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Feminizing the Auschwitz escapee: Rudolf Vrba and the Israeli pantheon of heroism

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Abstract

The truth about the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp was the best-kept secret of the Nazi architects of the Final Solution. Throughout the five years of its existence there were hundreds of attempts by prisoners to escape. Seventy-six of these were by Jews. Of them only five succeeded in getting away, of them the joint escape of Rudolf Vrba and his fellow prisoner, Alfred Wetzler on April 7, 1944, was by far the most important. After a perilous 11 days of walking and hiding, these two escapees made it back to their native country, Slovakia. Almost at once, they managed to report the specifics of the Germans'' method of mass murder - tattooing, gassing, and cremation - and the course of events they had witnessed at the camp. Most historians agree that the 32-page Vrba-Wetzler report was the first document about the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp to reach the free world and to be accepted as credible. Its authenticity broke the barrier of skepticism and apathy that had existed up to that point and had an immediate impact, producing a spontaneous international denunciation, which led to the halt of the deportations from Hungary. In June 1998, the author of this paper succeeded in convincing her university to award Vrba ( the last living escapee) an honorary doctorate in recognition of his heroic escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau. The award ceremony was planned to coincide with the first publication of Vrba''s memoirs ( first published in London, 1963) in the Hebrew language by the Haifa University Press. When asked to explain the "presence" of the "absence" of the escape narrative from the Israeli history textbooks many Israeli Holocaust historians made various attempts to challenge Vrba''s credibility, the accuracy of his memory, his hard evidence as a decorated partisan and an escapee, and his authentic and independent voice. He insisted to be called a "Holocaust resister". They called him a "Holocaust survivor". The tension between the representation of the masculine "expert discourse" and the feminine "survivor discourse" is discussed.