Why Jews ignored stark warnings from inside Auschwitz

New books by Karina Urbach and Jonathan Freedland illustrate how hard it is to believe things that seem unbelievable — and how we persuade ourselves of convenient falsehoods

June 23, 2022 15:22

Alice Urbach wrote a cookbook, and now her granddaughter has written about Alice Urbach.

In 1938, Alice Urbach was forced to flee Vienna, the city in which she had established a successful cookery school and written a popular book about Viennese cuisine. Eventually arriving in England, and working to look after refugee children, Alice got her life back. But she never got back her cookbook.

In a remarkable new book, Alice’s granddaughter Karina, a noted historian, has traced what happened to her family but also what happened to the cookbook. And she tells of how the intellectual property of Jews was stolen.

Alice’s cookbook was simply re-edited — to remove any recipes that seemed too Jewish, or advice that wasn’t Nazi enough — and returned to circulation with a new author’s name, but the same title, most of the same words and many of the same pictures. Karina Urbach’s Alice’s Book tells how this was done and how it was done to many others too.

Nazi theft was a central part of their crime, as is well known, but the new angle of Karina Urbach’s book is to highlight the theft not of physical property, but of intellectual property.

There is, however, another reason why Alice’s Book is so striking. And that is made clear by reading Jonathan Freedland’s unmissable new book The Escape Artist.

Freedland tells — with the verve of the best-selling novelist that he is — the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jew to successfully escape from Auschwitz. The narrative is extraordinary. In great and heart-stopping detail it tells of Vrba’s plan and how he executed it. It also explains why.

Vrba was convinced that if he could escape and tell the world what was happening at Auschwitz, he could stop the killing. He could see that preparations were being made for the mass murder of Hungarian Jews and thought he could bring it to an end if only he could escape.

His claim to status as a hero is that his information did eventually save many Jews. Pressure brought on the Hungarians as a result of Vrba’s report led them to resist deportation of perhaps as many as 200,000 people. Freedland’s book shows that these lives were owed to the amazing bravery and ingenuity of Vrba, who deserves high honour.

Yet Vrba remained angry. Indeed, so angry that he became an unsettling figure among those commemorating the Holocaust, who often excluded him from their meetings. When he died, decades later, only 40 people were at his memorial service.

The reason for his fury was that he felt that Jews had ignored his message. He had taken huge risks on the assumption that if he told people what was happening, they would refuse to co-operate with their captors. They would rebel rather than go on trains, they would riot at the railway stations, they would go into hiding. And if they did that, this would prevent the Nazis from being able to implement their plan easily. Their murders depended upon deception.

But he soon realised his assumption was incorrect. There was quite a difference between knowledge and belief. He found it difficult to alert the community because many leaders did not believe the content of his report. And it is not obvious that if people had been alerted they themselves would have believed it, and would have acted accordingly.

After the war, Alice Urbach strove to retrieve the rights to her intellectual property, to once again assert herself as the rightful author of her cookbook. But her attempt was rebuffed.

Indeed, only when Karina’s book appeared in German a couple of years ago were the rights returned to her family.

In many ways, this period of blank refusal by her publishers is the most chilling and upsetting part of the book.

Both Freedland and Urbach’s stories are tales of how many layers lie between truth and justice, of just how hard it is to get people to acknowledge true things that seem almost unbelievable.

They are also stories of how people manage to persuade themselves of things that are convenient for them to believe.

And they are evidence of the rich understanding of human nature that studying the Holocaust can still provide.

Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times

June 23, 2022 15:22

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