03 April 2006

Witness to Auschwitz horror dies at 82

Times Online

David Sanderson and Lewis Smith

Rudolf Vrba escaped the gas chambers to tell the world of the Nazi genocide

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usRUDOLF VRBA, who escaped Auschwitz to bring the Allies the first eye-witness account of the atrocities at the concentration camp, has died at the age of 82 in Canada.

He was one of only five Jewish inmates to make a successful escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau after hiding for three days under a pile of planks. Described by friends as the “greatest man” they have known, Mr Vrba had been deported from his native Czechoslovakia at the age of 18 in 1942. Together with his friend Alfred Wetzler he escaped to write a report in 1944 which awoke the Allied political leadership to what was happening in the death camps.

Mr Vrba, who was born Walter Rosenberg in 1924 and was the son of a steam sawmill owner, joined Czechslovak partisan units after his escape. He was decorated several times for his bravery and after the Second World War gave evidence at trials in Germany of SS guards.

He then gained a doctorate in chemistry and worked in Prague and Israel before joining the British Medical Research Council in 1960, where he stayed for seven years.

His testimony to Nazi evil reached a worldwide audience as a central part of Claude Lanzmann’s highly acclaimed 1985 epic documentary about the Holocaust, Shoah.

Stanley Meadows, who befriended Mr Vrba when he first came to England and took British nationality, described him as “the greatest man I have ever known”. Mr Meadows said: “He was not only a brave man but a determined man. There was no one like him. He was warm and kind, a wonderful man.”

While living in England Mr Vrba published his autobiography, I Cannot Forgive, which detailed his escape from the camp. He and Mr Wetzler had taken the opportunity to hide beneath the planks, piled up in preparation for a hut to be built. Soviet prisoners of war secured the planks over the men and covered them with tobacco and benzene to confuse tracker dogs. The two thought they were about to be caught and executed when a guard started pulling planks away - but he stopped before spotting them.

After hiding for three days without food the pair slipped away and walked through Nazi-held territory until they reached the partisans.

In 1967 Mr Vrba left the UK to join the University of British Columbia, in Canada, where he became an associate professor and continued to work for the rest of his life. Professor Michael Walker, who worked with him for more than thirty years, told The Times yesterday: “Even when he was terminally ill he was talking about teaching students.

“Put simply, he was a helluva guy. He had a lot of insight into the nature of people and was not embittered by his experiences.”

Mr Vrba was also involved in Holocaust education projects. In 2001 a Rudolf Vrba award for films on human rights was established by Mary Robinson, who was then the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Vaclav Havel, then President of the Czech Republic.

Mr Vrba, who had been ill with cancer and died on Monday, is survived by his wife, Robin, and by his daughter, Zuza, who lives in Cambridge. His elder daughter, Helinka, a successful doctor, committed suicide several years ago.

Mr Walker said: “Rudi was a remarkable person who retained all his faculties. I saw him one week before he died and he was still talking about teaching the students. The students loved him as a teacher and when they found out about his past they would often be stunned. He did not regard himself as a victim.”

Mr Meadows added: “He will be remembered for his courage, his great sense of humour, his storytelling, his warmth of personality and, of course, for the greatest escape of the 20th century.”

Death Camp
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