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.