Seventeen years ago, a remarkable longtime resident of Vancouver died. Yet Rudolf Vrba—described as the “man who revealed the horror of Auschwitz to the world”—is hardly known in the city.
Vancouver author Alan Twigg hopes to change that. The former publisher of BC Bookworld spent a year creating a website, RudolfVrba.com. It provides a comprehensive examination of the former UBC pharmacology professor’s immense contribution to humanity.
Twigg calls Vrba the “greatest whistleblower of the 20th century”.
Vrba died on March 27, 2006, after contracting cancer. He was 81 years old.
On April 7, 1944, Vrba escaped from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp with fellow inmate Alfréd Wetzler. They described what they had seen in the Vrba-Wetzler report.
According to the website, this led the Allies to bomb Budapest. As a result, Hungary’s leaders halted mass deportations of Jews.
Many years later, British historian Sir Martin Gilbert maintained that Vrba’s revelations had saved more than 100,000 lives.
In 1985, Vrba told his story in French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah documentary.
The whistleblower was born in Czechoslovakia as Walter Rosenberg. In 1942, he was arrested while fleeing the country’s crackdown on Jews.
On June 30 of that year, Vrba arrived at Auschwitz before being transferred to Birkenau six months later.
At Auschwitz, new arrivals were divided into two groups. A minority became slave labourers whereas the others were sent to Birkenau, a.k.a. Auschwitz II. There, the Nazis gassed them to death. At least 1.1 million people died in the camp.
This video tells the story of Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escape.
Vrba felt duty to tell the world
According to a paper by Israeli academic Ruth Linn, Vrba was ordered to collect valuables from inmates gassed to death.
“From this vantage point Vrba was able to assess how little the deportees knew about Auschwitz when they entered the camp,” Linn wrote. “Their luggage contained clothing for all seasons and basic utensils, a clear sign of their naive preparation for a new life in the ‘resettlement’ area in the east.”
In 1943, Vrba became registrar for the quarantine camp for men.
“In January 1944, I got information that the biggest extermination action was being planned,” Vrba told Lanzmann. “I started making plans to escape.”
The documentary maker then asked how he knew Hungarian Jews were being targeted.
“I was stationed near the main gate of the camp,” Vrba replied. “I noticed several chaps with tripods. There was a lot of work being done in three shifts. The SS who came to collect money from us dropped words about Hungarian salami was coming, along with other good things.”
Vrba noticed that the Nazis had done a great deal of work to prepare for the arrival of a million people.
“I did not believe that Hungary would permit this kind of deportation until an SS man left a newspaper for me to read, in exchange for $100 I supposedly found and gave to him,” he continued. “The paper said that the Hungarian government was toppled on March 19, 1944. (Miklos) Horthy was out and (Ferenc) Szalazi and another radical fascist replaced him. I realized I had to get out of there and tell the world.”
Website includes several sections
In addition, Vrba discussed his wartime experiences in his memoir, I Escaped From Auschwitz. Throughout the rest of his life, he harshly criticized certain Jews in Hungary for not alerting the community to the reality of Auschwitz.
Twigg highlighted this in his 2022 book, Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia. Furthermore, Twigg insisted that this explains why Vrba never received a proper memorial in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, the RudolfVrba.com website includes extensive sections entitled “context, “America & Hitler”, “Auschwitz”, “escapes”, “the report”, and “interviews”.
Twigg included another category simply entitled “Ruth Linn”. Linn, a scholar at the University of Haifa, interviewed Vrba several times leading up to his death. Moreover, she repeatedly tried to highlight his heroism to fellow Israelis.
“I read a lot about the Holocaust but I never, ever, read about Vrba in Israeli textbooks in the Hebrew language,” Linn told Pat Johnson of the Jewish Independent in 2006. “Am I the only Israeli who fell asleep in class when we studied this in the Holocaust? Or maybe we never studied it.”
Vrba was one of only five Jews who escaped Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many years later, his accomplishments earned high praise from Twigg.
“The most significant author of British Columbia is not Pauline Johnson, Douglas Coupland, William Gibson, David Suzuki or Alice Munro,” Twigg wrote on the BC Bookworld website. ”It’s Prisoner #44070, aka Rudolf Vrba, one of the most significant chroniclers of the Holocaust.”