I Cannot Forgive

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Memoir by Rudolf Vrba (with Alan Bestic), 1963

Like many memoirs that have been written by the survivor with a ghostwriter, Rudolf Vrba's I Cannot Forgive begins in medias res with an account of Heinrich Himmler's visit to Auschwitz on 17 July 1942. This visit leads to the death of an inmate called Yankel Meisel because three buttons were missing from his tunic.

Vrba's actual story begins in Slovakia and with his attempts to escape the country before it is too late. After a number of close shaves, however, he is eventually captured and sent to Maidanek. He manages to get a job in the kitchens, but, when offered the chance to do farm work, he volunteers: "'Anywhere's better than this dump' I told him 'Auschwitz couldn't be worse."'

After three months in Auschwitz, he was assigned to the Kanada, processing the stolen goods and food. It is there that his suspicions and the rumors are confirmed: "I was in a death factory." From August 1942 to June 1943 he worked on the ramps at which the transports arrived. He became a scribe and had his own room, chair, and table. This also put him in a position to have some knowledge about events in the camp among both captors and victims. Particularly harrowing is his account of his actions when he heard that the Czech Jews from Theresienstadt were to be killed. He attempts to persuade Freddy Hirsch to lead a revolt. Hirsch asks for an hour to think, and when Vrba returns, Hirsch has taken poison. The Jews are all killed.

His accounts of Auschwitz are detailed. A hardy man, full of initiative, tenacious and angry, Vrba manages to survive. He eats anything, "even if the bread contained sawdust and the tea looked like sewer water." He smuggles food and other tokens between men and women in the camp: "It brought me small rewards from the kapos and to a certain extent I was sheltered from unnecessary punishment." Although one such attempt leads to a vicious beating, he does not reveal the couples' name and survives. He even has a doomed love affair himself. Indeed, one of the interesting things about his testimony is the vision that it offers of those prisoners in the camp who had some positions of minimal authority. It is also concerned with the ways in which people are brutalized into becoming kapos and other figures of authority. He also tried to maintain some sort of count of how many were murdered by the Germans.

Vrba, however, is one of the few who escaped. He explains the details of his escape in great detail. He and Fred Wetzler hid in a ditch in the timber yard, covered by timber for three days and nights. Then they escape by walking to Slovakia. Vrba wrote a report that he gave to the Jewish communities in Slovakia and Hungary and then to the Papal Nuncio. After this he joined the partisans in Slovakia. The final pages of his account describe an attack on a building where 700 SS men were based: he writes that during the attack, "tears of happiness were coursing down my cheeks. I was running forwards not backwards."

Vrba went on to be a professor of pharmacology in Britain and Canada. His style is already scientific—detailed and objective, even about his own feelings. More than this, as a good scientist his text is full of details and references to other witnesses (Filip Müller , for example) and to external events. Moreover, he is never afraid to name the perpetrators when he can. The 1963 edition has an epilogue concerning postwar trials and two appendixes: one is his deposition for the Adolf Eichmann trial and the other is an account of Kurt Gerstein's report on Belzec. All these serve to support and corroborate Vrba's account. But perhaps most importantly the book is the story behind the Vrba-Wetzler report, which helped "in the mobilisation of the worlds conscience" and is "one of the key documents of the Holocaust."

—Robert Eaglestone