March 20, 2023

Withdraw US From World Health Organization Now! shows how close Americans are to losing the freedom many of us take for granted. If the WHO Pandemic Treaty is passed, escapes like those in the 20th century will not be possible because there will be no place to go. It’s so easy to take freedom for granted when we have it. So, perhaps now is a good time to take a look at the fascinating story of the daring escape from Auschwitz by Rudolf Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) and Alfréd Wetzler described in Holocaust Memorial Day Trust | Rudolf Vrba  and Rudolf Vrba.

Rudolf Vrba was born Walter Rosenberg on 11 September 1924 in Topoľčany in Slovakia (then part of Czechoslovakia). In March 1942, the 17-year-old Rudolf demonstrated his unusually determined character by ignoring orders to assemble for deportation to Poland. ‘Naturally, it didn’t come into my mind to obey such a stupid instruction’ he later said. Instead he set off to attempt to get to England.

He was stopped at the Hungarian border and sent to the Nováky transition camp in Slovakia (where he made an unsuccessful escape attempt), and the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, before arriving at Auschwitz I on 30 June 1942. He was assigned to work at Auschwitz-Birkenau. After transports of Jewish people arrived and selections were made (with around 90% of the people being sent to the gas chambers) Vrba’s team cleaned the train wagons of dead bodies and sorted through the personal possessions that the people had been forced to leave behind.

Vrba’s exposure to the process of transport and selection formed his opinion that ‘the whole murder machinery could work only on one principle: that the people came to Auschwitz and didn’t know where they were going and for what purpose’. Vrba decided that if Europe’s remaining Jews had knowledge of the industrialised slaughter at Auschwitz, there would be resistance and panic which would hamper the Nazi’s orderly killing process. In his role clearing the arrivals ramp, and in a later desk job, Vrba took mental note of the transports arriving, their origin, and estimated the numbers killed.

In early 1944, he learned that the Nazis were preparing for arrival of Hungary’s entire Jewish population of around one million people, who were to be exterminated. Vrba had considered attempting escape from Auschwitz before, but now saw that it was now urgent. He felt the members of the organised resistance movement in Auschwitz were focused on their own survival, and not on provoking resistance from the people who arrived to be gassed.

Vrba worked with his friend Alfréd Wetzler to analyse previous unsuccessful escape attempts, and plan a successful one. Each day, some prisoners worked outside the main camp fence within an outer perimeter which was guarded only during the day. Vrba and Wetzler hide in a pile of wood which they surrounded by strong-smelling petrol-soaked Russian tobacco which they had learnt would deter sniffer dogs. When the Nazis discovered Vrba and Wetzler had failed to return to the camp, they spent three days searching the area between the inner and outer perimeter.

The search ended after the third day, and on the evening of 10 April 1944 Vrba and Wetzler escaped Auschwitz and began an 11-night walk south to Slovakia, 80 miles away. After crossing the border into Slovakia, the pair quickly made contact with the local Jewish Council. They were separated and interviewed about their accounts of Auschwitz independently, so the two testimonies could be compared and verified.

A report was then written and rewritten, and translated into German and Hungarian, becoming a 40-page document. The report contained descriptions of the camp, including detailed descriptions of the gas chambers at Birkenau and the process of extermination. Much of the report was devoted to painstakingly-remembered details of the transports which had arrived at Auschwitz – including the nationalities and numbers of those who arrived.

Throughout his life, Vrba maintained that the leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community refused to publicise the Vrba–Wetzler Report to local Jews because they did not want to jeopardise negotiations they were having with the Nazis to try to save some of the community. Vrba was appalled as 437,000 Jews from the Hungarian countryside were sent to Auschwitz and murdered between 15 May and 7 July 1944. He believed many could have escaped as the Allied frontline was fast-approaching.

Despite not reaching most Hungarian Jews, the Vrba–Wetzler Report did make it to Switzerland, where it was published in the press. By June 1944, British and American media were reporting the reality of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. World leaders made direct appeals to the Hungarian Government to stop the deportation of Jews. The deportations were halted on 9 July. Hitler was furious, but attempts to deport Budapest’s 250,000 Jews resumed after the Hungarian Government had been overthrown by local Nazis in November 1944. By that time, it was much more difficult to kill local Jews in an orderly way with the war in its final stages, diplomats in Budapest working to rescue Jews, and greater awareness amongst Budapest’s Jews of what awaited them if deported to Poland.

Back in Slovakia, the 19-year-old Walter Rosenberg was protected by the local Jewish authorities and given identity papers for ‘Rudolf Vrba’ – the name he adopted for the rest of his life. Vrba joined the Czechoslovak partisans and fought with distinction. After the war, he studied biology and chemistry in Prague. He married his childhood friend Gerta though the relationship quickly broke down. Vrba escaped communist Czechoslovakia by defecting whilst on a visit to a scientific conference in Israel. He left Israel after a couple of years, as he was not comfortable living among some of the leaders of the Hungarian Jewish community whom he blamed for failing to raise awareness of the mass killings at Auschwitz. He moved to Britain, and then to Canada, where he remarried.

The Vrba–Wetzler Report was an important piece of evidence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1946. Vrba sent evidence to the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961, and was a witness at a trial of Holocaust denier Ernst Zündel in Toronto in 1985. He died in 2006.

Throughout his life, Rudolf Vrba was somebody who refused to stand by. In the most extreme and appalling situation, he risked his life to try to prevent the killing of hundreds of thousands of people. It can be argued that through their contribution to telling the world about Auschwitz, the heroism of Vrba and Wetzler saved the lives of tens of thousands of Budapest’s Jews.


Vrba resolved again to escape. In Auschwitz, he had encountered an acquaintance from Trnava, Alfréd Wetzler (prisoner no. 29162, then aged 26) who had arrived on 13 April 1942 and was working in the mortuary. Czesław Mordowicz, who escaped from Auschwitz weeks after Vrba, said decades later that it was Wetzler who had initiated and planned the escape.

According to Wetzler, writing in his book Čo Dante nevidel (1963), later published as Escape from Hell (2007), the camp underground had organized the escape, supplying information for Vrba and Wetzler to carry (“Karol” and “Val” in the book). “Otta” in Hut 18, a locksmith, had created a key for a small shed in which Vrba and others had drawn a site plan and dyed clothes. “Fero” from the central registry supplied data from the registry; “Filipek” (Filip Müller) in Hut 13 added the names of the SS officers working around the crematoria, a plan of the gas chambers and crematoria, his records of the transports gassed in crematoria IV and V, and the label of a Zyklon B canister. “Edek” in Hut 14 smuggled out clothes for the escapees to wear, including suits from Amsterdam. “Adamek”, “Bolek” and Vrba had supplied socks, underpants, shirts, a razor and a torch, as well as glucose, vitamins, margarine, cigarettes and a cigarette lighter that said “made in Auschwitz”.

The information about the camp, including a sketch of the crematorium produced by a Russian prisoner, “Wasyl”, was hidden inside two metal tubes. The tube containing the sketch was lost during the escape; the second tube contained data about the transports. Vrba’s account differs from Wetzler’s; according to Vrba, they took no notes and wrote the Vrba–Wetzler report from memory.  He told the historian John Conway that he had used “personal memotechnical methods” to remember the data, and that the stories about written notes had been invented because no one could explain his ability to recall so much detail.

Gestapo telegram reporting the escape, 8 April 1944

Wearing suits, overcoats, and boots, at 14:00 on Friday, 7 April 1944—the eve of Passover—the men climbed inside a hollowed-out space they had prepared in a pile of wood stacked between Auschwitz-Birkenau’s inner and outer perimeter fences, in section BIII in a construction area known as “Meksyk” (“Mexico”). They sprinkled the area with Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline, as advised by Dmitri Volkov, the Russian captain, to ward off dogs. Bolek and Adamek, both Polish prisoners, moved the planks back in place once they were hidden.

Kárný writes that at 20:33 on 7 April SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Hartjenstein, the Birkenau commander, learned by teleprinter that two Jews were missing. On 8 April the Gestapo at Auschwitz sent telegrams with descriptions to the Reich Security Head Office in Berlin, the SS in Oranienburg, district commanders, and others. The men hid in the wood pile for three nights and throughout the fourth day.
Soaking wet, with strips of flannel tightened across their mouths to muffle coughing, Wetzler wrote that they lay there counting: “[N]early eighty hours. Four thousand eight hundred minutes. Two hundred and eighty-eight thousand seconds.

On Sunday morning, 9 April, Adamek urinated against the pile and whistled to signal that all was well.  At 9 pm on 10 April, they crawled out of the wood pile. “Their circulation returns only slowly,” Wetzler wrote. “They both have the sensation of ants running along in their veins, that their bodies have been transformed into big, very slowly warming ant-heaps. … The onset of weakness is so fierce that they have to support themselves on the inner edges of the panels.” Using a map they’d taken from “Kanada”, the men headed south toward Slovakia 130 kilometres (81 mi) away, walking parallel to the Soła river.

Meeting with the Jewish Council

See also: Slovak Jewish Council

Vrba and Wetzler spent the night in Čadca in the home of a relative of the rabbi Leo Baeck, before being taken to Žilina by train. They were met at the station by Erwin Steiner, a member of the Slovak Jewish Council (or Ústredňa Židov), and taken to the Jewish Old People’s Home, where the council had offices. Over the following days, they were introduced to Ibolya Steiner, who was married to Erwin; Oskar Krasniansky, an engineer and stenographer (who later took the name Oskar Isaiah Karmiel); and, on 25 April, the chair of the council, Dr. Oskar Neumann, a lawyer.

The council was able to confirm who Vrba and Wetzler were from its deportation lists. In his memoir, Wetzler described (using pseudonyms) several people who attended the first meeting: a lawyer (presumably Neumann), a factory worker, a “Madame Ibi” (Ibolya Steiner) who had been a functionary in a progressive youth organization, and the Prague correspondent of a Swiss newspaper. Neumann told them the group had been waiting two years for someone to confirm the rumours they had heard about Auschwitz. Wetzler was surprised by the naïvete of his question: “Is it so difficult to get out [of] there?” The journalist wanted to know how they had managed it, if it was so hard. Wetzler felt Vrba lean forward angrily to say something, but he grabbed his hand and Vrba drew back.

Wetzler encouraged Vrba to start describing conditions in Auschwitz. “He wants to speak like a witness,” Wetzler wrote, “nothing but facts, but the terrible events sweep him along like a torrent, he relives them with his nerves, with every pore of his body, so that after an hour he is completely exhausted.” The group, in particular the Swiss journalist, seemed to have difficulty understanding. The journalist wondered why the International Red Cross had not intervened. “The more [Vrba] reports, the angrier and more embittered he becomes.” The journalist asked Vrba to tell them about “specific bestialities by the SS men”. Vrba replied: “That is as if you wanted me to tell you of a specific day when there was water in the Danube.”

Vrba described the ramp, selection, the Sonderkommando, and the camps’ internal organization; the building of Auschwitz III and how Jews were being used as slave labour for KruppSiemensIG Farben, and DAW; and the gas chambers. Wetzler gave them the data from the central registry hidden in the remaining tube, and described the high death toll among Soviet POWs, the destruction of the Czech family camp, the medical experiments, and the names of doctors involved in them, He also handed over the label from the Zyklon B canister. Every word, he wrote, “has the effect of a blow on the head”.

Neumann said the men would be brought a typewriter in the morning, and the group would meet again in three days. Hearing this, Vrba exploded: “Easy for you to say ‘in three days’! But back there they are flinging people into the fire at this moment and in three days they’ll kill thousands. Do something immediately!” Wetzler pulled on his arm, but Vrba continued, pointing at each one: “You, you, you’ll all finish up in the gas unless something is done! Do you hear?

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