Friday, January 28, 2005
'Sold his soul to the devil'
Rudolf Vrba escaped from Auschwitz in 1944 and sounded the warning about the impending destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Psychologist Prof. Ruth Linn believes Vrba was deliberately 'forgotten' to cover up the failures of Jewish leaders in Hungary and Slovakia
By Uri Dromi
PROF. Ruth Linn is a psychologist and dean of the school of education at the University of Haifa. She has an extremely busy schedule, but in the past few years, she has been focusing her attention on one thing: the escape of two men from Auschwitz. In 1987, Linn saw Claude Lanzmann's film "Shoah" on Israeli television, in which a man named Rudolf Vrba recounted the story of his escape from the extermination camp.
Linn was stunned. A graduate of the Reali High School in Haifa, one of the country's most prestigious schools, she had no idea that anyone had ever escaped from there and was still alive. Why hadn't she ever been taught about such an act of heroism?
During a visit to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, she mentioned this to her friend Mira Samet. "Have you ever heard of Rudolf Vrba?" she asked her. "Sure," Samet replied casually, and pointed at one of the buildings. "He's a professor here at the university and his office is over there."
Linn urged her friend to arrange a meeting for her with Vrba who, after much initial reluctance, finally agreed to see her. The professor of pharmacology greeted her with undisguised chilliness, and gave her to understand right away that he had no interest in "your state of the Judenrats and [Reszö] Kastner's," and basically chased her out of his office - after unceremoniously tossing her a copy of his autobiography in English. When Linn began reading it, she was instantly engrossed.
The story was amazing. Vrba was born Walter Rosenberg in 1924 in the Slovakian town of Topolcany. In 1942, [i.e. aged 18] he was deported to Maidanek and was transferred from there to Auschwitz. He worked in Birkenau, in the "Canada" warehouse - where they sorted the suitcases of those who were taken away to the gas chambers. In early 1944, he noticed a lot of bustling in the camp and heard a drunken SS guard blurt out that he was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the "Hungarian salami." As Vrba writes in his book, he decided to escape "to warn the Hungarians, to stir them up."
On Passover Eve, April 7, 1944, Vrba and his friend Alfred Wetzler slipped into the hiding place they had prepared ahead of time. On April 11, they managed to escape from the camp [yes, but how?]. After an arduous and dangerous 11-day trek, they reached Bratislava in Slovakia. (Before them, only one person, Siegfried Lederer, had ever escaped from Auschwitz; after them, only two others did - Cslaw Morowitz and Arnost Rosin.) At the "Working Group" - the headquarters of the Jewish community in Slovakia - they were taken into separate rooms, where each dictated the details of what would later be known as the "Auschwitz Report" or the "Auschwitz Protocols."
For six decades, a debate has been raging around the question of what was done with the information delivered by Vrba and Wetzler. Was it conveyed to Yisrael [?] Kastner, a leader of Hungarian Jewry, and if so, what did he do with it? And what did "the world" do about it? The writings of Rabbi Michoel Dov Weissmandel, the ultra-Orthodox leader in the Slovak Jewish Working Group, included desperate pleas "to blow up from the air the houses of extermination at Auschwitz" (from his posthumously published book, "Min hametzar" - "From the Depths"). And then, of course, there's the question of what the leadership of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) did or didn't do, and what it could have done.
Vrba came to Israel from Czechoslovakia in 1958 and worked at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot for two years. But he did not acclimate well here and ended up moving to London and eventually to Vancouver. In 1963, he wrote a furious book entitled "I Cannot Forgive." Historian John Conway helped him publish his version of events, which asserts that the Jewish leadership - in Slovakia, but especially in Hungary - delayed the dissemination of his and Wetzler's report, and therefore bears responsibility for the deaths of many Jews.
He testified often at trials of Nazi war criminals. His memory sometimes betrayed him and Holocaust deniers like David Irving pounced on such instances with relish.
According to Avraham Pressberger of Omer, a childhood friend of Vrba who still keeps in touch with him, Vrba is angry at the Israeli historians who continue to defend the leadership of these Jewish communities during the Holocaust. Vrba himself declined to be interviewed for this article.
Ruth Linn decided to publish Vrba's book in Hebrew. She discovered that Yehoshua Ben-Ami, from Herzliya, had already translated the book, but was unable to find any commercial publisher willing to publish it. Ben-Ami, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, had also offered it to Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Authority, but was politely turned down.
Historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a leading Israeli scholar of the Holocaust, who considers Vrba "one of the Jewish heroes of the Holocaust," wrote to Ben-Ami:
"The book is not a memoir in the accepted sense of the word. It contains transcripts of conversations that of course cannot be exact and it has elements of a second-hand story that do not necessarily coincide with reality. However, everything that he relates about himself and his actions is not only the absolute truth, but also a historical document of great importance. I truly regret that Yad Vashem did not translate the book into Hebrew. On the other hand, his whole wild assault on Kastner and the underground Slovakian leadership is ahistorical and fundamentally mistaken, and for this reason, I am glad that Yad Vashem does not have its name on his book. You can see that I am torn in how I feel about it."
In 1998, the Hebrew book "Barahti me'Auschwitz" ("I Escaped from Auschwitz"), based on Ben-Ami's translation, was published by the University of Haifa and Zmora Bitan. At about the same time, Linn arranged for Vrba to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the university (Bauer added his recommendation).
Not everyone was pleased with the gesture. In a letter to Haaretz, Livia Rothkirchen, Yishayahu Jelinek, Akiva Nir, Yehoshua Bichler and Gila Fatran - historians of Slovakian origin - all praised the decision to honor Vrba, but also asked why Wetzler was being overlooked, particularly since he was, they say, the real planner and organizer of the escape and also "wrote a marvelous book about this escape, which, since it was published behind the Iron Curtain, did not receive the same publicity as Vrba's book. Wetzler died in Slovakia a few years ago, depressed and bitter over how his part in this episode had been forgotten."
In response, Linn asked where all these historians had been until now and why they never took any steps to ensure that Wetzler received due recognition.
Prof. Hanna Yablonka - author of the books "Ahim zarim" ("Estranged Brothers: Holocaust Survivors in Israel, 1948-1952") and "The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann" - says that the group of Slovakian historians (she herself is a second-generation Slovakian) are
"people of science who have dedicated their lives to the study of the history of the Jews of Slovakia. They are all Holocaust survivors who are able to read documents and records in Slovak, and would not have lent a hand to concealing information on whose basis their loved ones were murdered."
Dr. Gila Fatran, who wrote a doctorate under Prof. Bauer's guidance, in which she refuted the accusation of collaboration hurled at the Slovak Working Group, cannot understand how Vrba's account can be granted such unqualified acceptance, without comparing it to Wetzler's version and to new documents now coming to light in the Slovakian archives.
In his new book, "Yehudim limechira?" ("Jews for Sale?"), Bauer writes:
"The trauma of the Holocaust had a severe effect on the internal intra-Jewish discourse, in the form of baseless accusations whose origin lay in the despair and anger over the loss of so many. The fury was directed at those who tried to save lives, in effect, accusing them of murder. It is almost pointless to try to quarrel with this anger, since facts and logical arguments cannot assuage it."
Yet, when Linn published an article a year ago in the Hebrew journal Teoria u'bikoret (Theory and Criticism) entitled "Habriha me'Auschwitz: madu'a lo sipru lanu al kach be'veit hasefer?" ("The Escape From Auschwitz: Why Weren't We Told About it in School?"), Bauer responded - in the same issue - that she was not dealing with primary sources, that her quotes were selective, that her accusations were groundless and that she admired Vrba with "a blind, uncritical admiration." In a letter to The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, which had published a review of Linn's book, "Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting" (Cornell University Press), he wrote: "Linn's effort will make headlines, no doubt, but in the end is ahistorical."
"That's their method," says Linn. "They'll inundate you with details, catch you on errors here and there, say that you're in the field of education and not a historian - whatever they can come up with so as not to deal with the question I pose to them: How did it happen that we were never taught about this important heroic act?"
By "they," Linn means Bauer and his disciples, who she says all do as he says and are all party to the deliberate silencing of the story of the escape. Why would they do that? Linn answers without hesitation:
"Because Vrba's escape contradicts Bauer's thesis that the Jews didn't know, and that if they were aware, then they didn't really grasp the situation. And besides, the leaders apparently did know and did grasp what was happening, because they saved themselves. That's why it was important to conceal Vrba's story. My main criticism isn't really so much against Bauer, who mentioned Vrba in his books - though not enough and not by name, but against Prof. Israel Gutman, who didn't mention him at all."
In a new book on Auschwitz, which Gutman - former director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research and current adviser to Yad Vashem - published at the Holocaust institute together with Michael Berenbaum, there is an entire chapter on the escape. But Linn is referring to Gutman and Haim Schatzker's 1983 book "The Holocaust and its Meaning," the basic text taught in Israeli high schools, in which the story is not mentioned. Gutman is not fazed by the accusation. With the serenity of an emeritus professor whose stature is secure, he explains: "Vrba is not the only one we didn't discuss. In a textbook, you summarize and put in only the most fundamental things."
Prof. Dalia Ofer, head of the Institute for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agrees with Gutman. For many years, she taught history at the Hebrew University Secondary School ("Leyada") in Jerusalem, and later trained educators to teach about the Holocaust: "If I had to think of the 10 things that should be in a Holocaust textbook, this escape wouldn't necessarily be one of them," she says. "Primo Levi, a discussion of the Auschwitz camp itself - these would go in before that."
Dr. Ruth Firer, a senior scholar at Hebrew University's Truman Institute, also taught the Holocaust at the Hebrew Gymnasia high school in Jerusalem. She conducted research of 78 local high-school textbooks used in the years 1946-1988, and claims that textbooks are not the proper context in which to deal with the type of dillemas and accusations raised by Vrba.
Linn says that this is precisely the problem. In her view, the suppression of the story of the Auschwitz escape prevented Israeli youth from asking new questions about the moral obligation of a trapped leadership in a time of genocide. "The reaction of the Holocaust historians to the publication of Vrba's book in Hebrew, after his story was silenced for 35 years, shows that they almost succeeded in their 'mission,'" she says.
Are textbooks the only test? What about the supplementary books that a teacher uses or refers his or her students to? Vrba and Wetzler's escape is mentioned in at least four popular books on the Holocaust. But Linn does not mention them. Applying the same criticism she cites against Bauer and his disciples, one could ask whether she isn't deliberately minimizing the impact of these four books, which contradict her thesis. Or is it perhaps the case that, like many of us, she just hasn't read everything that has been written about the subject?
Another book Linn fails to take into account is Livia Rothkirchen's "Hurban yahadut Slovakia" ("The Destruction of Slovakian Jewry"), published by Yad Vashem in 1961. This is a major oversight. Rothkirchen cites the lengthy testimony of the second escapee, Alfred Wetzler, before the international court in Bratislava in 1946. When Linn presented her thesis at a conference in Haifa, Prof. Yablonka spoke up from the audience to mention Rothkirchen's work, and Linn replied: Does one righteous woman in Sodom change the entire picture?
But does Israeli youth get all its information about the Holocaust from school or books? In September 1978, Israeli television aired the four-part Hollywood series "Holocaust," in which Vrba appeared and told his story. The broadcast earned extremely high ratings: 75 percent of Israeli television viewers at the time tuned in.
In 1990, Dr. Robert Rozett, who heads the library at Yad Vashem, wrote the "Auschwitz Report" entry in "Encyclopedia of the Holocaust," edited by Gutman, with Vrba's full story. He met Vrba at a convention in Washington and was impressed by his anger, but doesn't buy the conspiracy theory. Rozett, who receives 3,500 books on the Holocaust each year, chooses his words carefully:
"There are people who come into the subject from a certain angle and think that they've uncovered the truth. A historian who deals seriously with the subject understands that the truth is complex and multifaceted."
Historian Prof. Dina Porat sighs when she hears that Linn is accusing her of minimizing Vrba's contribution. In the early 1980s, when she wrote "Hanhaga bemilkud" ("Leadership in a Trap"), she had no idea that Vrba was so harshly critical of the Slovak leadership and wrote that the Auschwitz Report had influenced the Jewish Agency leadership to alter its policy to call for the Allies to bomb the death camps. Neither her doctoral adviser, Prof. Daniel Karpi, nor Bauer ever told her to write one thing or another. Porat dismisses the idea that there is some kind of committee that sits and decides what will be studied and what will be published: Granted, at a meeting of the scientific committee of Yad Vashem, of which she is a member, someone once proposed that young researchers be assigned the task of writing about specific areas that are lacking in the historiography of the Holocaust, but the suggestion was unanimously rejected on the grounds that scholars should be left to pursue their own interests.
Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem, says that careful judgment, like that used at every quality academic press, is the determining factor in selecting works for publication. As a matter of fact, Yad Vashem, which Yehoshua Ben-Ami calls "the defender of the Judenrats," does publish Randolph Braham, who sharply disagrees with Bauer's thesis of the Jews' failure to adequately grasp the situation; and a collection of studies published by the institution even includes a joke that was popular in Theresienstadt and Budapest: A Jew is awakened one night by loud pounding on the door. "Who's there?" he asks in terror. "The Gestapo," comes the answer. "Thank God," he sighs with relief. "For a moment, I thought it was the Jewish Council."
Perhaps certain things were forgotten unintentionally? In 2003, Malka Cohen wrote a doctoral thesis at Bar-Ilan University in which she compared the curricula at various local institutions dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust (Yad Vashem, the Massua Institute at Kibbutz Beit Yitzhak, Beit Lohamei Hage'taot and others). What she found was that all the educational activities of these institutions gave short shrift to the rescue of Jews in comparison to their extermination or to life in the ghettoes.
Prof. Yeshayahu Jelinek, author of "Exile in the Carpathians: The Jews of Carpatho-Rus' and Mukachevo, 1848-1948," has his own explanation as to why Vrba and Wetzler are not more renowned: "Who ever thinks about the Jews of Slovakia? A medium-size ghetto in Poland was larger than our whole community. Everyone knows about Hannah Szenes. How many people know about Haviva Raik?"
Maybe the problem is with the way Israeli society creates its heroes? About 10 years ago, Dr. Avner Ben-Amos of Tel Aviv University's school of education and Ilana Beit-El examined how Zionist heroes are reflected in Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day ceremonies. "Since in the first years of the state, Zionism was built upon the rejection of the Diaspora and the passive Jew, and sought to create an image of 'the new Jew,' the commemorations centered mainly on those who fought the Nazis," Ben-Amos said in an interview with Haaretz. "We could identify with the victims of the Holocaust only if we found the heroes among them."
But Vrba was a hero, argues Linn. He was just as heroic as Hannah Szenes, who did not save a single Jew, while Vrba's actions did contribute to the rescue of many Jews living in Budapest: In reaction to international pressure after the reports filtered out to Switzerland and Sweden, the Hungarian ruler, Miklos Horthy, halted the transports to Auschwitz. And Szenes is acclaimed as a heroine while "Rudy" (as Linn refers to Vrba) has been forgotten.
Prof. Daniel Guttwein of Haifa University says that "collective memory is the result of a struggle between conflicting memory agents. There is no reason why anyone should not put forth an alternative version of the dominant narrative."
Dr. Tom Segev, author of "Hamilyon hashevi'i" ("The Seventh Million - The Israelis and the Holocaust") agrees. "There's no Salman Rushdie phenomenon here," he says. Indeed, when Idith Zertal complained that the establishment was blocking the publication of Hannah Arendt's book, "Eichmann in Jerusalem," Prof. Yehoshua Porat immediately phoned the publisher who was supposed to put out the book, and was told the simple truth: The hold-up was due to a copyright issue that had yet to be sorted out. Errors of judgment sometimes occur, too, as the nine publishers who turned down "Harry Potter" before Scholastic scooped it up will ruefully attest. And sometimes it's a question of luck: Not every Schindler is fortunate enough to have a Spielberg to rescue him from obscurity.
One of the arguments often voiced against Linn is that she is not a historian. When he heard that she had taken up the topic of the Auschwitz report, Israel Gutman asked politely: "She's a psychologist, isn't she? Is she thoroughly familiar with the material? I, for example, would not write about psychology, even though I'm interested in it." Linn contends that historians don't own the exclusive rights to history.
Prof. Yehoyakim Cochavi, head of the Institute for Holocaust Research at the University of Haifa, agrees that it is Linn's legitimate right to discuss the issue from a psychological or educational perspective, and says that historians can then debate her findings. If the question she poses is a good one, then in the end, everyone will benefit. The papers on Holocaust studies that he edited for the book, "Dapim: Studies on the Shoah," are multidisciplinary, as is the curriculum for the master's degree in Holocaust studies, which is a joint curriculum of the history department that he heads and Ruth Linn's school of education at the university.
Prof. Dan Bar-On, who heads the department of behavioral sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and interviewed three generations of Holocaust survivors for his book, "Bein pahad letikva" ("Between Fear and Hope"), thinks that historians have a decisive role to play in answering the question of what happened and how it happened. However, when dealing with a question of memory, it is also important for psychologists and sociologists to be part of the picture, since this is their field. "You can't deal with the Holocaust from the standpoint of a single discipline," he asserts. If Linn is convinced that Vrba's voice has been silenced and she wants to give it expression, that's her right - as long as she does good research.
All things considered, Linn should be satisfied. The teacher's guide to Auschwitz-Birkenau entitled "Keshe'hamilim ne'elmot ..." ("When Words Disappear ...") by Inbal Kvity, published in 2000 by Yad Vashem's Pedagogic Center, contains a description of the escape and includes a quote in Hebrew from the Vrba book. And perhaps this is where the way in which an episode, or a personality, acquires a grip on the collective memory becomes clear: It was Linn herself, motivated by her passion for the subject, who mobilized her university to grant Vrba an honorary degree and put two new books on the shelf - Vrba's in Hebrew and her own in English - to compete for the public's attention. As a result, she ruffled the tranquillity of a number of historians, eliciting words of criticism from them, but perhaps also obliging them to engage in some soul-searching. And at this very moment, via these lines, she is tugging on the sleeves of thousands of readers and urging them to contemplate a new story. Many other people, of course, who don't read these lines, will not know of it. Afterward, in a tangled and elusive game of forces and influences, the whole thing will either survive or sink, depending on its real weight. That's the way things work, apparently.
Hungarian-born Yisrael (Rudolph) Kastner (1906-1957) was a senior official in Israel's Trade and Industry Ministry (as it was known at the time), and a candidate of the ruling ''Mapai party (precursor of the Labor Party) for the Second Knesset. In 1953 he was accused by Holocaust survivor Malchiel Greenwald of having collaborated with the Nazis in the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry; of concealing the danger of the annihilation from Hungary's Jews in order to rescue 1,700 "privileged" Jews, among them his relatives and friends, who were allowed to leave Budapest for Switzerland; and of helping to save the Nazi war criminal Kurt Bachar [Becker] by testifying on his behalf at the Nuremberg Trials.
Kastner sued Greenwald for defamation of character. Greenwald's lawyer was Shmuel Tamir, later minister of justice. In June 1955 District Court Judge Binyamin Halevy found that Greenwald's accusations against Kastner about collaborating with the Nazis had been proved and that "Kastner sold his soul to the devil." Halevy also found that Kastner had perjured himself at Nuremberg. Kastner's supporters retorted that he was in fact a hero who, despite all the objective risks and emotional difficulties that were involved in holding contacts with Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann, had done his best to rescue as many Jews as possible.
As the judgment cast aspersions on Mapai as well, the government decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. In January 1958, the Supreme Court, in a majority decision (3-2) found that Kastner did not collaborate with the Nazis and that under certain circumstances, a leader has to hide certain things from the public. However, all five justices found that Kastner had committed perjury in 1947 and had thus spared a senior S.S. officer from getting his due punishment.
By this time, though, Kastner was no longer alive. On March 4, 1957, he was assassinated by a squad from the ultranationalist right. This is considered the first political assassination in Israel. (Source: The Knesset Web site)
Pictures courtesy of Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR)