The Man Who Exposed Auschwitz

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Rudolf Vrba, one of the few Jews to escape Auschwitz, died in Vancouver last week at age 82. What Vrba revealed about the notorious death camp triggered a series of appeals to the Allies to bomb the gas chambers. But the Allies refused to do so.

In the spring of 1942, the seventeen year-old Vrba was deported from his native Slovakia to the Maidanek death camp, in Poland. Later that year, he was transferred to Auschwitz.

In April 1944, as the Germans prepared to deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, Vrba and a fellow-inmate, Alfred Wetzler, made their daring escape. For three days, they hid in a hollowed-out woodpile near the edge of the camp. On the advice of Soviet prisoners of war, the fugitives sprinkled the area with tobacco and gasoline, which confused the German dogs that were used to search for them.

On their second day in the woodpile, Vrba and Wetzler heard Allied warplanes overhead. “They came closer and closer–then bombs began to crunch not far away,” Vrba later recalled in his searing memoir, I Cannot Forgive. “Our pulses quickened. Were they going to bomb the camp? Was the secret out? … Was this the end of Auschwitz?”

The Allied planes were actually bombing German oil factories in and around the Auschwitz complex. The idea of bombing the death camp had not yet been raised, and details such as the location of the gas chambers and crematoria were not yet known. But that was about to change.

After an eleven-day, eighty-mile trek through southern Poland, Vrba and Wetzler reached Slovakia, where they met with Jewish leaders and dictated a thirty-page report that came to be known as the “Auschwitz Protocols.” It included details of the mass-murder process, maps pinpointing the gas chambers and crematoria, and warnings of the impending slaughter of Hungary’s Jews.

“One million Hungarian [Jews] are going to die,” Vrba told them. “Auschwitz is ready for them. But if you tell them now, they will rebel. They will never go to the ovens.” A copy of the report was given to Rudolf Kastner, a Budapest Jewish leader. Instead of publicizing the information, Kastner negotiated a deal that involved bribing the Germans to permit a train with 1,684 of his relatives, friends, and Hungarian Jewish leaders to leave the country. Kastner’s action became the centerpiece of a controversial trial in Israel after the war.

Another copy of Vrba’s Auschwitz Protocols was given to Rabbi Michoel Dov Weissmandel, a rescue activist in Bratislava, who then wrote the first known appeal for the use of Allied air power to disrupt the mass murder. Weissmandl’s plea to the Allies to bomb the railroad lines between Hungary and Auschwitz reached the Roosevelt administration in June.

Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy rejected the request. He said such a bombing was “impracticable” because it would require “diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” In response to subsequent bombing requests by other Jewish leaders, McCloy asserted that such raids “might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.” He also claimed the War Department’s position was based on “a study” of the issue.

In fact, no evidence of such a study has ever been found by researchers. McCloy’s position was actually based on the War Department’s standing policy that no military resources should be used for “rescuing victims of enemy oppression” unless it happened to coincide with a military operation.

Vrba’s report convinced the Jewish Agency leadership in Palestine to change its position on bombing. Agency leaders initially opposed bombing Auschwitz because they believed it was a labor camp, not a death camp. But after receiving the Auschwitz Protocols in June, Agency officials lobbied British, American, and Soviet officials to bomb the camp or the railways leading to it. Their requests were rebuffed.

A condensed version of the Auschwitz Protocols reached the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board in June. The new information helped galvanize the Board to mobilize international pressure on Hungary to halt the deportations to Auschwitz. Although that effort came too late to for the over 400,000 Hungarian Jews who had been shipped to their doom, it did spare the 200,000-plus who were still alive in Budapest.

The full version of the report, however, was held up in Switzerland for three months by U.S. diplomats who regarded it as low priority. After it finally reached Washington in October, the Auschwitz Protocols was widely distributed by the War Refugee Board–despite the objections of the Office of War Information, which claimed publicity about atrocities against Jews would undermine the Allied war effort.

After the war, Vrba studied at the Czech Technical University in Prague, specializing in neuro-chemistry and earning a doctorate in 1951. He later relocated to Canada and became a professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. Vrba is survived by his wife Robin, their daughter Zuza, and two grandchildren.

April 2006