My Rudi Vrba Story by Esther Gilbert

Photo: Rudolf Vrba, about the time I first met him

550 words / 3 minute read

“Can you give me some biographical information – I am introducing you.”

“Martin Gilbert:  Auschwitz and the Allies” came the answer back.

I had invited Rudolf Vrba to give the 50th anniversary address at the Kristallnacht commemoration in 1988, in Edmonton, Canada.  I was introducing him.  I had heard of Martin Gilbert; I had read some of his books, though not this one.  But I had read Rudolf Vrba’s memoir I Cannot Forgive and I wanted to meet him.

I grew up during the era when the Holocaust was considered “doom and gloom” and the idea of “heroes” was not a consideration.  Jews after all “went to the slaughter like lambs”.  Resistance did not seem possible and therefore it was not known.  So our second generation group in Edmonton decided to honour the heroes – alien a concept as that was at the time.  We brought Per Anger to speak and plant a tree on the anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg’s arrest by the Soviets.  He had been with Wallenberg in Budapest.  We brought Rudolf Vrba to speak.

I did not realise then how pivotal Auschwitz and the Allies had been in describing the chain of events that brought to the Allies the news that Auschwitz-Birkenau was a killing centre to which the unwitting Jews of Europe were being transported.  The chain of events in which Rudi had himself been instrumental.  I did not realise then how the book and Martin’s early discussions with Rudi when he was writing it had set Rudi’s mind at some ease that his escape had not been in vain, that it had helped at least to save the Jews of Budapest even though it had not stopped the continual flow of trains carrying the Jews of the Hungarian provinces and then the surviving Jews of Lodz to their deaths.  (For more on the story of Budapest and why the deportations stopped, read here )

In the following years I was fortunate to have three short visits with Rudi.  If fragments of memory, snapshots in time, have the power to stick through the course of one’s life, those visits and our discussions were burned into my brain’s core.  The pain he had endured and witnessed gave him a deep-seated view of human nature and how it navigates good and evil.  What I learned from him has helped me though some of my darkest days.

I wanted to thank Rudi for what he had given me, what he had given us, how truth was absolute, immutable, and must be the basis of knowledge.  I wanted to have the Canadian government honour him, a true hero in our time.  And it was through that endeavour that I met Martin Gilbert.

I was with Martin when we heard that Rudi was in his last days.  A loss that hit both of us hard.

Rudi has been described as a “cherished source” for Martin.  He was in fact a cherished friend and mentor to me.  His correspondence was the basis of Martin’s writing on how the world found out that the “unknown destination” was poisonous gas and ash.  That writing and Rudi’s own unwavering belief in the truth have been the thresher that separates the wheat from the what-ifs and should-haves chaff of history.

It began with the escape, 80 years ago this month, when two brave young men risked their lives to let the world know.

Get:  Auschwitz and the Allies

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