Few people in Vancouver have heard of deceased former UBC professor Rudolf Vrba. Yet in his lifetime, he accomplished a stunning feat unmatched by any other Vancouver resident.
On April 7, 1944, the 19-year-old Vrba and his fellow Jewish inmate, Alfred Wexler, escaped from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp. They did it to alert the world to the ongoing mass murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. And their report helped save the lives of approximately 200,000 Hungarian Jews.
Summaries of their report even reached the desks of wartime leaders such as Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This prompted Roosevelt to warn Hungary’s leader that war criminals would be held to account. This saved Budapest’s Jews from being deported en masse to gas chambers in the latter half of 1944.
Now, the British author of a biography of Vrba, Jonathan Freedland, says that the Jewish whistleblower deserves to be honoured in the city he called home for decades.
“I would say to the City of Vancouver: you had the towering figure of the Second World War and the Shoah living in your midst,” Freedland, author of The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, tells Pancouver over Zoom. “He went unlorded in his lifetime by far too many people. But you had a genuine hero of the Holocaust living in your city.”
Freedland, a weekly columnist for the Guardian, points out that Vancouver civic officials have a chance to honour Vrba posthumously.
“I think he should be commemorated in the city in whatever way the city can see fit,” the author adds.
COVID lies influenced Vrba biographer
At 1 p.m. on Sunday (February 11), Freedland will join UBC historian Richard Menkis in conversation at a free Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival event. Freedland will speak from video from London and Menkis will speak in-person at the Jewish Community Centre of Vancouver.
Freedland tells Pancouver that he was motivated to write The Escape Artist after filing many columns about the importance of “truth”. This came during Donald Trump’s presidency and debates over Brexit. In those days, he worried that his columns weren’t connecting properly with some readers.
But then came COVID-19. Trump responded with the false suggestion that people could be cured by injecting themselves with bleach.
“I realized in COVID, we were looking at something where truth was once again a matter of life and death,” Freedland says. “And it had been in Rudi’s time. So, you know, there was a confluence all at once in the 2020 period that had been brewing since 2016—in which I was struggling to say ‘Truth is not a “nice” to have. It’s a must-have.’ ”
Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, published Freedland’s book two years after the release of the 2020 edition of Vrba’s memoir, I Escaped from Auschwitz: The Shocking True Story of the World War II Hero Who Escaped the Nazis and Helped Save Over 200,000 Jews (Skyhorse Publishing).
Vrba wrote the first edition of his book in the 1960s with journalist Alan Bestic. According to his widow, Robin Vrba, and co-editor Nikola Zimring, the newest edition includes editorial changes in compliance with the wishes of Vrba. He mentioned them when he participated in the translation of his book into the Czech language in 1998.
B.C. author raises concerns
The Vrba and Freedland books each delve into tremendous detail about Vrba’s time in Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1942 to 1944. Ghastly Nazi horrors are meticulously chronicled. The authors reveal the diabolical secrecy employed by SS officials to prevent millions of Jews from realizing that they were about to be murdered.
Freedland’s book often reads like the fictitious thrillers that he’s best known for. He emphasizes that to the best of his ability, he tried to ensure that every fact, detail, and conversation was reported accurately.
“I was very slow in writing this because I felt a sort of solemn duty because of the Holocaust. And because of the attempts there are to deny the veracity of the Holocaust, to make sure there was nothing in there that could be factually challenged,” Freedland says.
However, Vancouver author Alan Twigg has criticized certain aspects of Freedland’s book on his extensively researched website about Vrba called RudolfVrba.com. Twigg maintains that The Escape Artist is “misleading” because Vrba never claimed that he and Wetzler planned their own escape. Furthermore, Twigg declares that Vrba never suggested that he and Wetzler constructed their own hideout.
In addition, according to Twigg, Vrba made it clear that he and Wetzler survived “mainly because they rigorously followed the instructions provided by Dimitri Volkov” (a Russian prisoner-of-war). The Escape Artist mentions Volkov’s advice in detail, including the importance of soaking tobacco in petrol to fool the Nazis’ sniffer dogs. But in Twigg’s view, the book still does not address the issue of Volkov’s advice sufficiently. Plus, Twigg objects to Vrba’s name not appearing on the cover of Freedland’s book.
“Because he’s got Guardian credibility, nobody bothers or cares (or knows) enough to be critical,” Twigg maintains.
Freedland writes about underground resistance
In researching The Escape Artist, Freedland tells Pancouver that he was surprised to learn of the existence of an underground cell of resistance within Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“That was new to me and it has been new to many people,” Freedland states. “The other thing that is crucial for Rudi’s story is the notion there was a permanent bureaucracy—a kind of civil administration—made up of Jewish prisoners who were there.
“There were 200 or 300 of these ‘bureaucrats’,” the author continues. “I use that phrase because Rudi himself called himself a ‘barracks bureaucrat’.”
These Jews were still slave labourers, but they had a little more leeway in where they could roam around the camp. Plus, Freedland says, they had better rations even though they were still being earmarked for eventual murder.
Freedland’s book portrays Vrba as a brave, brilliant, and fun-loving yet sometimes cantankerous person. He had an extremely rocky first marriage, which ended in divorce. And he publicly castigated Jewish leaders in the Second World War for encouraging fellow Jews to board trains for “resettlement”.
“My own view is that you can be very humane and compassionate and understanding of the impossible dilemma leaders of Jewish councils were placed in when they were told: ‘Either you round up these people or we’ll do it. And if we do it, we’ll do it more brutally,’ ” Freedland says. “There is no good option there. I think you can hold huge sympathy for those people.”
However, Freedland puts one Jewish leader, Rezno Kasztner, in a different category because he kept the Vrba-Wetzler Report hidden while purporting that Hungary’s Jews were safe. Kasztner negotiated with senior Nazis in Hungary, enabling him and hundreds of others to escape.
Ex-politician’s dad brought Vrba to Vancouver
After the war, Vrba often ripped into Kasztner. And Freedland points out in his book that Kasztner acted as a character witness for some of Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s henchmen.
In the course of his research, Freedland says that he interviewed both of Vrba’s wives. However, Freedland was restricted from travelling because of the pandemic, so he says that his conversations with Robin were on Zoom. The Escape Artist is fairly light on the details of Vrba’s time in Vancouver, where he settled in 1971. Vrba died in 2006.
Meanwhile, Twigg has unearthed some surprising information about Vrba’s relationship with one of his former UBC colleagues. According to Twigg, a former U.S.-born head of the UBC pharmacology department, Dr. Tom Perry Sr. (father of a former NDP cabinet minister of the same name), hired Vrba.
The back story is quite intriguing. Perry Sr. had married a Jewish woman a year before he graduated from the Harvard Medical School in 1942. After American soldiers liberated the Buchenwald death camp, Perry Sr. took many graphic photographs, some of which Twigg included in his book, Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia.
Twigg tells Pancouver that Vrba’s widow, Robin, told him that there were “huge” hostilities between Perry and Vrba that went beyond politics. Vrba was an intense anti-communist, having defected from Czechoslovakia, whereas Perry Sr. had a diametrically opposed political viewpoint.
“It would appear that Perry had grounds for believing he had been tricked into hiring Rudi by a mutual friend in New York named Gerry Gaul, someone Rudi had first met in London,” Twigg states. “The hitherto untold story explains how Rudolf Vrba ended up in Canada.”
The Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival will present Jonathan Freedland in conversation with UBC historian Richard Menkis at 1 p.m. on Sunday (February 11). Freedland will speak from London and Menkis will be at the Jewish Community Centre of Vancouver. Registration is free.