I remember clearly the first time I learned about one of the 20th century’s greatest and yet least-known humanitarians and heroes, Rudolf Vrba.
Vrba is one of a small number of Jewish prisoners to have successfully escaped from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps, located in Oswiecim, Poland, in the spring of 1944, as the camps were speeding up the murder of Jewish civilians still living in areas of Nazi control and influence.
That so few know his story remains a tragedy to us all, because of this event’s sheer improbability and the obvious audacity of what he and his fellow Czechoslovakian prisoner, Alfred Wetzler, accomplished in April 1944. The two successfully undertook an escape and resistance mission, in order to save more than 800,000 Hungarian Jewish citizens from extermination at the Birkenau death camp gas chambers.
They provided a detailed report on Auschwitz-Birkenau to Slovakian Jewish leaders, who helped disseminate it to other Jewish leaders, the Papacy, and the Allies, making it the first reliable document to reach the world and the Allies and to be accepted as credible. The report broke the apathy and indifference to the genocide, already long underway by the Nazis. Yet the report and its news never reached the populace it was intended to save, and more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews would be killed between May and July 1944, when the transportations were halted.
I first saw their photographs hanging in the museum at the site of the Auschwitz camp complex in July 2000. At that time, I was completing a documentary photography project focused on the Nazi death and concentration camps.
Standing in the museum, housed in a former Nazi administrative building, I read with utter amazement a short history of an impossible feat. Two young Slovakian Jewish internees had escaped the greatest hidden facility in the Nazi’s universe of militarized camps across Europe and the nerve center of the Nazi death machinery still operating in 1944.
Vrba published his gripping account of this heroic and true story in his celebrated 1963 memoir, I Escaped from Auschwitz. The book remains in print in over a dozen languages around the world.
Vrba’s own words written on Sept. 7, 1963, in a letter to the British newspaper, the Observer, summarized what he details with scientific precision in his book. “With my friend Fred Wetzler from Slovakia, I managed to escape from Auschwitz on April 7, 1944, and we headed straight for the Zionist leaders. In April 1944, we handed to a high representative of the Zionist movement, Dr. Oskar Neumann, a sixty-page detailed report on the fact that extermination of 1,760,000 Jews had taken place in Auschwitz and that preparations were complete for the annihilation of one million Jewish Hungarians during the very next weeks. Did the Judenrat (or the Judenverrat) in Hungary tell their Jews what was awaiting them? No, they remained silent and for this silence some of their leaders—for instance Dr. [ Rezsö] Kasztner—bartered their own lives and the lives of 1,684 other ‘prominent’ Jews directly from [Adolf] Eichmann. They were not ‘helpless and benumbed hostages’ but clever diplomats who knew what their silence was worth. The 1,684 Jews whom they bought from Eichmann included not only various prominent Zionists, not only relatives of Kasztner, etc., but also such Jews who were able to pay with millions, like the family of Manfred Weiss. At the same time, they silently watched as more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews, unaware of their fate, were tricked into Auschwitz, where thousands of their children were not even gassed but merely thrown into the pyre alive.”
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