Auschwitz escapee who told the world dies in B.C.

VANCOUVER — When Rudolph Vrba fled Auschwitz in the spring of 1944, he made what may have been the most monumental escape of all time, slipping past Nazi guards and attack dogs that were trained to rip prisoners to pieces.

Although his life ended quietly this week in Vancouver, where he succumbed to cancer at age 82, his escape shook the world 62 years ago because of the secret he and a fellow prisoner revealed.

They told the world about Auschwitz.

Dr. Vrba’s feat was remarkable not merely because of what he did — managing, with prisoner Alfred Wetzler, to confound a Nazi security system that killed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Jewish prisoners — but because of why he did it.

He did not flee to save his own life. He made the suicidal escape bid, which succeeded against all odds, to warn Hungarian Jews that they were about to be rounded up by the SS and sent to the gas chambers.

He and Mr. Wetzler, who died in Slovakia in 1988, brought the first eyewitness accounts of Auschwitz-Birkenau, writing a shocking and detailed report about what was taking place in the death camp.

Although their warning, which became known as the Auschwitz Protocols, was delayed in its release until after mass transports of Hungarian Jews had started, Dr. Vrba and Mr. Wetzler are widely credited with sounding an alarm that saved 100,000 lives.

Ruth Linn, dean of education at Haifa University in Israel, and author of a book about Dr. Vrba’s experiences, described the emeritus professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia yesterday as a hero.

“We have lost a rare history maker that the history tellers are yet to find the right words to describe,” she said in an e-mail.

“Dr. Vrba was an exemplary courageous hero and warrior, an independent thinker who had never feared confronting the establishment.

“He was a scholar who knew the power of knowledge, a person who believed that the deportees to Auschwitz should have been given that power too. He believed that if they knew the fate [that] awaits them upon arrival in Auschwitz, many lives would have been saved. He promised himself to bring them that knowledge, and he kept his promise.”

Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said he first heard Dr. Vrba speak about his experiences in Auschwitz when he appeared as a prosecution witness in Ernst Zundel’s 1985 hate trial.

“There are very few stories from those that were actually there . . . [and] his story was breathtaking,” Mr. Farber said yesterday.

“He had what’s been described as a photographic memory. He was able to recall the numbers of those who were killed. He was able to give eyewitness testimony that was unshakable, and he played a pivotal role in Zundel’s conviction. . . . He was able to tell the story with such clarity that people were able to understand the Holocaust.”

Dr. Vrba, born in 1924 in Slovakia, was among those rounded up by the Nazis in 1942 and sent to the death camp of Majdanker. A few months later, he was transferred to Auschwitz.

“He was imprisoned in the main camp and was put to work in ‘Kanada,’ the camp name for the work detail that had the gruesome task of removing the dead from newly arrived trains, gathering the luggage and sorting it for the rapacious Nazi killers,” journalist Paul Lungen wrote in a profile in The Canadian Jewish News last year.

From the main Auschwitz camp, Dr. Vrba was transferred to Birkenau, a satellite camp four kilometres away, the final stop for hundreds of thousands of Jews.

“On arrival, survivors were split by sex into two groups, and then Nazi doctors, headed by Josef Mengele, made a selection. With a casual thumb pointing to the left, a prisoner or an entire family would be consigned to the gas chambers and immediate death. Those sent to the right would be registered, tattooed and shaved and then, most often, be subjected to slave labour,” wrote Mr. Lungen.

Dr. Vrba was one of the lucky ones. He went to the right and was given a number of jobs that allowed him to roam throughout the camp.

“As a result, he was able to witness and document the killing process first-hand,” reported The Canadian Jewish News.

“From August, 1942, to June, 1943, he worked in Kanada and was present at the arrival of nearly all train transports. During that time, he committed to memory each transport, its place of origin and the number of arrivals.”

By April, 1944, Dr. Vrba had calculated that 1.7-million Jews had been killed in the death camps. And from guards he’d overhead, he knew that the number was going to climb, with “a million units” expected to arrive from Hungary.

Dr. Vrba and Mr. Wetzler, knowing they would be tortured to death if caught, escaped by hiding in a space that had been hollowed out inside a pile of construction lumber just outside Birkenau’s barbed-wire inner perimeter. Each day, prisoners were allowed out to the construction site under the watchful eye of guards. At night they were herded back inside the inner camp.

From watching other unsuccessful escape attempts, Dr. Vrba knew that once their absence was detected in an evening count, guards would search the outer area for three days. So he and Mr. Wetzler, their scent masked from guard dogs by tobacco sprinkled with gasoline, huddled in their hiding spot until the night of the third day before slipping away. They made their way under darkness to the Sola River, and, using a map Dr. Vrba had torn from a child’s atlas inside Birkenau, eventually crossed the Slovakian border and made contact with the Slovak Jewish Council.

Their warnings about Auschwitz were dutifully recorded and sent to Slovakia, Hungary and Switzerland, but their report was not passed on immediately to the general Jewish population in Hungary.

“A month later, nearly half a million Jews were deported to their deaths. None of them knew what was in store for them. As a result, Vrba and Wetzler concluded that their information had been suppressed. Vrba, for one, remains convinced that if the intended victims had been warned, they would have resisted or hid or fled. The tragedy of the Hungarian Jewry would have taken a very different course,” John Conway, a UBC emeritus professor of history and a friend of Dr. Vrba’s, has written.

Dr. Vrba leaves his wife, Robin Vrba, his daughter, Zuza, of Cambridge, England, his granddaughter, Hannah, his grandson, Jan, and nephews Stefan Horny, of Montreal, and Jan Horny, of Tuttlingen, Germany. He died on Monday.