Alfréd Wetzler was born in Trnava in 1918. According to the the Polish historian Henryk Świebocki (born in 1940), Wetzler was arrested in 1941 after he had attempted to sabotage the operations of a brick factory. Repeatedly interrogated during four months in a Bratislava prison, he was released until he was sent to Sered, Slovakia, on April 12, 1942. The following day he was transported to Auschwitz I as prisoner #29162. He was transferred the next day to Sector BIb of the men’s camp at Auschwitz II (Birkenau).

Świebocki, a senior historian at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau), has noted that Wetzler spent a short time at Auschwitz I in the summer of 1942 and in that same year he made an aborted escape attempt. Having noticed there was a sewer pipe that went from the men’s camp in Section BIb to outside the fenced compound, Wetzler undertook reconnaissance by entering the sewer system through a manhole near Barrack 7. The transit through the pipe was surprisingly easy. He was certain he had gone beyond the perimeter of the camp only to discover there was an iron grate at the end of his journey, barring the way. He was only able to crawl backwards to captivity with great difficulty.

Having benefitted from the advice of senior prisoner #7699, Pawel Gulba, Wetzler survived from the summer of 1943 as a registrar of deaths within the camp, tallying daily death tolls beyond the crematoria, working among cadavers on a daily basis, avoiding hard labour from his small office at BIId. Likely, he must have worked for a time as a collector of carcasses before being promoted from being a corpse-carrier to being a corps-counter. Although there were problems with hygiene, it was still one of the best jobs in the camp. Collectors of corpses were able to visit most sectors of the camp and therefore they could provide Wetzler with up-to-date reports on current events.

Whereas Vrba was complicit with the camp underground, Wetzler steered clear.

(Wetzler’s advisor Pawel Gulba, born in Bobryk, Poland, apparently survived that war and was registered at the Ebensee Displaced Persons camp in Austria on April 20, 1945.)

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Under his assumed name, Jozef Lánik, Wetzler first published a booklet in 1946 entitled Oswiecim, hrobka štyroch miliónov ľudí. Krátka história a život v oswiecimskom pekle (translation: Auschwitz, the grave of four million people. A short history and life in the hell of Auschwitz in the years 1942–1945). The publisher was listed as Košice: Povereníctvo SNR pre informácie, 1945. Although this volume is a composite of the knowledge gained by all four escapees who met in Bratislava, the other three informants are not credited.

Oswiecim book cover

Oswiecim book cover

Wetzler’s original, fictional work about Auschwitz was first published in Slovak as Co Dante nevidel, (What Dante did not see) in 1964. It was only republished as a non-fiction book in English through the efforts of a Hungarian scientist Péter Várnai, living in Cambridge, England, whose father’s family came from what is now Slovakia. It has since been misrepresented and misinterpreted as being entirely truthful, leading to a bizarre Slovakian film that fails to incorporate Vrba as a central character.

While researching his family roots, Várnai discovered his family name had been changed from Wetzler. He consequently went to Bratislava where he met and befriended Wetzler’s widow, Eta Wetzlerová, and they jointly agreed he was likely a relative of her deceased husband. Várnai set about securing a publisher for an English edition and acquiring the services of a translator, Ewald Osers. Due to Várnai’s initiative, Wetzler’s novel was renamed and re-marketed in English as Escape from Hell: The True Story of the Auschwitz Protocol (Berghahn Books 2007). A paperback version was issued in 2020. In the original Slovak version, the character who clearly represented the older and therefore wiser escapee, Wetzler, is named Karol; the character that clearly represented the younger and less reliable character, Vrba, goes by the name of Valér. In the English version, these names are Karol and Val. This novel had been republished in Slovak shortly after Wetzler’s death in 1988. A fourth edition of Wetzler’s Čo Dante nevidel would appear in Slovak, from Bratislava; MilaniuM, crediting Wetzler as its author instead of Jozef Lánik, in 2009. This new edition contained the first, complete Slovak version of the Auschwitz Report (Auschwitz Protocols). Hence, it took 65 years before Slovakians could read the most influential and important document of World War II that was heroically prepared by two native sons.

Coincidentally, Vrba’s more renowned 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 to retain that title is co-edited by Nikola Zimring and Robin Vrba for 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. Zimring and Robin Vrba both participated in the annual Vrba-Wetzler trek in the second year of its existence.

The estrangement that ensued between Vrba and Wetzler over the years is largely attributable to the fact  that Vrba knew his friend had married a notoriously cruel Block Leader inside the Auschwitz women’s camp, Etela Kelemanova. Vrba never publicly ‘outed’ his friend’s wife and Wetzler was indebted for Vrba for his silence. This little-known fact is essential for understanding why the two escapees could not remain lifelong friends.

Eta Wetzler

Next: ALICE MUNK AND FAMILY CAMP