[Reprinted with the permission of Robert Krell, with Gilbert’s spelling retained]


Sir Martin Gilbert and Rudolf Vrba in Vancouver

Sir Martin Gilbert & Rudolf Vrba in Vancouver.

The truth about the terrible fate of the Jews at Auschwitz reached the west as a result of the escape from the camp of two Slovak Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, in the spring of 1944.

For two years, from the summer of 1942 until the summer of 1944, Auschwitz, and its subcamp of Birkenau, had been the “unknown destination” of hundreds of reports reaching the west of the deportation of Jews from throughout Europe.

According to most of these reports their destination was a “labour camp in the east” located “somewhere in the east.” One report which reached Istanbul from Bratislava in 1943 gave the camp’s actual name, “Birkenau,” but described it as a “camp of protective custody.”

This misleading characterization arose in part, and was certainly perpetuated, because of the existence from the autumn of 1942 of the Czech family camp.

Deception was a feature of the Nazi intention at every phase of the destruction of European Jewry.  This was true of all the deportations, including those from France, Belgium and Holland.

Deception was paramount, in the Nazi scheme of things, with regard to the ‘model’ ghetto at Theresienstadt, which for a while even served as a ‘model’ to impress a Red Cross delegation.  Yet Theresienstadt was a place of terrible suffering, and of the deaths of tens of thousands of Czech, Austrian and German Jews from starvation.

The Czech family camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was an extension of this deception.  Deported to Birkenau, these particular deportees were kept together as families, neither separated nor sent to the gas chambers.  Then, after six months, they were taken away and murdered.  When they were then replaced by a second group of equally ‘protected’ families, the cruelty of the deception led to the determination of Vrba and Wetzler to escape, in order to alert the world to what was likely to be the fate of the second family camp.

Their aim was to try to save the second group of fellow Czechoslovaks.  They escaped on 6 April 1944, determined to get their message through to Slovakia, and then on to the west.

Lt. Charles Barry, DFC

Lt. Charles Barry, DFC who unwittingly took the first aerial photos of Auschwitz-Birkenau. `You may also be interested to know that we had no inkling of the camp being there, and it wasn’t until the Holocaust Revisited report was published in 1979 that I and my surviving colleagues from 60 Squadron realised that we had unknowingly been involved in identifying the death camp.’

When, on 31 May 1944, an Allied reconnaissance plane, flown by a South African pilot, photographed the Auschwitz region, its objective was the vast Buna-Monowitz synthetic oil plant, only a few miles from Birkenau.  The Birkenau huts appeared in one of the frames of one of the photographs and were identified by those who studied them (either in southern Italy or at Medmenham on the River Thames) as “workers huts”.

Such huts were commonplace throughout the Auschwitz region, in more than thirty labour camps.  There was no reason why these huts should ring alarm bells.

On 13 June 1944, two weeks after this aerial reconnaissance, the truth about Birkenau reached the west, arriving that day in Geneva, in neutral Switzerland.  The document was a written one, dictated in Slovakia by the two escapees, Vrba and Wetzler.  It had been a long journey in terms of time, from 6 April to 13 June, just over nine weeks.  But it had arrived.

The aim of the report was to tell the west of the destruction of the first Czech family camp, and to find a way of preventing the destruction of the second family camp, by means of a western outcry.

The report detailed every aspect of the killing process at Birkenau, listing the numbers of victims since the summer of 1942 and giving copious details about the killing process.

As befitting the aim of the report, the largest single section in it was that which described the Czech family camp.

In Switzerland, the recipient of the report was Dr. Jaromir Kopecky, the Geneva representative of the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile: it reached Geneva on June 13.  Kopecky at once showed the report to Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress.  As Riegner read the Vrba-Wetzler report, he came to the section about the Czech family camp which had been in quarantine for six months.

Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress.

“I had never heard of this before,” Riegner later recalled.  “Then they had been killed, and then there had been another quarantine camp.”  Six months, I thought to myself; what does it mean?  In only seven days’ time the second quarantine expires.

This section of the report, which concerned, according to the Vrba-Wetzler calculation, the 165,000th to 168,000th arrivals at Birkenau, reads:

“On 20 December 1943, a further group of 3,000 Jews arrived from Theresienstadt. The convoy was listed under the same category as the one which had reached the camp on September 7, i.e. ‘SB’ — transport, Czech Jews with six months’ quarantine. On their arrival, men, women and children all joined the September group. They enjoyed the same privileges as their predecessors. Twenty-four hours before the gassing of the first group took place, the latest arrivals were separated from the rest and placed in another part of the camp where they still are at present. Their quarantine ends on 20 June 1944.”

At this point in the report Riegner stopped reading.  “Have you seen this paragraph,” he cried out to Kopecky.  These people are going to be killed in seven days.  We must act.  We must telegraph to London at once.  The BBC can alert the world.”

It was 14 June 1944 — one week before the expiry of the second quarantine camp, according to the report.

Kopecky realized that he must act at once, not merely to make the details of the report known to the Allies, but, even more urgently, to alert the world to the imminent destruction of the family camp, in the hope of averting its destruction.  He therefore telephoned a member of the British Legation in Berne, Elizabeth Wiskemann, an expert on Czechoslovakia, and told her about the apparent imminent destruction of the second Czech family camp.

That same day, in sending Miss Wiskemann a summary of the facts, Kopecky wrote:

“Here are the details of the urgent message about the group of Jews in danger in Birkenau.  Please do what you can so that the details are sent back as quickly as possible and are broadcast at one over the BBC etc.  But it will be necessary to avoid mentioning the sources.  One could say simply over the radio: ‘We have received this from a reliable source.’”

In his letter to Miss Wiskemann, Kopecky added that the request to broadcast the details was made in agreement with the representatives of the Jewish organizations in Geneva.  The report itself, as drafted in telegram style by Riegner, on the basis of the Vrba-Wetzler report, and as sent to Miss Wiskemann, read, in full:

Riegner letter re Birkenau

On reading this telegraphic summary, and Kopecky’s covering letter, Miss Wiskemann acted at once, passing on both the telegram and the letter to London.  In doing so, she ensured that the reality of Auschwitz-Birkenau was made clear to the outside world for the first time.

Elizabeth Wiskemann

Wiskemann spent the Second World War in Switzerland, officially as the assistant press attaché to the British legation in Bern, but in reality responsible for gathering non-military intelligence from inside Germany and the occupied territories.

The “unknown destination” “somewhere in the east” finally had a name.  The camp which had hitherto been believed to be one of the many labour camps in East Supper Silesia was revealed to be the largest single killing center in Europe.

On June 18 brief details of the Riegner telegraphic summary were broadcast over the BBC, as Kopecky had asked.  This was followed on June 19 by a Czech Government-in-Exile warning (of which Dr. Brod spoke yesterday).

On the same day, the Zionist leader Richard Lichtheim, who was also in Geneva, set down his own full summary in a letter to the Jewish Agency Executive in Jerusalem.

In his letter, Lichtheim made it clear that as a result of the new report: “We now know exactly what has happened and where it has happened.” Not only had “very large numbers” of European Jews been killed “systematically,” in what Lichtheim referred to as “the well-known death-camps in Poland (Treblinka etc.),” but also in “similar establishments situated near or in the labour-camp of Birkenau in Upper Silesia.”

Lichtheim added:

“There is a labour camp in Birkenau just as in many other places of Upper-Silesia, and there are still many thousands of Jews working there and in neighbouring places (Jawischowitz etc.).  But apart from the labour-camps proper there is a forest of birch trees near Birkenau (Brezinky) where the first large-scale killings took place in a rather ‘primitive’ manner, while later they were carried out in the labour camp of B itself with all the scientific apparatus needed for this purpose, i.e. in specially constructed buildings with gas-chambers and crematoriums.”

Could the Vrba-Wetzler report be believed?

In his letter of June 19, Lichtheim told his Jewish Agency superiors in Jerusalem, there are “many details” in these reports which “are confirmed by a second report received from another source.”

This other source was a further report, the text of which had also reached Switzerland in June, and which had been written by a former Polish officer, a non-Jew, known only as “the Polish Major.”  He had been sent to Auschwitz main camp (Auschwitz I) with sixty other Poles on 24 March 1942, from the notorious Montelupich prison in Cracow, and had himself later escaped.  His report of his experiences in Auschwitz was extremely detailed, nineteen pages in all, of which three pages dealt entirely with the Jews and Birkenau (Auschwitz II).

Like Vrba and Wetzler, the ‘Polish Major’ gave the figure of one and a half million as the number of Jews gassed at Birkenau since the spring of 1942.

We now know the identity of the author of this confirmatory report.  He was not a Major, but a medical student, Jerzy Tabeau, who had escaped several months before Vrba and Wetzler, and had made his way south through Slovakia and into Hungary.

Jerzy Tabeau

Jerzy Tabeau, author of “The Polish Major’s Report” 

For nearly half a century it has been believed that Tabeau’s report reached Cracow and went no further, and that it was read by the Cracow resistance, making little impact on the people there, who knew all the outlines and many of the details of the story already.

In fact, on reaching Geneva, Tabeau’s report gave additional credence to the Vrba-Wetzler report, confirming some details and adding others.

In his letter of June 19, in which he referring to Tabeau’s report, Lichtheim repeated the details given in the Vrba-Wetzler report of the fate of the first Czech family camp.  Lictheim wrote to Jerusalem:

“We knew that not all Jews who were sent to Theresienstadt remained there and that for many of them Theresienstadt only served as a transit camp. But until the autumn of 1943 we have never heard that Jews who had been for some time in Theresienstadt were to be transferred to Upper-Silesia. Therefore we were much puzzled when we learned that several thousand Jews – men, women and children – were suddenly brought to Birkenau from Theresienstadt. But at that time we believed that it was done to exploit more Jewish labour in the industrial centers of Upper-Silesia.”

Henceforth, there could be no more illusions.  Auschwitz-Birkenau was no longer thought to be part of an ‘industrial’ center, but was clearly a death camp.[1]

Lichtheim was convinced that the Vrba-Wetzler report was true.  He went on to warn the Zionist leaders in Jerusalem that, ‘Apart from the danger which is now hanging over the Jews in Theresienstadt, there are large scale deportations from Hungary’.

On June 23, a mere ten days after the Vrba-Wetzler report was received in Geneva and passed on to London, another report reached Geneva from Budapest.  This report stated that more than 435,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to “Auschwitz” in the previous five weeks.  This horrific information, which gave the actual destination of the deportees whom Lichtheim had mentioned four days earlier, reached the Co-Director of the Palestine Office in Geneva, Dr. Chaim Pozner.  It came in a letter brought by courier from Budapest, from the Director of the Palestine Office in the Hungarian capital, Moshe Krausz.

The information in this letter made an immediate impact, for it was now known in Geneva, thanks to the Vrba-Wetzler report, exactly what “Auschwitz” meant.

Moshe Krausz’s letter had been sent to Budapest on June 19, and had taken four days to reach its destination.  It contained two enclosures.  The first enclosure was a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler report.  The second enclosure set out the details hitherto unknown in the west, of the deportation to Auschwitz of at least 435,000 Hungarian Jews between May 15 and June 19.

According to this second enclosure, a further 350,000 Jews were assembled in and near Budapest, awaiting deportation.

Pozner, and the Jewish representatives in Switzerland to whom he showed Krausz’s letter, acted at once, informing the British and American authorities in Switzerland of the news that had reached them.

Also on June 23, Dr. Pozner sent a telegram to Istanbul, for onward dispatch to Jerusalem, urging “necessary speedy action,” as well as a “reply from Haftzazis proposals in this matter.”  A supposed proper name hid a Hebrew word: haftzaza, bombing.  This was the proposal to bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz, and to try to bomb the crematoria themselves, a proposal which had first been sent from Slovakia by Rabbi Weissmandel on May 16, and was at that very moment (June 23) being turn down the by War Department in Washington

That same day, June 23, Dr. Kopecky, together with Riegner, and Riegner’s Czech colleague Dr. Ullmann, went together to the International Red Cross and “appealed most seriously for immediate action Red Cross, view stopping by all possible means deportation and extermination.”

Action was now swift. On June 24, Riegner gave a summary of the Vrba-Wetzler report to Roswell McClelland, the American Minister in Berne.  Riegner stressed, in a covering note, that these were “reliable reports,” and he also included a reference to the Polish Major, together with details from the Major’s report.  Riegner added that, in agreement with Dr. Kopecky, six proposals were submitted to Washington:

1.  The Allied Governments should issue a warning to the Germans and the Hungarians that they will use reprisals against the Germans living in the Allied countries.

On June 26, Lichtheim wrote to Douglas MacKillop at the British Legation in Berne: “More and more reports are coming in about the awful fate of the Hungarian Jews and the mass murders committed by the Germans in the death camps of Poland and Upper Silesia.”

MacKillop acted immediately.  Shortly before eight o’clock in the evening of June 26, the British Minister in Berne, Clifford Norton, telegraphed to the Foreign Office the text of a message from Lichtheim for the Jewish Agency.  The telegram, marked urgent, reached London at four o’clock in the morning of June 27.  Its first part summarized the Krausz letter of June 19, and reads:

Received fresh reports from Hungary stating that nearly one half total of 800,000 Jews in Hungary have already been deported at a rate of 10,000 to 12,000 per diem.  Most of these transports are sent to the death camp of Birkenau near Oswiecim in Upper Silesia where in the course of last year over 1,500,000 Jews from all over Europe have been killed.

We have detailed reports about the numbers and methods employed.  The four crematoriums in Birkenau have a capacity for gassing and burning 60,000 per diem.  (This figure was a telegraphic error.  The correct figure, as given in the original message, was 12,000 a day.)

In the fifty consecutive days between 18 May and 7 July 1944, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered in the four gas chambers at Birkenau, making a minimum daily average over the whole period of between 8,000 and 9,000.

In Budapest and surroundings there are still between 300,000 and 400,000 Jews left including those incorporated in labour service but no Jews are left in eastern and northern provinces and according to a letter from our manager of Palestine office Budapest, the remaining Jews in and around Budapest have no hope of being spared.

In his telegram to London, Clifford Norton suggested four specific reactions: a British threat of reprisals against Germans then in Allied hands; the bombing of railway lines from Hungary to Birkenau; the precision bombing of the death camp installations; and (and this fourth point was to prove decisive) the bombing of all Hungarian government buildings in Budapest.

On June 28, protests against the deportations were broadcast from London to Hungary over the BBC.  But still only telegraphic resumes of Vrba-Wetzler report had been received in the British capital.  On July 4 a full summary of the report finally reached London.

The route of this particular summary was through Kopecky in Geneva to the Acting Czechoslovak Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hubert Ripka, then in London.  The information in the report of the two Jewish escapees had been “further considerably supplemented,” the Czechoslovak government noted, “by reports which a Polish major who escaped from Oswiecim furnished to the underground organization in Slovakia.”  This, again, was Tabeau, though his name is not known.

In sending the Foreign Office an eight-page summary of the Vrba-Wetzler report, Ripka suggested that the Allied governments issue “an emphatic protest and solemn warning to the German government in respect of these barbarous crimes.”  President Benes himself, Ripka had reported, was ready `to associate himself with any protest which might be organized.’

On the evening of July 5, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Sztojay, told the senior German representative in Budapest, General Veesenmayer, that his government was being “deluged” with telegrams.

The Hungarian Prime Minister then read out three telegrams.  These were the messages sent from Berne on June 26 by the British and United States Ministers giving details of the Vrba-Wetzler report, including the information from them, and from Tabeau, that a million and a half Jews had been killed in Auschwitz even before the start of the Hungarian deportations.

According to the Hungarian Prime Minister there was another detail in the three telegrams which had upset the Hungarian government.  This was the proposal that the Allies should not only bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, but that they should begin “target bombing of all collaborating Hungarian and German agencies” in Budapest itself.

According to Sztojay, this request for an Allied air attack on Budapest had actually included “exact and correct street and house numbers in Budapest” of Hungarian and German institutions involved in the deportations, together with the names of seventy Hungarian and German individuals who were stated to be most directly involved in sending Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz.

One of the telegraphs, Sztojay told Veesenmayer, had asked for “world-wide propaganda with detailed descriptions of the state of affairs.”

The Hungarian government felt isolated and vulnerable.  No German effort could protect Budapest from Allied air attack, or lessen the threat of guilt implied by the list of names.  Clearly, the Allies would be in a position quite soon to exact the retribution which would be demanded, a fact which had been underlined by an unusually heavy American bomber attack on July 2 on the marshalling yards of Budapest.

                                                                   Mission 53. Bombing the marshalling yards in Budapest.

Many bombs had fallen wide of their target, hitting government buildings, and appearing to be in direct response to one of the three telegrams mentioned by Sztojay to Veesenmayer, the telegram (sent en clair, and intercepted, as intended, by Hungarian intelligence) sent from the British Embassy in Berne on June 26, by Clifford Norton, in which he had specifically asked for the bombing “of all government buildings in Budapest,” and providing address and house numbers, these latter were most probably provided through the intelligence resources of Elizabeth Wiskemann, whose part in publicizing the Vrba-Wetzler report, and seeking action upon it, had been a central one.

461st Bomb Group

                            461st Bomb Group “The Liberaiders”

On July 6, less than twenty-four hours after Sztojay’s talk with Veesenmayer, the German minister was summoned again to the Hungarian Prime Minister, and told that Horthy himself had ordered the deportations to be stopped.

The Vrba-Wetzler report had failed, through no fault of theirs, to save the 3,000 Czech Jews on behalf of whom it had been sent.  But it was a decisive factor in halting the Hungarian deportations while they were in full spate, and in thereby saving more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews from death.

Vrba feels very strongly, and has a great weight of historical fact to support him, that if the Hungarian Jewish leaders had taken decisive action when they first read his report, all 450,000 Hungarian Jews murdered at Auschwitz might have been saved.  He is understandably angry that the leaders did not raise the alarm throughout Hungary the moment his materials, and his warning, was in their hands.  This distressing, highly-charged element of his story is central to its public presentation.

Anger at the failure of the Hungarian Jewish leaders to respond in time to Vrba’s warning cannot, however, does not detract in any way from his remarkable bravery and tenacity, and from the fact that, when the Vrba-Wetzler report was eventually heeded, it was decisive in saving more than 100,000* lives. [*A figure since revised to at least 200,000 Jewish lives since Gilbert’s conservative estimate was made while Vrba was still alive.]

[1]  Even after the arrival of the Wetzler-Vrba report, the problems of accurate information were formidable. On 21 July 1944, a month after the execution of Jacob Edelstein, Riegner telegraphed from Geneva to the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile in London: “Edelstein has been working in the East for some months. His wife Mirjam and son Arieh wrote on the 25.3.1944 from Birkenau, pleading for [remaining text missing from original paper copy].


error: Content is protected !!