Alan Twigg’s tribute to Rudolf Vrba

Rudolf Vrba, who escaped Auschwitz and co-authored a report saving 200,000 lives, remains unrecognized in Vancouver despite his significant historical impact. Alan Twigg (l.) seeks to change this.” FULL STORY

 

Alan Twigg’s tribute to Rudolf Vrba

June 11th, 2024

by Guy Bennett

Rudolf Vrba (1924-2006) was a Slovak-Jew who escaped from Auschwitz at the age of 19, then co-wrote the Vrba-Wetzler report which revealed to the world exactly how the German death-factories worked. Vrba is credited with saving 200,000 Hungarian lives.

Vrba became a Canadian citizen in 1972. He taught pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. In the city of Vancouver, where Vrba lived for thirty years, there is not a single monument, statue or plaque to recognize WWII’s foremost whistleblower. Nor is there a mention of Vrba in any Canadian school textbook.

Alan Twigg, a member of the Order of Canada, author and editor of twenty books including Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia (Ronsdale, 2022), is writing the first full biography of Vrba, that he claims will reveal “the private side of this brilliant, swashbuckling, complicated man.”

Alan Twigg first met Vrba in 2000. Photo was taken near Vrba’s home on UBC campus.

“Nobody saved more lives during World War II than Vrba,” Twigg asserts. “I’m not Jewish. But I am interested in history. I know a hero when I meet one. Sometimes I imagine his ghost, walking the blossomed streets of Vancouver, looking around to see if anyone remembers him. It makes me angry. I want to know: Where is the statue of Rudolf Vrba?”

Twigg’s rhetorical question has a sharp point aimed directly at City Hall.

Vancouver has a track record of boosting its hometown heroes.

In Vancouver, a stone statue honours ice hockey enthusiast Lord Stanley, a 14-foot bronze sculpture depicts “Portuguese Joe Silvey and his Coast Salish Wives,” and a commemorative star on BC’s Walk of Fame, honours the oeuvre of the music journalist, ‘Nardwar the Human Serviette.’”

The only evidence that Vrba lived in Vancouver is a small grave that sits in an undisclosed, non-Jewish cemetery well-beyond city limits.

Other countries do sometimes take notice of Vrba. Jonathan Freedland, a U.K. Guardian journalist recently re-told Vrba’s 1963 memoir, I Cannot Forgive [later retitled I Escaped from Auschwitz].

“Freedland’s The Escape Artist is a good book,” says Twigg, “It’s been translated worldwide into more than twenty languages. But there is a much bigger story to be told about Vrba: his private life, his professional and personal relationships, his young daughter’s mysterious death – and his beliefs about the holocaust that left him estranged from the mainstream Jewish community in Europe, Israel and Canada.”

Doing background research for his biography of Vrba, Twigg has compiled a million-word archive of documents and transcripts, including unpublished interviews he conducted with Vrba’s ex-wives, lovers, childhood friends, antagonists and confidants.

Circa 1959 – Vrba with his daughters, Zuzana Vrba and Helena Vrba.

Here are the undisputed facts: Vrba and his co-escapee Alfred Wetzler provided the world with the first forensically detailed evidence of the Holocaust.

Arriving at Auschwitz, the teenage Vrba reported seeing, “expressionless Ukrainian prisoners, pitching skeleton dash thin bodies, like scraggy slabs of beef onto a lorry.”

“The people of the nearby town of Auschwitz were complaining about the stench of burning Jewish flesh in their Aryan nostrils,” Vrba recalled. “New arrivals were told to strip and have a shower in a large wooden hut. As soon as the hut was full, the doors were locked and gassing began. Survivors were shot. All bodies were flung into blazing trenches.”

Because he spoke five languages, including German, Vrba was assigned a variety of administrative posts inside Auschwitz. He took notes. He kept records. He counted the bodies.

Vrba’s first job inside Auschwitz was collecting the belongings of the murdered Jews. It was then that he learned the real reason for this vast extermination.

“It was not merely anti-Semitism, or even sadism,” Vrba wrote. “It was mainly cold, calculated robbery, designed to bolster the German generals’ war machine and the home economy.”

“That theory wasn’t popular in the 1950s,” Twigg confirmed. “And it isn’t popular in 2024. Because it suggests that Jews died en masse in WWII because they were wealthy, not because they were Jews. It complicates the narrative.”

According to Vrba, “Fur coats were remodeled, military fashion, for the eastern front. Gold teeth were melted down. In three years, in fact, Auschwitz sent 6 tons of gold to the Berlin State Bank.”

“What I learned made me determined to escape,” said Vrba. “If I could reveal the secret of Auschwitz to the world, thousands might be saved.”

Incredibly, Vrba did escape, and he did save lives.

Twigg isn’t the only talented Canadian writer who believes Vrba is underappreciated in his adoptive home town.

“B.C.’s most famous authors include Douglas Coupland, Eckhart Tolle, Pauline Johnson, William Gibson and Alice Munro,” writes author and Postmedia columnist Douglas Todd.

“Despite their global renown, however,” Todd continued, “a strong case can be made that the province’s most important author, in light of both historical impact and value, is someone about whom most British Columbians have not heard. Rudolf Vrba. It’s a new name for me, too.”

Contrasting the magnitude of Vrba’s accomplishments, with Vancouver’s cold snub, you could be forgiven for thinking “Vrba got cancelled – he must be a liar, a thief, a wife beater – a toxic villain with a single act of heroism stranded incongruously at the bottom of his resume.”

But that is not the case.

“I’ve interviewed 35 people who knew Vrba intimately,” states Twigg, “Including his widow Robin Vrba – a former Vancouver realter who now lives in Massachusetts. Everyone I interviewed loved him and admired him deeply.”

From Vrba’s family members, friends and colleagues, Twigg learned that “Vrba was a brilliant, kind, funny, and argumentative ladies’ man who did not suffer fools gladly.”

If Vrba is a likeable WWII hero with garden variety flaws, why has he not been embraced by historians, Jewish leaders and local governments?

“The thing that made the world turn their back on Vrba,” says Twigg, “was his loud condemnation of the Jewish leadership in Europe, particularly Hungary.”

In April of 1944, when Vrba escaped from Auschwitz, Hungary was the only country left in Europe that had not shipped its Jews to the death factory.

“The senior Jewish Leadership in Budapest read the Vrba-Wetzler report,” says Twigg, “but failed to sound the alarm. 600,000 Hungarian Jews were put on trains before the conveyor belt was finally halted, saving 200,000 lives.”

1944 – Hungarian Jews for selection on the train platform at Auschwitz.

Vrba was bitter about the delayed reaction to his report.

“I am a Jew,” Vrba wrote. “In spite of that, indeed because of it, I accuse certain Jewish leaders of one of the most ghastly deeds of the war. This small group of quislings knew what was happening to their brethren in Hitler’s gas chambers and bought their own lives with the price of silence.”

“There’s an irony here,” Twigg points out. “The way to survive in Auschwitz was to become part of the machinery that killed the Jews. The reward was food and the temporary extension of your life. Inside Auschwitz, Vrba was part of the Jewish elite. At nineteen, he was a grizzled veteran. He had survived 18 months. Most Jews arriving at Auschwitz were dead within a week.”

“Inside Auschwitz, Vrba was in no position to save lives,” Twigg continued. “The only way he could do that was to gather information, escape, and tell the world what was going on. He did that.”

Most of the people who survived Auschwitz were broken. They suffered from “survivor’s guilt.” Vrba did not. People who met him after the escape often commented that he had a positive, buoyant, light energy.

“In Auschwitz, Vrba did what he had to do, to survive,” confirms Twigg. “He found a way to make his survival profoundly meaningful. To a large degree, that washed away his guilt. But it did not wash away his outrage. Some of his outrage was directed at groups of Jewish leaders who collaborated with the Nazis. It was wrong that he was punished for that opinion. This biography is an attempt to right that wrong.”

With the research phase completed, Twigg has begun talking to publishers.

“I’d like this biography to find a home with a Canadian publisher,” says Twigg. “But often the first question I get from Canadian publishers is: ‘Who is Rudolf Vrba?”

Alan Twigg’s preceding biography documents the life and times of the last surviving doctor to have worked alongside Dr. Albert Schweitzer at his jungle clinic. Moon Madness: Dr. Louise Aall, Sixty Years of Healing in Africa (Ronsdale Press, 2019) centers on the Canadian physician who pioneered treatment programs for Africans with epilepsy.

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Guy Bennett is a west coast wordsmith. He has one Chinese wife and three white children.

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