Amazon lists some 2,000 Holocaust memoirs, among them Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958), Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), and, of course, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947). But from an historical perspective, the most significant of these efforts may well be Rudolf Vrba’s chilling memoir, I Escaped from Auschwitz. Vrba wrote the book itself nearly two decades after the end of the war. But it was largely based on the report he and a fellow escapee compiled in 1944 that brought the first detailed information from within a Nazi extermination center to the desks of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. That alone makes it the most important Holocaust memoir.
Tragically, the Vrba-Wetzler Report didn’t lead to any change in the Allies’ conduct of the war that might have curtailed the Holocaust. But it could no longer be said that US and British leaders were unaware of Nazi genocide well before the conflict drew to a close. (In fact, they had known since November 1942.) And dissemination of the report to the Vatican and throughout Europe forced the Nazis to halt the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews. Two hundred thousand lives were saved as a result.
Vrba wrote to explain “how it could have happened”
As British historian Sir Martin Gilbert explains in a Foreword to the book, “Vrba was a prisoner in Auschwitz for twenty-one months and seven days. He then escaped with his fellow Slovak Alfred Wetzler. As they made their way south into Slovakia, they carried with them in their immediate memory, as a matter of personal knowledge [and interviews with fellow prisoners], the true story of Auschwitz, the hitherto ‘unknown destination’ of Jewish deportees from all over Europe.” Vrba himself reveals in his account that he later found many people unwilling to believe him when he described how German soldiers rounded up millions of Jews and shipped them to the death camps without resistance. Surely, Vrba’s listeners thought, they would have fought back. He wrote the book years later in order to explain how that could have happened.
I Escaped from Auschwitz by Rudolf Vrba and Alan Bestic (1963) 480 pages ★★★★☆
“Nobody believed” death awaited them
“We were told calmly that all Jews were being sent to reservations in Poland where we could learn to work and build up our own communities.” At the time, the practice seemed simply a continuation of the Nazi practice to deport Jews from Germany and, later, to segregate them in ghettos. “Nobody believed, of course, that the resettlement areas were going to be anything like home.” But life there would be bearable. Although rumors circulated that many sent “to the East” were dying, few could believe that even the Nazis would practice systematic genocide. That was simply inconceivable. And postcards sent home by many of those deported to the death camps spoke of pleasant conditions and interesting work. It was all part of the Nazis’ insidious “Final Solution.”
The full dimensions of the Holocaust
Most people around the world gained awareness of the Holocaust only gradually after the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945. As Allied soldiers liberated some of the more than 44,000 concentration camps, incarceration centers, and ghettos, word trickled out about the genocidal practices of the Nazi regime. With newsreel coverage of the six industrial-scale death camps at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, the full scope of the horror began to reach a wider public. And, gradually, one Holocaust memoir after another saw the light of day in the years that followed.
It took years for the truth to out, and even today millions doubt or even deny the gruesome facts. And as historians systematically dig into the available sources, the numbers of dead continue to rise. The best prevailing estimate today is a total of more than 17 million. Among them were six million Jews, six million non-Jewish Soviet civilians, three million Soviet prisoners of war, and nearly one million Serbs, Roma, and people with disabilities.
When Vrba became “prisoner number 44070” at Auschwitz, he was a strong young man of seventeen. From the outset, he demonstrated a ferocious determination to survive. Few could have lived through the deprivation, brutality, and sadism he experienced during nearly two years at the Nazis’ largest and most advanced extermination center, much less successfully escaped to tell the tale.
About the author
Rudolf Vrba was born Walter Rosenberg in 1924 in a small Slovakian town. Later, he adopted the name under which he is now known to the world to broadcast his Slovak heritage. He was expelled from high school as a Jew in 1939 at the age of fifteen. Three years later, still shy of his eighteenth birthday, he faced deportation to a labor camp and fled to Hungary. He was eventually caught and forced to join a shipment of Slovakian Jews to Auschwitz. In his Holocaust memoir, he recounted the experiences of his youthful years, from 1939 to 1945.
Following the war, Vrba moved first to Israel, then to England, and finally to Canada. Building a career on his early studies in chemistry in Czechoslovakia, “he became professor of biochemistry in the pharmacology department of the medical school of the University of British Columbia (UBC).” He died in Vancouver of cancer at 81 in 2006.
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