THE FOREMOST WHISTLEBLOWER OF WORLD WAR II
On Friday, April 7, 1944, at 2 p.m., on the outskirts of the most lethal death camp in history, the two most famous Jewish escapees from Auschwitz-Birkenau huddled inside a pile of construction lumber, in a treeless zone nicknamed Mexico, not far from Crematorium IV and Crematorium V. [Map provided below] To deter the inevitable search parties of 200 Alsatian dogs and their Nazi handlers, the pair had sprinkled Russian tobacco, pre-soaked in petrol, around and inside their hideout.
Inside the lumber pile, the Slovakian duo of Alfréd Wetzler, age 25, and Rudolf Vrba, age 19, would be able to lie side-by-side within a narrow antechamber, like two men in the same coffin. There was more at stake than their lives. The younger prisoner, Vrba, had overheard Nazi guards laughingly discuss the imminent arrival of “Hungarian salami” and deduced that Auschwitz was expanding its operations for the arrival of 800,000 Hungarian Jews–the last remaining major population of Jews in Europe. “Because it was close to Slovakia,” he recalled, “I thought it would be possible to give the warning.”
The fugitives calmed their nerves by wedging more of the powdery Russian machorka (tobacco) into the cracks of their refuge. Wetzler, the chess champion in Birkenau, would soon adopt the pseudonym Jozef Lánik. He leaned towards Communism. Vrba, a would-scientist, was still named Walter Rosenberg but he would legally adopt his nom de guerre Rudolf Vrba after the war, and retain it for the rest of his life. Neither had married. Both spoke several languages. Neither realized it was only a few hours before the onset of Passover, the annual festival for Jews to thank God for their liberty.
Guards had been bribed to allow the building materials to be stacked above a slight crater. Two Polish inmates had helped them swiftly remove the layers of planks, affording access; now this Polish duo (named Adamek and Bolek in Wetzler’s account) hastily replaced six timber sections, so it appeared once more as a continuous stack. One of them whispered “bon voyage.” Then there was an eerie silence. “Our eyes soon got used to the gloom,” Vrba recalled, “and we could see each other in the light that filtered through the cracks. We hardly dared to breathe, let alone talk.”
Recently, two French Jews had been caught trying to escape while carrying a loaf bread which concealed a fortune in diamonds pilfered from gassed victims. Just two days before, on April 5, Siegfried Lederer had become the first Jew to escape from Auschwitz Birkenau by donning the uniform of a high-ranking Nazi. [See JEWISH ESCAPEES section] Therefore, the news that two more Jews were attempting yet another escape would come as an embarrassment to the Auschwitz command. When SS guards at Auschwitz realized this duo of camp registrars was missing during the 5 p.m. roll call, they delayed sounding the shrieking siren of alarm until after 6 p.m.
“No other siren has such a terrible wailing note,” Wetzler would recall. “As if thousands of packs of wolves had come together in absolute silence to produce a howl that would make the air vibrate and freeze the blood in your veins… One thousand (and) two hundred SS men poured out of their barracks for the hunt.” (Wetzler’s fictionalized and therefore unreliable memoir provides two different estimates as to the number of SS at Auschwitz–either 1,200 or 1,700.) The Commandant of Auschwitz II [Birkenau], SS-Sturmbanführer Fritz Hartjenstein, was not officially informed of the escape, by teleprinter, until 8:33 p.m.
After the howling siren had announced their escape for ten deafening minutes, the fugitives remained within their cocoon, sometimes hearing nearby Kapos barking orders as search dogs were unable to pick up their scent. Two days later a Nazi search party began dissembling the wood pile. Vrba recognized the voice of Unterscharführer Buntrok shout, “Look behind those planks!” Boots were atop the hideout, with dogs, too, but halfway through their task they were distracted by a nearby disturbance and didn’t return. “The stupid bastards,” Wetzler whispered. The pair took turns sleeping, pressing against each other for warmth, sipping from a container of cold coffee and checking their wristwatches to keep track of the changing of camp guards in the watchtowers. Rather than be taken prisoner, Vrba was determined to kill himself with a razor blade if need be. Their luck would hold for eighty hours.
How It Was Done
The originator of this Mexico hideout scheme was neither Wetzler or Vrba. In his book, The Escape Artist, Jonathan Freedland claims it was a Red Army prisoner-of-war “known only as Citrin” who had first tested the hiding place, alone, on February 29, 1944, after three helpers had covered him with planks. In fact, the instigator’s name was Mordka (“Mordecai”) Cytryn. Born on July 6, 1909, he was brought to Auschwitz from the Pawiak prison in Warsaw on April 18, 1942 and received tattoo #30980. Cytryn invited a trio of three helpers to conceal themselves with him on March 1 for an escape on March 2, 1944.
After SS search parties failed to find the foursome, this group carefully replaced the planks of the wood pile and fled from Mexico, heading for the town of Kety. Cytryn’s co-escapees were two Slovakian Jews—-Alexander ‘Sandor’ Eisenbach and Abraham Gotzel—-and a Polish Jew named Jacob Balaban. [The Auschwitz Museum uses the names Getzl Abramowicz, Kuba Balaban and Mendel Eisenbach.] This threesome had survived in Birkenau by performing the dependable but gruesome task of collecting the corpses of fellow workers and delivering them on handcarts to the camp mortuary. At the mortuary, they had necessarily met, on a daily basis, Alfréd (“Fredo”) Wetzler, the Auschwitz veteran who had been accorded the privileged job of morgue registrar.
The mastermind Cytryn had enlisted these three men as his co-escapees because they had a much greater range of mobility within the camp than other prisoners. In his memoir of escape and reportage, Vrba did not divulge the identities of these four men who had already tested the effectiveness of the petrol-tainted machorka and had prepared the hideout. [A suggestion that he was protecting their identities when he published his book in 1963 would be dubious. After being re-captured by the Nazis, it is not likely they would have survived much longer in Auschwitz.] Vrba recreates a conversation he had with Wetzler:
“You know the the planks the Poles have stacked for the new camp they’re building?” Fred said.
I nodded. It was to be Birkenau Three and it was being built parallel to Birkenau Two to accommodate the flood of Hungarians.
“Well, they’ve bribed some kapos [inmates, usually criminals, put in charge of the rest] to pile them so that there is a cavity left in the middle.
I saw at once what they were trying to do. The planks were in the outer camp, which at night was undefended because all prisoners were securely behind the high-voltage wires and watchtowers of the inner camp. If they could remain hidden for three days, while all the guards stood to and the place was searched, they had a good chance; for at the end of three days it would be assumed that they had got beyond the confines of Auschwitz and the job of finding them would be handed over to the authorities there. The guard that ringed the entire camp for those three days would be withdrawn and they would merely have to wait until night before sneaking away past the unmanned outer watchtowers.
Inside Auschwitz-Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, Vrba and Wetzler could circulate far more easily than other prisoners because, as veterans of the camp who spoke fluent German, they had been elevated in the hierarchy to become camp registrars. Their freedom of movement enabled the pair to stroll past the woodpile and reassure the sequestered quartet that “the coast was clear” prior to their escape attempt. The camp’s nickname for this construction zone was Mexico because prisoners forced to sleep in this dismal, treeless zone had not been given any clothes. Naked and without proper barracks or latrines, the wretches in this no man’s land between the inner barracks and the watchtowers wore only blankets so everyone else in Birkenau referred to them as Mexicans.
Among Cytryn’s crew, the Polish Jew Balaban was the only member of the foursome who spoke Polish. The escapees soon discovered the local Polish population had been evacuated and replaced by Germans who were loyal to the Nazis. Several days later, en route to the Slovak border, they encountered a group of German foresters who saw their shaved heads and tattooed arms. Before any gendarmes arrived, the Cytryn-Eisenbach-Balaban-Gotzel quartet wisely jettisoned all their valuables, correctly anticipating their capture in the town of Porebka. They also agreed to keep the location of their bunker hideout a secret, in advance of torture, by mutually citing a fictitious place of refuge. Remarkably, they all managed to keep the location of their Mexico hideout a secret.
Simultaneously, two other would-be escapees, the failed smugglers named Schwimmer and Zajoncz, were also awaiting their fates in the death block. On March 17, all six men were marched to gallows that were erected outside the Birkenau kitchen. It was the normal outcome for failed escapees to be mutilated and publicly executed. Having been captured with valuables in their possession, Schwimmer and Zajoncz were lynched. Inexplicably, the foursome were spared.
[In The Escape Artist, thriller writer Jonathan Freedland has erroneously cited Vrba and Wetzler as “the first Jews to break out of Auschwitz” (page 8) and “the first Jews to engineer their own escape from Auschwitz” (page 171) but clearly it was the quartet of prisoners, led by Cytryn who “engineered” the Vrba-Wetzler escape and Siegfried Lederer accomplished the first successful escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau by a Jew, on April 5, 1944.]
Having survived torture within the notorious Block Eleven compound (aka the Execution Block) under the command of SS Rottenführer Bruno Schlage–passing out while receiving 35 lashes–Eisenbach was later digging a ditch with his bare hands and forced to carry dirt in his cap, as part of his penal labour punishment, when Vrba–ostensibly making his rounds as a registrar–was able to briefly converse with him. During these precious seconds of forbidden conversation with a penal labourer, Vrba was able to verify that the woodpile hideout was still unknown to the Nazis. Eisenbach was also able to advise, “Steer clear of Porebka. It’s stinking with soldiers.”
It is tempting to suggest Vrba might have met Eisenbach previously because Sandor Eisenbach knew Vrba’s parents and Eisenbach’s parents lived in Vrba’s hometown of Trnava. Coincidentally, on the day Vrba received his zebra stripes—-after being marched into the shower and told to strip among four hundred others “in a room designed to hold no more than thirty”—-Vrba met a Slovak named Eisenberg as he received his tattoo number 44070 (on the top of his left forearm) in July of 1942:
Behind a table sat two more prisoners–one, a Frenchman known throughout the camp as Leo, the tattooist, the other a Slovak, called Eisenberg. They were cheerful fellows, who joked about the whole business, asking the cattle politely where they would like their numbers branded — on the left arm or the right, underneath or on top. There was something strangely comical, being given the choice in circumstances such as these; it was rather like asking a man which side he would like his hair parted, before his head was cut off.
Vrba was likely encountering a Slovakian locksmith named Ludwig Eisenberg who had arrived in Auschwitz in April of 1942 and received the prisoner number 32407. Having changed his name to the more Russian-sounding Lale Sokolov and married another Auschwitz survivor named Gisela Fuhrmannova (in Bratislava in 1945), this man served as the protagonist for a commercially successful novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, published by Heather Morris in 2018.
After his truncated conversation with Eisenbach, Vrba proceeded to invite Alfréd Wetzler to be his escape companion, hoping to re-use the yet-to-be-dissembled woodpile. Due to their age difference, Vrba later claimed he barely knew Wetzler (Auschwitz prisoner #29162) and they hadn’t spoken when he was growing up in Trnava, “I always admired him,” Vrba later recalled, “if only for his casual, bohemian manner and his easy way with girls.” In an address Vrba made in Germany, he refined that comment somewhat: “We had known each other since childhood and there was absolute trust between us. We were also 650 men from the town of Tyrnau (Slovakian: Trnava), where we had all lived, but only the two of us were still alive. Something like that connects even more, especially since he had already lost three brothers and father and mother in Auschwitz.”
Both men were fluent in multiple languages, as well as unusually literate, but their escape attempt had not been officially sanctioned by the underground leadership who felt Vrba might be too young and brash to succeed. They would be, however, supplied with razor blades for their wrists in case they were apprehended. It was much better to die quickly. That way, tongues could not wag.
Every attempted escape from Auschwitz was a form of rebellion and a rekindling of hope. Even though some “sixty thousand trapped men and women” inside Auschwitz (according to Wetzler’s estimate) knew they would be forced to stand at attention outside their barracks for hours and denied their meagre rations, most welcomed the piercing sound of the alarm, so loud that most inmates still reflexively put their hands over their ears. Even if the rebel pair could only outfox their captors for an hour or two–and then likely everyone would have to watch the sickening aftermath of the captives being ridiculed, tortured, whipped, mutilated, stretched or hanged as a public spectacle–the audacity to even attempt to escape was a victory for the human spirit.
Freedom or Death
As registrars, Vrba and Wetzler had reached Mexico by feigning errands. At section B-II-A, the quarantine hut, Vrba said he must deliver the identity cards for some transferred prisoners to section B-II-D. As a two-year-veteran of Auschwitz, Wetzler (who was tasked with maintaining a daily tally of deaths within the camp itself, aside from mass executions at the crematoria) had reported at Section B-II-D that he must visit the hospital at Section B-II-F. These two false errands facilitated their rendezvous in Mexico.
When it finally came time for the weakened pair to remove the lumber overhead, Vrba and Wetzler discovered they could barely manage to shift its weight. Without the inadvertent assistance of those Nazi guards peeling away some of the timber, Vrba and Wetzler would have been trapped within a funereal tomb. Adamek and Bolek’s last-minute assistance, when they added as many boards to the roof as possible, had both saved their lives from the search party and almost killed them. This near-fatal experience was just one of more than fifteen life-threatening situations that Rudolf Vrba survived over a two-year period as a teenager [A list of death-defying events is provided below.]
Prior to his job as registrar, Vrba had been a labourer within the world’s largest-ever emporium of stolen goods, a Nazi warehouse accorded the nickname Canada (or “Kanada”). Consequently, they were able to obtain good shoes and tailor-made Dutch suits from the massive collection depot for goods that were stolen from the continuous influx of genocide victims. Obviously, if Vrba and Wetzler had been wearing striped prison garb, they would have been instantly identifiable as escapees once they managed to reach the countryside, so different apparel was essential. It is generally assumed the name Canada [or Kanada] was applied to the warehouse facility because faraway Canada was viewed as a Land of Plenty.
The search was officially called off on Monday night on April 10, 1944 at 6:30 p.m. That’s when the pair of fugitives heard guards shouting, “Postenkette absieben!” (Cordon down!). After three days of searching the grounds, the Nazis were assuming the hideaways had successfully fled the grounds. Once again the watchtowers on the outer perimenter would be left unmanned for the night, as was the custom, after all prisoners had been counted within the barracks, surrounded by an inner perimeter of sentries. The pair waited a bit longer. At around 9 p.m., with much difficulty, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd (“Fred” of “Fredo”) Wetzler set about extricating themselves from the hideout, with great difficulty. If that Nazis search party had not already removed some of the weight, they might not have ever succeeded.
It was eerily silent in Mexico. They could only stand erect in the moonlight with great difficulty. Gradually, their limbs became functional again…
The story of their arduous escape overland to Slovakia has been told in considerable detail by Alan Bestic and Rudolf Vrba in their book that is widely available and now entitled I Escaped From Auschwitz. Please buy that book if you want to know the particulars. Vrba tells his own story best. The runaways made their way south, mainly by moonlight, walking parallel to the Soła River, heading for the Polish border with Slovakia 80 miles (133 km) away as the crow flies. Whereas Alfred Wetzler would contrive a bizarre, fictionalized account of their journey, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert has summarized their exodus succinctly:
“After their escape, Vrab and Wetzler had worked their way southwards from Birkenau, ‘without documents, without a compass, without a map, and without a weapon.’ Carefully avoiding the German ‘new settlers’ who live… in former Polish homes, who were often armed, and had the authority to shoot ‘unidentifiable loiterers’ at sight, they headed steadily towards the mountains, shunning all roads and paths, and marching only at night. One evening they were fired on by a German police patrol, but managed to escape into the forest. Later they met a Polish partisan, who guided them towards the frontier, and then, on the morning of Friday, April 21, they crossed into Slovakia, finding refuge with a farmer on the Slovak side, in the small village of Skalite.”
When the bedraggled duo finally reached Slovakia, they were sequestered in the town called Žilina, hidden in the basement of an old folks home [as of April 24, 1944]. Their feet were bloodied and misshapen. A doctor was summoned. The malnourished pair recovered and soon cooperated with Jewish Council officials to produce an anonymous report that would be so detailed and emotionless that it could not NOT be believed. Their eyewitness reports were dictated over the course of three days.
This reportorial process was overseen by two Jewish Council leaders from Bratislava (Oskar Krasňanský, a chemical engineer, and Oskar Neumann, a lawyer and writer). They had been contacted by a local Jewish official named Erwin Steiner. Details of the process can be found in Neumann’s autobiography, In the Shadow of Death: A Factual Account of the Fateful Struggle of Sloval Jewry /Im Schatten des Todes (Tel Aviv, 1956). According to Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, it’s possibly the only memoir that exists written by one of the chiefs of the Slovak Judenrat, the Ústredňa Židov (aka ÚŽ). Neumann doesn’t mention Mordowitz and Rosin in his book; only Vrba and Wetzler.
The bedraggled but highly articulate escapees were interviewed in separate rooms (thereby enhancing their overall credibility). “I had no doubts whatever as to my abilities to communicate the realities of Auschwitz to the outside world,” Vrba recalled, in 1997. “I believed that if I escaped the confines of Auschwitz and managed to get back into the world outside and spread the news about the fate awaiting potential candidates for ‘resettlement,’ I could make some significant difference by breaking the cornerstone of the streamlined mass murder at Auschwitz–its secrecy.”
Krasňanský was able to test the pair on their remarkably detailed reportage because he had brought with him identity cards for each individual deportee from Slovakia, as well as the date of their transport trains. Vrba and Wetzler were able to accurately provide information that matched his records for individual Slovakian Jews. The interview sessions went on for hours. Vrba (still named Walter Rosenberg at the time) also drew accurate maps of Auschwitz that were then re-drafted by an architect. Although also reported on the factories using slave labour in Auschwitz III (Buna) run by German companies–chiefly IG Farben but also Krupp, Siemens and others–the final report would only include drawings of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. This reportage was merged into a 32-page report in Slovakian that was first typed by a local woman named Mrs. Steiner.
For dissemination purposes, Krasňanský decided it should first be translated into German. There are copies of the report in German stored at the Vatican Archives [Report no. 2144 (A.E~S. 7679/44)] sent from Bratislava on May 22, 1944, in the files of the World Jewish Congress, Geneva and in the Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York [War Refugee Board report, Box 61: General Correspondence of R. McClelland] as well as a copy at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (in Hungarian).
The factual testimonies of Vrba and Wetzler became the most significant part of the Auschwitz Protocols, now recognized as the first document that provided irrefutable proof about the extent and industrialized methods of mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Whereas preceding eyewitness reports had been dismissed as implausible, the precise and emotionless prose of the Vrba-Wetzler Report was so unerringly clear, including precise illustrations and exacting calculations as to how many Jews had been slain, that the horrific scale and methodology of the Holocaust was laid bare at last, after millions had already been murdered.
“No other single act in the Second World War,” according to the pre-eminent World War II historian Sir Martin Gilbert, “saved so many Jews from the fate that Hitler and the SS had determined for them.” Vrba and Wetzler were initially credited (by Gilbert) with saving at least 100,000 Jews when the veracity of their report finally reached the Allies. Wikipedia has since doubled that figure based on the input of multiple experts. Hence, the latest re-issue of Vrba’s memoir I Escaped From Auschwitz (initially entitled I Cannot Forgive) is now subtitled The Shocking True Story of the World War II Hero Who Escaped the Nazis and Helped Save Over 200,000 Jews.
Against the Odds
Auschwitz II-Birkenau was created after SS General Reinhard Heydrich convened the Wannasee conference on the outskirts of Berlin entitled “Desires and Ideas of the Foreign Office in Connection with the Intended Total Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe.”
Aside from Vrba and Wetzler, only Siegfried Lederer and their friends Czesław Mordowicz and Arnošt Rosin would also escape from Auschwitz II (Birkenau) as Jews [See MORDOWICZ-ROSIN ESCAPE]. Historian Danuta Czech has identified other Slovakian Jews who had attempted to escape from Auschwitz in 1942 and failed in Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz–Birkenau 1939–1945 (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1989, p. 214). They are: Leopold Almasi (#32695), Martin Weiss (#30715), Zoltán Hochfelder (#33319) Isak Herskovic (#30256) Jozef Spitza (#30223) Franz Hauser (#31647), Moric Citron (#33603) and Ladislav Lilientahl (#29878). Unproven estimates of more than five Jewish escapees constitute wishful thinking.
It had been far easier for Poles to escape because they generally had better living conditions and gained jobs that afforded some freedom of movement. The Polish historian Tadeusz Iwaszko has estimated that from the summer of 1940 until January 1945, up to 667 inmates managed to escape from Auschwitz but Poland is undergoing a revisionist era during which that country’s role in the Holocaust is being minimized, so even the statistics from the Auschwitz Museum itself cannot be entirely presumed to be accurate.
It wasn’t until 1943 that Jewish prisoners were elevated to administrative roles which did not require prisoners’ striped garb. For the mortuary, Wetzler had kept track of all those prisoners who died outside of the gas chambers, and Vrba had spent a year as blockschreiber for Block 15 of the Quarantine Camp. [The German and Yiddish word for writer, or scribe, is Schreib or “Schreiber” (keeper of records).] These men were sufficiently trusted to have been given private lodgings and relatively free range in the camp. The pair had sometimes met in Wetzler’s comfortable little office where cadavers could be stacked from floor to ceiling. Their Slovak cohort Ceslav Mordowicz recalled meeting Wetzler when he was using a corpse as a makeshift coffee table, outside his office.
The successful escapes made by these five Jews were made from Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a complex that was connected by a railway line to the more rudimentary base camp known as Auschwitz I. According to historian Erich Kulka, the ratio of SS men to a single prisoner in the original Auschwitz I camp was 1 to 14; and but in the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp it was 1 to 64 while construction was underway to prepare for the huge influx of Hungarian Jews. In Auschwitz III (Buna Monowice) it would be 1 to 23. [There were also a few dozen, outlying sub-camps from which non-Jews were able to flee more easily–see MAP at the bottom of this page.]
Statistics on escapes are clearly estimates. Whereas Henryk Świebocki in Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s publication of Auschwitz, 1940-1945: Central Issues in the History of the Camp (2000) tells us 127 out of 802 attempts to escape (757 men and 45 women) were successful from 1940-1945, and 150 of these attempts were made by Jews, the Auschwitz Museum has informed visitors, virtually or in person, that as many as 196 prisoners can be said to have escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau and its various confines out of 928 attempts. Erich Kulka made the incredible statement that 76 Jews escaped but he failed to name them. He adds, “Barely a dozen successful escapees were traced after the war.” Again, no names are provided but he proceeds to cite the two escapees from the “Gypsy Camp” who succeeded on November 19, 1943, Jerzy Tabeau and Toman Cieliczjo.
The Vrba expert Ruth Linn estimates there were 500-700 attempts to escape from Auschwitz, some 75 of which were made by Jews (out of whom only five succeeded during three escapes in April and May of 1944). The Polish author Ján Zaborowski claims “in total, 667 inmates escaped […]” from the Auschwitz Concentration camp. According to our knowledge, 270 inmates were caught by the camp guards. We have exact reports about the fate of 100 inmates whose escape was successful. No one knows exactly what happened to the other almost 300 escapees. […] A third of the heroes of the Auschwitz escapes were Poles (232), while the other most numerous groups were Russians (95) and Jews (76).”
Ruth Linn’s sober–and sobering–estimates make the most sense. It must be noted that ten-meter-high guard towers were stationed every fifty meters as an inner perimeter sentry chain in the second, much larger Auschwitz camp erected near the village of Brzezinka, aka Birkenau (aka Auschwitz II), making it far more difficult to escape there than from the smaller Auschwitz I, established on the grounds of a former Polish army camp in 1940. Not all failed escapees were publicly murdered; some survived torture and were transferred to the penal unit (Strafkompanie) where, according to Kulka, “they experienced the ultimate in Kapo and SS bestiality.”
Human brains were not yet prepared to absorb the idea of mass murder on the scale of Auschwitz. — Rudolf Vrba
The escape of Vrba and Wetzler was unprecedented because nobody else had succeeded in convincing the outside world as to the extent of the genocide and the audacity of the Nazis’ industrialized murder methods.
The most convincing witness before them, Jan Karski, had been accorded a prolonged, private meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the Allies remained willfully ignorant as to the scope and true nature of the Holocaust. The task of revealing Auschwitz to the world therefore fell to Vrba and Wetzler.
Contrary to a semi-fictionalized narrative that Wetzler published using his nom-de-guerre Jozef Lánik (What Dante Did Not See / Co Dante nevidel, Osveta, Bratislava, 1964), Vrba proved himself to be the opposite of a hothead, making sure they adhered to a set of guidelines for escaping that were provided to him by Captain Dimitri Volkov [also Dimitrij Volkov]. As one of a hundred Russians who were captured on the eastern front and transferred to Auschwitz for additional punishment, Volkov was a bear of a man who had supplied the vital tip about using petrol-soaked machorka. “He didn’t want to know any details [of the escape],” Vrba later said, “because he was afraid I might name him as an accomplice if I was tortured.”
Having once escaped from Sachsenhuasen prison (near Berlin) and almost reached safety in Kiev, Volkov was their guiding light through the darkness of fear, despair and sometimes icey conditions. These adverse conditions in the mountains were exaggerated in the Wetzler/Lanik narrative that depicts Wetzler and Vrba as fictional protagonists named Karol (wise) and Val (weak). Wetzler/Lanik continually references snowy conditions but it’s now possible to retroactively check temperatures for particular dates in the area and prove that the duo’s privation s were somewhat exaggerated in the Wetzler narrative. Wetzler originally described the work as a novel. Hence, he understood and admitted his account was a distortion of the truth. It has nonetheless been misinterpreted for decades since then as non-fiction.
Vrba had taught himself some Russian in his mid-teens (against his mother’s wishes) so he had been able to gain Volkov’s trust in Auschwitz during the pair’s extended conversations about Russian literature. For his part, Volkov must have respected Vrba as a risk taker in his own right. At only nineteen, here was a youth who had already escaped from the Nazis twice before and had a consummated love affair within the confines of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
To the same extent that their hideout had been completely constructed by others, the two escapees fully and diligently adhered to the directives of Volkov, such as “Never get drunk with freedom.” Beyond the barbed wire, his shrewdness was the pair’s compass. Adhering to Captain Volkov’s “Manual of What Every Escaper Should Know”–as Vrba put it–they would never carry meat. They would trust nobody. They would never carry money. “If you’re starving,” he forewarned, “you’ll be tempted to buy food.”
They would live off the land. Steal. Keep away from people. “Don’t be afraid of the Germans–there are many of them but each of them is small.” Don’t trust your legs because a bullet can always run faster. Take a knife for hunting or defending yourself.
Never relax as long as you’re in enemy territory. Take matches to cook what you can steal. Take salt because with salt and potatoes you can survive for months. Take a wrist watch to time your journeys to ensure you’ll never get caught in the open.
And take a razor blade for suicide…
At the advice of the Jewish elders, Vrba and Wetzler were unnamed authors of the report, ostensibly for their own safety. Meanwhile, Auschwitz officials had quickly sent a notice to all Nazi jurisdictions in central and eastern Europe, identifying the escapees, in their efforts to re-capture and eliminate the fugitives. [View this Auschwitz telegram in EARLY YEARS section.]
The pair’s emotionless rendering of the vast scale of mass murder at Auschwitz enabled the truth to reach Geneva in neutral Switzerland on June 13, 1944. Details from a telegraphic summary were shared with the British public by the BBC on June 18, 1944. The New York Times followed suit on June 20, 1944.
Finally, the Final Solution was not a secret. By closely monitoring the incoming trains and committing each transport to memory, the multi-lingual duo of Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler had remarkably managed to (1) estimate the number of Jews killed in Auschwitz between June of 1942 and April of 1944 at 1.75 million and (2) closely allocate the number of Jews that were gassed on per country basis for shipments of Jews from Slovakia, Poland (both by trains and trucks), Holland, Greece, France, Belgium, Germany, Yugoslavia, Italy, Norway, Lithuania, Bohemia, Moravia and Austria.
It was Vrba’s testimony, according to Wetzler, that primarily made the scope and horrors of Auschwitz undeniable. Asked to describe 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.”
Unfortunately, Krasňanský would not countenance any forewarnings in the final report about the imminent massacre of Hungary’s Jews. Vrba was desperate to include the fact that he had heard SS guards discussing the imminent arrival of “Hungarian salami.” As well, both he and Wetzler had witnessed the construction that was underway in preparation for the arrivals of the last and largest Jewish population in Europe. Krasňanský prohibited any such conjectures and Neumann, even though he was president of the Jewish Council, would not overrule Krasňanský on this point. Only facts were permitted. Still a teenager, Vrba was therefore unable to convince his elders that an explicit warning ought to be included to alert 800,000 Jews in Hungary about the Holocaust. Vrba’s prophecy would be proven correct six weeks later when two more Jews, Mordowicz and Rosin, followed their path to freedom and verified Vrba’s prophesy when they were also interviewed by Krasnansky.
More Lives Than A Cat
Rudolf Vrba narrowly evaded death at least a fifteen times over a two-year period as a teenager. It’s not hyperbole to say his bleak adventures amid Nazi persecution make the plots of James Bond movies seem almost plausible. Here is a list.
- While trying to escape back into Slovakia at age 17, Vrba was bludgeoned by anti-semitic Hungarian border guards, smashed in the face with a rifle and accused of being a spy. After he regained consciousness, he was severely beaten for half-an-hour and then pistol-whipped by an officer who pummelled him in the face with a truncheon “with an efficiency that made the earlier efforts of his subordinates seem amateurish, wasteful.”
- Hungarian guards were ordered to give “the usual treatment.” This meant taking him to the border and either shooting him or stabbing him with a bayonet, after which his body could be dumped in No Man’s Land. When he was ordered to flee into the night to ostensibly be shot as a fugitive, Vrba avoided gunfire by zig-zagging and weaving his way into the safety of darkness.
- Next, Vrba was apprehended and jailed by Slovak border guards, once again beaten again as a potential spy. “You dirty, bloody Yid,” one of them said. “I should beat you so your mother wouldn’t recognize you. But that’s been done already!” After he recovered, he was sent to the Novaky transit camp in preparation a train ride to Poland…
- Vrba masterminded an escape from the Novaky labour camp with his friend Josef Knapp, who later abandoned him. Recaptured a week later, Vrba was methodically and relentlessly beaten by Hlinka guards who were angry at him for making them look bad. They took turns using fists, boots and rifle butts. Again, he survived.
- After he was transferred by train across to Majdanek in Poland (“a preparatory school for the academy of Auschwitz”), he escaped death thanks to his own foolishness. At Majdanek [pronounced MY-don-ek] on November 3, 1943, during a one-day killing fest code-named Operation Harvest, the Nazis slaughtered its remaining 17,000 prisoners of both sexes, but Vrba was not among them because he had naively volunteered for “agricultural work” at a place called Auschwitz.
- Farm work turned out to be digging up 107,000 rotting corpses, some 20,000 of which were Russian POWs. Of the 1,400 men in this labour force, only 300 were alive when the job was finished. They, too, were executed. But Vrba’s ability to speak German got him shifted to a different job, rather than exhuming corpses.
- Rather than betray a secret about a theft by someone else from the “Kanada” or “Canada” compound (wherein Nazi maintained their storehouse of confiscated goods) Vrba survived fifty blows from a cane wielded by an SS torturer. Such beatings could be fatal.
- As recorded by Wetzler in his memoir, Vrba was a risk-taker, often for others. “He’s tried several times to bring his friends something the ramp, but twice it ended badly for him. The first time he got twenty-five with a stick, the second time twenty-five with a whip.” Whippings in Auschwitz could be fatal.
- While sifting through a batch of pilfered items in Kanada, Vrba glimpsed a page in a children’s atlas. It showed the location of Auschwitz in relation to the Sola River. He ripped out this page, took it with him to the latrine, memorized this geographical information and promptly destroyed the page. It was worth it: he had learned an escapee could reach the border of Slovakia by following the path of the Sola River. But the punishment, if he had been caught, could have been fatal.
- In August of 1942, soon after Vrba and his friend Josef Erdelyi (from the Majdanek transport) were transferred to the Buna command, they were forced by the malevolent kapo Jakob Fries to sprint on their wobbly legs to prove they did not have typhus. Famished and exhausted, they were diagnosed with typhus and placed in a line-up for execution. Another kapo that Josef knew took pity on them and switched them to a different line-up. “We turned just in time to see the typhus victims we had just left, slouching away to the crematorium.”
- The typhus epidemic killed approximately 15,000-20,000 prisoners. Vrba survived his severe bout of spotted typhus when he was hidden within the Canada compound by female prisoners. This life-saving respite enabled Vrba to receive a life-saving, clandestine injection from a hospital orderly, Josef Farber, who turned out to be a link to the Hungarian underground movement.
- Vrba’s fellow prisoners hid him in Block 4 during his convalescence and replenished him with food, saving his life once more. Bolstered by his new connections, Vrba rekindled his dreams of escape, eventually meeting the Slovak registrar “Fred” Wetzler at Auschwitz-Birkenau who later, in a memoir, described his first meeting with Vrba (renamed Val) wherein he notes, notes, disapprovingly, that Vrba was “taking risks again” by openly offering a cigarette “for the pleasure of a little sharp French tobacco” obviously stolen during “the past seven months Val has been working at the ramp.” Hence, we know Vrba also took life-threatening risks at the ramp, not only in the Canada compound.
- During a pre-Christmas typhus inspection, Vrba and others in the Canada command had to strip in the fierce cold, then repeatedly plunge into hot showers and dash out into the winter air again. “For two days we were left naked and without food which weeded out a few more.” Many of those who survived the typhus text contracted pneumonia and died anyway. Again, Vrba evaded death.
- The odds of survival within the overall construct of the three main Auschwitz camps for almost two years cannot be accurately calculated, but journalist Jonathan Freedland writes on page 151 of The Escape Artist, “More than 600 Jewish men from Trnava had been deported to Auschwitz from Slovakia in 1942. By the spring of 1944, only two were still alive: Walter Rosenberg [Rudolf Vrba] and Alfréd Wetzler.” In fact, Eisenbach was also from the same hometown, but the odds of escaping death were nonetheless very slim.
- While Vrba and Wetzler were hiding in a narrow enclave within the woodpile, a police dog sensed their presence and started barking, excitedly. A search party began dismantling the stack of lumber, only to be called away by a disruption that occurred in the vicinity.
- While completing an eleven-day trek to freedom, Vrba escaped a flurry of bullets for a third time, again at night–this time by throwing himself on the ground as if he had been shot, then dashing into the woods.
- Having escaped with Wetzler to Bratislava, Vrba risked his own life in September of 1944 in order to bring Wetzler a new set of false identity papers in Nitra. Wetzler and Mordowicz had gone to Nitra to visit Wetzler’s brother, only to be apprehended by local police who confiscated their ID. Mordowicz removed his concealed handgun and fired a shot, enabling both of them to flee, but in opposite directions. Mordowicz made it back to Bratislava and pleaded with Vrba to find and save Wetzler–which he managed to do. It was Czeslaw Mordowicz who recounted this little-known story to his biographer. Vrba never wrote about it. To read the details, click the Mordowicz/ Rosin Escape Page.
A Lover and a Fighter
Historians have tended to overlook the the impact of Vrba’s tragic love affair within Auschwitz-Birkenau as a teenager. His consummated affair with his first love, Alice Munk, surely must have resulted in deep trauma but, of course, there is little evidence of this relationship beyond Vrba’s own recollections. In short, it can’t be proved. We can only take Vrba’s word for it.
Alice Munk, according to Vrba’s memoir, was gassed and cremated on the day after they had spent their first and last night together. We are told that Vrba stood for four hours outside the barracks, “tormented, until I saw the dark smoke mixed with a giant, yellow flame, rise up from the crematorium.” Vrba devotes eleven pages to the Czech Family Camp and Alice Munk in the I Escaped from Auschwitz version of his memoirs, but most critical writing about Vrba takes little notice of this deeply personal tragedy.
While Vrba’s bravery was no doubt influenced by a desire to prevent the imminent mass murder of 800,000 Jews from Hungary, one must also consider that the best way for Vrba to avenge the murder of Alice Munk was to blow the whistle on the Nazis. [See FAMILY CAMP] The murder of almost two million people in one place is one thing; the murder of a male virgin’s first love is another.
Rudolf Vrba co-wrote the most influential eyewitness report on Auschwitz with his fellow escapee Alfréd Wetzler; then he emerged as the foremost whistleblower of World War II.
Rudolf Vrba proceeded to join the Slovak Resistance forces in September of 1944. “My friends,” he told the partisans, “I need a pistol. Someday a bright SS man is going to see through my false papers and when that happens, I don’t want the argument to be one-sided.” He was upset when he was told, “We don’t issue pistols to lads like you…” but then they added “We issue sub-machine guns!”
Vrba fought until the end of the war as a machine-gunner under Sergeant Milan Uher, participating in a successful attack on the SS in Stará Turá. As a Senior Sergeant, he became a decorated war hero with the Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery and the Order of Slovak National Insurrection. At war’s end, he legalized his nom de guerre Rudolf Vrba and changed his official birth date in his identity papers to match the day he had escaped from Auschwitz and started life anew–April 7th.
Rudolf Vrba soon discovered there would be more battles to be fought. Here is an exceedingly brief synopsis of his post-war life.
In 1945, Vrba moved to Prague where he later earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Prague Technical University in 1951 and began working as a neuro-chemist. On April 16, 1949, at the Bratislava Town Hall, Vrba married his childhood friend Gerta (or Gerti) Sidonova, born in Trvana on November 28, 1926. She was a fellow scientist who had typed an early version of the Vrba-Wetzler Report. Theirs was possibly the only wedding in history that included three Auschwitz escapees as wedding guests: Alfréd Wetzler, Czeszlaw Mordowicz and Anton Rosen. Vrba’s mother, Ilonka, arranged the nuptial festivities wherein her son got drunk and tried to kiss Gerta’s friend, Inge. Mordowicz attempted to mollify the bride by showing her how to take apart and reassemble a pistol. She was not enthused.
Still recovering from Holocaust trauma, Vrba was not prepared to settle down. It soon became apparent he could be irrationally jealous and mistrustful. Gerta gained her medical degree in 1950 and the marriage gave rise to two daughters, Helena (b. 1952) and “Zuzka” (b. 1954) but eventually Gerta wanted a divorce. “Perhaps at the time,” she wrote after Helena’s death, “we did not even comprehend how ‘damaged’ we both were, and it is only with time that I can see how it [the Holocaust] must have affected us all.”
To gain her freedom in 1956, Vrbová had to pay all the legal costs for her divorce, leave their flat to Rudi and find a new home for herself and their children. With her daughters in tow, Gerta Vrbová completed a daring escape to Copenhagen, via Poland in 1958. She ultimately reached England in 1959 where she immediately remarried to Dr. Sidney Hilton on October 6, 1959; they had two children, Caroline and Peter, but divorced in 1976. Vrba’s eldest daughter, Dr. Helena Vrbova, died in 1982, seemingly by suicide, while in Papua-New Guinea after doing three years of malaria research in the tropics. Vrba’s second daughter Zuzana Vrbova died in 2014.
Invited to attend a conference in Israel in 1958, Vrba defected and took refuge at the Weizmann Institute of Science, a public research university in Rehovot, whereupon he did a two-year stint in the Agricultural Ministry’s Veterinary Research Institute. In 1960, Vrba moved to London and worked as a researcher for two years in the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit in Carshalton, Surrey; then for the British Medical Research Council until 1967. He became a citizen of the United Kingdom in 1966. During this period he also sought out and collaborated with a journalist for the left-leaning Daily Herald, Alan Bestic, who was born in Ireland but raised in England since the age of three. In 1962, they collaborated on a series of five Holocaust articles that led to the publication of Vrba’s memoir I Cannot Forgive in 1963. It has since been re-issued with different titles and numerous languages in more than fifteen editions, usually re-titled as I Escaped From Auschwitz.
“Originally,” Vrba wrote to his friend Robert Krell, “the book had the title I Cannot Forgive but as some publishers considered this title not to be Christian enough or otherwise too foreboding, the book frequently appeared under a changed title without change of contents except for minor corrections and inclusion of some documents in some of the editions.” Of course, most readers will presume the title I Cannot Forgive refers to the fact that Vrba could not forgive the Nazis for the Holocaust but this can be viewed as a double-entendre. Vrba could also not forgive the Allies who knew about the Holocaust and did not even once try to bomb the railway tracks leading to the deadliest concentration camps. Most of all, Vrba could not forgive Rudolf Kasztner, the Jewish leader in Hungary who notoriously negotiated with Eichmann in order to save the lives of 2,000 Jews, including relatives and hometown friends, while failing to alert Jews-at-large in Hungary about the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler Report.
It is important to note that some academic historians have asserted that Rudolf Kasztner did, however, deliver a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler Report, as soon as possible, to members of the Jewish Council in Budapest on April 29 during a meeting held at their headquarters at 12 Síp Street. The Jewish Council seemingly made no use of the information. According to Zoltán Tibori Szabó, these members of that Jewish Council were Samu Stern, president (merchant, banker, president of the Hungarian National Israelite Office and of the Neolog Israelite Community of Pest), Ernő Pető (lawyer, vice president of the Neolog Israelite Community of Pest), Ernő Boda (lawyer, vice president of the Neolog Israelite Community of Pest), Károly Wilhelm (lawyer and leader of the Neolog Israelite Community of Pest), Samu Csobádi (president of the Neolog Israelite Community of Buda), Samu Kahán-Frankl (rabbi, president of the Central Orthodox Israelite Office), Fülöp Freudiger (president of the Independent Orthodox Israelite Community of Budapest) and Niszon Kahán (lawyer and leader of the Hungarian Zionist Organization.]
In 1967, Vrba relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia as an Associate of the Medical Research Council of Canada (1967-1973). He became a Canadian citizen in 1973. From 1973-1975, Vrba undertook research at Harvard Medical School with a grant from the Medical Research Council of Canada. It was during this period he met and married his second wife, Robin Vrba, originally from Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1975. They met at a party in Boston. She recalls her response on first seeing him was, “Oh, my god, that guy’s adorable.” She also credits him with having a “humongous sense of humour.” She subsequently became a successful real estate agent in Vancouver. He had nightmares (about the Holocaust) but these were buffeted by his sometimes wicked sense of humour. Towards the end of World War II, his mother was briefly incarcerated in Theresienstadt, a hybrid of ghetto and a concentration camp in the town of Terezin, giving rise to his riposte, “She needed to lose some weight anyway.” When he visited one of the concentration camps with a group of students in 1948, according to Robin, he was asked how he felt making a return visit. “Much better than the first time,” he said.
From 1976 until his retirement in 1990, Vrba served as an Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia. There, Vrba lectured prolifically in the fields of biochemistry and pharmacology while producing more than fifty original research papers on the chemistry of the brain. As an expert on the effects of exhaustion on the brain, as well as diabetes and cancer, Vrba liked to say 95% of his time was allotted to pharmacology of the brain and only 5% was allotted to the Holocaust. The vast majority of his students never knew he was a Holocaust survivor, author or hero.
Nonetheless, Vrba often lectured at Holocaust conferences and events (usually asserting that one of the major motivations for the Nazis to undertake the Holocaust was theft), made himself available for interviews (characterizing himself as an atypical Holocaust witness because he wanted to tell others what happened), contributed to several film documentaries and published an impressive array of articles. Finally, Vrba acted as a prosecution witness against Nazi criminals and Holocaust deniers in several court cases. He was particularly essential for the successful prosecution of the Canadian Holocaust denialist Ernst Zündel, during a seven-week trial in Toronto in 1985, whereby Zündel faced charges of knowingly publishing false material likely to cause harm to racial or social tolerance. When Zündel’s lawyer attempted to undermine Vrba’s testimony by saying Vrba had never actually seen anyone gassed, Vrba told the court that he had seen people taken into the buildings and he saw SS officers toss in gas canisters after them. “Therefore, I concluded it was not a kitchen or a bakery, but it was a gas chamber,” Vrba said. “It is possible they are still there or that there is a tunnel and they are now in China? Otherwise, they were gassed.”
Vrba resisted the term neo-Nazis. “I don’t buy it,” he said. “It’s nonsense. They are Nazis. And what do they expect from Nazis–to admit Auschwitz? When Auschwitz was running, they were constantly denying it. And today, when it’s not running, they deny it even more… To teach that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter is also anti-semitic nonsense… People must know what really happened, how they were deceived, how this deception was propagated… The intrinsic sense of the Holocaust, the purpose of the Holocaust, must be made known to every civilized, educated person.”
Vrba and Alfréd Israel Wetzler did not see eye-to-eye about politics after World War II and they respectfully drifted apart. Born in Nagyszombat, Austria-Hungary (now known as Trnava, Slovakia) on May 10, 1918, Wetzler wrote a fictionalized account of his experiences, What Dante Did Not See, under the alias Jozef Lánik, resulting in a his misleading memoir, Escape from Hell, originally titled Správa. Wetzler’s memoir eventually served as the ostensible basis for a Slovakia-Czech Republic-Poland-Germany production of a feature film, The Auschwitz Report, that oddly portrays Vrba as a minor and subordinate character. Sympathetic to communism, Wetzler worked as an editor (1945–1950), moved to Bratislava (1950–1955) and worked on a farm (1955–1970) until he was sidelined by failing health. He died in Bratislava on February 8, 1988 and was buried in the Orthodox Jewish Cemetery.
At the instigation of Dr. Ruth Linn, a Hebrew translation of Vrba’s memoir was finally made available in Israel in 1998, at which time Vrba received an honorary doctorate from Haifa University “in recognition of his heroism and daring in exposing the horrors of Auschwitz during the war, which led to the saving of Jewish lives, and in profound appreciation of his educational contribution and devotion to spreading knowledge about the Holocaust.”
Under the auspices of Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, and Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, the Rudolf Vrba Award for films about human rights was established in Prague in 2001 for original documentaries that “draw attention to an unknown or silenced theme concerning human rights.” Predeceased by one of his beloved daughters, Vrba lived mainly in Vancouver with his wife Robin on the campus of the University of British Columbia, eventually settling in an apartment block at 5775 Toronto Road.
After several years of maintaining a strict silence about his cancer, in keeping with his learned behaviour at Auschwitz (ie. any display of weakness is dangerous), Vrba died of cancer in 2006 at the age of 81.
Cremation was out of the question. Efforts were made to have Rudi Vrba buried in the oldest Jewish cemetery on the B.C. mainland, part of Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, but it was ultimately decided that his final resting place would be a seldom-visited cemetery on the outskirts of the city. His modest grave can be found by anyone who really wants to find it. The family decision for Vrba not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery remains a sore point with his friend and admirer Robert Krell, but Vrba’s distrust of Zionist, Israeli and Jewish authority figures ultimately held sway. If he was not adequately respected (and admired) and listened to by conventional Jewish leaders (with notable exceptions such as Krell and Irwin Cotler), why should he merit attention from conventional Jewish society after his death?
Rudolf Vrba’s papers were gifted by Robin Vrba to the Franklin D. Roosevelt President Library and Museum in New York.
This website is an independent effort to provide a greater understanding of Vrba’s life and character for educational purposes. With support from Yosef Wosk, it was created solely by a non-Jewish, Canadian journalist working with website technician Sharon Jackson. For more information, visit alantwigg.com.
1 The latest version from Racehorse / Simon & Schuster (distribution) is co-edited by Robin Vrba (Vrba’s second wife) and Nikola Zimring (a New York University history grad student). It properly credits the London journalist Alan Bestic as a co-author. One of the first premature estimates of only 100,000 Jews saved by the Vrba-Wetzler Report was made by Gerald Reitlinger in The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (New York: Beechhurst Press 1953). Ruth Davis of the Czech and Slovak Jewish Communities Archive stated the Vrba-Wetzler Report ought to credited with saving 200,000 lives as early as 2004. This has now become the standard estimate, also endorsed by historian Sir Martin Gilbert.
Map below created by David Lester for the book OUT OF HIDING: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia (Ronsdale Press, 2022) by Alan Twigg. Replicate as you please. http://ronsdalepress.com/out-of-hiding/