest, he left for England, and later for the tranquillity of Vancouver. How did he retain his equanimity? As he often told us: "If you cannot have what you want, you must want what you have." Rudi, we salute you.

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  • 6 months later...

On 9th April 1944, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, managed to escape from Auschwitz. The two men spent eleven days walking and hiding before they got back to Slovakia. Vrba and Wetzler made contact with the local Jewish Council. They provided details of the Holocaust that was taking place in Eastern Europe. They also gave an estimate of the number of Jews killed in Auschwitz between June 1942 and April 1944: about 1.75 million.

On 29th June, 1944, the 32-page Vrba-Wetzler Report was sent to John McCloy. Attached to it was a note requesting the bombing of vital sections of the rail lines that transported the Jews to Auschwitz. McCloy investigated the request and then told his personal aide, Colonel Al Gerhardt, to "kill" the matter.

McCoy received several requests to take military action against the death camps. He always sent the following letter: "The War Department is of the opinion that the suggested air operation is impracticable. It could be executed only by the diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations and would in any case be of such very doubtful efficacy that it would not amount to a practical project."

This was untrue. Long-range American bombers stationed in Italy had been flying over Auschwitz and the neighbouring I. G. Farben petrochemical plant since April, 1944. The American Air Force were also bombing Germany's synthetic-fuels plants to regions very close to the death camps. In fact, in August 1944, the Monowitz camp, part of the Auschwitz complex, was bombed by accident.

Benjamin Akzin, one of McCloy's aides, disagreed with McCloy's decision. He pointed out that if the transport links and the death camps were bombed, it would force the Germans to spend considerable time and resources to reconstruct the gas chambers. Akzin added that it was not only an important military target but a "matter of principle".

In August, 1944, Leon Kubowitzki, an official with the World Jewish Congress in New York, passed on an appeal from Ernest Frischer, a member of the Czech government-in-exile, to take military action against the concentration camps. McCloy rejected the idea as it would require "diversion of considerable air support" and "even if practicable, might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans."

Nahum Goldman, president of the World Jewish Congress, also had a meeting with McCloy. Goldman was later to say: "McCloy indicated to me that, although the Americans were reluctant about my proposal, they might agree to it, though any decision as to the targets of bombardments in Europe was in the hands of the British". Once again, this was untrue. In fact, Winston Churchill had already ordered the bombing of Auschwitz. However, Archibald Sinclair, the British Secretary of State for Air, pointed out that "the distance of Silesia (where Auschwitz was located) from our bases entirely rules out our doing anything of the kind."

In November, 1944, John Pehle, the executive director of the War Refugee Board, wrote to McCloy to change his mind on this issue. This time he enclosed a recent New York Times article on the British bombing of a German prison camp in France where a hundred French resistance fighters condemned to death had escaped in the aftermath of the bombing." After consulting with Lieutenant General John Hull, the chief of Operations Division of the War Department, McCloy replied that "the results obtained would not justify the high losses likely to result from such a mission."

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