RUDOLF VRBA WAS THE FOREMOST WHISTLEBLOWER OF WORLD WAR II.
THIS WEBSITE HAS BEEN PREPARED BY A CANADIAN JOURNALIST WHO KNEW HIM. 

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.

On April 7, 1944, at 2 p.m., Rudolf Vrba and his escape companion Alfréd Wetzler were huddled inside a pile of construction lumber, in a treeless zone of Auschwitz-Birkenau, near Crematorium IV and Crematorium V. This bleak area was nicknamed Mexico (“Meksyk” in Polish) because some overflow Auschwitz captives were forced to sleep outside in the mud, often naked, with only a blanket if they were lucky. Such was the bleak humour of the most lethal death camp in history that other residents described them as Mexicans. [Sonderkommando veteran Filip Müller confirms this explanation in Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers (1979).]

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.” Their bravery and endurance would ultimately result in the Vrba-Wetzler Report, easily one of the most important documents of the 20th century.

Mexico area of Auschwitz

This rare photo of “Mexico” shows the area where Vrba hid for three days inside a woodpile. It was likely taken after Rudolf Vrba had escaped. The desolate zone was known by the Nazis as Bauabschnitt III (or BIII, Construction Sector III). [SS photo, 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, APMO, negative #20995/438]

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The pair of would-be escapees were both from the eastern part of Czechoslovakia (aka Slovakia). Both 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. Some historians have suggested Vrba and Wetzler did not forewarn and predict that Hungarian Jews were next on the Nazis’ mass extermination list simply because no such warning appears within the Vrba-Wetzler Report. That allegation invariably fails to mention that the much older overseers of their reportage, in the town of Žilina, had strictly prohibited the inclusion of any conjectures. They strictly governed that the Vrba-Wetzler Report [to which their surnames were not attached in 1944] could only contain facts.

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.”

Two accessories (later cited by historian Hendryk Świebocki as Polish Jews “who worked with Pawel Gulba in the digging crew”) had helped Vrba and Wetzler swiftly remove layers of planks, affording access; then the timbers were replaced for a continuous stack. In his novelistic account of the escape Wetzler claimed one of the Poles whispered, “Bon voyage.” Vrba’s non-fictional account states, “Nobody spoke, however. The Poles moved the planks and gave us an almost imperceptible nod… Our eyes soon got used to the gloom 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. Vrba also used a knife to scrape off a message that a preceding escapee, Sandor Eisenbach, a fellow Slovakian, had left on one of the planks as a taunt to the Nazis (‘Kiss My Ass’). Eisenbach, since re-captured but only tortured and not killed [explanation forthcoming], had requested his friend Vrba to remove the taunt. “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.”

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. Wetzler, the unofficial chess champion in Birkenau, leaned towards Communism and he would soon adopt the pseudonym Jozef Lánik which was later used as his pen name.

Both fugitives were bachelors. Both men were fluent in multiple languages, including German. Vrba adamantly considered himself to be a European citizen first, a Jew second. Neither man was religious. Neither 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.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

“The city of fire called Birkenau… an alien universe where death was made a factory product.”Elie Wiesel

Birkenau map

There were three distinct sections of the overall prison complex known as Auschwitz. The first prisoner camp called Auschwitz 1 – Stammlager arose from a Polish army barracks at the town of Oswiecim. Next, Auschwitz II – Birkenau, less than three kilometres away, was essentially a camp for mass murder built at the nearby village of Brzezinka. It eventually had four crematoria to facilitate industrialized genocide. The third and largest complex, Auschwitz III (or Buna), was a slave labour compound at the village of Monowice (Monowitz). There, companies such as IG Farben mercilessly worked prisoners to death. Rudolf Vrba was a rare prisoner who survived in all three.

This diagram of Auschwitz II [Birkenau] made for this website by Sharon Jackson shows the hiding place in “Mexico” (at right) where Rudolf Vrba and his co-escapee Alfred Wetzler evaded capture for three days—within a lumber pile located  “roughly 300 metres east of Crematorium V” (according to Vrba). It also locates the warehouse known as Kanada (top, centre), the Selection Ramp (left, sideways text), Wetzler’s office, Vrba’s office, crematoria and other major features, as of 1944. Only six Jews ever successfully escaped from Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Nearly all historians, worldwide, for seven decades, have failed to mention the only female escapee, Cyla Cybulska. [For viewing purposes, North appears on the right, South is shown on the left.]

The Manhunt

movie advertisemment

While the 2021 Slovak film directed by Peter Bebjak makes a laudable attempt to achieve the impossible–representing the grim 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.]

Lederer’s German accomplice Viktor Pestek, who had fallen in love with the beautiful Renée Neumann in the Czech family camp, had asked both Wetzler and Vrba to join him as an escape partner, according to Vrba. Both declined. Prior to April of 1944, no Jew had ever successfully escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Two French Jews had recently been caught trying to escape while carrying a loaf bread containing diamonds pilfered from gassed victims.

Lederer’s escape would have no beneficial consequences for other Jews and yet it remains far more famous. Lederer agreed to don a uniform of a high-ranking Nazi and accompany the German soldier enthralled with Neumann, who remained reluctant to abandon her mother. With Lederer’s help, the Nazi naively hoped to obtain false paperwork in order to extricate Neumann and possibly her mother from Auschwitz. According to Vrba, both he and Wetzler and Vrba had been invited to participate in this scheme and both had declined. Therefore, Lederer’s audacious success – having been driven out of the main entrance in a luxury vehicle, with his Nazi accomplice at the wheel – is understandably famous.

The shrieking siren of alarm at Auschwitz was finally heard around 6 p.m. Although the warning that announced the pair’s escape attempt lasted for ten deafening minutes, the Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Fritz Hartjenstein, would not be officially informed of this latest escape attempt, by teleprinter, until 8:33 p.m. “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.”

Annotated map

Rudolf Vrba personally annotated this map to indicate the location of his hideout and his escape route. This document was uncovered in his private papers in the FDR Library.

In his own handwriting,

Most historians tend to overlook the fact that the highest ranking Nazi official at the time for all three camps combined was actually the SS senior garrison commander (Standortaltester) Arthur Liebehenschel. When the order to replace Rudolf Hoess in that position was made by Himmler in November, Liebehenschel was also put in charge of Auschwitz I. The presence of Liebehenschel was hugely significant for Vrba’s escape, as will soon be explained.]

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!'”

Filip Muller, the most famous survivor of the Sonderkommando units, would verify the escape more than thirty years later: “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.

Vrba would later staunchly maintain they did not carry any written evidence of Auschwitz’s operations with them for fear of being searched en route—whereas Wetzler, in his semi-fictionalized account of two fugitives with different names, first published as a novel, wrote that they did. 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. Simultaneously, Yad Vashem in Israel were averse to publicizing Vrba’s non-fiction account because Vrba was openly criticizing Jewish leadership for failing to adequately inform European Jewry of the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler Report.

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 of 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. The escapees 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. Most prisoners in Auschwitz welcomed the idea of an Allied bombardment, even 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.

[This website is not affiliated or indebted to any organization or institution. It is a not-for-profit, educational service, supported by Yosef Wosk and co-generated with website technician Sharon Jackson. This website has been created by a non-Jewish journalist who received his country’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Canada, in 2014, as well as an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University in 2022. A former newspaper publisher, Alan Twigg is the author of twenty books on a wide variety of subjects, including Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia, winner of the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness.]

How It Was Done–The Predecessors of Vrba & Wetzler

Mordka Cytryn

Mordka Cytryn chiefly engineered Vrba & Wetzler’s hideout.

In 2022, when a new book called The Escape Artist regenerated much of the contents of Rudolf Vrba’s story from his 1963 memoir I Cannot Forgive, makers of that updated version excluded Vrba’s name and Vrba’s photo from the book jacket, thereby gaining maximal publicity for the author of the new book. The British thriller writer Jonathan Freedland told Times Radio that “Vrba spotted a loophole in the Nazi defences” in order to escape, thereby giving credence to his book’s title. That statement was knowingly false. The author was well aware that (“Mordecai”) Cytryn [or Citrin] had conceived and built the cavern hideout with a colleague thus far mostly identified as Abram. Freedland might have been emboldened by the fact neither Vrba or Wetzler accorded appropriate credit to Cytryn either.

Born in Warsaw on July 6, 1909, Cytryn, a Jew (prisoner #30980), had been brought to Auschwitz from the Pawiak prison in Warsaw on April 18, 1942. Cytryn’s co-escapees were a Slovakian Jew named Mendel (Sandor) Eisenbach (prisoner #32704) and two Polish Jews, Getzel Abramowicz (prisoner #27577) and Jacob (aka “Kuba”) Bałaban (prisoner #86794). It was been suggested that Cytryn and his accomplices drew lots to see who would serve as the “guinea pig” to test out their newly constructed hideout. Whether that is true or not, it was Cytryn who crawled inside, alone, on February 29, 1944, and allowed himself to be covered by planks. If the SS failed to find him, Cytryn would be joined inside the lumber pile by three others in due course.

All of the would-be escapists had obtained civilian clothes via the camp underground in order to conceal themselves if they managed to escape. The trio slated to join Cytryn 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, relatively-speaking, freedom of movement within the camp. As camp veterans who spoke fluent German, Vrba and Wetzler had been elevated in the camp hierarchy to become registrars. This meant they, too, could circulate more easily in Auschwitz-Birkenau than other prisoners. Their positions in the Auschwitz hierarchy of prisoner personnel enabled them to stroll past the woodpile and reassure the sequestered quartet that “the coast was clear.”

On March 5, 1944, Cytryn and his crew carefully replaced the planks of the wood pile and fled from “Mexico.” After the war, Kuba Balaban would provide this (roughly translated) account, later made public by the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum:

“At night we crossed Brzezinki and after a few hours of marching got though to the Soła river. Standing on the river bank, we noticed to our horror that crossing in this way was impossible, as the river flows very briskly and my companions cannot swim, so we continued along the riverside. … After some time Eisenbach noticed on the opposite side of the river a small house with a boat near it, and on our side, there was a tree with some rope attached. He tried to draw the boat towards us using this rope, but suddenly we heard the alarm bell, so we left everything and started to run ahead frantically. As the weakest one, I was always lagging behind. Almost completely exhausted we ran into a small forest, which seemed to us the only salvation.”Between the woods we hid under the sheaves of leaves, feeling a little warmer, we fell asleep.

“Exhausted, we did not wake up until the following morning. In the morning we started thinking how to get to the other bank of the Soła river. We noticed that there are some buildings only three kilometres from us. So, the decision was taken, to wait until the evening and then I, as the only one among the four of us who could speak Polish, … was supposed to go to that village and find out how to cross the river. As the darkness fell, I set off alone to the village and stopped next to the first house. I heard people talking inside. First, I tried to overhear which language they speak and when I was sure it was Polish, I opened the door without hesitation. A woman was sitting there with three minors. They were quite scared when they saw me, and I was just speechless.

“As I regained my speech again, I explained that I escaped from the labour camp in Germany and my goal is to reach Porąbka, the village on the other side of the Soła river, but I do not know how to achieve it. The woman first fed me, gave me some more pancakes to go, and described as follows: … I was supposed to go straight to the town of Brzeszcze, where coal mines are located. Workers from the town of Kęty work there, and the town is located on the opposite side of the river. The workers are transported by boat for a night shift and then I will be able to reach the opposite side together with them. I thanked her and went back to my fellow sufferers.

Notification about the capture of the foursome by the Sicherheitsdienstpolizei und Sicherheitsdienst (Sipo u. SD) headquarters of the Kracow district to the platoon of gendarmerie on March 14, 1944.

Notification about their capture by the Sicherheits-dienstpolizei und Sicher-heitsdienst headquarters of the Kracow district to the platoon of gendarmerie on March 14, 1944.

“At night we all set off to Brzeszcze. I was walking with Eisenbach at the front, while Cytryn and Ignac about 100 meters behind us—for safety reasons. While walking along one of the Brzeszcze streets, a young girl bumped into me by accident and I, as a young man, accosted her and we started talking, … walking around the town. … We were even discussing some political issues and she confessed that she had a loved one in the camp in Auschwitz and when I saw her attitude, at some point I confessed that I had escaped from Auschwitz that night.

“When she asked how she could … help, I answered that only with some good advice, how to reach the other side of the river. … She decided to guide us herself by some winding paths to the river, to the place where the boat moors. In spite of the fact that it was winter, and the ground was frozen, she seemed not to pay attention to any hardships and guided us to our destination. While saying goodbye I gave her a golden ring and a fountain pen as a souvenir of all four of us, the escapees from Auschwitz. Although she did not want to accept it claiming that we could always make use of it, I did not want to take her kindness for granted. I kissed her, she started crying and we parted. … I wish I could meet this high-minded woman again and say thank you.

“All four of us got on the boat and safely reached the town of Kęty. We did not know exactly where to go, but we followed our instinct and headed in the direction of the mountains, where partisans stationed. We marched all night long, and at dawn took a break in a forest. … At dawn, when it cleared up a bit, we spotted a man who was passing on his bike on a forest path. Although we were not sure if he noticed us, we walked away about 300 m from this place and fell asleep because we were very tired. After an hour the screams woke us up and then we found out that we were surrounded by gendarmes. They ordered us all to stand up, raise our hands and searched us to check if we did not have any weapons. They also told us to roll up our sleeves to see the numbers on our arms.

“They cuffed us and directed to the police station in Porąbka via mountain paths. After three or four hours a car pulled up in front of the prison. … Sitting inside we were sure that they were taking us back to Auschwitz and at the time we decided that during the investigation, we could not in any event reveal the location of our bunker. I took on the responsibility for organizing the escape; the others agreed to say that it was me who had led them outside the camp.”

It is not clear why Balaban would be willing to accept the responsibility for organizing the escape (instead of Cytryn). Possibly, this could have been a fabrication to elevate his stature after the war. Regardless, in a nutshell, the foursome had made it past the guard towers but they had been inadequately prepared to consider how best to navigate and behave beyond the gates.

Even though Balaban had established contact with sympathetic Poles as they were heading for the town of Kety, they had soon discovered the local Polish population had been mostly evacuated and replaced by Germans who were loyal to the Nazis. Any social contact was therefore exceedingly risky. Several days later, en route to the Slovak border, in the vicinity of Porąbka [or Porebka], they had encountered a group of German foresters who were taken aback by their shaved heads and tattooed arms. Before any gendarmes arrived, the Cytryn-Eisenbach-Balaban-Abramowicz quartet had wisely jettisoned all their valuables, correctly anticipating their capture. In advance of torture, they also agreed to keep the location of their bunker hideout a secret and 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 they were able to succeed in maintaining their Mexico hideout as a secret.

In March of 1944, two other would-be escapees named Schwimmer and Zajoncz were awaiting their fates in the death block. They had been captured with valuables in their possession. Normally, all failed escapees were mutilated and publicly executed. But in this instance, when all six of the captured men were marched to gallows outside the Birkenau kitchen, on March 17, only Schwimmer and Zajoncz were predictably lynched. For anyone familiar with the history of Auschwitz, it might seem preposterous that all four of Cytryn’s crew were not hanged or shot–but that is, in fact, what happened.

Arthur Liebehenschel

If Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Liebehenschel had not lessened punishments for escapees, Vrba & Wetzler would never have known whether or not the Mexico hideout was safe to re-use.

An explanation for this bizarre circumstance can found within Hermann Langbein’s unparalleled, 600-page tome, People in Auschwitz, originally published in German in 1995. On page 40, we learn that on November 11, 1943, Camp Order 50/43 stated that Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Liebehenschel would replace Hosse as the senior garrison commander (Standortältester) of Auschwitz, thereby ranking him as superior to the commandants of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Buna) while he was simultaneously put in charge of Auschwitz I.

Langbein provides an explanation as to why Himmler replaced Hosse. According to a conversation overheard by the gardener in Hosse’s house, in the fall of 1943, Himmler was worried that the BBC was reporting too much about mass extermination of prisoners at Auschwitz. After the war, the loathsome Wilhelm Boger corroborated that rationale when he testified that Hosse was forced to leave Auschwitz, by Himmler, due to “reasons of foreign policy.” Ostensibly, Hosse was given a promotion, but in reality he was reluctant to leave his wife and family who stayed behind [as depicted in the movie, The Zone of Interest].

Although the mass murders at the crematoria continued as “normal,” Liebehenschel demolished the infamous Black Wall for executions, he ordered the destruction of the stand-up cells (in which prisoners were forced to stand for 24 hours), he rescinded the order to shoot any prisoner trying to escape and, most radically, he ordered that prisoners who had been caught trying to escape would not be killed; instead they could be transferred to another KZ. Aghast at the conditions he found, the commander wished to abolish capital punishment. He even declared that inmates should not be beaten during interrogations.

After the war, various testimonies from Auschwitz staff verified this was the case. A roll clerk named Erwin Olszowska testified at the Frankfurt trials, “When in the winter of 1943-44 the chief informer of the Political Department, Dorosiewicz, escaped and murdered an SS man, the new camp commandant ordered no reprisals.” Another of Liebehenschel’s underlings testified that the new commander did not insist that everyone must stand at attention in his presence and when he visited a camp kitchen, he asked, “How does the soup taste?”

Liebehenschel stayed in charge only six months until Rudolf Hosse reappeared and assumed the function of SS senior garrison commander on May 8, 1944. Three days later, Richard Baer replaced Liebehenschel as Auschwitz I commander. Most of Liebehenschel’s reforms were rescinded — but it was during his tenure that the foursome of Cytryn-Eisenbach-Balaban-Abramowicz had briefly escaped and were re-captured–and their lives were spared. And it was during this “interlude of leniency” that Vrba and Wetzler were able to flee.

Vrba and Wetzler would never have been able to re-use the Mexico hideout if Cytryn’s quartet had been executed. They would never have gained assurance from Eisenbach that none of the foursome had revealed the location of lumber pile. Therefore, approximately 200,000 Hungarian Jews would not have been saved from the crematoria (due to the eventual distribution of the Vrba-Wetzler Report). Despite his attempts to diminish cruelty, Arthur Liebehenschel was nonetheless convicted of war crimes by the Polish government and executed in 1948.

Cytryn, Balaban and Abramowicz have likewise fallen through the cracks of history. Although Wetzler or Vrba were hugely indebted to Cytryn’s quartet for conceiving the escape plan, for testing the effectiveness of the petrol-tainted machorka, for preparing the hideout and then proving its viability, Vrba saw fit to recognize only one of them by name–fellow Slovak, Eisenbach–in his memoir. The preceding escape made by Cytryn & Co. is given very short shrift:

“You know 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.

It is possible to argue that Vrba failed to adequately credit those to whom he was indebted because Alan Bestic–who did nearly all of the writing based on Vrba’s verbal accounts–had a somewhat cynical but practical attitude as a veteran Fleet Street journalist. Bestic believed the general reader did not want a great deal of detail. Instead, they wanted drama. If he loaded Vrba’s memoir with a barrage of strange or unpronounceable names [ie, from the previous few paragraphs: Olszowska, Dorosiewicz, Liebehenschel, Cytryn, Abramowicz], I Cannot Forgive would sink like a stone. Therefore, just as Vrba was forced to be subservient to the editorial direction of Jewish elders when his famous Auschwitz report was drafted in 1944, almost twenty years later he was obliged to once more yield to, and rely on, the craftsmanship of a senior authority for writing in English.

Most of this essential background information is missing from The Escape Artist, a rewrite of Vrba’s book that, for commercial appeal, peddles the conceit that Vrba somehow orchestrated his own miraculous escape.

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 (Mendel) 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!”

In keeping with Liebehenschel’s oddly liberal edict about not murdering escapees, Eisenbach’s colleagues Bałaban and Abramowicz would be transferred to Lieberose, one of the Sachsenhausen sub-camps, in October of 1944; 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 re-titled 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, intending to re-use the yet-to-be-dissembled woodpile (described in Vrba’s 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: “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.

Nikola Zimring

In her Master’s thesis entitled The Man Who Knew Too Much, Robin Vrba’s co-editor Nikola Zimring lists the names of the foursome who built the bunker/hideout as Alexander Eisenbach, Abraham Gotzel, Jacob Balaban and “Jewish-Russian POW Citrin.” Her thesis was prepared for the Department of Jewish History for the Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of Humanities at the Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University. She takes care to thank Czech-born Yehuda Bauer (age 98) and Yad Vashem.

The first edition of The Escape Artist erroneously cites Vrba and Wetzler as “the first Jews to break out of Auschwitz” (page 8). It also claims they were “the first Jews to engineer their own escape from Auschwitz” (page 171). Both statements are false.

It takes less than thirty seconds on the internet to learn that neither Vrba or Wetzler were not the first Jews to escape and Vrba’s own memoir makes it obvious they didn’t mastermind their escape, either.

The first Jew to escape from Auschwitz Birkenau successfully (ie. not get caught) was Siegfried Lederer on April 5, 1944. As for the brilliant planning, victory has many fathers, defeat is an orphan. The leader of the aforementioned quartet of prisoners, Cytryn, engineered the escape by constructing the hideout. Polish historian Josef Garliski has claimed Pawel Gulba and David Szmulewski were also involved in the planning. He also claims it was Gulba who “concealed the two escapees in the Mexico area.”

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. We now know, 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 Wetzler and the pair were shot at when they were forced to subsequently flee as a direct result. She 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. Normally, the corpses of failed escapees were would be brutalized and placed on display; hence the abnormal leniency of the aforementioned Arthur Liebehenschel was crucial for the escape of Vrba and Wetzler.

Vrba and Wetzler volunteered to stay hidden for three days–and then be joined by two other would-be escapees, possibly a duo 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 desperate to flee as soon as possible.

Four years in the making–including research conducted at the FDR Library archives (wherein Vrba’s papers are stored) and bolstered by extensive interviews with Vrba’s wife Robin Vrba over a year-long period–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.

In fact, the hitherto untold true story of their escape is more complex. In a 2023 interview for this website, Vrba’s 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 that were not included in Vrba’s 1963 memoir.

Rudolf Vrba was not really “The Escape Artist” as has been lucratively claimed.

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 the title for his faux thriller is bogus. What he does not tell his readers–because he didn’t know–is that Vrba and Wetzler essentially agreed to act 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 has been 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.

ROBIN VRBA: “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.


Fre
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

Cadca

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.

No 9 Hollého Street

No 9 Hollého Street, Zilina, the basement room in which Vrba gave his report, showing the same model of typewriter on which it was written.

“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 extraordinary, 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.

[It must be noted that theirs was not the first insiders’ report about Auschwitz. According to the Auschwitz Museum: “Reports written by Polish escapees… were another source of information on Auschwitz. In April 1942, Stefan Bielecki sent AK headquarters a report written by camp resistance leader Witold Pilecki. A month later, escapee Gustaw Jaster brought out another report. Kazimierz Hałoń, who escaped on November 2, 1942, reported on Auschwitz to the Cracow PPS leadership. Later, the socialist Liberty ran 6 articles probably based on his information.

“In April 1943, Witold Pilecki, Jan Redzej, and Edward Ciesielski escaped. Each of them compiled a report independently, and these were sent to AK headquarters. Stanisław Chybiński, who escaped a month later, wrote a report titled Snapshots from Auschwitz for AK headquarters. In mid-1944 escapees Konstanty Jagiełło and Tomasz Sobański sent the Cracow PPS organization secret messages, and maps of the camps and SS deployments. None of these escapees’ reports, with a few exceptions, was published during the war.

“Reports by other escapees were published and had an impact, however. The Pole Jerzy Tabeau escaped in November 1943. In a report to the leadership of the Polish underground, he discussed the events of the last year-and-a-half. His report was smuggled out of Poland. In Switzerland, it came to the attention of several diplomats and representatives of the World Congress of Jews. As the Report by a Polish Major, it reached the UK and the USA.”]

After portions of the Vrba-Wetzler Report were released by the BBC in Great Britain on June 15, 1944 and by the New York Times on June 20, 1944, the irrefutably detailed information supplied by the two Slovakian Jews ultimately resulted a cessation of the trains carrying Jews from Budapest to Auschwitz as of July 9, 1944.

“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.

The Vrba-Wetzler Report

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 identify 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. The Jewish leadership were aware that May Day was nearing and this traditional workers’ celebration would be cause for Hlinka guard fascists to search out ‘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.

Formerly known as Alfréd Wetzler, the older escapee became Jozef Lánik. Formerly known as Walter Rosenberg, the younger escapee became known as Rudolf Vrba. Vrba’s forged identity document, issued by the Notary Office in Trenčín on May 23, 1944, is stored at the FDR Presidential Library at Hyde Park in New York. 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-Hlinka cleric.

“I felt that I was tricked by the Slovak Jewish Council.”

In seldom-consulted, unused portions of interviews that were conducted with filmmaker Claude Lanzmann in 1972, Vrba would eventually express criticism of the Slovak Jewish Council:

 “The next evening, the (Slovak) Jewish Council arrived with info about me and verified my identity. I was the first Jew who had ever come back. They questioned the truthfulness of our report. My friend Vecla [Wetzler] was upset that they did not really believe us.

“We were questioned separately for about six hours. Finally, they appeared to believe us. I was not yet 21 years old and there was a law that I could not sign a paper without parental permission. They wasted some days. They should have contacted the Hungarian Jewish Council. We got papers with proof of my Aryan origins for three generations. But they didn’t give me shoes.

“The Germans issued a warrant for us. Meanwhile, the first Hungarian transport left for Auschwitz. I felt that I was tricked by the Slovak Jewish Council. I knew I had to find other contacts. We were supposed to talk at a synagogue on a Friday night. Not realizing it was Shabbat, I lit a cigarette as I was hiding near a wall before my talk. A member of the synagogue saw us and ordered us away because we were desecrating the Shabbat. He didn’t care what we had to say, he just wanted us away from there. Four months later, he was killed in Auschwitz.” [From Tape 4, Side B]

“I turned to the Communists for help in Trnava. They thought my story was very sad. The local communist group was helpful. They offered money, documents, a hiding place. They were not helping us as Jews — they did not mention the concentration camps in Russia — but as people who are against the Nazis. The communists were not enamoured with the Jews because the Jews were all capitalist and they don’t support communism. But the communist group was willing to help us with anything we needed. They would help me get to some unit where, if I wanted to, I can even get to shoot some Germans.” [Tape 5, Side A]

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 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. [More information about Alice Munk is contained within the AUSCHWITZ section of this website.]

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.

Post-War

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 Trnava 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 [Helena], 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, Gerta 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  but had to wait a year in Sweden before she could re-marry to Dr. Sidney Hilton on October 6, 1959. This uncertain year of transition were difficult for the young daughters. Gerta and Sidney Hilton eventually had two children of their own, Caroline and Peter, but Gerta would divorce her second husband 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.

THE SLANSKY PURGE – WHY VRBA LEFT STALINIST CZECHOSLOVAKIA

Jews in Žilina and Bratislava gave Walter Rosenberg a new identity, but it was the underground Communists in Czechoslovakia who enabled him to join the partisans and kill Nazis; then the Communists recognized his bravery by according military honours after the war. As Rudolf Vrba, he happily moved to Prague in 1945 and gained his doctorate in chemistry and biochemistry for a 1951 thesis entitled “On the Metabolism of Butyric Acid.”

Rudolf Slansky

Rudolf Slansky

Also in 1951, after a split had emerged between the Slavic Communist leader Josip Broz Tito and Joseph Stalin, the latter instigated nightmarish purges of various Communist Party leaderships in satellite states. The leading Czech Communist leader in Prague, Rudolf Slánský (1901–1952), as the party’s General Secretary after World War II, had led a relatively progressive regime, but Slánský was one of 14 Czech leaders arrested and tortured for alleged “crimes” by the Stalinists. Eight days after a show trail in November of 1952, 11 of the 14 men charged with high treason were convicted. Five days after that, they were executed. Slánský was publicly hanged at Pankrác Prison on 3 December 1952. His ashes were scattered on an icy road outside of Prague. Officially, Slánský had been found guilty of “Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist activities in the service of American imperialism.”

Vrba viewed these purges as antisemitic and understood that Slánský’s fate could be his own. When he accepted an invitation to attend an international conference in Israel in 1958, he defected and worked for two years at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot—only to discover that some of the men who he felt had betrayed the Jews of Hungary were ensconced in positions of power in Israel. By 1963, Slánský and other victims of the purge trials were cleared under the penal code. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, president Václav Havel appointed Slánský’s son, also named Rudolf, as the Czech ambassador to the Soviet Union.

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 British 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 antisemtic 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 there 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). Zimring and Robin Vrba both participated in the annual Vrba-Wetzler trek in the second year of its existence. Their version properly credits the London journalist Alan Bestic as a co-author. According to Robin Vrba and Zimring (pursuing her Ph.D in Prague in 2024), the 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 estimated of 100,000 lives were saved. Vrba’s memoir, first entitled I Cannot Forgive (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1963), was re-issued in 1989 under a new title, 44070: The Conspiracy of the Twentieth Century (Star and Cross Publishing). It appeared in a Czech translation as Utekl jsem z Osvětimi (I Escaped from Auschwitz) in 1997. That title was then used in English for a Barricade Books edition in the United States in 2002; and again in Great Britain for a Robson Books edition in 2006. The most recent edition in English retains that title from Racehorse Publishing in 2020, adding a subtitle The Shocking True Story of the World War II Hero Who Escaped the Nazis and Helped Save Over 200,000 Jews.
 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/

Map of all the Concentration Camps

 

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.

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.