Never quite believed

On October 14, 1942, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva met to decide whether to go public with the evidence they had received – along with the Vatican and the Allied governments – about the Nazi extermination camps. They voted to do nothing. The information, they decided, was too uncertain and improbable, the outcome of a public protest too unpredictable, the threat to their work with prisoners of war too great. The Vatican and the Allies followed suit.

Who knew what when about what was happening to the Jews in eastern Europe from early in 1942 is a subject that has long fascinated historians. The account that had reached the West had come in part from Jan Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who had got himself into one of the extermination camps, then carried out reports on the Final Solution as it was unfolding, only to have them politely set aside . Other sporadic witness accounts emerged, but actual escape was virtually impossible. Rumors abounded, but were never quite believed. Indeed, no one wanted to believe them.

Then, on April 7, 1944, a young Slovak called Walter Rosenberg, better known by his adopted name of Rudolf Vrba, escaped from Auschwitz, with a companion, Fred Wetzler. It had taken many months, and the help of selfless assistants, to arrange it. Using tobacco soaked in petrol to confuse the sniffer dogs, and lying in a coffin-like pit for three days while the SS conducted a manhunt, the two young men wriggled past the sentry posts and, after several days of wandering precariously through the countryside, made it across the border to freedom.

Drawing on Vrba’s memoirs, and on conversations with his first wife and his widow, Jonathan Freedland has put together both the story of Vrba’s two years in Auschwitz and – perhaps most interestingly – the long saga of the aftermath of his escape. It is written almost as fiction and moves at a great pace. The teenage Vrba, strong, fit, clever, resourceful and at various moments extremely lucky, endured every bleak aspect of the camp, from the selection ramps to the mortuary, the construction sites to the storehouse for the possessions taken from the Jews as they arrived . Following his trajectory through camp life enabled Freedland to write a full account of the workings of the highly efficient Nazi killing machine and economic hub, kept smoothly running through a conspiracy of silence and denial.

What kept Vrba alive was his growing obsession with getting the facts out to the world. As he was moved from job to job within the camp, so he observed, noted and remembered: the numbers of arrivals, where they came from, their chances of survival, the fate of small children and the elderly, the deaths from starvation and brutality , all the “data of industrial murder”. The need to escape with these facts became more urgent as the spring of 1944 brought the first convoys of Hungarian Jews. He knew there would be more. If he could warn the world in time, Vrba thought, then they at least would be spared.

The last third of Freedland’s book concerns the sorry tale of Vrba’s desperate, and ultimately ill-fatated, attempts to make the world listen. Lethargy, inaction and disbelief met him at every turn. Having been helped to put down his story, on thirty-two single-spaced typed pages, along with ground plans of Auschwitz and Birkenau, he met employees, senior prelates, Allied representatives. Allen Dulles, the US spymaster based in Berne, passed it on, but it would be seven months before the full version saw the light in Washington. Calls for the bombing of the railway tracks leading to Auschwitz were dismissed as “impractical”, though nearby areas were successfully bombed.

The report reached London in July 1944, where it was read by Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, who might have acted had the RAF not declared that “it was out of their power”. Freedland quotes a chilling remark made by a man in the Foreign Office who observed that too much time was being wasted “on dealing with these wailing Jews”. About 200,000 Hungarian Jews were later said to have been saved after pressure was brought on the regent, Admiral Horthy, to halt the deportations, but that came too late for most of them. The thought that some at least had been spared brought Vrba some comfort.

Vrba had risked everything – slow strangulation was the fate of attempted escapes – in the belief that the information he carried would change the course of the war. Embittered by his failure, he nonetheless made a life as a chemical engineer, first in Prague, later in Israel, the UK and Canada. He married twice, had two daughters and worked on his own or with the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal to track down war criminals. He became a key witness at trials and an excellent source for historians. But he was not an easy man, short-tempered, querulous and sardonic.

When Martin Gilbert published his authoritative Auschwitz and the Allies in 1981, he concluded that while much had indeed been known about the Final Solution, Auschwitz had remained a largely “unknown destination … somewhere in the east”. However, new research, published some twenty years later, suggested otherwise. A steady, if small, stream of credible information about the extermination camps and the mass killings in the east had in fact been reaching the Allies from soon after the Final Solution was agreed in January 1942. Karski and Vrba were not the only messengers. Others had had their reports pushed to one side as policy-makers chose to focus on other war goals. After reading Vrba’s account, Churchill’s often quoted words “What can we do? What can we say?” can be understood both as a genuine expression of dismay and as uncertainty about the wisdom of making the facts known. The French Jewish philosopher Raymond Aron perhaps best summed up much of the world’s scepticism and inaction when, asked about what he had known about the Holocaust, replied: “I knew but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”

Jonathan Freedland has produced a painstaking and very readable reconstruction of Vrba’s recent frantic attempts to convince a world of facts it did not want to hear. It is a valuable, if depressing, reminder, at a time when veracity is everywhere under threat, of the fragility of the truth.

Caroline Moorehead is the author of a quartet of books on resistance in the Second World War

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