LONDON (Dec. 1)
The man who provided the Allies with their first full eye-witness account of what was happening inside Auschwitz complained here that “many major war criminals are still at large” and the “the present generation has to be taught all over again exactly what happened.”
Dr. Rudolf Vrba, who was interviewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, was one of two Slovak Jews who escaped from Auschwitz on April 7, 1944. Their report, including a description of the preparations to exterminate Hungarian Jewry, eventually shattered the “conspiracy of silence” about the Holocaust.
But Vrba has never forgiven the Jewish leaders of Hungary for the slowness of their reaction at a time when thousands of their brethren were being sent daily to their deaths.
Although he was one of the key witnesses of the Holocaust, he believes that his uncompromising criticism of the wartime Jewish leadership was the reason for his being debarred from appearing as a prosecution witness in the Eichmann trial in Israel.
His personal experiences nevertheless became world famous in 1964 when he described them in a popular book, entitled “I Cannot Forgive,” which at the time ran into 15 editions.
TIME TO RETELL THE STORY
Twenty-two years later, he has decided that it is time to tell the story again, and the book, re-named “Escape Form Auschwitz,” has just been republished in paperback in the United States. (Escape from Auschwitz-I Cannot Forgive, by Rudolf Vrba and Alan Bestic; Black Cat Books, Grove Press, New York; 359 pages; $3.95.)
Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel, in a review, described Vrba as “an authentic here” and said that compared to Vrba’s adventures “the great escape is a fairy-tale.”
Now aged 62, Vrba lives in Vancouver where he is a pharmacology professor at the University of British Columbia. In Canada, he has been the major witness in court cases against neo-Nazis trying to write off the Holocaust as a Jewish invention. He also sits on an official commission which sifts evidence about allegations of Nazi war criminals still living in Canada among its East European emigre communities. “The are too many of them,” he said.
But he is also deeply concerned by the number of present day youngsters, including Jewish students, who express bafflement at how the Holocaust could have happened. “With every new generation, the truth has to be explained all over again,” he said.
AN EXCITING LIFE
His dramatic escape from Auschwitz and his desperate attempt to alert the world was the highlight of his life. Nevertheless, his subsequent life was far from dull. He spent the rest of the war in a distinguished Slovak partisan unit against the Germans.
It was then that he changed his family name Rosenberg to Vrba — the Slovak for willow. “It bends with the wind but never breaks,” he said. After the war, be became a student in Prague and embarked on a distinguished scientific career.
During the Slansky trails of the early 1950’s he narrowly escaped arrest after coming under suspicion because of his acquaintance with one of the other main Jewish defendants, Artur London, who died in Paris last month. He was then a student and believes he was spared because of the authorities’ reluctance to antagonize other university students.
In 1958, after attending a scientific conference in Vienna, he decided not to return to Czechoslovakia. Instead, he went to Israel and 16 months later moved to Britain where he worked at the Medical Research Council.
In 1961, Vrba submitted evidence to the Israeli Embassy in London for use in the trial of Adolf Eichmann. In Jerusalem, however, two of the three judges of Eichmann decided that his presence at the trial was not necessary.
They justified their decision on grounds of expense. But Vrba thinks they feared his presence would have been used to revive the painful controversy over the attempts to persuade Eichmann to “sell” Jewish lives in exchange for trucks and money, of which Vrba was harshly critical.
A HAPPIER SEQUEL
A happier sequel of his great escape occurred more recently at the dedication of a plaque in Vancouver to honor the Swedish humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg. It was unveiled by Per Anger, a former Swedish Ambassador to Canada, who in 1944 had been Wallenberg’s principal associate in trying to save Hungarian Jews.
Wallenberg had been posted to Hungary as a direct result of Vrba’s report on Auschwitz. Per Anger was the man who had dispatched that report from Budapest to the Swedish government which passed it on to the Allies.