Only six Jews are known to have successfully escaped from Auschwitz II (Birkenau) during four successful escapes undertaken between April and July of 1944.
Rudolf Vrba had associations with the first three of these escapes.
It has been generally assumed the most romantic (and ultimately tragic) escape was the first one but this is largely because so few people have ever learned about the last one.
It is well-known that for the inaugural escape on April 5, 1944, Ziegfried Lederer (1904-1972), a Czech Jew, drove out of the camp while wearing an Obersturmbannfuhrer uniform provided by the car’s driver, Viktor Pestek, a German soldier, whose aim was to acquire false identity papers for an extraordinarily beautiful Jewish girl in the Czech Family Camp with whom he had fallen in love, Renée Neumann,
The mastermind Pestek, a besotted SS-Unterscharfuhrer guard, was planning to return to Auschwitz in order to liberate his lover with false paperwork that Lederer had promised to help him acquire in Prague. While there is no evidence that Renée Neumann fully reciprocated her would-be protector’s affections, she had gratefully accepted a job as a typist within the camp to ensure her survival. As well, Pestek had arranged for her mother to be protected with a relatively secure job in the infirmary.
Beautiful young women in Auschwitz were often spared by the Nazis, even in Auschwitz, although this is not a subject that has been accorded much attention by scholars. Renée Neumann was one such woman. [Another such Auschwitz beauty was Helena Citron, who was included in the first, all-female transport from Slovakia. A documentary about how SS officer Frank Wunsch was besotted with Citron until he died (in 2005), Love It Was Not, has been made by Israeli filmmaker Maya Sarfaty. Citron (who died in 2007) was a beauty who remained plump and well-dressed while she survived Auschwitz in the Canada compound. “He loved me to the point of madness,” she said.]
Due to the amorous attentions paid to her by Viktor Pestek, Renée Neumann and her mother Eda became two of approximately only sixty Jews who were spared gassing and cremation on the night of March 8-9, 1944, when 3,792 members of the so-called Czech family camp were murdered, including Rudolf Vrba’s own first lover, Alice Munk. As there could be no guarantee that Pestek would remain within the administrative framework of Auschwitz for another six months, and certainly there was no guarantee that Neumann would always be able to visit his ravishing Renée almost daily in the Canada compound where she worked, Pestek decided he must undertake his ambitious and convoluted plan to liberate his non-betrothed and unconsummated love before the next scheduled “clearance” of the Czech Family Camp.
Consequently, Pestek was hoping to find a volunteer for his fanciful scheme–someone who could impersonate an SS officer and who had contacts in Czechoslovakia for forging a Gestapo warrant for the arrest of Renée Neumann and her mother. They would return to Auschwitz, commandeer a car and driver from the Auschwitz staff, drive out the front gate with Renée and her mother, and then murder their driver en route to the Gestapo station. Because Pestek had been wounded in the arm and the leg during combat near Minsk, Pestek was entitled to an elongated leave as a wounded German soldier.
Lederer was not Pestek’s first choice as an accomplice. Pestek had first asked Alfréd Wetzler if he wanted to participate in the ruse. Wetzler later claimed Pestek told him, “I hate myself for having to watch women and children be killed. I want to do something to forget the smell of burning human flesh and feel a little cleaner.”[After Wetzler declined, Pestek asked Rudolf Vrba. Like Wetzler, Vrba believed Pestek’s ploy could be a trick. They were both keenly aware that recently an SS man named Dobrovolný had offered to help a Jewish childhood friend to escape from Auschwitz, only to turn him for a pay bonus whereupon the would-be escapee was brutally executed.
Pestek then asked Hugo Lenk, from the second Czech transport, who also declined. Siegfried Lederer eventually agreed to the scheme. Born in Sudetenland in 1904, he had joined Plzeňák 28, a Czech resistance group in Zbraslav and was apprehended three times by the Nazis for his covert activities. “On the agreed day,” Lederer later recalled, “a red light flashed three times in the window of the SS guardroom at the gate to the family camp. At that moment I opened the door of the washroom block and, disguised in the uniform of an SS squad leader and equipped with the silver cord of the Special Services, I mounted the bicycle provided. Raising my arm in the Hitler salute, I drove through the iron gate of the family camp. My ‘colleague’ SS Rottenfuhrer Viktor Pestek, who was on duty at the time, had opened the gate for me.”
So as not to arouse suspicion, Pestek told the Nazi guard on duty that he was going on vacation. He had already filed for his allowable leave on a April 6 to avoid detection as someone absent on the day when the escape would be reported. Lederer rode to the main gate with on their respective bicycles, with Lederer dressed in an S.S. uniform that Pestek has stolen for him. Lederer recalled they used the password “inkwell” to proceed to freedom in their Nazi uniforms, reaching the nearby Auschwitz train station at around 8:30 p.m.
The pair travelled all the way to Prague, supposedly in a first first class department, although another version of the story suggests they were forced to travel part of the way on a freight train. Pestek was later described by Vrba as “the only honourable SS man I ever met… who saw the vileness that lay beneath those smart, green uniforms and had the courage to strike against it.” Others apparently agreed. After Pestek was transferred to his job as a blockführer for the family camp in the fall of 1943, the Jews he oversaw had accorded him the nickname “Doll” or “Darling.”
Stories vary as to whether or not Lederer returned to Auschwitz with Pestek or not; or whether Lederer did return, hoping to liberate a lover of his own, but, if so, he was forced to abort the attempt. Regardless, Pestek definitely succeeded in smuggling himself back into Auschwitz, taking temporary refuge in the “Mexico” construction zone–where Vrba would also hide. Without Lederer as a cohort, he was reduced to hoping he could replicate his escape plan with Renée Neumann after she had cut her hair. Not surprisingly, Renée once again refused to leave the camp, especially not without her mother.
Love’s labour was lost. According to Vrba, the escape-artist-turned-rescue-artist, Pestek, was soon recognized by a German professional criminal and taken to Block Eleven, the punishment block, for prolonged torture. Ultimately, Pestek was tried by an SS and Police Court at the Katowice branch and shot to death. We know this because the scribe Unterscharführer Mertens was present at the trial, as well as at the execution of the judgment, which was carried out on October 8, 1944 at the Miedzybrodzie Bialskie subcamp of Auschwitz.
The following WIKIWAND assessment of Pestek validates assumptions that Pestek was possibly the most sympathetic SS guard in Auschwitz and notes that he nonetheless has not been credited for his humanitarian efforts by efforts by Yad Vashem.
“Pestek was one of only two or three Auschwitz guards who risked their lives to help inmates escape. According to Austrian historian and Auschwitz survivor Hermann Langbein [also a Spanish Civil War veteran] his actions in particular indicate the limits of the absolute totalitarian hierarchy imposed by SS leaders. Langbein evaluates Pestek’s actions more favorably than those of the guards who helped inmates escape during the evacuation of the camp in January 1945 in hopes of avoiding punishment for their crimes. One survivor described Pestek as “a decent person who never beat inmates” and Yehuda Bacon said he was “more humane” than other SS guards. Czech prisoners at the family camp reportedly called him “miláček”, Czech for “darling”. Bacon also said Pestek maintained confidential contact with Fredy Hirsch, a leader in the family camp until his death in the 8 March liquidation. According to psychologist Ruth Linn, Pestek may have helped Lederer in an attempt to distance himself from Nazi crimes because his home in Bukovina had been recently occupied by the advancing Red Army. Pestek is not recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad
“Although described as one of the most bizarre escapes of World War II by historian Alan J. Levine, Lederer’s flight was overshadowed by that of Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler two days later, which produced the Vrba-Wetzler Report. Although some authors, including Levine, have connected Lederer’s report to the fact that the second liquidation of the family camp spared those able to work, Miroslav Kárný emphasizes that the decision was made due to the increasing labour shortage. Kárný, who felt that Lederer’s actions needed no embellishment, found that Lederer and the Czech journalist Eduard Kotora, who publicized the former’s actions, exaggerated them. These distortions were uncritically repeated by other writers. One influential, although discredited, account of the escape was Erich Kulka’s semi-fictional 1966 book Escape from Auschwitz. Czech-born Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer wrote in the introduction of the book that “The story that Erich Kulka tells is not fiction”. Kulka claimed that his work was historically accurate, even while describing it as a historical novel.”
There was also no fairy tale ending for Ziegfried Lederer. The 20-year-old Romanian German from Černovice, who had trained as a carpenter, failed in his repeated efforts to be an effective whistleblower when the Red Cross did not respond to his letters and Judenrat leaders would not spread his dreadful news. Lederer’s message about Auschwitz was most likely blocked by Dr. Leo Baeck, the former chief rabbi of Germany, “who believed that given the certainty of their approaching death, it was better not to inform the potential victims,” according to Ruth Linn in her study, Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting, citing Yehuda Bauer’s article Jews for Sale?
Lederer lived for a while in Israel but returned to Czechoslovakia where he died, bitter and forgotten, in 1972.
The only happy ending belonged to Renée Neumann (or Neumannová). Born in 1924, she and her mother, born in 1900, were ultimately liberated and lived in Prague as of May, 1945. Renée married the American Joseph Chaim Zimber in July of 1946 and moved to the USA with her mother in 1947. There are unverified reports that she eventually moved to Australia.
Failed attempts to escape from Auschwitz by admirable men such as Fero Langer (betrayed by his SS confidant) and Charles Unglick (revered even as a corpse), along with two French Jews, all resulted in humiliating deaths, but the next successful escapist, Rudolf Vrba, was undeterred. “I believed that I would escape and I cannot remember ever relinquishing that faith.”
According to Vrba, masterminding his own successful escape with Alfréd Wetzler was not a collective effort by the camp’s underground. Instead, with his scientific proclivities, Vrba first decided to study all the failed attempts and he consulted with a Russian prisoner-of-war who had once escaped from the Sachsenhausen camp near Berlin, Captain Dmitri Volkov, who “filled in my manual of What Every Escaper Should Know.” Knowing that Wetzler’s Slovak friend named Sandor Eisenbach and three others had recently hidden inside a woodpile in the “Mexico” compound and managed to escape beyond the watchtowers for several days before they were all apprehended, Vrba learned from Eisenbach that the quartet had managed to reveal the location of their woodpile hideout. Hence, Vrba and Wetzler decided to make a death-defying gamble and replicated that procedure, hoping to alert the world to impending mass murder of the approximately 800,000 remaining Jews in Hungary. They escaped beyond the watchtowers on April 10, 1944 and commenced their gruelling, 80-mile, eleven-day trek to safety. “Although Volkov’s advice was useful constantly,” Vrba recalled, “he had never managed, however, to teach me how to see in the dark.”
Vrba would never forgive or forget the fact that, by early July of 1944, approximately 437,000 Hungarian Jews had naively boarded the so-called “resettlement trains” in keeping with directives from their own Jewish leaders. In interview footage for the marathon documentary Shoah, Rudolf Vrba does not say Jews were persuaded to go to Auschwitz like lambs to slaughter. He uses the industrial analogy of pigs. For the rest of his life, Rudolf Vrba would remain vocal about the reprehensible failure of more than a few Jewish leaders who, he believed, had sacrificed their fellow Jews to the Nazis. Specifically, he accused another Rudolf–the lawyer Rudolf Kaszter in Hungary–for undertaking private negotiations with the chief coordinator of the concentration camps, Adolf Eichmann, rather than divulging the contents of the Vrba-Wetzler Report to Jews-at-large and allowing them to decide for themselves whether or not they should obediently board the trains.
Vrba’s enmity towards leaders such as Kasztner chiefly accounts for why most people on the planet have never heard of Rudolf Vrba. Israeli academics and other intellectual bystanders within the hierarchy of the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, established in 1953, have refused and failed, for decades, to give Vrba his due in the establishment’s ongoing efforts to diminish his stature, thereby limiting the force of his perspective. Yad Vashem long maintained an exhibit that only cited, in Hebrew, “two young Slovak Jews,” and prominent historians such Yehuda Bauer, in his book The Holocaust in Historical Perspective, only credited “two young Slovaks” for saving 200,000 lives (when Bauer knew full well the heroes’ names). Likewise, for her contribution to The Catastrophe of European Jewry, historian Livia Roth Kirchen cited only “the testimony of two young men.” The Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles has mostly followed suit.
Soon after Rudolf Vrba died of cancer in Vancouver, Canada, on March 27, 2006, he was buried in a non-Jewish cemetery, at an undisclosed location, to the distress of some Jews in his hometown who wished he could have been more widely acknowledged as a Jewish hero.
The next duo of Jewish escapees, Czesław Mordowicz and Arnošt Rosin, devised their own hideout in a gravel pit and fled on May 27, eventually reaching Slovakia on June 6. United in Bratislava, Mordowicz and Rosin were able to confirm Vrba’s dire prediction about the imminent slaughter of Hungarian Jews. [For a thorough account of the escape made by Mordowicz and Rosin, visit the ESCAPE section of this site, scroll down and find the MORDOWICZ & ROSIN section.]
The final and least documented escape from Auschwitz, invariably overlooked by Holocaust experts, was made by a Slovakian Jew, Cyla Cybulska, and her would-be paramour who was a captured member of the Polish resistance. Their escape inspired the plot for a German feature film, Remembrance (2011), or, in German, Die verlorene Zeit (The Lost Time). For more on this escape, see 39 ROSES section under ESCAPES.
The earliest recorded escape attempt from Auschwitz by a Jew, according to the historian Danuta Czech, was made by the Austrian Jew, Leopold Almasi, on May 19, 1942, almost a month after his arrival. A short list of other failed attempts by Jews includes Martin Weiss, Zoltán Hochfelder and Isak Herskovic (all on May 24, 1942), as well as Jozef Spitza, Franz Hauser and Moric Citron (all on June 4, 1942). Ladislav Lilientahl also made a failed attempt with a Polish inmate (June 8, 1942).
“Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea.” Elie Wiesel, the world’s best-known Holocaust survivor, referenced this quote from Ecclesiastes 1:7 for the titles of two of his books.
All Holocaust stories are connected, like the waters of the seas.
Next: THE FIRST CAMPS