The Auschwitz Pro­to­cols: Ceslav Mor­dow­icz and the Race to Save Hun­gary’s Jews 

  • Review
By – October 16, 2022

In the the­o­ry and prac­tice of hell” that were the Nazi exter­mi­na­tion camps, there seemed to be only one way out: up a cre­ma­to­ri­um chim­ney. Starved and abused pris­on­ers lacked the emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal capac­i­ty to even think of try­ing to flee. Heav­i­ly guard­ed by vig­i­lant SS offi­cers and encir­cled by lethal elec­tric fenc­ing, the camps were escape-proof — or so it seemed. In The Auschwitz Pro­to­cols, author Fred Bleak­ley tells the sto­ry of a few who found a way out.

By the sum­mer of 1944, Ces­law Mor­dow­icz, a Pol­ish Jew, had been impris­oned at Auschwitz for almost a year and a half. He’d last seen his fam­i­ly as they were herd­ed off the ramp on their way to the gas and he only man­aged to sur­vive — bare­ly — because of his job as a bar­racks clerk. But sur­round­ed by the dead and dying, and see­ing the arrival of the first trans­ports of Hun­gar­i­an Jews, Mor­dow­icz real­ized that it was his duty to bear witness.

Togeth­er with a Slo­vak Jew named Arnost Rosin, Mor­dow­icz achieved the impos­si­ble: he escaped from Auschwitz. After a har­row­ing jour­ney across the Pol­ish coun­try­side, evad­ing the SS patrols that were hunt­ing them and aid­ed by the kind­ness of right­eous Poles, the two men made it to Slo­va­kia, a Nazi ally where the remains of a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty nev­er­the­less man­aged to hang on.

If the first part of this book reads like a thriller, the sec­ond part encour­ages us to reflect on the cru­el ambi­gu­i­ty of his­to­ry. Even in 1944, Mor­dow­icz and Rosin were accused of being fan­ta­sists. When you learn that what we have said is true,” Mor­dow­icz told a skep­ti­cal Slo­vak Jew, remem­ber this day that we came to warn you.”

Even­tu­al­ly, the two men were believed, their tes­ti­mo­ny dis­trib­uted through diplo­mat­ic chan­nels. The Auschwitz Pro­to­cols, as this tes­ti­mo­ny came to be known, may have played a role in per­suad­ing Mik­lós Hor­thy, the Regent of Hun­gary and a some­what ambiva­lent Nazi ally, to defy Berlin and halt the depor­ta­tion of Jews. Then again, Germany’s tem­po­rary acqui­es­cence may have had more to do with the fact that fight­ing over the remain­ing Jews in Hun­gary was not worth the risk of los­ing Hungary’s indis­pens­able oil pro­duc­tion.” Come Octo­ber 1944, Ger­many invad­ed Hun­gary, deposed Hor­thy, and installed a bru­tal, anti­se­mit­ic regime. By war’s end, 565,000 Hun­gar­i­an Jews had been murdered.

There are many tragedies implic­it in this book. Among them is that despite the almost impos­si­ble brav­ery of Mor­dow­icz, Rosin, and a hand­ful of oth­ers in reveal­ing the full hor­ror of the con­cen­tra­tion camp enter­prise, out­comes were min­i­mal to nonex­is­tent. FDR elect­ed nei­ther to pub­li­cize what was known about the exter­mi­na­tion camps nor to bomb the rail lines lead­ing to Auschwitz; he feared that doing so would dis­tract Amer­i­cans from the real busi­ness of win­ning the war. Markow­icz and Rosin begged the Papal Nun­cio to Slo­va­kia for help. But new­ly opened Vat­i­can archives sug­gest that, apart from its role in abet­ting the escape of known war crim­i­nals after VE day, the Holy See took active steps to sup­press doc­u­men­ta­tion of the Holo­caust as ear­ly as 1942.

What­ev­er we like to tell our­selves, The Auschwitz Pro­to­cols reminds us that the Sec­ond World War was nev­er about the Jews, or bring­ing the Holo­caust to a speedy end. If any­thing, we were an incon­ve­nient afterthought.

Angus Smith is a retired Cana­di­an intel­li­gence offi­cial, writer and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who lives in rur­al Nova Scotia.

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