Rudolf Vrba after the war in Prague

Auschwitz escapee Rudolf Vrba, in London, before he was featured in Claude Lanzmann’s nine-and-half-hour documentary film, Shoah.

THE STORY: Having escaped from Auschwitz in April of 1944, Rudolf Vrba co-wrote five articles with Irish-born journalist Alan Bestic  of the Daily Herald in London, coinciding with the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. These led to their riveting Auschwitz memoir, I Cannot Forgive (1963). Handsome, brilliant and bold, Vrba believed himself to be a European who happened to be Jewish, rather than a Jew how happened to be born in Slovakia. Divorced from his teenage sweetheart, Gerta, a medical researcher, Vrba taught pharmacology at western Canada’s top university after he became a Canadian citizen in 1973. Happily remarried to American-born Robin Vrba, he revered science and freedom, but was forever rankled by the complicity of some Jewish leaders, particularly in Hungary, who he believed had failed to adequately forewarn Jews of their fate. Had the Jewish population of Hungary been told about the undeniable Vrba-Wetzler Report, co-authored with Alfréd Wetzler, far more than 200,000 Jews might well have been saved by his heroism. Having spent 21 months and seven days in Auschwitz [in all three Auschwitz camps], Vrba later served as a formidable prosecution witness for trials of Nazi war criminals and Holocaust deniers until his death in 2006. Rudolf Vrba went to his grave believing the Holocaust, although racially defined, was equally motivated by the massive theft of Jewish properties and possessions.

On April 7, 1944, at 2 p.m., two Jews huddled inside a pile of construction lumber, near Crematorium IV and Crematorium V, in a treeless zone of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in an area of the complex nicknamed Mexico (or “Meksyk” in Polish), on the outskirts of the most lethal death camp in history.

Like two men in the same coffin, Alfréd Wetzler, age 25, and Rudolf Vrba, age 19, were able to lie side-by-side, within a narrow antechamber adjoining a wider cavern. The pair had sprinkled Russian tobacco, pre-soaked in petrol, around their hideout, hoping to deter the camp’s 200 Alsatian search dogs and their handlers.

“Squeezed and immobilized, one next to the other,” Wetzler later recalled, “we had scarves tied around our mouths so as not to reveal where we were by accidental coughing.”

Mexico area of Auschwitz

Here is an exceedingly rare photo that shows where Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler hid for three days inside a woodpile, at the construction zone in Auschwitz nicknamed Mexico. Construction was envisioned to facilitate the arrival and anticipated mass murder of approximately 800,000 Hungarians Jews. Historians have now estimated that Vrba and Wetzler’s whistleblowing saved the lives of approximately 200,000 of them. The Nazis officially referred to this desolate zone as Bauabschnitt III (or BIII, Construction Sector III). Most people today to not realize there were three sections of the overall prison complex referred to as Auschwitz. The first camp called Auschwitz 1 – Stammlager arose from a Polish army barracks at the town of Oswiecim. The second, Auschwitz II -Birkenau, was located at the nearby village of Brzezinka. The third known as Auschwitz III (or Buna) was at the village of Monowice (Monowitz). Rudolf Vrba was a rare prisoner who survived in all three. Less lethal subcamps in the surrounding vicinity were known as Nebenlager, from which it was much easier to make an escape attempt. Only six Jews ever successfully escaped from Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Most historians fail to mention the only female escapee, Cyla Cybulska. [SS photo, 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, APMO, negative #20995/438]

The would-be escapees, both from the eastern part of Czechoslovakia (aka Slovakia), were keenly aware there was more at stake than their lives. Having closely monitored the train arrivals for two years, they had correctly deduced that Auschwitz was expanding its operations to eliminate 800,000 Hungarian Jews–the last remaining major population of Jews in Europe.

Vrba later wrote, “When the Jewish transports from the Netherlands arrived, the rations were enriched with cheese. After the arrival of the French transports, it was sardines, and olives after the arrival of the trains from Greece.” Hence, when Vrba overheard Nazi guards laughingly discuss the imminent arrival of Hungarian salami, he knew Hungarian Jews were next. “Because it was close to Slovakia,” he later wrote, “I thought it would be possible to give the warning.”

So began the most important escape of the 20th century.

After two accessories (cited as “Bolek” and “Adam” by Wetzler; cited by Hendryk Swiebock as Polish Jews “who worked with Pawel Gulba in the digging crew”) had helped Vrba and Wetzler swiftly remove layers of planks, affording access, the timbers were replaced for a continuous stack. Vrba claims 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.”

For the next hour or so, the two fugitives calmed their nerves by wedging more tainted Russian machorka (tobacco) into the cracks of their refuge. “It was only half-past three,” Vrba recalled. “The alarm would not be raised until five-thirty and suddenly I realized I was longing to hear it. I felt like a boxer, sitting his corner, waiting for the bell, or like a soldier in the trenches, waiting to go over the top.”

THE SOURCE: This one-million-word website about Rudolf Vrba was created by a (non-Jewish) journalist, Alan Twigg, who has received an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University and has been awarded his country’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Canada. A former newspaper publisher, Twigg is the author of twenty books on a wide variety of subjects, including Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature or British Columbia, winner of the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness. The website is not affiliated or indebted to any organization or institution. It is a purely educational, not-for-profit service generated with website technician Sharon Jackson, supported by Yosef Wosk. Its author knew Rudolf Vrba.

Wetzler was the unofficial chess champion in Birkenau and he leaned towards Communism. He would soon adopt the pseudonym Jozef Lánik and also use it as his pen name. Still a teenager, Vrba, a would-be-scientist, was still named Walter Rosenberg at the time. He would legally adopt his nom de guerre Rudolf Vrba after the war and retain it for the rest of his life, altering his birth date to match the date of his escape from Auschwitz.

Neither man was religious. Both fugitives were bachelors who spoke several languages, including German. Vrba adamantly considered himself to be a European citizen first, and a Jew second. Neither man realized it was only a few hours before the onset of Passover, the annual festival for Jews to thank God for their liberty. Both would remain atheists.

Map of Birkenau

Map of Auschwitz/Birkenau showing the large area known as Mexico (at right) and Vrba’s hiding place (lumber pile on right), as well as the warehouse area known as Kanada (top, centre), Wetzler’s office, Vrba’s office, crematoria, and other major features, as of 1944. The round blue shapes are septic treatment tanks. According to an essay written by Vrba, their hideout was “roughly 300 metres east of Crematorium V.”

The Manhunt


movie advertisemment

While the 2021 Slovak film directed by Peter Bebjak makes a laudable attempt to achieve the impossible–representing the reality of Auschwitz-Birkenau within an entertaining movie–this fictionalized version of the escape and the subsequent report leans heavily in favour of a character meant to represent Alfréd Wetzler and bizarrely misrepresents the character that we assume is Rudolf Vrba. The lopsidedness of the Slovak movie only makes sense if you know that Vrba’s wife Robin was unwilling to grant film rights because a Los Angeles-based film project, based on Vrba’s story, has long been in development. The Bebjak movie consequently misrepresents Vrba as an ineffectual character, absurdly so. See GREATEST ESCAPE below.

SS guards realized that two camp registrars were missing from their barracks during the 5 p.m. roll call but the shrieking siren of alarm at Auschwitz was delayed until after 6 p.m.  The news that two more Jews were attempting another escape would come as an embarrassment to the Auschwitz command. Just two days before, on April 5, Siegfried Lederer [Vítězslav Lederer in Czech] had become the first Jew to escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau by donning the uniform of a high-ranking Nazi. [See LEDERER WAS FIRST on this site.] Prior to April of 1944, no Jew had ever successfully escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Two French Jews had been recently caught trying to escape while carrying a loaf bread containing diamonds pilfered from gassed victims.

The Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Fritz Hartjenstein, was not officially informed of this latest escape attempt, by teleprinter, until 8:33 p.m. The howling siren announced the pair’s escape for ten deafening minutes. “No other siren has such a terrible wailing note,” Wetzler would recall. “It was 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.”

Inside the hideout, the would-be escape artists could hear the Nazis yelling orders to their vicious search dogs. Vrba kept glancing at his watch. “Then I disciplined myself to ignore it, grinning in the dark as I thought fatuously of my mother in her kitchen back home, shaking her finger at me and saying solemnly: ‘A watched pot never boils!'”

More than thirty years later, Filip Muller, the most famous survivor of the Sonderkommando units [Sonderkommando was the term for prisoners who were forced to conduct Jews to the gas chambers, and later dispose of their bodies in the crematoria, in return for better food and lodging] would verify the escape: “In the area outside the barbed-wire fences… another feverish hunt was in progress. SS men with Alsatian guard-dogs were looking around in Mexico where the hiding-place was, searching for the prisoners on the building sites, among building materials and in trenches. All through the night, furious barking and yapping of the dogs could be heard. Trained to attack, they could sniff out any unfamiliar smell and hear any sound.”

Once, as the pair remained huddled within their cocoon, Vrba would recognize the voice of Unterscharführer Buntrok shouting, “Look behind those planks!” A Nazi search party began dissembling their wood pile. Boots were atop the hideout, with dogs, too. Having already decided to never be taken prisoner, Vrba was determined to kill himself, with a knife or razor blade, if need be. But halfway through their task, the Nazi search party was distracted by a nearby disturbance. “The stupid bastards,” Wetzler whispered.

The pair had bread, margarine and wine but could not bring themselves to eat. Their stomachs were knotted with strain. They took turns sleeping, pressing against each other for warmth, checking their wristwatches to keep track of the changing of camp guards in the watchtowers.

[Later, Vrba would staunchly maintain they did not carry any written evidence of Auschwitz’s operations with them, for fear of being searched en route. Wetzler, in his semi-fictionalized account of two fugitives with different names, wrote that they did. Vrba’s memoir was intended to serve as a work of non-fiction; Wetzler’s escape story was originally described as a novel. It (falsely) suggests the two escapees were heading to Moscow. Eastern European historians would tend to verify the fictional account rendered by Wetzler, who later became a communist with his wife, whereas Vrba’s truthful account would be denigrated after he had defected to the West. Yad Vashem in Israel would also fail to accept and publicize Vrba’s account because Vrba openly criticized Jewish leadership for failing to adequately inform European Jewry of the contents of his subsequent report about the true nature of Auschwitz Birkenau.]

On the second day, at about two o’clock in the afternoon, the pair heard two German-speaking searchers climb onto their woodpile. Like the previous pair of searchers had done, they started heaving some the planks aside. Vrba and Wetzler, both fluent in German, could hear every word that was said above them. One of the searchers was named Otto. The fugitives clutched their knives. They were only inches away from being discovered when the searchers were distracted by a commotion and abandoned their task.

On the night of April 9, Allied bombs were dropped nearby; anti-aircraft guns fired into the sky. “The planks trembled with every salvo,” Vrba recalled. It was thrilling to imagine that help from Allied forces could be imminent. Most prisoners in Auschwitz welcomed the idea of an Allied bombardment, if their own lives would be endangered. At least they would have the relief of knowing the outside world had seemingly finally discovered where they were.

The pair’s luck would hold for eighty hours.


How It Was Done–The Predecessors of Vrba & Wetzler

Mordka Cytryn

Mordka Cytryn, prisoner #30980, co-engineered the hideout for Vrba & Wetzler’s escape. (Click)

In 2022, when the British journalist and thriller writer Jonathan Freedland set about regenerating the contents of Rudolf Vrba’s story–told by Vrba in his 1963 memoir I Cannot Forgive–he excluded Vrba’s name and Vrba’s photo from the book jacket, thereby gaining maximal publicity for himself. He then lied while promoting the book. He told Times Radio that “Vrba spotted a loophole in the Nazi defences” in order to escape, thereby giving credence to his book’s title. Freedland’s statement is completely false.

In fact, as cited elsewhere by Freedland, the mastermind for the “Mexico” hideout scheme was, in fact, a Red Army prisoner-of-war “known only as Citrin.” In truth, his full name was Mordka (“Mordecai”) Cytryn and he built the cavern hideout with a colleague who has thus far only been identified as Abram.

Born in Warsaw on July 6, 1909, Cytryn, a Jew, had been brought to Auschwitz from the Pawiak prison in Warsaw on April 18, 1942. His trio of co-escapees consisted of Alexander (aka”Sandor”) Eisenbach (a Slovakian Jew), Getzel Abramowicz (a Polish Jew) and Jacob (aka “Kuba”) Bałaban (a Polish Jew). Cytryn and his accomplices drew lots to see who would serve as the “guinea pig” to test out their newly constructed hideout. It was Cytryn who crawled inside, alone, on February 29, 1944, and allowed himself to be covered by planks. When the SS failed to find him, Cytryn was joined inside the lumber pile by the aforementioned trio equipped with civilian clothes to conceal themselves if they managed to escape. Balaban recalled after the war:

“Cytryn was randomly selected to go in hiding first, and Abram [Cytryn’s friend] was supposed to cover him. … After two days Eisenbach wanted to make sure that Cytryn was still inside, he came up to … the bunker and with a sign agreed [upon] before [asked] “Rzodkiew [Raddish], are you there?” Cytryn answered: “I am”.  So, we had to choose one of us to cover the other three. Abram volunteered again. … So Eisenbach, Ignac [Getzel] and I got in to to join Cytryn.”

Sandor Eisenbach hailed from Vrba’s hometown, so their two families knew one another. The trio who joined Cytryn necessarily knew Alfréd (“Fredo”) Wetzler because they had the daily job of picking up the corpses of workers who had died and delivering them on handcarts to the morgue where Wetzler was the registrar. One advantage to this grisly work detail was that it afforded them maximal freedom of movement within the camp. The trio conversed with Wetzler on an almost daily basis. Although Wetzler or Vrba would be much indebted to this quartet for testing the effectiveness of the petrol-tainted machorka, for preparing the hideout and for proving its viability, Vrba would see fit to recognize only one of them, Eisenbach, by name, in his narrative that 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.

As camp veterans who spoke fluent German, Vrba and Wetzler, elevated as registrars, could circulate more easily in Auschwitz-Birkenau than other prisoners. This 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.

Cytryn and his crew carefully replaced the planks of the wood pile and fled from “Mexico” on March 5, 1944. [The camp’s nickname for the construction zone at the north end of Auschwitz-Birkenau was Mexico because some prisoners forced to sleep in this dismal, treeless zone had not been given any clothes. Without proper barracks or latrines, the naked wretches in this no man’s land between the inner barracks and the watchtowers wore only coloured blankets–hence they were dubbed Mexicans. Sonderkommando veteran Filip Müller confirms this explanation is in his memoir, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (1979).]

The foursome made it past the guard towers but they were not adequately prepared themselves to consider how best to navigate and behave beyond the gates. The escapee Balaban established contact with sympathetic Poles twice as they were heading for the town of Kety but they soon discovered the local Polish population had been mostly evacuated and replaced by Germans who were loyal to the Nazis, hence any social contact was exceedingly risky.

Several days later, en route to the Slovak border, in the vicinity of Porąbka [or Porebka], they encountered a group of German foresters who saw their shaved heads and tattooed arms. Before any gendarmes arrived, the Cytryn-Eisenbach-Balaban-Abramowicz quartet wisely jettisoned all their valuables, correctly anticipating their capture. They also agreed to keep the location of their bunker hideout a secret, in advance of torture. They mutually decided they would say they had noticed a deserted guard post on the perimeter of Auschwitz and suddenly decided to flee. In this way–remarkably–they would manage to keep the location of their Mexico hideout a secret.

Simultaneously, in March of 1944, two other would-be escapees named Schwimmer and Zajoncz were 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. Against the odds, the Cytryn quartet were allowed to live.

Eisenbach & Eisenberg

Having survived torture within the notorious Block Eleven compound (aka the Execution Block) under the command of SS Rottenführer Bruno Schlange–passing out while receiving 35 lashes–Sandor 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.”

Vrba later recorded in his memoir that he trusted Eisenbach completely. Vrba’s parents and Eisenbach’s parents had lived in Vrba’s hometown of Trnava. Eisenbach asked Vrba for a favour if they dared to re-use the hideout. Their dialogue is neatly truncated in Vrba’s memoir. “We left a little memorial in the cavity,” Eisenbach says. “A message scribbled on the planks. We signed it with our numbers, and if they find it, we’re goners.” Vrba promises to erase it, to scrub it out, and asks him what the message says. Eisenbach replies, “Kiss our arses!”

Eisenbach’s colleagues Bałaban and Abramowicz would be transferred to Lieberose, one of the Sachsenhausen sub-camps, in October of 1944; and Balaban and Eisenbach were known to have survived the war. Eisenbach is not to be confused with the much better-known Slovak prisoner named Ludwig Eisenberg. Vrba met the latter on the same day he 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 was met by a man who tattooed the number 44070 on the top of his left forearm. The numbers happened to contain the number 44—-the year of the momentous escape—-and the remaining numbers are close to being 007. The tattooist was named Eisenberg.

Vrba's Tattoo

Rudolf Vrba described the tattoo process in I Cannot Forgive, later retitled I Escaped From Auschwitz: “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.”

Escape Artist book cover

Arguably a sophisticated copy-cat version of Vrba’s story, this re-telling doesn’t mention him on the cover.

Tattooist of Auschwitz bookcover

This is the sort of genteel, Holocaust-related book that the Auschwitz Museum has dubbed “airport fiction.”

As the quote above makes clear, Vrba had encountered a Slovakian locksmith named Ludwig (“Lale”) Eisenberg who had been in Krompachy and had arrived in Auschwitz in April of 1942. His tattoo number was 32407. Eisenberg was selected for the coveted job of tattooist (tätowierer in German) because he, like Vrba and Wetzler, could speak multiple languages–in his case, Slovak, German, Russian, French, Hungarian and some Polish. In 1945, Eisenberg would be reunited with Auschwitz survivor Gisela Fuhrmannova in Bratislava. They promptly married and he changed his name to the more Russian-sounding Lale Sokolov. It was this man, Rudolf Vrba’s tattooist, who served as the protagonist for a commercially successful novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, written by Heather Morris.  The Auschwitz Memorial Research Centre has criticized the story as “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document” because it contains “numerous errors and information inconsistent with the facts, as well as exaggerations, misinterpretations and understatements.” A follow-up novel distorts the life of Cecília Kováčová, a character in The Tattooist of Auschwitz named Cilka who had a sustained sexual relationship with SS-Obersturmführer Johann Schwarzhuber after her arrival in Auschwitz at age 16 in 1942.

After his truncated conversation with Sandor Eisenbach, Vrba ostensibly proceeded to invite Alfréd Wetzler to be his escape companion, hoping to re-use the yet-to-be-dissembled woodpile (described in Vrba’s memoir as being approximately 300 metres east of crematorium #5). In fact, the story is a good deal more complex–as will be revealed in subsequent paragraphs.

Due to their age difference, Vrba had barely known Wetzler (Auschwitz prisoner #29162) when they were 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 he gave in Germany, Vrba refined that comment: “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 his 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 impulsive 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.

The truth can be more complicated than fiction.

In The Escape Artist, the British journalist and 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). Both statements are false. It has been known for decades that Vrba and Wetzler were not the first Jews to escape. It takes less than thirty seconds on the internet to learn that Freedland’s first aforementioned statement is false; Vrba’s own memoir makes it clear that Freedland’s second aforementioned statement is false. Clearly, Freedland’s goal was to generate a bestseller.

Whereas Auschwitz Birkenau was fortress-like death factory, the original “Auschwitz I” camp to which Vrba was originally sent was largely a labour camp. The first Jew to escape from Auschwitz Birkenau successfully (ie. not get caught) was Siegfried Lederer on April 5, 1944 and it was clearly the quartet of prisoners led by aforementioned Cytryn who had “engineered” the escape made by the Slovakian duo.

Vrba and Wetzler themselves did not emphasize in their memoirs that they did not design or construct their hideout; but Vrba does make it clear that other prisoners had first used the hollowed-out chamber in Mexico to successfully escape, only to be captured a week later. Vrba’s private papers were available at the FDR Library in New York by the time Freedland went about crafting his bestseller, and both of Vrba’s wives could have provided him with more nuanced details of the famous escape, but either Gerta and Robin did not trust him with such details or he did not seek them. We now know for instance, from Robin Vrba, that Wetzler did escape with some money, contrary to the advice received from Volkov. Whereas Vrba was a member of the camp underground and had access to Volkov as an advisor, Wetzler was not a member of the underground and therefore did not have access to Volkov as an advisor. Robin Vrba has since revealed that the temptation to use money to gain supplies during the harrowing escape had got the best of Wetlzer and the pair were shot at when they were forced to subsequently flee as a direct result. Robin Vrba says Rudolf Vrba chose not to include this detail in his memoir because he did not wish to show Wetzler in a negative light.

When the hideout was not immediately dismantled by the Nazis, the few prisoners who knew about it remained uncertain as to whether or not it could be re-used. It was Vrba and Wetzler who agreed to serve as “guinea pigs” to determine whether the hideout was still safe to re-use, but only after one of the re-captured escapees had managed to speak very briefly to Vrba, reassuring him that none of the recaptured men had revealed its location under torture. Why the Nazis did not murder all four escapees after torturing them remains a mystery. The corpses of failed escapees were normally brutalized and placed on display.

Vrba and Wetzler volunteered to stay hidden for three days–and then be joined by two other would-be escapees, possibly who had helped to assemble the hideout–whereupon all four men would remain hidden for another three days. Only then would they try to escape Auschwitz as a foursome. Wetzler, however, told Vrba he could not sustain himself for another three days inside the hideout; whereupon Vrba consented to remain faithful to his friendship with Wetzler who was desparate to flee as soon as possible.

Seemingly unaware that Vrba had left out some details from his riveting 1963 memoir, Freedland has essentially regurgitated the contents of Vrba’s memoir for his misleadingly-titled bestseller The Escape Artist (2022) while taking care to have first made contact with Vrba’s two wives. Clearly, Robin Vrba did not fully cooperate and she essentially distrusted him; Gerta Vrbova, who was bitter about her divorce from Vrba, was elderly and gave Freedland some of Vrba’s correspondence before she died. But Freedland didn’t get the whole story.

Four years in the making–including research conducted at the FDR Library archives wherein Vrba’s papers are stored, and bolstered by interviews conducted with Vrba’s wife Robin Vrba–this website now provides a much more nuanced summary of Vrba’s life, courage and extraordinary accomplishments.

The Greatest Escape

As registrars, Vrba and Wetzler reached the hideout in Mexico on April 7 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 reported at Section B-II-D that he must visit the hospital at Section B-II-F.

They met in the undeveloped “Mexico” section of Birkenau where their hideout-in-plain-view, according to Wetzler, was situated “near the weberei [weaving mill] where sealing for submarines was manufactured.” In his essay entitled ‘The Preparations for the Holocaust in Hungary: An Eyewitness Account’, Vrba states, “we first remained hidden in Birkenau about three hundred meters east from Crematorium V.”

Three days later, when it finally came time for the weakened pair to remove the lumber overhead, Vrba and Wetzler ostensibly discovered they could barely manage to shift its weight of the wood overhead. We have been led to believe that without the inadvertent assistance of those Nazi guards peeling away some of the timber the day or two before, Vrba and Wetzler might have been trapped within a funereal tomb. Given that both men would have been severely weakened by the adverse conditions, this version of events has not been questioned. [Within a two-year period, when he was still a teenager, Rudolf Vrba would survive more than twenty life-threatening situations. There is a list of these death-defying incidents further below, within this Home page. See MORE LIVES THAN A CAT.]

In fact, the hitherto untold true story of their escape is more complex. In a 2023 interview for this website, his wife Robin Vrba has shared never-before-divulged details concerning what Rudolf Vrba had told her about the escape–thereby verifying independent research undertaken among Vrba’s private papers at the FDR Library archives that uncovered details not included in Vrba’s 1963 memoir (and therefore not contained in Freedland’s copy-cat summary).

Rudolf Vrba was not “The Escape Artist” (as lucratively misrepresented by Freedland) for three reasons: 1. Vrba and Wetzler did not build their hideout. 2. Vrba and Wetzler did not conceive of the escape plan. 3. Beyond the gates, Vrba and Wetzler rigorously followed the instructions of the Russian prisoner Dimitri Volkov as to how best to remain uncaptured. In his address to the Jewish Book Festival in Vancouver, via a Zoom, on February 11, 2024, Jonathan Freedland stressed that he was “meticulous about accuracy” and he wanted to “bear witness honestly” but it is not difficult to make the argument that Freedland’s title for his faux thriller is, arguably, bogus.

What Freedland does not tell his readers–because he didn’t know–is that Vrba and Wetzler essentially agreed to acts as guinea pigs for the makers of the hideout. The Poles needed two volunteers — Vrba and Wetzler — to risk their lives in order for the Poles to initially test the safety of the hideout. Consequently, Vrba and Wetzler volunteered. If they could manage to remain uncaptured for three days, they would then welcome two of the hideout’s creators into the hideout, whereupon the quartet would remain sequestered for another three days. All four men would then escape together.

Neither Vrba or Wetzler ever told the full story in print.

It is told for the first time in print here.

In early April, taking turns sleeping in furtive fits and starts, both men were increasingly weakened by fear. Conditions inside the woodpile were bone-chilling; the stress was draining their abilities to concentrate and remain still. As a result, the pair of Slovakian Jews decided they had no alternative but to radically alter the escape plan. Even though they had promised to allow two accomplices to join them inside the cramped wooden cavern, as soon as the Nazis had rescinded their search parties after three days, Vrba and Wetzler agreed they could not manage three more days and nights. When the pair of Poles arrived to be let inside the hideout, Vrba and Wetzler decided not to cooperate. They knew that two prisoners standing alone in the expanse of the Mexico construction zone could only risk standing beside the woodpile for a minute or so.

The two Poles who were ‘double crossed’ by Vrba and Wetzler were furious. In a fit of pique and revenge, they hurriedly piled even more lumber atop the hideout. This way, if they couldn’t use the hideout they had conceived and made, nobody would be able to benefit from it either. This version of events far better serves to explain why the Vrba and Wetzler had such extreme difficulty extracting themselves from the hideout.

To reiterate: Robin Vrba has verified this version of events in a recorded interviews with the writer of this website after he had found evidence in the FDR Library archive of Vrba’s private papers to corroborate these hitherto unrevealed circumstances of the escape.

“The only time I think Rudi ever comprised his ethics was when they were in the bunker and they were supposed to let the other two people in,” she says. “Freddy [Wetzler] said ‘No’ and Rudi didn’t counteract that. It has nothing to do with [him] being younger or older. He knew that Wetzler was right – that they would never survive if they had to spend another three days in that bunker. Wetzler said to Rudi, ‘If you let them in, I’m going out. I’m leaving.’ And so Rudi let that go. He considered it an ethical compromise. Wetzler knew that Rudi would honour his word. But Wetzler couldn’t do it any longer. They were up to here. That was almost a super-human experience to go through that and survive three days in that bunker. I mean, he didn’t say it, but they had to go to the bathroom; they had to live in this hell-hole. It was cold. It was pretty severe.”

ALAN  TWIGG: “You’re saying Rudi would have kept his word to the other guys. But it was Wetzler who said, ‘No, we gotta get out.’ Is that correct?”

ROBIN VRBA: “Correct.”

There is a one-page document in the FDR archives that records a meeting between Vrba and Reverend Frederick W. Metzger at the University of British Columbia during which Vrba told Metzger that he and Wetzler had altered the original escape plan and they had opted to escape on their own, after enduring an excruciating three days and nights in the woodpile, thereby contravening the original plan to remain in hiding for six days. The facsimile of the relevant paragraph from Metzger’s account is provided below.


Rudolf Vrba and Frederick Metzger

After their meeting the  University of British Columbia, Frederic Metzger (right) recorded some of the hitherto unknown details of how Vrba escaped from Auschwitz with Alfréd Wetzler [see text below].

As a postscript to this version of events, Stanley Medicks, who had founded the British and European Machal Association (volunteers who fought for Israel in 1948), recorded that Vrba told him that once, at a swimming pool, “someone walked up to him, noticed the number tattooed on his arm and said, ‘You are Rosenberg.'” The man at the swimming pool had identified himself as one of the men who had masterminded the escape bunker.

Another detail that has been missing from all preceding summations of the escape is that Wetzler had a mental collapse as they were attempting to leave Auschwitz. This occurred after they had managed to extricate themselves from the hideout. According to Robin Vrba, her husband told her on several occasions that he had to rally Wetzler to persuade him to follow him beyond Auschwitz. The Israeli academic Ruth Linn has verified this detail. “I am well aware of the story,” she wrote, on December 19, 2023, “since he told me. Yes, this is the truth. I cannot elaborate on why I did not include it in my book.”

One assumes Vrba was reluctant to include this detail because it would cast his comrade in an unfavourable light.

edom or Death

Prior to his job as registrar, Vrba had been a labourer within the world’s largest-ever emporium of stolen goods, a vast Nazi warehouse facility accorded the nickname Kanada (aka Canada) because this vast and country was perceived as a Land of Plenty (or Bounty). 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.

On Sunday morning, their accomplice Adamek urinated against the pile and whistled to signal that all was well. 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 abziehen!” (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 perimeter 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.

It was eerily silent in Mexico. They could only stand erect in the moonlight with great difficulty. Gradually, their limbs became functional again.

“We scrambled out into the cold air and replaced the planks carefully in case someone else might be able to use the escape chamber later, and for a moment we sat on the pile of wood, motionless, invisible, gazing at the inner camp, which we were determined to never see again.

“For the first time, I was seeing Auschwitz from the outside, viewing it as its victims viewed it. The brilliant lights painted a soft yellow patch in the darkness, giving the whole place a mysterious aura that was almost beautiful. We, however, knew that it was a terrible beauty, that in those barracks, people were dying, people were starving, people were intriguing, and murder lurked around every corner.

“We turned our backs to it, slid to the ground, flung ourselves flat, and began to crawl slowly on our bellies, foot by careful foot, away from the toothless watchtowers and toward the small forest of birch trees that hid the old-fashioned pits of fire and gave Birkenau its name. We reach it, rose, and ran, stooping, through it until we came to open ground again and began to crawl once more.

“As I wriggled forward, I remembered Dimitri Volkov. The battle was just beginning.”

Aerial Photo of Birkenau Sept. 1944

Aerial photo of Birkenau Sept. 1944 taken by the U.S. Government. (click)
For more information on this image, see Desk Murderer page

They escaped beyond the watchtowers on April 10, 1944 and commenced their gruelling, eleven-day trek to safety. 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.

“Although Volkov’s advice was useful constantly,” Vrba recalled, “he had never managed, however, to teach me how to see in the dark.”

Volkov’s Rules of Escape

The escape of Vrba and Wetzler would be unprecedented because nobody had ever succeeded in convincing the outside world as to the extent of the genocide and the audacity of the Nazis’ industrialized murder methods. Unknown to Vrba & Wetzler, the most convincing witness had been Jan Karski [See PRECURSORS] who had been accorded a prolonged, private meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. [See DESK MURDERER] The American president and his War Refugees Board tactfully did nothing to help Jews. The task of revealing Auschwitz to the world therefore fell to Vrba and Wetzler.

During their escape, Vrba proved himself to be the opposite of a hothead. He made sure they adhered to a set of guidelines for escaping that were provided to him by Captain Dimitri Volkov, a bear of a man who had once escaped from Sachsenhuasen prison (near Berlin) and almost reached safety in Kiev. As one of a hundred Russians who were captured on the eastern front and transferred to Auschwitz for additional punishment, it was Volkov 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.”

Volkov was their guiding light through the darkness of fear, despair and sometimes icy conditions. 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 and consummated a love affair within the confines of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The adverse conditions in the mountains were exaggerated in Wetzler’s semi-fictionalized narrative that he published using his nom-de-guerre Jozef Lánik. Its fictional protagonists Karol (wise) and Val (weak) continually encounter snowy conditions. It’s now possible to retroactively check temperatures for particular dates in the area and prove that the duo’s privations were exaggerated. Wetzler originally described What Dante Did Not See / Co Dante nevidel (Osveta, Bratislava, 1964) as a novel, hence he understood and admitted his account was a distortion of the truth. Unfortunately, this version of events has been misinterpreted as non-fiction. It was used as the basis for a misleading feature film.

Map of the border

Escape map showing border and Sola River

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…

“After their escape,” Sir Martin Gilbert has summarized, “Vrba and Wetzler had worked their way southwards from Birkenau, without documents, without a compass, without a map, and without a weapon [no firearms]. 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.

Ondrej Čanecký

Ondrej Čanecký, the pig farmer who saved them.  Photo courtesy of The Slovak Spectator


Village of Čadca, where Vrba and Wetzler went to the market herding pigs, dressed as farm workers.

“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 Skalité.”

Having crossed the Slovak-Polish border, exhausted and without food, after ten days, they were discovered in the field of an unnamed pig farmer. Many years later he would be identified as Ondrej Čanecký. He was the Skalité pig farmer who took the men inside, listened to their story, and risked his own life to give them food and shelter. After he had allowed the pair to recover, Čanecký provided them with peasant clothing and led them to the local market in Čadca. Once there, he took them to a Jewish doctor called Polák, who, in turn, guided them to representatives of the Jewish community in Žilina. In 2019, Čanecký became one of approximately 600 Slovakians granted the Righteous Among the Nations status by Israel and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Recipients are non-Jews who risked their own safety and lives during the Holocaust by hiding Jews or helping them escape, without expecting compensation or rewards. Čanecký’s name now appears on the Wall of Honour in the Yad Vashem garden. More than 26,000 individuals from 51 countries have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

Making the Report

When the bedraggled duo finally reached Slovakia, they were hidden in the basement of a Jewish old folks home, as of April 24, 1944, in the town of Žilina. This basement originally had a boiler room with coal, a laundry room and clothes drying room. Here they slept. A doctor was summoned. Their feet were bloodied and misshapen. 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.

“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.”

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. While Neumann was ostensibly a Jewish official within the political infrastructure of the alleged “self-government” under President Jozef Tiso (sanctioned by the Third Reich), he doubled as the head of the secret resistance organization for Slovakian Jewry. Details of the reportorial process can be found in Neumann’s autobiography, In the Shadow of Death: A Factual Account of the Fateful Struggle of Slovak Jewry /Im Schatten des Todes (Tel Aviv, 1956). According to Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, Neumann’s autobiography is 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 later escapists Mordowitz and Rosin in his book; only Vrba and Wetzler.

The highly articulate escapees were interviewed in separate rooms (thereby enhancing their overall credibility). 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.

These interview sessions went on for hours. Ultimately, Vrba and Wetzler were able to provide succinct estimates as to how many Jews were gassed and murdered in Birkenau from April of 1942 until they had escaped. Even more extraordinately, due chiefly to Vrba’s memory techniques [later explained in detail to historian Martin Gilbert], the pair were able to calculate the “deaths by country of origin.” They reported that 300,000 Jews had been shipped from Poland by trucks; another were 600,000 delivered by trains. The other figures included Holland (100,000), Greece (45,000), France (150,000), Belgium (60,000), Germany (60,000), Norway & Italy & Yugoslavia (50,000), Lithuania (50,000), Austria & Bohemia & Moravia (30,000), Slovakia (30,000) and various others (300,000). For decades afterwards, Vrba repeatedly stated that their reportage, including maps that were drawn, were based on memory; the pair had NOT risked carrying any paper evidence hidden in cannisters. Their eyewitness total was 1,765,000.

The duo’s 32-page report in Slovakian was first typed by a local woman named Mrs. Steiner (likely the wife of Erwin Steiner). For dissemination purposes, Krasňanský decided this reportage should be first translated into German. Copies made in German are 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 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.

The typewriter used to type the report

This is the Erika Modell M typewriter used for the first Slovak report, It was made during the 1930s by Seidel & Naumann of Dresden, Germany.

Robin Vrba and Gerta Vrbova

Robin Vrba and Gerta Vrbova during the annual Vrba-Wetzler Trek in 2015. The Trek was conceived by Rudi & Gerta’s daughter Zuzka (“Zuza”).

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 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. Other historians and Wikipedia have 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.

Since 2014, the Vrba-Wetzler Memorial March has been held every year in their memory — except for cessations due to Covid — as people from around the world are invited to trace and hike the escapists’ route from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Skalité and Žilina. Gerta Vrbova and Robin Vrba, Rudolf Vrba’s first and second wives, participated in the second annual processions in 2015. The march ends at the building of the former Jewish old folks home that was declared an historic site in 2021.

Alerting the World

Alfred Wetzler Writing

Alfréd Wetzler’s Auschwitz memoir became the basis for a recent film in which he is the central character.

Rudolf Vrba

Rudolf Vrba on the back cover of his memoir “I Cannot Forgive” (1963), republished in U.S. the following year.

At the advice of Jewish elders, Vrba and Wetzler were not named as authors of their 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.”

Arrival of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz

The Allies would fail to heed Rudolf Vrba’s warning that Hungarian Jews were next to be gassed–as evidenced by these Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz

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 prediction 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, too, were interviewed by Krasňanský.


In retrospect, there are obvious reasons why the original versions of the Vrba-Wetzler Report did not contain specific warnings about the need to prevent the wholescale slaughter of Europe’s largest remaining Jewish populace within a national boundary. First and foremost, Vrba and Wetzler were both relatively young men who were strongly advised by their elders in Žilina to concentrate on providing only factual information. Given that Vrba and Wetzler had been well-placed within the camp structure to maintain an ongoing statistical tally of mass murder, they were persuaded to accentuate their unique and astonishing mathematical tallies. Consequently, the Vrba-Wetzler Report is remarkably devoid of emotional responses to the horrors they had witnessed, devoid of any ghastly descriptions of the countless tortures and cruelties they observed, and devoid of predictions or opinions.

The pair’s mathematical tallies (literally columns of numbers), along with their precise detailing of the camp’s physical structures and their descriptions for the methodology of unprecedented genocide, provided an almost scientific perspective. It was this objective rather than subjective approach—offering bloodless and severely logical matching reportage devoid of moralism and outrage—that ultimately forced both Winston Churchill and even the feckless Franklin Delano Roosevelt to express the moral outrage that ultimately led to the Hungarian leader Admiral Horthy ordering the cessation of trains bound for Auschwitz.

Auschwitz Birkenau Camp in Slovakian and English

Click to see English translation. Robin Vrba has since noted that this map was clearly provided by Rudolf Vrba because he was taught by a teacher to render maps with south at the top and north at the bottom. She claims he placed his own peculiar notation at the top of this map to indentify it as his own; knowing that he would not have his named attached to it.

After reading the Vrba-Wetzler report, Churchill wrote: “There is no doubt this is the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilised men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe. It is quite clear that all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death after their association with the murders has been proved.” But senior American military officials still refused to consider bombing the railway tracks leading to Auschwitz.

Retroactively, it is easy to conclude that Vrba and Wetzler risked their lives, hoping to save 800,000 Jews; saving as many 200,000 of them (according to recent estimates by historians). They achieved one-quarter of their goal. Without the reportage provided by Vrba, Wetzler, as well as Mordowicz and Rosin, the Allies would have not been motivated to pressure Admiral Horthy in Hungary to finally halt the mass shipments of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. [The Pope only complied because he knew the winds of war were changing in favour of the Allies and it would be imprudent for the Vatican not to end the war on the winning side. See John Cornwall’s Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (1999)]

After presenting their report, Vrba and Wetzler were sent into hiding in the town of Liptovský Svätý Mikuláš, fifty-five miles east of Žilina. As Jonathan Freedland has rightly explained, the Jewish leadership were aware that May Day was nearing and this traditional “workers” celebration would be cause for Hrlinka guard fascists to search for what Freedland describes as ‘Judeo-Bolshevik agitators’ in advance of that date. The Nazis at Auchwitz had already issued bulletins to alert central European forces of the Third Reich to be on the lookout for the pair. Therefore, it was propitious for the Auschwitz escapees to leave Žilina and adopt false identities.

Formery known as Walter Rosenberg, the younger escapee became known as Rudolf Vrba. Formerly known as Alfréd Wetzler, the older escapee became Jozef Lánik. Vrba was not averse to shedding the surname Rosenberg because he felt that name had made it sound as if he might be German. The ‘new’ Rudolf Vrba likely wasn’t aware that an antisemitic Catholic priest in Czechoslovakia, also named Rudolf Vrba, had died about five years earlier. Most likely he would have chuckled if he had known. No proof has been found that he was accorded that name because his would-be protectors felt it might be advantageous in some way to be possibly confused with the pro-Hrlinka cleric.

More Lives Than A Cat

The extent to which Rudolf Vrba (Prisoner 44070) must be considered extraordinary goes beyond his heroism as a whistleblower who made the unprecedented scale of the Holocaust undeniable.

Over a two-year period, he narrowly evaded death twenty times, as a teenager.

It’s not hyperbole to say his bleak adventures amid Nazi persecution make the plots of James Bond (Agent 007) movies seem almost plausible.

Here is a never-before-compiled list of his near-death experiences.

Teenaged Rudolf Vrba

Rudolf Vrba, Prague, 1946. The pronunciation of his Slovakian surname requires a rapid fluttering of the tongue. It is therefore routinely (mis)pronounced in English as “Verba.”

Majdanek Crematoria

Gas chambers and these crematoria were installed in Majdanek, Poland, in 1942-43. Intended to serve initially as a forced labour compound, Majdanek was the first of the Nazi concentration camps to be liberated, in July of 1944. Because its liberators were Russian troops, the importance of Majdanek’s closure is seldom noted in the West. It was a major event in terms of verifying the extent of the Holocaust at the time. Photo evidence of gas chambers and these furnaces served to further validate the Vrba-Wetzler Report. It is also important to note: Dionys Lenard, a Slovakian Jew born and raised in Žilina, escaped from Majdenak in July of 1942 and reported on the true nature of the concentration camps to the Jewish Council in Bratislava. Therefore, Jewish Councils in Slovakia had eyewitness reportage in advance of Vrba’s revelations that should have increased their resolve to tell all Jews about the dangers of getting on the trains. Lenard’s escape and reportage, however, could not have been a factor in Vrba’s keen resolve at age seventeen to flee from Slovakia, in June of 1942, because that was the same month that Lenard was sent to Majdanek. See PRECURSORS section for more on Dionys Lenard.

  1.  At age 17, when he attempted to re-enter his native Slovakia, Vrba was severely beaten by anti-Semitic Hungarian border guards who accused him of being a spy. They smashed him in the face with a rifle butt until he lost consciousness, then an officer pummelled him in the face with a truncheon “with an efficiency that made the earlier efforts of his subordinates seem amateurish, wasteful.”
  2. Hungarian border guards were ordered to give him “the usual treatment.” This meant taking him to the border where he could be ostensibly shot as a fugitive, or stabbed to death with a bayonet. Instructed to flee into No Man’s Land, Vrba avoided gunfire by zig-zagging his way into the safety of darkness.
  3. Slovak border guards apprehended him and he was beaten 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 was beaten nearly to death again, he recovered and was sent to the Novaky transit camp.
  4. Vrba masterminded a death-defying escape from the Novaky labour camp–only to have his accomplice, Josef Knapp, soon betray him.
  5. Recaptured a week later, Vrba was methodically beaten by Hlinka guards who mercilessly took turns with their fists, boots and rifle butts. They were angry at him for making them look inept.
  6. In June of 1942, he was transferred by train to Majdanek (“a preparatory school for the academy of Auschwitz”). He only escaped death there thanks to his foolishness. At Majdanek [pronounced MY-don-ek] on November 3, 1943, during a one-day killing fest code-named Operation Harvest, the Nazis would slaughter its remaining 17,000 prisoners of both sexes, but he would not be among them. Vrba spent only fourteen days at Majdanek because he had naively volunteered, with 400 other men, for “agricultural work” at some place he had never heard of.
  7. Farm work at Auschwitz entailed digging up 107,000 rotting corpses, including 20,000 Russian POWs, in order to destroy evidence of their murders. Of the 1,400 men in that labour force, only 300 would be alive when the job was finished and they were promptly executed. Fortunately, Vrba’s ability to speak German got him shifted to a different job upon arrival. A supervisor with a heavy Viennese accent, “Kapo Franz,” bought his services in exchange for a lemon.
  8. “I was never to see the fields,” Vrba wrote. Instead, Vrba and his Slovak friend Josef Erdelyi (from the Majdanek transport) were transferred with 1,600 others to Block Eighteen where prisoners left their bunks at 3 a.m. each day for transport to a construction site. This was the Buna command where workers were forced to sprint carrying heavy bags of cement. Many were beaten to death. “Those who were sent to Buna,” Vrba wrote, “were not meant to live.” But a French protector, employed as a contractor, gave Vrba and Erdelyi an easier job. “By the fifth week,” Vrba recalled, “we were probably the sole survivors of the sixteen hundred.”
  9. During a typhus outbreak in August of 1942, having not slept for 24 hours, Vrba and Erdelyi were forced by the malevolent kapo Jakob Fries to sprint on their wobbly legs to prove they did not have typhus in the wee hours of the morning. 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.”
  10. In August 1942, due the influence of a fellow Slovakian prisoner named Laco Fischer, Vrba was reassigned to the Aufräumungskommando (“clearing-up”) or “Kanada” commando, meeting the trains and gathering confiscated items. But first, to test his mettle, a deputy kapo named Isaac ordered Vrba to “run for that wire.” Vrba knew he would be shot by the SS if he dared approach the electrified fence but he had no choice but to obey.  A German kapo recognized his predicament and called a halt to this suicidal test of obedience.
  11. The dangerous and unsanitary job of cleaning the filth and corpses from the cattle cars was overseen by cruel and trigger-happy SS guards. If prisoners on this detail spoke to arrivals, they could be severely beaten, shot or clubbed to death. Vrba survived while many others did not. He spoke about the process, at length, with Claude Lanzmann, saying he met at least 200 trains and was forced to work with Aufräumungskommando crews “for about ten months.” Details of this dreadful work are scanty in his memoir.
  12. After he became a labourer for the Kanada compound (the Nazi storehouse for confiscated goods), rather than betray a secret about a theft by someone else, Vrba survived fifty blows from a cane wielded by an SS torturer. Such beatings could be fatal.
  13. As recorded by Wetzler in his memoir, Vrba was a risk-taker, often doing favours for others. On numerous occasions he brought his comrades something he’d surreptitiously taken from the ramp, but twice it ended badly for him. The first time he got twenty-five blows with a stick, the second time twenty-five with a whip. As noted, such punishments in Auschwitz could be fatal.
  14. While sifting through 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 the geographical information and promptly destroyed the page. The punishment, if he had been caught with the book, could have been fatal. The risk was worth it: he learned that an escapee could reach the border of Slovakia by following the path of the Sola River.
Josef Farber. Vrba's Saviour.

Josef Farber saved Vrba’s life with an injection.  

  1. A typhus epidemic killed approximately 15,000-20,000 prisoners. Vrba survived his severe bout of spotted typhus when he was hidden within the Kanada compound by female prisoners. This life-saving respite enabled Vrba to receive a clandestine, life-saving injection from Josef Farber, a hospital orderly who turned out to be a link to the Hungarian underground movement.
  2. Vrba’s fellow prisoners hid him in Block 4 during his convalescence and they replenished him with food, saving his life.
  3. In his semi-fictional memoir, Wetzler describes a character he named Val (Vrba) “taking risks again” by openly offering a cigarette “for the pleasure of a little sharp French tobacco” that was obviously stolen after working for seven months on the ramp. Hence, we can assume Vrba was taking life-threatening risks at the ramp and at the Kanada compound even after he had witnessed the Unterscharführer Hans Konig flog a prisoner to death for helping himself to an apple and some bread.
  4. During a pre-Christmas typhus inspection, Vrba and others in the Kanada 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.” Therefore, many of those who survived the typhus test contracted pneumonia and died anyway. Again, Vrba evaded death.
  5. Vrba was scheduled to make an escape attempt with the French army captain Charles Unglick on January 15, 1944 but when Unglick, a Jewish, Polish-born Block Senior in the Quarantine Camp, failed to appear for a 7 p.m. rendezvous, Vrba prudently left their meeting place after twenty minutes. Unglick had bribed an SS accomplice to drive a lorry out of the camp, hiding two Jews within, but instead the SS man had shot Unglick in the heart and pocketed a fortune of gold and diamonds. Unglick’s body was left on display for two days. Vrba’s role as Unglick’s would-be escape partner was never uncovered.
  6. 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, or by an air raid siren (accounts differ).
  7. 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.
  8. Having escaped with Wetzler to Bratislava, Vrba risked his own life again in September of 1944. Wetzler and Mordowicz had gone to Nitra to visit Wetzler’s brother, only to be apprehended by local police who confiscated their ID, whereupon Mordowicz had 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. In order to bring Wetzler a new set of false identity papers, Vrba went to Nitra and managed to save Wetzler. Czeslaw Mordowicz recounted this little-known story to his biographer. Vrba never wrote about it. To read the details, click the Mordowicz/ Rosin Escape Page.
  9. Vrba could have remained safely undercover with his falsified identity papers proving he was a non-Jew. Instead Vrba risked his life by fighting for the Slovak Resistance movement. Having survived as a machine-gunner under Milan Uher, Vrba, as a Senior Sergeant, became a decorated war hero, receiving the Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery, the Order of Slovak National Insurrection and the Order of Meritorious Fighter.


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.

Rudi talks to alice Munk

From the British-made 2007 documentary ‘Auschwitz: The Great Escape,’ here is a screenshot of the character of Vrba speaking to Alice Munková (unidentified as such) through the electric fence of the Czech Family Camp. The character of Wetzler is mostly absent from the story that was recounted in the year after Vrba died.

Alice Munková, 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.”

Although Vrba devotes eleven pages to the Czech Family Camp and Alice Munková in his memoir, 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 Munková was to blow the whistle on the Nazis.

The murder of more than a million people in one place is one thing; the murder of a young man’s first lover is another. Rudolf Vrba proceeded to co-write the most influential eyewitness report on Auschwitz with his fellow escapee Alfréd Wetzler; then he joined 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.

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.

Gerta Vrbova and Rudolf Vrba in Prague

Gerta Vrbova and Rudolf Vrba had met as young teenagers.

Rudolf Vrba with his daughters

Rudolf Vrba with his two daughters Zuzka and Helena.

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. According to his second wife, Robin Vrba, Rudi married Gerta on the advice of his mother who was concerned about Gerta’s welfare because most of her relatives had been murdered. Gerta was a very intelligent, 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 where she immediately remarried to Dr. Sidney Hilton on October 6, 1959, but before she was marrooned with her children in Sweden awaiting Sidney’s divorce; they had two children, Caroline and Peter, but they 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. Her father suspected she was murdered. Vrba’s second daughter Zuzana (Zuzka, Zuzu) Vrbova died in 2014 at the age of 59.

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. In 1961, a West German court awarded him 2,500 German Deutschmarks, the equivalent of approximately $625 U.S. (in 1961), as compensation for his slave labour as one of the “men of Buna” who didn’t die while building a factory near Auschwitz II for the German industrial conglomerate I.G. Farben. While he was employed by the British Medical Research Council from 1962 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 close to 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. To a lesser degree, Vrba could not forgive the Jewish Councils who had failed to alert their fellow Jews about the mortal dangers of obeying Nazi directives and obediently taking their families to the railway stations.

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.]

Following the release of his book, Vrba testified at Frankfurt in 1964 and became involved in the process of prosecuting Nazi war criminals. A survey undertaken by the U.S. High Commission for Germany in 1952 had revealed that only one in ten Germans wanted further Nazi war crimes trials. According to Dick De Mildt in In the Name of the People: Perpetrators of Genocide in the Reflection of their Post-war Prosecution in Germany (The Hague 1996) “the main reason for this much debated popular aversion was undoubtedly formed by the deeply rooted unwillingness among the German population at large to face up to the vilest aspects of a political system they had so enthusiastically supported.”

  • Robin and Rudi Vrba

    Robin and Rudi Vrba, early days. Throughout their marriage he worked as a neurochemistry researcher who specialized in the glucose metabolism of the brain.

    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 in May of 1974. 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.” After the couple arrived in Vancouver in September of 1975, she subsequently became a successful real estate agent in Vancouver. They primarily resided in an apartment at 5775 Toronto Road adjacent to the University of Britisbh Columbia campus.

  • Vrba 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.Vrba 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.” An extensive article by Leonidas E. Hill on the trial of Ernst Zundel in 1985 can be found at this link: The Trial of Ernst Zundel: Revisionism and the Law in CanadaVrba 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.”
    Wetzler first Book Jacket

    This first Wetzler book has a title that references Dante.

    Escape From Hell Book Jacket

    This contemporary Wetzler book has a Gilbert foreword.

    Vrba and Alfréd Israel Wetzler did not see eye-to-eye about politics after World War II and they respectfully drifted apart. Born northeast of Bratislava in 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 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. It oddly portrays Vrba as a minor, subordinate character. Wetzler’s novel, since resurrected and misrepresented as a work of non-fiction, is a mish-mash of imagination and truth that reads like a haphazard first draft. For instance, he provides two estimates as to the number of SS at Auschwitz (either 1,200 or 1,700). Sympathetic to communism, Wetzler later worked as a journalist/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.”

    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. [A nephew from Montreal could only attend on a Saturday; hence the out-of-the-way resting place was selected largely because it could accommodate a Saturday burial service.] 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 was a factor in discussions prior to his death. 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?

    Vrba was awarded the Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery, the Order of Slovak National Insurrection (Class 2), and the Medal of Honor of Czechoslovak Partisans during his lifetime. In 2007, Vrba was posthumously accorded the highest state honour of the Slovak Republic, The Order of the White Double Cross, First Class (Slovak: Rad Bieleho dvojkríža). Instituted on March 1, 1994, after Slovakia became independent on January 1, 1993, it’s a continuance of the Czechoslovak Order of the White Lion created in 1922 as an award for foreigners. “The Order of the White Double Cross is conferred only upon foreign citizens, with the sole exception of the current President of Slovakia, who is awarded the Order by the National Council for the duration of his term of office upon inauguration.” It is presented for various reasons, including “the outstanding spread of good reputation of Slovakia abroad.” Given that Vrba had little complimentary to say about the proto-fascism of various Slovakian regimes, it is highly likely that if it was accorded to him while he was alive he might have rejected it. 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.”

    Rudolf Vrba’s papers were gifted by Robin Vrba to the Franklin D. Roosevelt President Library and Museum in New York State in 2017. During ceremonies on April 24, 2017, at the FDR Library and Museum near Poughkeepsie, New York, in connection with the launch of the Henry Morgenthau, Jr. Holocaust Collections: A Curatorial Project, she stated, “My husband was a scientist and teacher at the University of British Columbia. In addition to his science, Rudi worked passionately to clarify and help scholars understand confusing aspects of the Nazi machinery of mass murder and theft.” If their is a final statement that Rudolf Vrba could make from the grave, it might well be this one:

    “It is wrong to believe that the Nazis created mass murder machinery only to kill Jews – it was an ancillary product of a vast business enterprise. Thus the wealth of all those who ended up in concentration camps – or who left it behind because they left Germany – went directly to people who agreed to accept Nazi superiority. It was a way of buying the goodwill of the population in occupied countries. It was a system of self-occupational force which liberated the German army for other things.” – R.V.

    1 The latest version of Vrba’s memoir from Racehorse / Simon & Schuster (distribution) is co-edited by Robin Vrba (Vrba’s second wife) and Nikola Zimring (who was a New York University history grad student at the time). It properly credits the London journalist Alan Bestic as a co-author. According Robin Vrba and Zimring (pursuing her Ph.D in Prague in 2024), the new newest edition incorporates some editorial changes in compliance with Rudolf Vrba’s requests that were made in 1998 when he was consulted for a Czech language edition–most significantly jettisoning his brilliant opening chapter. As for the new subtitle: 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 be credited with saving 200,000 lives as early as 2004. This has now become the standard estimate, also endorsed by historian Sir Martin Gilbert after he had earlier abided by the estimate of 100,000 lives saved.

    Map below was 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.

    Map of all the Concentration Camps

    Seeing is Believing

    On April 12, 1945, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with Generals Omar Bradley (12th Army Group CG) and Lt. General George S. Patton (3rd Army CG), visited Ohrdruf Nord, a sub-camp of Buchenwald [#3 above], and one of the first concentration camps liberated by American troops. Patton vomited. Bradley went mute. Eisenhower resolutely wanted to see and learn as much as possible. “Get it all on record now,” he said. “Get the film. Get the witnesses. Because somewhere down the road of history some bastard will get up and say this never happened.”

    Eisenhower then ordered every nearby American soldier to likewise visit Ohrdruf. “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.” Three days later, in his first letter home, Eisenhower wrote, “The other day I visited a German internment camp. I never dreamed that such cruelty, bestiality, and savagery could really exist in this world! It was horrible.”

    April 12, 1945 - Bodies of prisoners of Ohrdruf stacked like cord-wood

    Corpses stacked like cordwood at Ohrdruf. April 12, 1945

    General Eisenhower never visited another concentration camp. On April 25th 1945, after journalists and some members of Congress had toured newly liberated Buchenwald, Eisenhower told them, “You saw only one camp yesterday. There are many others. Your responsibilities, I believe, extend into a great field, and informing the people at home of things like these atrocities is one of them… Nothing is covered up. We have nothing to conceal. The barbarous treatment these people received in the German concentration camps is almost unbelievable. I want you to see for yourself and be spokesmen for the United States.” [pages 774-5, Ike the Soldier: As they knew him” (G.P. Putnam and Sons, New York, 1987) by Merle Miller]In his memoir, Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower later recalled: “The same day I saw my first horror camp. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock…I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or the assumption that “the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.” . . . I not only did so but as soon as I returned to . . . headquarters that evening, I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures.“I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion to leave no room for cynical doubt.”

    Auschwitz sub-camps

    Non-Jews could often escape from less-strictly-controlled sub-camps [shown here in yellow] of Auschwitz I, the original prison site that first received prisoners on June 14, 1940. Only six Jews ever escaped successfully from Auschwitz Birkenau [aka Auschwitz II]. The industrial zone of Auschwitz Monowitz [aka Auschwitz III] was the last part of the overall slave labour complex and murder industry to be built. Rudolf Vrba was a rare captive who had miraculously survived in all three. NOTE: A seven-volume encyclopedia, prepared by the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has identified and examined more than 40,000 camps and ghettos that were operated by the Nazis and their allies operated — from Norway to North Africa, and from France to Russia.

    Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos.
Mordka Cytryn's seldom-mentioned accomplices were all Jewish:
1. Abraham Gotzel (aka Getzel or Gecel Abramowicz), born on June 19, 1900 in Warsaw, was arrested in Paris in 1941 by French police. He arrived from the Compiègne transit camp on March 30, 1942. He became # 27577.
2. Jacob Balaban (aka Kuba Bałaban), born on October 10, 1916 in Jadów near Wyszków, was brought to Auschwitz on January 13, 1943 via the Łomża ghetto and Zambrów. He became # 86794.
3. Sandor Eisenbach (aka Mendel Eisenbach), born on July 29, 1900 in Nowy Sącz, was apprehended in Piešt’any, Slovakia and brought to Auschwitz on April 24, 1942. He became # 32704.

I escaped from Auschwitz

The story of Vrba's arduous escape with Wetzler overland to Slovakia has been told in considerable detail by Alan Bestic and Rudolf Vrba in their book I Escaped From Auschwitz, still widely available. Vrba tells his own story best. Please buy that book if you want to know the particulars. A new book called The Escape Artist is mostly a retelling of Vrba's account.