In early April of 1944, two Slovakian Jews who were prisoners in the extermination camp of Auschwitz achieved one of the only successful escapes from the camp in its history. Together they walked from southern Poland where the camp was located to Slovakia. Their self-imposed mission was to warn Slovakian and Hungarian Jews that the cattle trains which the Nazis would soon order them to board would take them, not to resettlement farms in the East, but to gas chambers. One of these escapees was a 19-year-old former student who had been a prisoner in Auschwitz for nearly two years. His name was Walter Rosenberg, but he called himself Rudolf Vrba.
Vrba submitted an extensive and highly detailed report on Auschwitz to Zionist leaders in Slovakia and Hungary and implored them to warn the nearly one million Jews in the two countries of their impending destruction. But--in one of the great tragedies of the Second World War and one of the few cases of clear-cut collaboration between the Nazis and the Jews--the Zionist leaders failed to warn the victims and attempted to suppress Vrba's report. In return for this service, Adolf Eichmann, the administrator of the deportation process, allowed about 1600 people, largely wealthy Jews, relatives of the Zionist leaders or prominent Zionists, to flee to Switzerland. The result of this agreement was the death of nearly half a million Hungarian and Slovakian Jews. The deportations stopped only after Vrba succeeded, on his own, in having the report read by important Allied officials and published in Swiss newspapers.
Last week, exactly 30 years after Rudi Vrba made his escape, I spoke to him at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Radiology. Vrba does not look like a man who spent two years in Auschwitz. His face is cheerful, almost radiant, his hair is still dark, and he looks even younger than his 49 years. He speaks about his experiences in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, but an underlying tone of deep bitterness is easily detectable.
Most survivors of the Nazi death-camps had a great deal of difficulty rebuilding their lives after the war. Many retreated into either a religious fervor unknown to them before, or involvement with political movements such as Zionism or communism. Although Vrba did join the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia after the war, he broke with the Party in the early 1950's during the last series of Stalin's purges. He made his career in science, he got his doctorate in biochemistry in Prague in 1951, and since that time he has taught at universities in England and Canada, and lectured throughout Europe.
Vrba is not given to preaching about the holocaust of European Jewry. He has succeeded in relegating that period of his life to the background, and concerns himself largely with his scientific research. But he has developed a very strong viewpoint on his experiences. According to Vrba, the international Zionist movement was a key reason that the Nazis were so successful in their effort to annihilate the Jews of Europe. He holds that the Zionists believed in sacrificing the main part of European Jewry in order to salvage a remnant, an elite, which would then establish a Jewish state in Palestine.
Vrba charges that there was a distinct process of deliberate collaboration between Nazis and Zionists in nearly every country in Axis-controlled Europe. This collaboration, he claims, limited the possibilities of resistance and contributed to the deaths of twice as many Jews as would have been killed had it not occurred. Vrba is well aware that this theory is, outside of his personal experience in Hungary, almost impossible to substantiate, and that it touches a taboo area in the study of the period. Thus he has not embarked on a campaign to disseminate his view. He is content to feel that he himself is not taken in by what he believes to be the myths surrounding the holocaust.
Vrba is compelled to live with knowledge that forces beyond his control thwarted him in his attempt to save the lives of a million people. AsRoh Hochhuth points out in the afterward to his play The Deputy--an indictment of Pope Plus XII and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for failing to intercede with the Nazis on behalf of European Jewry--everywhere Vrba turned with his report, whether to Catholics or Zionists, he fell on deaf ears. Vrba told me this story as examplary of his experience:
After my escape from Auschwitz, I went to a small town in Slovakia in which several thousand Jews still lived. I asked the Rabbi of the community if I could speak in the synagogue on a Friday evening to warn the congregants that they were to be gassed in Auschwitz and that they must not report to the trains for deportation. The Rabbi said he would consider my request and while I waited for his answer I stood outside the temple and smoked a cigarette. He came out of the building and told me that a Jew who smokes on a Friday evening would not be allowed to address his congregation, since it represented a serious violation of the sabbath. When I pleaded with him to let me warn the people, he threatened to call the police. And when I continued to protest he struck me and knocked me down. I was finally forced to leave; that entire town perished in Auschwitz.
The anger and frustration that has built up in Rudolf Vrba during the last 30 years has left its mark. Vrba has made a conscious effort to keep himself totally unaffiliated: he is anti-Zionist, anti-communist, and even somewhat anti-Semitic, particularly with respect to American Jews. A pessimist by virtue of experience, he terms Israel "a potential Auschwitz," speaks of "Zionist megalomaniacs," and says that nothing is more repugnant to him than middle class American Jews demonstrating for Soviet Jewry. ("Let them go to Israel themselves, not send Russian Jews to fight there.")
As for his personal situation, he doesn't doubt that he may see a second holocaust in his lifetime. He refuses, however, to deceive himself into thinking he can combat it. Vrba has little faith in humanity at large, but he does believe that there are noble individuals. "If the Boston Globe suddenly announces tomorrow that there are too many Jews on the faculty of Mass General, I don't know if help will come for me from other Jews, from Jack Smith, or from no one. I saved myself once without any help and perhaps I could do it again. But I'm wary of anyone who tells me 'Don't worry, we'll protect you!' This is what the Zionists told my two brothers, and they never returned from the camps."
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Rudolf Vrba is his triumph over his past, his refusal to have allowed Auschwitz to destroy his life. Undoubtedly few of his colleagues in the gastrointestinal research unit at Mass General are aware that he is a key figure in the entire holocaust period, that he is a man who took it upon himself to try to stop the extermination of European Jewry--perhaps the only individual who can make that claim. And this is the way Vrba wants it. His past, though always with him, is a private matter. So for that matter are all his opinions on the subject. He is not anxious to cultivate sympathy or win converts to anti-Zionism. His goal is quite simple: to be allowed to continue his work as a scientist, to be allowed to continue to survive.
Vrba's proudest boast is objectivity. And his claim to it is valid--he is a man in limbo, a man without traditional allegiances. He has no desire to expound on the subject of Zionist collaboration, but when he saw that it was an issue I wanted to pursue, he endeavored to present his case as cogently and unemotionally as possible. At a meeting last week at Phillips Brooks House, when he raised the question of collaboration after a lecture on the holocaust, he was shouted down and insulted. "I have no axe to grind. And if I have shown you one thing, it is, I hope, that I am perhaps only half-crazy."