on 6 October 2005
This is Rudolph Vrba's account of his life and escape from Auschwitz. He relates the horrific reverse society he lived in where criminals were the police and policing was torture and death. He wore a number. He was forced to witness his people murdered in the tens of thousands.
After his escape he attempted (with the evidence he had managed to escape with) to reach the Jewish population of Hungaria in order to warn them that they were about to be murdered. He thought that the powers that be would attempt to save them; he was wrong, 400,000 of them died because of disbeleif and scepticism in his story but more so because of a traitor.
As with all Holocaust testimony the stories are worth the time reading and their message worth assimilating. Germany was not an anomally, it could have been any country in the world that fell into such barbarity. Rudolph Vrba's account therefore is as much as a warning now as it was when he first escaped. The personalities that perpetrated these horrors exist in contemporary times also, these are not extraordinary people; it is the fact that they are ordinary that makes it imperative that Vrba's account be read.
on 26 October 2007
"The Slovak border is about 80 miles from Auchwitz, as the crow flies. Unfortunately, Fred and I were only Jews, which meant we had to walk".
The stunning true account of the escape from Auschwitz Concentration camp by two young inmates - the author Rudolf Vrba and Alfred (Fred) Wetzler - is something that every school in the world should own a copy of, and as many people as possible should be encouraged to read.
Rudolf Vrba, interned whilst still in his teens, realised that the Jews would resist the death trains if only they knew what they truly meant. Therefor he made up his mind that he must escape and tell the world what was happening withtin the confines of the Nazi extermination camp.
It was not until 1944 that Rudolf and Alfred succeeded where many had failed and managed not only to escape but to make their way - with the help of brave Polish people - to safety where they alerted the remaining Jewish councils as to what was really being done. Despite their accurate accounts, however, the information which might have saved many more Hungarian Jews was NOT immediately made available to the rulers and allies who may have been able to take action sooner - nonetheless, these two men are responsibly for the lives of many thousands of Auschwitz inmates.
Written with stark brutality - and yet with moments of humour - this is an unfortgettable tale of mans inhumanity to man. Of former boyhood friends who thought nothing of executing their old playmates, or the innocence of the many who went willingly to the "shower blocks" or who volunteered to work on the "farms" that were promised as part of the Jewish resettlement.
Rudolf refers to the inmates, standing to attention for an inspection, as being "like well behaved zebras". A new guard to the camp is described as "a neat little figure of 5ft 2 which, incidentally, gave him the double record of being the smallest and most viscious officer in Auchwitz". There are acts of kindness by some guards, the secret sharing of food, the cups of coffee drunk in groups by the Registrars - of which Rudolf became one - in between the horrors of their day to day work "administering" the camp.
The History Channel made a one hour programme about the escape of the these two men which inspired me to seek out this book. I really cannot recommend it highly enough - the author wrote it in the 1960's when he realised that many ordinary Germans could not accept that anyone would go quietly to their death. One man challenged Rudolf with the fact that his own wife, a meek woman, would have fought like a tiger to save her children - yet the Jews allowed themselves to be executed in unbelievable numbers?
And so the slick workings of the camps, the deceipt, the lies and the tricks used to fool the inmates as well as the Red Cross, are laid bare in this book. Read it - it will stay with you for a long time.
on 17 October 2011
The Holocaust - aren'tchasickofit ? For many the subject is by now boring, even irritating. The whole c.6-million person massacre has, sadly, been 'done to death'. It's always about the Jews. Why won't they stop whining ? Don't they know 25 million Russians died in the Second World War ? How are they different from Stalin's disappeared or Mao's millions ?
The answer is of course that they are no different, and the strength of this book lies in that there is no special pleading. This is no Hollywood tale about a people done down, misunderstood and mistreated. This is the story of what humans do to humans. It is the account of a boy who lived it. He tells a spare, unvarnished, unsentimental story about what happened to him. As he recounts the events of his youth, you get to see his community - Slovakian, Jewish - warts and all, and all the other groups and individuals with which he becomes necessarily involved: Hungarian, Polish, German; Zionist, Communist, Nazi; politicians and bureaucrats; fools, saints, sadists, traitors, heroes; the quick, the weak and the dead.
Even after a lifetime of being subjected to the story of the 'Final Solution', one thing came through to me from this narrative which to my surprise I had never properly understood: the staggering scale of what the Nazis did. The best one might do perhaps is to envisage a project to kill everyone in London, with limited means and methods available. It would take years, and could not be achieved if the population were ever to suspect what is going on. Yet the Nazis built an entire economy of genocide. They were fighting a world war on multiple fronts, but managed to find the means - and critically, willing men and women - to organise, transport, maltreat and murder hundreds, thousands, millions of other men, women and children. More, they had to dispose of the mountains of cadavers and possessions of those they had killed - which they did with industrial efficiency - all the while keeping the whole damned, pathological enterprise a secret. One can almost understand the deniers: it is too stupendous, too horrific to be grasped by any sane mind.
Word by word, phrase by phrase, incident by incident, Rudolph Vrba communicates how it was done and what it was like. As he strains to survive in the diseased hell which is Auschwitz, he gradually builds an understanding of what is going on. As he does so, we go with him, until we are enmeshed in something so nightmarish that we can scarcely believe it. What he succeeds ultimately in communicating is the reality of Evil, in all its incredible mundanity. Ordinary people beating, torturing and killing other people - every day, for years and years, rain or shine. This book is the literary equivalent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 'Triumph of Death,' and much, much more frightening.
Most shocking of all perhaps, over and above being told with remarkable economy and restraint what some humans are capable of doing to others, is the revelation of how, after the war, so many of the perpetrators and collaborators got away with it, and continued (continue?) to live as normal members of 'society'. It makes one sick at heart to think of it and casts a troubled light on the world we live in, even today, 70 years on.
One of the greatest books of the 20th century, perhaps ever. Read it, and have your world changed.
on 11 June 2010
Rudolph Vrba was a prisoner in Nazi death camps from 1942 and on 7 April 1944, he and Alfred Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz death camp and they provided a vivid and highly detailed account that reached the allies about what was happening at the camp, the scale of the killings (he estimated that between April 1942 and April 1944, 1,765,000 Jews had been gassed) and the extermination that was planned for the 800,000 Jews in Hungary, the last great concentration of Jews left untouched at that time by the Nazis. His account of his time in the camp is truly horrific and relentless and you really sense his anger and frustration when after all his efforts to gather information in very risky circumstances the allied governments took no direct action to disrupt or prevent the killings at the death camps even though they knew full well what was taking place.
Vrba's views about this are agonising to read and are very well conveyed. The allies consistantly stated at the time that taking such action was inpracticable but this was disputed then and has been since. My criticism of the allies is not that they tried but failed but that they did not even bother to try.
on 25 October 2009
Extremely good book. Very well written. I had noticed the author in the 'Shoah' TV series. He was different from other survivors, an acid humor, unyielding. The book is very tough of course. It is also very precise. Rudolf Vrba is one of the few survivors of the '1st period' of Auschwitz (because the level violence was having 'negative effects' the Nazis improved the conditions in the '2nd period' for example the great book of Primo Levi is entirely in the '2nd period'). The author, with luck, instinct and toughness, managed to raise to become a camp 'prominenz' e.g. one of those who should not be concerned with hunger and immediate survival. This placed him in a position to escape, which he did. Because of that, he gathered a precise knowledge of the camps (Auschwitz and Birkenau) topology and defenses against escapes. This is very interesting. He then went on to escape, and to tell the world about it.