For decades after he came to live in North America, Rudolf Vrba accepted some speaking engagements when he judged the occasion could be constructive. For instance, he gave an address to German police in 1964 and in 1996 he accepted an invitation to go to Cologne to participate in the first Holocaust Remembrance Day in Germany (on January 27). For the latter occasion, being fluent in German, he was able to discuss Auschwitz with German Werth and Günter Mücheler, explaining procedures at the camp, etc., before he addressed the controversial role of Judenrat (Jewish) councils and their role in frequently augmenting the Holocaust rather than acting to prevent it.
Here is the presentation made by Rudolf Vrba in 1996 to mark the first Holocaust Remembrance Day in Germany.
Holocaust Remembrance Day in Germany, 1996
I was in Auschwitz for 21 months and seven days, almost two years. Of course, I didn’t like it there from the first moment, and the idea of fleeing slowly matured. I got around to saying to myself: It’s basically possible. The guarding of Auschwitz was no different than that of Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg and other concentration camps then in Germany. In Majdanek, where I was before, the same principle prevailed. Of course, it took me a long time to understand the principle of guarding. And it took me a long time to grasp the geography. Because nobody had told me where Auschwitz was. I didn’t know: From Majdanek I had come to Auschwitz and it took me a long time to find my way around: I read the word “Upper Silesia” on wagons leaving Auschwitz. I remembered Moravian-Silesia from my high school days, so Upper Silesia couldn’t be in Czechoslovakia – I deduced the wider area of Moravian-Ostrau. I didn’t ask anyone, because that would have attracted attention. Asking about the geography of Auschwitz was life-threatening. I was 18 years old then.
The gaps in the “chain of posts”
I had thought about escaping from day one, but the decision only matured in 1944. I knew then for sure that I would try, whether I would succeed or not. The thing was, Auschwitz had a security system that the Nazis had great faith in. But nothing is perfect and the system had a weakness and I built on that. Every concentration camp – including Auschwitz, to which I refer in particular – was of two Post chains surround, the “small” and the “big post chain”. The “small guard chain” guarded the actual barrack camp at night, so they locked the prisoners in during the night. The prisoners were counted during the morning “count roll-up” and then marched out of the camp to work. The area was all around the camp and was surrounded by the “big post chain”. The prisoners were thus within the “small chain of posts” at night and worked within the “big chain of posts” during the day. So there was no need for a “small chain of posts” during the day, since the prisoners were outside, and no “large chain of posts” at night because the prisoners were already inside the “small chain of posts”.
The system worked like this: Before dark, all the prisoners were brought into the “small post chain”. They came into the camp, the “small chain of guards” was formed and outside the “big chain of guards” was still standing. It’s five o’clock in the afternoon, no one is between the “small” and “large chain of posts”. Within the “small chain of posts” the prisoners are counted again during the so-called “standing call”. There are 29,236 prisoners, that’s easy to count, for which there is also a system. It took an hour or two, and when it is determined that all 29,236 are there and nobody is missing, the “small chain of posts” will definitely be closed and the “big chain of posts” will be ordered to “remove the chain of posts”. Let’s assume that I don’t come back from my workplace between “small” and “large chain of posts” and hide somewhere. Everyone else marches in, the “small chain of posts” is closed, but two prisoners are missing. It was clear that two prisoners could not go through the “big chain of guards” in broad daylight. Consequently, the two inmates must still be on the premises between the “small” and “big chain of posts”. From the camp center to the “big chain of guards” was about two or three kilometers, and I would say it was ten square kilometers. The “little post chain” is closed, normal operations prevail in the camp, but a siren wails because two are still out there. This is the signal for the “big chain of posts” that it will not be withdrawn. Two squadrons of dogs are provided, two hundred shepherd dogs, and they have searched the premises. The search lasted three days and three nights.
With me was Alfred Wetzler, who was housed in camp B II – B for “construction section” section d, I was B II a. We had known each other since childhood and there was absolute trust between us. We were also 650 men from the town of Tyrnau (Slovakian: Trnava), where we had all lived, but only the two of us were still alive. Something like that connects even more, especially since he had already lost three brothers and father and mother in Auschwitz.
Our plan was as follows: A new building was being prepared between the “small” and “large chain of posts”, which I didn’t yet know what it was supposed to be used for. I found out later that it was intended for the Hungarian Jews. At the construction site, wood from hundreds of wagons was stacked, planks from which the new barracks were to be built. One of these piles of wood, about ten wagon loads, had been built up by Polish prisoners in such a way that a small hollow space was left inside. We could hide there. I had a tip on how the dogs couldn’t find us. A Russian prisoner of war named Dimitrij Volkov, a Red Army captain, told me that real Russian mahorka, soaked in gasoline, drives the dogs away. He didn’t want to know any details because he was afraid I might name him as an accomplice if I was tortured.
So we “organized” three quarters of a kilo of Russian makhorka, also gasoline, in which we soaked the makhorka and let it dry. When we then climbed into our board hole, I prepared the whole area with the Machorka. We went in on April 7, 1944, it was an afternoon, Polish Jewish prisoners covered the hiding place. From the outside it looked like a normal stack. We stayed there and did not return to the “small chain of posts”. Now it was roll call, we weren’t there, and soon it was found out that we come from the same town. The siren wailed, the camp management was convinced that we still had to be within the “big chain of guards”, so: Dogs out! The area was combed for three days, but whenever the dogs came to our hiding place, they ran away again. So the remedy worked.
It went like this for three days and three nights. When they hadn’t found us after three days and three nights, they told themselves that we were no longer there. Something incomprehensible happened, but the two are gone. We waited for this conclusion in our hiding place, and we found out that it had fallen like this: There were not yet any telephones between the towers of the “big chain of posts” that were about 150 meters apart in a radius of eight kilometers around the camp. The grass between the towers was clipped short so that not a mouse could get through during the day – it would have drawn the crossfire of two machine guns at once. At night other SS men with dogs stood between the towers.
We knew the three-day, three-night lockdown was a long shot. We went into our hiding place at two o’clock on Friday and then followed the search for us on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On Monday, the search at the “big chain of posts” was supposed to be over, which went like this: The post manager went to a post and told him “Remove the chain of posts”, and this order was passed from tower to tower by shouting. I sit in my hiding place and hear the calls, which come from nearer and farther away – I could follow the signal all the way. The only question was: do they want to deceive me, or are they really going to pull off the guard chain? But it was gone. We left the hiding place, crawled on our stomachs to the “big chain of posts” and found them deserted. Now we were free!
Working on the “ramp”
That was a funny thing in Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the most closed part of the world, but I knew about political events outside earlier than the “Völkischer Beobachter” (National Observer) wrote about them. I learned about transports of Hungarian Jews on January 15, 1944 when Hungary was not yet occupied. We knew that the Jewish communities throughout Europe were more or less decimated; we knew the statistics, so to speak, since everyone came to Auschwitz. The only larger community was the Hungarian one.
I’ve been on the so-called “ramp” for ten months busy, and now I have to explain the murder system of Auschwitz to you, because in order to murder the Hungarian Jews one had to change this system. By then, according to my estimate at the time, around 1.75 million people had been murdered within two years. Today’s historians dispute these numbers, but I’m sticking to my number. As I said, this happened over two years. But now they wanted to quickly murder the Jews from Hungary, about a million in total. This is how I kept casualty numbers in mind: I was assigned to an inmate group euphemistically called the “clean-up squad.” In camp jargon it was “Canada”. There was a core crew of trained inmates, to whom hundreds of additional forces were added whenever the killing required.
We were woken up in the middle of the night and taken to the ramp. The ramp was the “heart” of the Auschwitz murder apparatus. The concentration camp at Auschwitz consisted of two parts, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, i.e. Birkenau. Between these two parts there was a piece of “civilian” land through which the Vienna-Cracow train passed – every day, on time. This luxury train basically passed between two chains of posts. A “blind” side track led off this track, one to two kilometers of rails, where our workplace was located. When the transports of the supposedly “relocated Jews” who had been promised new jobs and living quarters “in the East” arrived on this track, they drove to the ramp. We waited there and a separate post chain was formed around the ramp. There were lights that illuminated the square as bright as day at night – whether it was raining, snowing, fogging. Light was always there and no one could get through the chain of posts.
Now the train with the deportees pushed in, the wagons were opened and the people were herded out onto the ramp. Sometimes it meant “Please get off”, but sometimes also “Come on, you dogs, get out”, depending on the mood of the SS. People were told: Leave luggage inside, it will be brought later. Then they were lined up in rows of five, and an SS doctor came with a walking stick. The SS always carried walking sticks, not clubs, and they were used to keep order when there was initial confusion and shouting. Then even babies stopped crying. It was said, “Speaking is forbidden,” and anyone who spoke out was immediately beaten down with walking sticks. There were dead and injured immediately, and the others understood. They lined up in rows of five and marched past the doctor. The doctor pointed to the right or left with his thumb, which some did not understand. There was a 22-year-old daughter who should be sent to the left as “able to work” while her 50-year-old mother is sent to the right. Now they don’t want to part, so the doctor pulls her to the side with the curved end of his walking stick, and if she still refuses, the stick hits her over the shoulder. Nobody cares if the shoulder breaks or if the children standing around cry – the newcomers get scared and do what they are told. So the selection is very quick.
How many were “sorted out” depended on the respective transport and the situation in the warehouse – sometimes it was five percent, then again 30 percent. I mean that generally 10 to 20 percent were taken to the camp, the rest straight to the gas chamber. Now to us: There were five or six trucks on the ramp, tipper trucks like the ones used for gravel transport. The new arrivals were loaded, in hundreds at a time, onto these cars, which immediately drove off to the crematorium two kilometers away in Birkenau II. There they had to undress and were herded into the gas chambers. Those selected to work had to march to the camp. The trucks moved in a kind of shuttle service. The “clean-up squad” that we were loaded the dead first, i.e. the people who arrived dead, or children who had lost loved ones during the transport, or the sick who were unable to move. It all happened “on the run” if someone was sick or dead, two inmates had to grab their hands and drag them to the truck “at a run”. So everything was thrown onto this wagon and taken to the gas chamber. If the people who felt something didn’t want to get off there, then a button was pressed, the platform rose and people fell out like sand.
“Canada” and Transports
When the cars came back from the crematorium, they were sometimes loaded with new people, but sometimes we already loaded the suitcases and other things that people had brought with them because of the alleged “resettlement.” Then the wagons went in the other direction, to Auschwitz I. These things were stored there in a special depot, officially called the “clean-up command camp”, in camp jargon it was the aforementioned “Canada.” That was because the Polish peasants imagined Canada to be a land of sheer abundance, and those magazines really had it all. The newcomers had brought literally everything in their luggage, and it was a question of millions of suitcases. They had everything in them – clothes, aspirin, medicine, food, money. From this baggage alone I could calculate how many trains had arrived with how many people. When we went – and I was one of those people who always had to go – we were between 100 and 400 men. The order came to the capo that a transport was arriving, 2,500 “pieces”, and just from the number we called up I knew how many would be in the transport.
On the other hand, I was able to talk to those who were not gassed but had been assigned to work. I asked the new prisoners where they were from and how many were in the transport. And their answers fully agreed with my previous calculations. In the almost year that I was on the ramp, I was always informed about all transports and their places of origin. The bureaucratic regulation of the truck transports – always exactly 100 “pieces” per trip – could be mathematically implemented. Over time, I acquired a certain skill: it was enough to look at the transport and know immediately whether it consisted of 1,000, 2,000 or 3,000 people. Most transports were 2-3,000. There were smaller transports of 1,000, but also larger ones, for example from Białystok, which numbered up to 5,000. Specifically, there were 50 wagons, each with 100 passengers, and with such a narrow space, 20 percent arrive dead after 7.8 days of travel. I could compile statistics, others too – it was pretty well known in the camp what “the status” was in each case.
When we weren’t working on the ramp, we had to break open the suitcases. The things were sorted immediately: clothes according to different quality classes, men’s suits too, blankets, prostheses, glasses by the thousands, etc. Whatever you can imagine people bringing with them: violins, dentist’s instruments, pots, prams, all sorts of things. We sorted it and later loaded it into special wagons that took it to the “Winter Relief Organization” in Munich or other cities. I loaded thousands of such wagons, including some that only contained rags, which were then sent to the paper mill in Memel.
All clothes and shoes were searched. We had a gang of about 20 girls squeezing out tubes of toothpaste on a bench all day. A diamond might be found in one in a thousand – whoever found it got a piece of bread as a reward. The people who had come with the transports had known for years that bad things were in store for them, and they tried to secure something from what was left of their belongings that could be exchanged for other things. This resulted in dollars baked into bread, Swiss francs sewn into shoes, diamonds hidden in soles of shoes, etc., all of which were very quickly sorted out by “experts” and thrown into a special suitcase for “valuables”. In the evening Unterscharführer Kühnemann came and the suitcase was so full that that Kühnemann and SS-Unterscharführer Otto Graf had to compress the contents with their boots. Then it was taken to an office with SS man Wickler, where it was sorted. I don’t know if everything was given away or if a lot was stolen. The prisoners were, of course, searched strictly, and anyone found with valuables instantly lost his life. It was all routine.
“Hungarian Salami” in January 1944
In January 1944 I saw a sudden change in routine. I am in camp B IIa and see a group of people coming and taking measurements. Your guide is a German Capo, Jupp by name, red triangle. I knew Jupp, and you must know something: In all concentration camps there was a certain “seniority” – the longer someone was in the camp, the more “senior” he was: You had more freedom to move, to speak etc. Those who had survived a year in Auschwitz had a high degree of “seniority.” I was such a “senior,” an “old” Auschwitz prisoner, there for almost two years. So I go to Jupp and ask him what he’s doing there. Jupp was a “politica,” a trade unionist who had been in a concentration camp for years. He said he couldn’t tell me anything, it was a big secret – they now want to bring Hungarian Jews. And we’re building a new ramp right there by the crematorium. It’s a million people.
I believed Jupp right away, because these million people would have had to be transported “per hundred” from the old ramp to the crematorium. The camp headquarters calculated how many thousands of truck journeys that would mean. And because the action had to be carried out quickly, it was moved from the old ramp and the route was simply extended by two kilometers. I also knew that there are only Hungarian Jews left in such large numbers. Jupp told me: The SS is talking about it – “Hungarian salami is coming.” It was one of the customs of Auschwitz to designate transports as food. This was also reflected in the economic situation in the various occupied countries of Europe. For example, you wouldn’t even dream of sardines in wartime, but there were sardines in France. And all the deportees tried to bring certain foods with them that had a long shelf life. The French brought sardines, and when a French transport came, the SS said, “Sardines are coming.”
Everything was taken away from the people and went to the officers’ canteen while the people were gassed. Cheese and condensed milk came from Holland – intended as baby food, but used in the SS canteens. And the SS made their jokes: “Cheese is coming – great Jews, eaten fat by Dutch cheese.” So each transport had its specific name, and now people spoke quite openly of “Hungarian salami”. With speeches like this, it was clear to me, especially since I saw the new ramp, that they were dealing with Hungarian Jews.
Warn the victims?
I also knew that it would be very important to stop the whole process by warning the victims. Because the secrecy of the process was crucial to its course. The purpose of Auschwitz had to remain secret. For us in Auschwitz, the sight was incredible: people came from Holland, France, Italy, Belgium, Slovakia, Poland, Austria, Greece and had never heard the word “Auschwitz.” They never heard the word “gas chamber.” We couldn’t believe how this whole process was kept secret from the victims. I was aware that many in the German apparatus knew about it, but the victims knew nothing. Safeguarding the secret of Auschwitz was the crucial prerequisite for the industrial looting and mass murder that had been carried out as a routine there for years.
The passivity of countless Jewish mothers and fathers who led their children by the hand to a miserable death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz was by no means the result of “Jewish inferiority” as Nazis claimed. Nor was it the result of an inability to grasp the truth, which some contemporary Israeli historians such as Yehuda Bauer say. The Jews tended to hope that by obedience they could escape the increasing violence in their homeland. They even indulged in the optimistic belief that they would find greater safety in being deported to less dangerous so-called “resettlement areas,” where their children might get a chance in some Jewish reservations “in the East” to survive the war.
With such expectations, the Jews were lied to and lured into the deportation trains. When they arrived in Auschwitz and realized that they had been lied to, that they were not in a resettlement area but in a murder camp, usually right before the gas chambers and crematoria, they had only one choice: to be tortured endlessly or to die in a less complicated way. They were often killed murdered and robbed before they had time to consider the alternatives. Because the speed of the whole process was a necessary part of the technique of mass murder practiced by the Nazis in Auschwitz and other places of torture in the Third Reich.
At the time, I believed it would make a significant difference if I could break out of Auschwitz and tell the outside world the truth about the fate of the potential “resettlement candidates.” The secret would be revealed and the decisive prerequisite for the smooth course of the mass murders would be eliminated. I had not the slightest doubt about my ability to enlighten the outside world about the realities of Auschwitz. If the victims knew at home that their children would be murdered, they would not voluntarily board the trains. I’m not saying it would save them, but there’s a big difference between sneakily murdering an unsuspecting victim and killing someone who knows you’re going to kill their children. And if dead children are not secretly cremated in Auschwitz, but, say, directly on the streets of Budapest or Bratislava, then the population will also wake up: They are doing this to the Jews today – what will they do to us tomorrow? That was my idea: breaking the secret of Auschwitz might not end the killing, but it would make it a lot harder.
The Vrba-Wetzler Report
After our escape from Auschwitz, the “Judenrat” in Slovakia immediately verified our identity. Because they had the complete statistics of all transports that had left Slovakia. The German technique of mass murder was very sophisticated: they never deported all the Jews from one country together. There were 90,000 Jews in Slovakia, of whom 60,000 were deported in 1942. An “exception” was made for the remaining 30,000, but we knew from Auschwitz that such “exceptions” were only temporary. We knew the national variability of the transports that constantly arrived in Auschwitz: If they didn’t come from one country, then they came from another – the death mill never stopped. But in the respective countries it was believed that the deportations had stopped: We are saved!
So I came back to a Slovakia where of the earlier 90,000 dead, 60,000 were already dead. The rest were still in Slovakia, they wore a star of David, but somehow life went on. The Jewish Councils were held hostage by the Germans; they were not immediately deported and gassed. I never met a single Jew during the war who didn’t believe that Germany would crush the Nazi regime. Nobody believed they would win the war. It was about gaining time – about who would still be alive at the end of the war. The Jewish councils wanted to save whomever they could, mainly themselves. That’s the nature of man, and the Nazis knew that very well.
Vrba and Kasztner
Wetzler and I knew that everything was prepared for the murder of the Hungarian Jews. This was already clear to us in January 1944, while the Germans officially occupied Hungary only on March 19. When I spoke to the Slovakian Jewish Council on April 25, there were still two weeks left before the start of the transport of Jews from Hungary. The Judenrat helped me write a report to write, we got typewriters, stenographers. The report was finished on April 27 and was in the hands of the Hungarian Jewish Council within 24 hours. Kasztner even came to Bratislava because as a member of the Jewish Council, which was under the protection of the SS in Hungary, so to speak, he was able to travel. We know from survivors of the Judenrat in Bratislava that the Judenrat forwarded our report without delay.
The interpretation of what happened there is very complicated and very sad. Because the Jewish Council under Kasztner’s leadership had somehow negotiated with the SS. Kasztner, whom I did not vote for, thought he could speak on behalf of the Jews. The primarily by Dr. Negotiations with the SS conducted by Kasztner and his Zionist group met with limited success. With participating officers from Eichmann’s staff – SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Krumme, SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Huntsche, SS-Standartenfuhrer Kurt Becher – Kasztner put together a transport of Jewish people from Hungary, and Eichmann did not take them to Auschwitz, but rather on long and tortuous routes to Switzerland. Of course, the SS didn’t do it for free, they were paid large ransoms.
If the Nazis got involved in negotiations with Jews in Bratislava or Budapest, it was because they needed subterfuge to use the Jewish councils to serve their purposes. And the Nazis’ intentions were quite simple: to quickly rob the Jews of their personal property, to draw up deportation lists based on lists of names to be supplied by the Jewish Councils, to get the deportation victims to board the wagons smoothly, and then to efficiently kill them in Auschwitz – always maintaining the secrecy of their murderous empire. The fact – and it was a fact! – The fact that the Nazis in Budapest and elsewhere also accepted bribes from Jewish notables has only slightly affected their dedicated work towards the great goal of the final solution. It is well known (at least it was known to me and it was recognizable every day) that in Auschwitz too the SS, from Commander Höss down to the smallest SS man in the camp, were not only keen on killing Jews, but also on looting and stealing. Without exception! It was even part of the unofficial reward for the murder work.
This was also the attitude of the German administration in the occupied countries. Blackmailing the Jewish negotiators and taking substantial bribes did not commit the Nazis to anything. That was part of the cynical game in which the Judenrät were hostages and tools. Some were unwilling, some were willing, but all pathetic hostages afraid of being deported to Auschwitz with their children. The fact that some Israeli historians like Yehuda Bauer want to present these negotiators as heroes today is perhaps understandable for two reasons. These historians differ radically from my interpretation of the facts: they want to praise the “meritorious” work of negotiators like Kasztner and others, but I am not compelled to help shape a better future in Israel – to be seen as a “beautifier” [ie. sanitizer — A.T.] of the past.
The past was not at all as beautiful as they make us believe. Perhaps the problem lies elsewhere: these are people who did not experience the Nazis directly – these historians are unable to understand the truly malign nature of Nazism. So they don’t know how futile negotiating with the Nazis must have been unless you were equal or stronger. For those of us who saw the Nazis in action at Auschwitz, this basic truth is easier to understand.
To the effect of the report
We cannot say that our report has not had a positive effect. “Only” 400,000 out of a million Jews were murdered. We can look at it like a glass of water: is it half full or half empty? The message went to Switzerland to the Czechoslovak Embassy. And I took opportunities to multiply the message in Slovakia. That was particularly piquant, because I used the “Institute for venereal diseases” for this purpose. It was a very secret institution, well guarded by the police, and there we could type on machines and reproduce the report in peace, so that it would be smuggled into Hungary by Jewish volunteers. There it came into the hands of a certain Kraus from the “Palestine Office”, who brought the report to Switzerland. The matter immediately had a great media impact there, 400 or more articles about it, and all this led to the British Parliament making a statement on June 28, 1944, statements being made in the American Congress, the Vatican etc. and on July 3 Budapest being heavily bombed. Horthy then gave the order to stop the deportations.
I would like to make one thing clear: a total of around 6 million Jews had been murdered and burned, but their assets had not been burned. The 400,000 Jews deported from Hungary had possessions, not just the few things that were stolen from them in Auschwitz, including gold for their teeth. At home they had apartments, cars, gardens, furniture, furs and many other things that were scarce and valuable in the bombed regions of Germany and Europe. This partly explains why Horthy and his clique worked with the Germans in Hungary and were so keen to get rid of the unfortunate Jews, so to speak. After the Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, Horthy and his gendarmerie were still in power, without whom none of this would have been possible. The property confiscated from the Jews went to those Hungarians who testified to Horthy’s loyalty.
Since the war was already taking an unmistakable turn for the worse, the Jewish fortune was used to strengthen shattered loyalties. And it was about an incredibly large fortune: As we know, Becher (Hitler’s representative for the Hungarian economy) had sent the Jewish fortune to Germany in 25,000 wagons. The Israeli historian Bauer estimated the total value at 6 billion Swiss francs. Other things could not be shipped – the Jewish fields, houses, goods, etc., which were distributed to Horthy’s followers.
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