Rediscovering Rudolf Vrba, the Hero And Humanitarian

Photos of Auschwitz escapees and authors of the Auschwitz Report, Rudolf Vrba (left) and Alfred Wetzler.

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.

The entrance to the Birkenau Death Camp, from which Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler escaped in April 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.”

STORY CONTINUED ON MY WEBSITE; GO HERE.

‘Ideals are peaceful, history is violent’

About 15 years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck in my memory. It was not her story. Rather, it was the story of her husband’s father. Her husband is Jewish, and she is of Armenian descent. So both have a keen sense of history, and the consequences of history, including the crimes that occurred during war. So this is why I gave this story a lot of weight.

Her husband came from the city where I grew up, St. Louis. His father lived there most of his life. The father, I learned, was a veteran of World War II. He fought in Europe, with an armored division as it entered Germany in April 1945, just as the European conflict was ready to end.

The Tank Crew in the FIlm Fury

Above is a publicity shot of the WWII action film Fury, starring Brad Pitt (2014).

She told me about her father-in-law sharing war tales. They were not happy stories. There were stories of conflict and death. One story he shared was about his armored column’s capture of Nazi soldiers. The American soldiers chose not to take the surrendering soldiers into custody. Instead, they shot them down with their weapons, and kept their advance.

I had often wondered how much truth there was to that tale. I know war is pure hell, and soldiers on all sides do not allow their better angels to rule when their inner demons are unleashed in life and death combat. I just did not know what to think about U.S. GIs mowing down Nazis surrendering in the heat of battle.

I thought about that tale again while watching the 2014 film Fury, by writer and director David Ayer, starring Brad Pitt as the leader of a U.S. Sherman tank crew. In one scene, Pitt’s character, Don “Wardaddy” Collier, leads a team of tanks and soldiers in an attack on a German position. They overcome the Germans, and in the final moments of victory, slaughter them in brutal fashion. This was far less brutal than the Nazi were everywhere, when they pillaged and committed war atrocities on an unimaginable scale, especially in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Brad Pitt as Don "Wardaddy" Collier

Above is a publicity shot from the WWII combat film Fury, with Brad Pitt.

One German soldier escapes the executions and is left at the mercy of the enraged American soldiers. Wardaddy picks out his newest team member, a teenager named Norman Ellison (played by Logan Lerman) and forces him to shoot the surviving German soldier with a pistol. It is a painful scene, because the elder Wardaddy is initiating his new “son” into the art of death to make him ready for combat and a better team player.

The film captured a fair bit of critical acclaim for its gritty realism of combat in the claustrophobic conditions of these metal boxes that were no match for Nazi Panzers. I kept thinking about my friend’s father-in-law as a young man, faced with a choice of capturing the enemy or killing them, so they could achieve their objectives more quickly, with less risk to their side. I now believe everything I heard was true.

It was war, and the most brutal war in human history. This was how the war was won. Fury holds back nothing. It is worth watching to appreciate what happened day in and day out, from Stalingrad to Warsaw to Anzio to the Ardennes to the fall of Berlin. Mercy was in short supply, and a whole lot of killing happened to bring the horrible mess to an end—a mess started by the Nazis and carried to an extreme. As Wardaddy told Ellison, before he died, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”