Although I am a native Israeli, who graduated from the prestigious Reali private high school, I had never heard about the escape from Auschwitz at the numerous Holocaust ceremonies I attended. Nor had I ever read about it in any detail in any of the Hebrew Holocaust textbooks at school in my own time or in those given to my three children, although Vrba's memoirs, I Cannot Forgive, written with Alan Bestic, were first published in London in 1963.When I posted about this before, less than a thousand sites appeared for the search, "Rudolph Vrba." Now it's 33,400. Fame at last.
I became acquainted with Vrba's escape from Auschwitz during my adult life, through the non-Israeli Paris-based film-maker Claude Lanzmann, who considered Vrba's testimony central to the understanding of the Holocaust in his 1987 movie Shoah. The "presence" of the "absence" of the escape from Auschwitz in Israeli historiography on the one hand, and the moral visibility and sanctity of Auschwitz in the country's hegemonic narrative on the other, remained a puzzle for me, and my desire to gain firsthand knowledge of the escape stayed with me for many years.
Purely coincidentally, while lecturing at UBC I mentioned Vrba to a friend and was told that he taught there. Thus did we first meet. In June 1998, I succeeded in convincing my university, Haifa, to award Vrba an honorary doctorate in recognition of his heroic escape from Auschwitz and his contribution to Holocaust education. The award ceremony was planned to coincide with the first publication of the book in Hebrew by the Haifa University Press.
To my surprise, even at this undeniably historic moment, some Israeli scholars made a desperate last-minute attempt to belittle the hero and his memoirs. No less interesting was the position, as intellectual bystanders, taken up by the Holocaust historians' establishment in Israel. Not one of them publicly protested about the campaign against Vrba. It was here that the profound question posed by the American political thinker Michael Walzer crept into my mind: "What is the use, after all, of a silent intellectual?" In my book, Escaping Auschwitz, a Culture of Forgetting (2004) I try to delve into the mystery of Vrba's disappearance not only from the Auschwitz camp, but also from the Israeli Holocaust narrative.
Vrba was the only academic of the five escapees, and it is perhaps unsurprising that he chose biochemistry for his life's work, after that life was saved by the mixture of tobacco and gasoline. After the war he read biology and chemistry at Charles University, Prague, took a doctorate and then defected from a scientific delegation to the west. He worked in Israel from 1958 to 1960 at the biological research institute in Beit Dagan.
Then from 1960 to 1967 he worked in Britain, first at the neuropsychiatric research unit in Carshalton, then at the Medical Research Council. Then came the move to UBC, and after a two year sabbatical at Harvard University, a UBC professorship.
It was not just tobacco and gasoline that saved Vrba's life. It was also saved because Vrba admired knowledge, he was a scholar who knew its power, and believed that the deportees should have been given that power too. He felt that if they had known the fate that awaited them in Auschwitz, many lives would have been saved. He promised himself to bring them that knowledge, and he kept his promise. Meanwhile, I Cannot Forgive has recently been republished as I Escaped from Auschwitz.
April 13, 2006
If Israelis knew........
Here's a rather belated obituary in the Guardian for Auschwitz escapee, Rudolph Vrba, about whom I posted a couple of weeks ago. It's by the Israeli academic, Ruth Linn.