THIS SITE ABOUT RUDOLF VRBA,THE FOREMOST WHISTLEBLOWER OF WORLD WAR II,
INCLUDES PREVIOUSLY UNKNOWN DETAILS ABOUT HIS ESCAPE FROM AUSCHWITZ.
On April 7, 1944, at 2 p.m., on the outskirts of the most lethal death camp in history, 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). The elder of the pair would later state the hideout-in-plain-view was situated “near the weberei [weaving mill] where sealing for submarines was manufactured.” 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.
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. “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.” These 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.
Vrba and Wetzler did not erect the hideout in the construction zone or conceive the original escape plan, but neither man would make that clear in their subsequent memoirs. Similarly, both men failed to mention that after the construction planks had been carefully piled above a slight crater in the ground, four other prisoners had used the hollowed-out chamber in Mexico to successfully escape–only to be captured a week later. When the hideout was not immediately dismantled by the Nazis, the Polish prisoners who had engineered it remained uncertain as to whether or not it could be re-used. Had the Nazis left it standing as a trap?
Vrba and Wetzler 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, most likely Bolek and Adamek 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.
But everything did not go as planned…
Seemingly unaware that Vrba had left out some of these details from his riveting 1963 memoir, the British thriller writer Jonathan Freedland has essentially regurgitated the contents of Vrba’s memoir for his misleadingly-titled bestseller The Escape Artist (2022). 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 provides a much more nuanced and detailed summary of Vrba’s life, courage and extraordinary accomplishments.
After two accessories (cited as “Bolek” and “Adam” by Wetzler) had helped Vrba and Wetzler swiftly remove layers of planks, affording access, mid-afternoon on April 7, 1944, 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.”
Neither man was religious. Vrba adamantly considered himself to be a European citizen first, and a Jew second. 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. Both fugitives were bachelors who spoke several languages. 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.
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 had become the first Jew to escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau by donning the uniform of a high-ranking Nazi. [Elsewhere on the site, See LEDERER WAS FIRST.] 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] verified 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.”
As the pair remained huddled within their cocoon, Vrba recognized the voice of Unterscharführer Buntrok shout, “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 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.]
On the second day, about two o’clock in the afternoon, they again 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 returned 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. They would have the relief of knowing the outside world had finally discover where they were.The pair’s luck would hold for eighty hours.
How It Was Done–In More Detail
In 2022, when the British journalist and thriller writer Jonathan Freedland set about retelling the contents of Rudolf Vrba’s story already contained his 1963 memoir I Cannot Forgive, while excluding Vrba’s name and Vrba’s photo from the book jacket [thereby gaining as much publicity for himself as the subject], Freedland claimed the mastermind for the “Mexico” hideout scheme was a Red Army prisoner-of-war “known only as Citrin.” In fact, Cytryn was part of a team that built the cavern and his full name was Mordka (“Mordecai”) Cytryn.
Born in Warsaw on July 6, 1909, Cytryn had been brought to Auschwitz from the Pawiak prison in Warsaw on April 18, 1942. Cytryn and several accomplices drew lots to see who would serve as the “guinea pig” to test out the hideout after it was jointly constructed. After a friend covered him with planks, it was Cytryn who crawled inside, alone, on February 29, 1944.
When the SS failed to find him after three days, Cytryn was joined inside the lumber pile by a trio of helpers equipped with civilian clothes to conceal themselves if they managed to escape. Mendel Eisenbach was a Slovakian Jew, born in Nowy Sącz in 1900. Getzel (Gecel) Abramowicz, who had been apprehended as a Jew in France, had been born in Warsaw in 1900. The youngest escapee was a Polish Jew named Kuba Bałaban, born in 1916, who had been incarcerated in Łomża and Zambrów. 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 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.
This foursome of “pre-escapees” were connected to Vrba and Wetzler in two ways. (1) Mendel Eisenbach hailed from Vrba’s hometown, so the two families knew one another. (2) The trio who joined Cytryn had a daily job that afforded them maximal freedom of movement: picking up and delivering corpses, piled onto handcarts, to the camp mortuary where, on a daily basis, they dealt with the Auschwitz veteran who had been accorded the privileged job of morgue registrar, Alfréd (“Fredo”) Wetzler.
Although Wetzler or Vrba would be indebted to this quartet for testing the effectiveness of the petrol-tainted machorka, for preparing the hideout and for proving its viability, Vrba saw fit to recognize only one of them, Eisenbach, by name, in his narrative. Here, Vrba recreates a conversation he had with Wetzler:
“You know the the planks the Poles have stacked for the new camp they’re building?” Fred said.
I nodded. It was to be Birkenau Three and it was being built parallel to Birkenau Two to accommodate the flood of Hungarians.
“Well, they’ve bribed some kapos [inmates, usually criminals, put in charge of the rest] to pile them so that there is a cavity left in the middle.”
I saw at once what they were trying to do. The planks were in the outer camp, which at night was undefended because all prisoners were securely behind the high-voltage wires and watchtowers of the inner camp. If they could remain hidden for three days, while all the guards stood to and the place was searched, they had a good chance; for at the end of three days it would be assumed that they had got beyond the confines of Auschwitz and the job of finding them would be handed over to the authorities there. The guard that ringed the entire camp for those three days would be withdrawn and they would merely have to wait until night before sneaking away past the unmanned outer watchtowers.
The camp’s nickname for the construction zone at the north end of Auschwitz-Birkenau was Mexico because prisoners forced to sleep in this dismal, treeless zone had not been given any clothes. Naked and without proper barracks or latrines, the wretches in this no man’s land, between the inner barracks and the watchtowers, wore only coloured blankets so everyone else in Birkenau referred to them as Mexicans as of Spring, 1944. This explanation is confirmed by Sonderkommando veteran Filip Müller in his memoir, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (1979).
As veterans of the camp who spoke fluent German, Vrba and Wetzler had been elevated in the hierarchy to become camp registrars. With seniority and responsibilities, they 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.
On March 5, 1944, Cytryn and his crew carefully replaced the planks of the wood pile and fled from Mexico, heading for the town of Kety. Among Cytryn’s crew, the Polish Jew Balaban established contact with sympathetic Poles twice. But the escapees 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, by mutually citing they had noticed a deserted guard post on the perimeter of Auschwitz and suddenly decided to flee. Remarkably, they all managed to keep the location of their Mexico hideout a secret.
Simultaneously, in March of 1944, two other would-be escapees, the failed smugglers named Schwimmer and Zajoncz, were also awaiting their fates in the death block. On March 17, all six men were marched to gallows that were erected outside the Birkenau kitchen. It was the normal outcome for failed escapees to be mutilated and publicly executed. Having been captured with valuables in their possession, Schwimmer and Zajoncz were lynched. Inexplicably, the Cytryn quartet were allowed to live.
In The Escape Artist, 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 blatantly false. It was obviously the quartet of prisoners led by Cytryn who “engineered” the Vrba-Wetzler escape. As well, it has been known for decades that the first Jew to escape from Auschwitz successfully (ie. not get caught) was Siegfried Lederer on April 5, 1944. Vrba was neither the inventor of his escape plan or the first Jew to escape.
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–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.” [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.]
It is tempting to suggest Vrba might have met Eisenbach previously because Sandor Eisenbach knew Vrba’s parents and Eisenbach’s parents lived in Vrba’s hometown of Trnava. Coincidentally, on the day Vrba received his zebra stripes—-after being marched into the shower and told to strip among four hundred others “in a room designed to hold no more than thirty”—-Vrba met a Slovak named Eisenberg as he received his tattoo number 44070 (on the top of his left forearm) in July of 1942. The numbers happen to contain the number 44—-the year of the momentous escape.
Rudolf Vrba described the tattoo process in I Cannot Forgive, 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.”
As the quote above makes clear, Vrba encountered a Slovakian locksmith. Born in Krompachy, this was Ludwig (“Lale”) Eisenberg who had arrived in Auschwitz in April of 1942 and received the tattoo number 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 reunited with Auschwitz survivor Gisela Fuhrmannova in Bratislava. They promptly married and he changed his named 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 proceeded to invite Alfréd Wetzler to be his escape companion, hoping to re-use the yet-to-be-dissembled woodpile (described in his memoir as being approximately 300 metres east of crematorium 5). 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 somewhat: “We had known each other since childhood and there was absolute trust between us. We were also 650 men from the town of Tyrnau (Slovakian: Trnava), where we had all lived, but only the two of us were still alive. Something like that connects even more, especially since he had already lost three brothers and 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.
Freedom or Death
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 (who was tasked with maintaining a daily tally of deaths within the camp itself, aside from mass executions at the crematoria) reported at Section B-II-D that he must visit the hospital at Section B-II-F. These two false errands facilitated their rendezvous in Mexico.
We are told that three days later, when it finally came time for the weakened pair to remove the lumber overhead, Vrba and Wetzler discovered they could barely manage to shift its weight. We have been led to believe that without inadvertent assistance of those Nazi guards peeling away some of the timber the day before, Vrba and Wetzler would have been trapped within a funereal tomb. The story goes that Tadeusz Adamek (born in Pleszew, 1925) and Bolek had added as many boards to the roof as possible, a procedure that both saved their lives from the search party and almost killed them.
This near-fatal experience was just one of more than twenty life-threatening situations that Rudolf Vrba survived over a two-year period as a teenager [A list of death-defying events was provided above.]
But there is a more complex sequence of events that Vrba recounted to his wife, Robin. In a 2023 interview for this website, she has shared what Rudolf Vrba told her about the escape. Independent research conducted in Vrba’s private papers at the FDR Library archives in New York state, two hours north of New York City, has verified these details that were not included in Vrba’s 1963 memoir.
The original escape plan devised that Vrba and Wetzler would test the safety of the hideout for those who had constructed it. It was agreed that if Vrba and Wetzler could successfully remain hidden and uncaptured for three days, two of the hideout’s builders would then join them for another three days. All four men would then try to escape from the Auschwitz camp together. It was still very cold in early April. Wetzler became so dreadfully uncomfortable inside the hideout that after three days the pair of Slovakian Jews agreed they would not allow their two accomplices inside the cramped wooden cavern. When this refusal was hastily conveyed, their two co-conspirators were so angry that they piled more wood atop the shelter in order to prevent Vrba and Wetzler from achieving their goal. This might well serve to better explain why the pair had such extreme difficulty extracting themselves from the hideout. This is a version of the escape that was told to Robin Vrba by Rudolf Vrba. In 2023, she shared this account in a recorded interview with the makers of this website. This version of events is partially corroborated in a letter from Stanley Medicks, of Finchey, North London, who later founded the British and European Machal Association (volunteers who fought for Israel in 1948). Medicks wrote that Rudi told him he was once at a swimming pool “when someone walked up to him, noticed the number tattooed on his arm and said, ‘You are Rosenberg.'” It turned out that this man at the swimming pool was the man who had masterminded the escape bunker, the man who had agreed to allow Vrba (born Rosenberg) to be one of the two ‘guinea pigs.’ More importantly, there is a one-page document in the FDR Library archives that records a meeting between Vrba with Reverend Frederick W. Metzger at the University of British Columbia, whereupon Vrba told Metzger that he and Wetzler had acted independently and decided 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.
Prior to his job as registrar, Vrba had been a labourer within the world’s largest-ever emporium of stolen goods, a Nazi warehouse accorded the nickname Kanada. Consequently, they were able to obtain good shoes and tailor-made Dutch suits from the massive collection depot for goods that were stolen from the continuous influx of genocide victims. Obviously, if Vrba and Wetzler had been wearing striped prison garb, they would have been instantly identifiable as escapees once they managed to reach the countryside, so different apparel was essential. It is generally assumed the name Kanada was applied to the warehouse facility because faraway Canada was viewed as a Land of Plenty.
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.”
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.
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.
“One evening they were fired on by a German police patrol, but managed to escape into the forest. Later they met a Polish partisan, who guided them towards the frontier, and then, on the morning of Friday, April 21, they crossed into Slovakia, finding refuge with a farmer on the Slovak side, in the small village of Skalite.”
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 has since doubled that figure based on the input of multiple experts. Hence, the latest re-issue of Vrba’s memoir I Escaped From Auschwitz (initially entitled I Cannot Forgive) is now subtitled The Shocking True Story of the World War II Hero Who Escaped the Nazis and Helped Save Over 200,000 Jews.
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 traipse the escapists’ route from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Skalitý 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
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.”
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 Krasnansky.
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.
- At age 17, when he attempted to re-enter his native Slovakia, Vrba was severely beaten by antisemitic 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Vrba masterminded a death-defying escape from the Novaky labour camp–only to have his accomplice, Josef Knapp, soon betray him.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- “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.”
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Vrba’s fellow prisoners hid him in Block 4 during his convalescence and they replenished him with food, saving his life.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- While completing an eleven-day trek to freedom, Vrba escaped a flurry of bullets for a third time, again at night–this time by throwing himself on the ground as if he had been shot, then dashing into the woods.
- Having escaped with Wetzler to Bratislava, Vrba risked his own life 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.
- 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. In short, it can’t be proved. We can only take Vrba’s word for it. Alice Munk, according to Vrba’s memoir, was gassed and cremated on the day after they had spent their first and last night together. We are told that Vrba stood for four hours outside the barracks, “tormented, until I saw the dark smoke mixed with a giant, yellow flame, rise up from the crematorium.” Vrba devotes eleven pages to the Czech Family Camp and Alice Munk in the I Escaped from Auschwitz version of his memoirs, but most critical writing about Vrba takes little notice of this deeply personal tragedy.While Vrba’s bravery was no doubt influenced by a desire to prevent the imminent mass murder of 800,000 Jews from Hungary, one must also consider that the best way for Vrba to avenge the murder of Alice Munk was to blow the whistle on the Nazis. [See FAMILY CAMP]
The murder of almost two million people in one place is one thing; the murder of a male virgin’s first love is another. Rudolf Vrba 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.
In 1945, Vrba moved to Prague where he later earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Prague Technical University in 1951 and began working as a neuro-chemist. On April 16, 1949, at the Bratislava Town Hall, Vrba married his childhood friend Gerta (or Gerti) Sidonova, born in Trvana on November 28, 1926. She was a fellow scientist who had typed an early version of the Vrba-Wetzler Report. Theirs was possibly the only wedding in history that included three Auschwitz escapees as wedding guests: Alfréd Wetzler, Czeszlaw Mordowicz and Anton Rosen. Vrba’s mother, Ilonka, arranged the nuptial festivities wherein her son got drunk and tried to kiss Gerta’s friend, Inge. Mordowicz attempted to mollify the bride by showing her how to take apart and reassemble a pistol. She was not enthused.
Still recovering from Holocaust trauma, Vrba was not prepared to settle down. It soon became apparent he could be irrationally jealous and mistrustful. Gerta gained her medical degree in 1950 and the marriage gave rise to two daughters, Helena (b. 1952) and “Zuzka” (b. 1954) but eventually Gerta wanted a divorce. “Perhaps at the time,” she wrote after Helena’s death, “we did not even comprehend how ‘damaged’ we both were, and it is only with time that I can see how it [the Holocaust] must have affected us all.”
To gain her freedom in 1956, Vrbová had to pay all the legal costs for her divorce, leave their flat to Rudi and find a new home for herself and their children. With her daughters in tow, Gerta Vrbová completed a daring escape to Copenhagen, via Poland in 1958. She ultimately reached England in 1959 where she immediately remarried to Dr. Sidney Hilton on October 6, 1959; they had two children, Caroline and Peter, but 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. Vrba’s second daughter Zuzana Vrbova died in 2014.
Invited to attend a conference in Israel in 1958, Vrba defected and took refuge at the Weizmann Institute of Science, a public research university in Rehovot, whereupon he did a two-year stint in the Agricultural Ministry’s Veterinary Research Institute. In 1960, Vrba moved to London and worked as a researcher for two years in the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit in Carshalton, Surrey. 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.”
In 1967, Vrba relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia as an Associate of the Medical Research Council of Canada (1967-1973). He became a Canadian citizen in 1973. From 1973-1975, Vrba undertook research at Harvard Medical School with a grant from the Medical Research Council of Canada. It was during this period he met and married his second wife, Robin Vrba, originally from Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1975. They met at a party in Boston. She recalls her response on first seeing him was, “Oh, my god, that guy’s adorable.” She also credits him with having a “humongous sense of humour.” She subsequently became a successful real estate agent in Vancouver. He had nightmares (about the Holocaust) but these were buffeted by his sometimes wicked sense of humour. Towards the end of World War II, his mother was briefly incarcerated in Theresienstadt, a hybrid of ghetto and a concentration camp in the town of Terezin, giving rise to his riposte, “She needed to lose some weight anyway.” When he visited one of the concentration camps with a group of students in 1948, according to Robin, he was asked how he felt making a return visit. “Much better than the first time,” he said.
From 1976 until his retirement in 1990, Vrba served as an Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia. There, Vrba lectured prolifically in the fields of biochemistry and pharmacology while producing more than fifty original research papers on the chemistry of the brain. As an expert on the effects of exhaustion on the brain, as well as diabetes and cancer, Vrba liked to say 95% of his time was allotted to pharmacology of the brain and only 5% was allotted to the Holocaust. The vast majority of his students never knew he was a Holocaust survivor, author or hero.
Nonetheless, Vrba often lectured at Holocaust conferences and events (usually asserting that one of the major motivations for the Nazis to undertake the Holocaust was theft), made himself available for interviews (characterizing himself as an atypical Holocaust witness because he wanted to tell others what happened), contributed to several film documentaries and published an impressive array of articles. Finally, Vrba acted as a prosecution witness against Nazi criminals and Holocaust deniers in several court cases.
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 Canada
Vrba resisted the term neo-Nazis. “I don’t buy it,” he said. “It’s nonsense. They are Nazis. And what do they expect from Nazis–to admit Auschwitz? When Auschwitz was running, they were constantly denying it. And today, when it’s not running, they deny it even more… To teach that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter is also anti-semitic nonsense… People must know what really happened, how they were deceived, how this deception was propagated… The intrinsic sense of the Holocaust, the purpose of the Holocaust, must be made known to every civilized, educated person.”
Vrba and Alfréd Israel Wetzler did not see eye-to-eye about politics after World War II and they respectfully drifted apart. Born 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.
This website was created by a (non-Jewish) Canadian journalist and author, Alan Twigg, working with website technician Sharon Jackson, with the support from Yosef Wosk. It is not affiliated or indebted to any organization or institution. It is an independent effort to provide a greater understanding of Vrba’s life and character, for educational purposes only.
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 (a New York University history grad student). It properly credits the London journalist Alan Bestic as a co-author. One of the first premature estimates of only 100,000 Jews saved by the Vrba-Wetzler Report was made by Gerald Reitlinger in The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (New York: Beechhurst Press 1953). Ruth Davis of the Czech and Slovak Jewish Communities Archive stated the Vrba-Wetzler Report ought to 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.
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. http://ronsdalepress.com/out-of-hiding/
Next: IN THE BEGINNING