The Soviet Red Army captured the Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland on Jan. 27, 1945. As the 70 the anniversary nears, a look back at Rudolf Vrba (1924-2006), the man who escaped Auschwitz and whose warnings to the world went unheeded. Vrba became a professor at the University of British Columbia after the war.
Rudolf Vrba escaped to warn the world
By Tom HawthornThe Province
April 24, 1994
April 24, 1994
For three days, Rudolf Vrba hid in a woodpile inside Auschwitz.
If found, Vrba knew he would be tortured and killed, his body put on display as a warning to other prisoners in the concentration camp. He had lost friends that way.
The 19-year-old Vrba was joined in the woodpile by Alfred Wetzler. After several close calls, the pair made good their daring escape.
Fifty years ago tomorrow, on April 25, 1944, Vrba and Wetzler arrived in Zilina, Slovakia, where they warned Jewish leaders the camp was a charnel house.
Vrba, who is now 69, was the first to tell the world of the horrors of the Nazi death camps.
The University of B.C. professor emeritus was honored in Budapest by the Hungarian government this month for saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews.
"Auschwitz was a murder camp for two years and no one knew," Vrba says.
"Secrecy was paramount, and here's why it was paramount that I escape -- to break the secrecy."
A 29-page statement, known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report, or the Auschwitz Protocols, warned Hungarian Jews that they were about to be deported to gas chambers, not to work camps as they had been told.
But as Vrba recuperated from the deprivations of two years at Auschwitz, some Jewish leaders suppressed the report in favor of futile negotiations with the Nazis.
About 400,000 Jews were deported from Hungary and killed at Auschwitz before the report was secreted to the West. Pope Pius XII and Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt received copies.
"The whole tragedy is, this was a missed opportunity," says UBC history professor John Conway of the slowness to act on the report.
Bowing to protests, the Hungarian leader, Adm. Miklos Horthy, finally ordered a halt to the deportations.
Vrba has been called "an authentic hero" by author Elie Wiesel and a "Jewish hero of the Holocaust" by historian Raul Hilberg, author of "The Destruction of the European Jews."
"His is a remarkable story and the more we remember it, the better," Conway says.
Vrba was born Walter Rosenberg in Topol'cany, in what is now Slovakia, in 1924. His father was a forester. At 15, the boy was barred from attending high school under anti-Jewish legislation and found work as a laborer. He had to wear a yellow Star of David on his work clothes.
In March 1942 he decided to escape to London to join the Free Czechoslovak Army. He took with him a map, matches, and a 10 English banknote. His one luxury was an extra pair of socks. He tore the star off his clothes.
Soon afterward, a sharp-eyed Slovak gendarme noticed Vrba was wearing two pairs of socks on an unseasonably hot day. The boy was arrested and sent to the Majdanek camp before being transferred to Auschwitz.
His number -- 44070 -- was tattooed on his left forearm.
In his 1986 memoir, Escape from Auschwitz, Vrba recalls that being offered a choice of locale for the tattoo was strangely comical, "like asking a man which side he would like his hair parted before his head was cut off."
More than a million Jews were executed in his two years at the camp, and Vrba narrowly escaped death on several occasions.
He says those puzzled by the Nazis' motives do not appreciate the way in which they waged war.
"Not one person was murdered," he says, "without being robbed." Property seized from Jews was given to Nazi collaborators in occupied countries, giving them a reason to execute all potential claimants.
The death factories had a commercial side, Vrba argues, generating untold profits from the gold, jewelry, clothes, and household possessions seized from prisoners.
After escaping, he borrowed the name Vrba from a Czech killed by the Nazis. He adopted the name permanently after receiving military awards for service with the partisans.
As a biochemist after the war, he earned an international reputation for work on the chemistry of the brain.
He came to UBC to lecture on pharmacology in 1976, joining a faculty that included Dutch Nazi-collaborator Jacob Luitjens, who has since been deported and jailed in his native land.
Vrba is not surprised that Nazi apologists try to deny the Holocaust. "They can't enter politics because of the stigma of murdering children. So what do they do? Deny."
He remains wary of ardent patriots and extreme nationalists, in whom he sees the same motives as exhibited by the Nazis.
"When we speak of racial hatred, we are not only speaking about yesterday," he says, "but of today and tomorrow."
A sketch from the Vrba-Weltzer Report