THE EARLY YEARS
Six years after Czechoslovakia was created as a new country in central Europe, a boy named Walter Rosenberg was born in the town of Topolcany (or Topoľčany), in eastern Czechoslovakia, on September 11, 1924. Twenty years later he would legally change his name to Rudolf Vrba.
Walter/Rudolf was the sole progeny of his father Elias Rosenberg’s second marriage. His mother Helena (Ilonka) Rosenberg had been unable to conceive for ten years previously, hence he became her first and only natural-born child. He was raised with three, much older siblings from his father’s previous marriage–two brothers and a sister.
Precociously clever, Walter could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes. his half-brother Sammy and his half-sister Fanci doted upon him. In short, he was gifted and determined child who excelled in science, literature and languages.
Rudolf Vrba’s co-escapee from Auschwitz, Alfréd “Fred” Wetzler, was born six years earlier than he, only 48 kilometres away from Topolcany, in the neighbouring town of Trvana (or Trnavsky). This was also the birthplace for Vrba’s first wife, Gerta (or Gerti) Sidonova, born on November 28, 1926, as the only surviving child of Max Sidon, a butcher, and Josephine Frank.
Vrba’s mother Helena (née Grunfeldova or Grünfeld) Rosenberg had been born midway between Topolcany and Trnavsky, in the village of Zbehy, in the Nitra district, in 1895, to Bernhard Grünfeld (b. 1860) and Therese Grünfeld (b. 1868). Rudolf Vrba’s maternal grandmother was born (as Therese Just) in the Trnava region, near Piešťany, in a small town named Vrbové. Mentioned in the the Vrba-Wetzler Report, Vrbové in the Trnava Region of Slovakia currently has a population of about 6,000. It is conceivable that the surname and identify papers for Rudolf Vrba, adopted by Walter Rosenberg soon after his escape from Auschwitz, could have come a deceased man whose family name was originally derived from the name of this village. In German, the town is called Vrbau (modernized as Werbau). In Hungarian the town is known as Verbó. The translation of Vrba from Slovakian to English is “willow.” Rudolf Vrba would consequently tell his second wife, Robin, he would bend but he wouldn’t break.
Geographically, all these towns are now situated in western Slovakia. More importantly, Topolcany and Trnasky were situated approximately 250 kilometres southwest of an inconspicuous town in Poland called Oświęcim. The village of Oświęcim would remain as obscure as Topolcany and Trnasky until the Nazis transformed deserted Polish army barracks at the confluence of the Vistula and Soła Rivers into the world’s most efficient murder factory—renaming it Auschwitz, giving rise to the Birkenau killing centre. The translation of Birke from German to English is “birch.” Hence the world’s most infamous murder locale was named after a stand of birch trees.
The largest city to the west of these small Slovakian towns was Bratislava. Jews had first purportedly arrived there as traders with the incursion of soldiers for the Roman empire. King Andrew II of Hungary granted Jews citizenry in 1229 and King Andrew III Arpád afforded the right for Jews to reside within the city’s walls in 1291. Jews in Bratislava had a synagogue in the 14th century but it was soon destroyed. Civil rights for Jews were rescinded by various decrees over the centuries until Jews were then granted the right to live outside the walled town by Count Pálffy in 1599. Known as the Judengasse, this Jewish settlement was uprooted again in 1840. Bratislava (aka Pressburg or Pozsony) grew to accommodate approximately 15,000 Jews by 1930, out of a total population of 120,000, making Bratislava home to the largest and most influential Jewish Community in Slovakia.
At the time of Vrba’s birth, Topolcany was home to several thousand Jews. When Vrba was aged four, the family moved to the village of Jaklovce in eastern Czechoslovakia where his father owned a steam sawmill. The village had no train station until Elias Rosenberg built one in the form of a sukkah, so it was dual-purposed. [A sukkah is a temporary shelter is to commemorate the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness after they were freed from slavery in Egypt.] The nearest city was Margecany in eastern Slovakia. Rural life was idyllic, but only briefly. The business faltered and his father died when Vrba was age six (or four, as Rudi told his wife, Robin). The cause of death according Vrba was a liver ailment. There is no prove to validate suspicions it was a suicide (presumably due to the failure or loss of his business). What was obvious was that life would become more difficult for all of them. “My mother was a strong-minded, self-reliant woman,” Vrba recalled, “who had built up a small dress-making business from more-or-less nothing.” After the family had left Jaklovce and moved west to more familiar territory, she made her living as a travelling saleswoman, offering lingerie she had made.
From 1930 to 1933, Vrba was left in the care of his grandparents in Nitra, a town where his grandfather Bernat Grunfeld lived. There, on the same street where Rabbi S.D. Ungar lived, Vrba was introduced to Orthodox Judaism. “I vividly remember Rabbi Ungar,” he recalled, “who once when I was eight years old took me on a particular occasion–it was meant to be a great distinction for a child–into his conference room where I was allowed to sit with grownups and was served tea and cake. Since this cake treatment, my relation to this Jewish group had always been cordial.” On Fridays, he was taken to the river with his grandfather and other Jewish men for ritual bathing in preparation for the sabbath (Saturdays).
The Yeshiva (congregation) of Rabbi Ungar was taken over by his son-in-law, Rabbi W.B. Weissmandel, who would play a pivotal role in Vrba’s life about ten years later. Most of the Jews in Nitra would be “resettled.” Vrba’s maternal grandfather was murdered in Majdanek but Rabbi Weissmandel and some of his pupils were permitted to remain in Nitra until fascist unrest there prompted Weissmandel’s Yeshiva to relocate to Bratislava so “it could be better protected.”
From this point onward, Vrba would look askance at Weissmandel as an easily manipulated puppet. “The visibility of Yeshiva life in the centre of Bratislava, less than 150 miles south of Auschwitz, was in my eyes a typical piece of Goebbels-inspired activity and brazen Nazi humour. There–before the eyes of the world–the pupils of Rabbi Weissmandel could study the rules of Jewish ethics while their own sisters and mothers were being murdered and burned at Birkenau. At that time, only two months and 150 miles away from an Auschwitz working at highest capacity, this Yeshiva in the centre of Bratislava struck me as merely a circus with Rabbi Weissmandel as its main, albeit tragicomic clown.”
Vrba’s nurturing relationship with his grandfather came asunder when his grandmother suffered a bad fall. It was deemed unfeasible for the child to remain so he was sent instead to a Jewish orphanage in Bratislava. This proved advantageous because teachers soon recognized that he was intellectually precocious. He clearly excelled at languages and reading. As a result, the school urged his mother, who remained in contact with him, to enrol her son in one of the city’s better schools where he might excel academically. Much to her credit, Helena hired a woman to act as her son’s guardian and created a permanent residence for him in Bratislava, and there he was shorn of Jewish side-curls, known as payos, that identified him as a young Jew.
From age eleven in 1935 onward, Vrba blossomed as a student and soon divested himself of the Jewish traditions to which had been introduced in Nitra. According to Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist, one afternoon he experimented by going into a restaurant and spending his lunch money on an order of pork. When nothing terrible happened to him, he understood that his indoctrination into the Jewish faith was a process that could not be trusted. Increasingly, he would put his faith in science. He self-defined as Czechoslovak rather than Jewish. When required to specify his preferred path for religious instruction from four categories, he chose the category None instead of Catholic, Lutheran or Jewish. He improved his facility for speaking both German and High German.
In 1933, the Nazi Party had been declared to be the only legal political party in Deutschland and Adolf Hitler had first demanded the “return” of the ethnic German population of Czechoslovakia. At that time, Czechoslovakia was developing a progressive public school system that respected religious diversity. It was a parliamentary republic and the only de facto functioning democracy in Central Europe.
In 1938, Hitler demanded that Czechoslovakia must surrender Sudetenland (or Sudetengebiet) on the grounds that the majority of the population had German ancestry. At the same time, the fascist Hungarian government was making a claim on southern Slovakia where there was a predominantly Hungarian-based population. The British Prime Minister sent Lord Runciman to investigate but he could not speak the Czech language so he mainly gleaned his information from members of the Germanic upper class. Consequently, Neville Chamberlain famously came to Munich and met with Hitler and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier on September 29, 1938, without any Czechoslovakian politicians present, and declared Peace in our Time.
The First Czechoslovak Republic was replaced by the short-lived Second Czechoslovak Republic when Czechoslovakia was famously forced to cede its Sudetenland to Germany on October 1, 1938 as part of the Munich Agreement for “Peace in our Time.” It is less known that the republic was also forced to divest southern parts of Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia to Hungary as well the Zaolzie region of Silesia to its neighbour Poland.
“The Holocaust did not begin only with the loading of victims into deportation trains,” wrote the Slovak historian Ivan Kamenec, who attended school in Vrba’s birthplace, Topoľčany, “… Applied to Slovakia, the Holocaust began already in the autumn of 1938 when the local Jewish population was gradually labelled as an open enemy of the Slovak nation.”
“By means of the propaganda of hate,” the Hungarian writer Sándor Török states in Szenes-Interviews, “it is possible to excite the masses to an uninhibited use of force and organized violence.”
The governing Hlinka Slovak People’s Party (HSL’S) generated home-grown anti-semitism without direct urgings from Hitler. As Kamenec has documented, Prime Minister Vojtech Tuka and his equally radical Minister of the Interior Alexander Mach raised the ‘solution’ of deportations within their government as early as March 3, 1942. Only a few days later, Tuka suggested, “The Jewish question should be solved gradually by resettling them into the territory of the Ukraine. They have already indicated to us where they should be located. The Jews, by leaving the territory of our state, will cease to be nationals of the Slovak Republic.”
In the autumn of 1939, when he was fifteen (or age fourteen, according to his wife-to-be Gerta Sidonova), Walter Rosenberg had his formal education terminated because he was classified as a Jew. Gerta recalled circumstances when she was one of approximately twenty students who arrived at their gymnasium (a secondary school that prepares students for higher education at a university) to find a large sign on the gate saying Jews were excluded. There was no explanation. Gerta later recalled they rang the bell at the gate but nobody came, not one of their former schoolmates or teachers. After an hour, they realized the world had turned against them. Feeling betrayed and confused, they opted to take revenge. As a gesture of defiance, they vandalized some of the bicycles belonging to the other students, loosening screws, damaging the valves of the tires, inserting sharp stones.
Father Josef Tiso, the Catholic priest who headed the new republic, scapegoated Jews for the loss of territories to Hungary and Germany and he pledged to “solve the Jewish question.” The approximately 89,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia were most easily harassed and corralled in the cities so Walter Rosenberg and his mother relocated to Trnava, about thirty miles east of Bratislava—which, in turn, is close to Vienna. The town of Trnava had two synagogues for its 3,000 Jews but both these buildings were destroyed by fire in December of 1938, soon after Slovakia was made autonomous. In that year civilian life was disrupted for “wandering Jews” who were rendered stateless in tent camps along the Slovak-Hungarian border after the First Vienna Award allocated a section of southern Slovakia to Hungary. Stateless Jews lived for weeks in an open field at Mischdort, near the Slovakian-Hungarian border.
Without encountering any resistance, German troops marched into Bohemia and Moravia on March 15, 1939. Hungarians annexed the border territories of southern Slovakia, appointing a fascist Catholic priest as the new head of state. Formal education was denied to all Jews in keeping with Slovakia’s eventual adherence to the so-called Nuremberg Race Laws first announced on September 15, 1935 at a Nazi rally in Germany. No written record has ever been found in which Adolf Hitler specifically made a decree for introduction of these so-called “race laws” but they marked a major turning point in modern human history. As a vital component of Hitler’s strategy to implement the “Final Solution,” the Nuremberg Race Laws were not applied to Slovakian society until 1939. There were two main components with regards to the initial curtailment of civil liberties for Jews.
- The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour banned marriage and sexual relations between Germans and Jews.
- The Reich Citizenship Law made it impossible for Vrba to continue with his formal education. It was also illegal for a Jewish family to hire a tutor or to encourage Jewish children to pursue studies at home.
After the Slovak Republic was transformed into an independent country on March 14, 1939 (after the Slovak Assembly in Bratislava had unanimously adopted “Law 1/1939), the Jews of Slovakia were forced to wear the yellow Star of David in public, ceding the way on sidewalks, etc. Forced to work as a labourer in Trnava, Walter conformed to wearing the Star of David on his jacket but he disobeyed the Slovak People’s Party dictates and taught himself chemistry, as well as foreign languages, much to the consternation of his mother, Helena Rosenberg, who wanted her son to learn a trade.
Slovakia joined the Axis coalition led by Nazi Germany in November of 1940 when Slovakian leaders signed the Tripartite Pact. According to a census taken in December of 1940 there were 88,951 Jews in Slovakia at the time. The following year Slovakian soldiers under German command participated in the invasion of the Soviet Union in June. In September of 1941, the Slovak government passed a Jewish Codex to further restrict Jewish activities.
Slovakia officially declared war on Britain and the United States in December of 1941.
The young Jews in Trnava who had been denied formal education began to meet regularly but surreptitiously at a meadow outside of town called ‘the pond,’ so-named because there had been a pond there previously. A mild-mannered friend from school who was also expelled, Erwin Eisler, had managed to disobey the order for all Jewish students to return their textbooks. Consequently, he and Erwin were able self-educate with a book on inorganic and organic chemistry by Czech scientist Emil Votoček, also a composer. Walter converted a shed in the back of his mother’s garden into a laboratory for chemistry experiments.
It was also at the so-called pond that a less scientific experiment in chemistry commenced. It was there that Walter first encountered thirteen-year-old Gerta Sidonova–his future wife. Born in Trnava, Czechoslovakia in 1926, Gerta was the only child of Max Sidon and Josephine Frank. Her mother had a workshop where she manufactured Venetian blinds while her father and her grandfather’s brother operated a kosher butcher shop called Sidon & Sons. The family were not highly devout Jews but they kept the high holidays. Gerta’s life had been relatively happy until Jewish children were prevented from attending school in 1939 and her best friend, a non-Jewish girl named Maruska, had suddenly refused to have anything to do with her. When Jewish shop owners were forced to accept Aryan managers and turn over financial control to a non-Jew, it was Maruska’s father who obtained managerial control of her father’s butcher shop as a result of “Aryanization”, the Nazis’ official term for legalized theft.
The ousted Jewish students who met at ‘the pond’ read Marx, Lenin and Trotsky when they were not hotly debating the merits of Zionism, a prideful movement that engendered some self-esteem when they were forced to endure daily humiliations at the hands of Slovak neighbours. Most of their former friends still at school had embraced Fascism and belonged to the Hlinka Youth, the Slovak equivalent of Hitler Youth. Democracy, as a possible solution to the oppression of the Nuremberg Laws, ranked as a third and less likely option. Only five of the approximately twenty youths who met regularly at the pond would survive the war.
“I was attracted to Walter,” Gerta later recalled. “He was two years older than I was, and I considered him handsome. He had a round, friendly face and a winning smile. I thought most of the people were cleverer than I was, but Walter was truly exceptional. Gradually, I began to like him more than any of the others.” Gerta introduced Walter to her father whereupon he became her private tutor for mathematics and physics. “I became very fond him,” she recalled, in one of her two memoirs. “Rudi, on the other hand, treated me as a child, far too young to be taken seriously, and that hurt a lot.”
Initially, the news laws curtailing Jewish civil rights were not deeply concerning to Walter. “They were introduced discreetly,” he recalled, “falling almost imperceptibly around us, like gentle snow.” Soon enough, teenagers were not allowed to go to the theatres or the skating rink. He pursued self-education as an antidote to loss of freedom. His mother thought her son’s desire to learn English was eccentric, but when he proceeded to teach himself some Russian, she found this behaviour so bizarre that she took him for a medical check-up. The doctor was himself a reader of Russian literature so Walter’s auto-didacticism prevailed. In Auschwitz, it would be his ability to learn languages—especially German—that would be the difference between life and death.
Following the death of the conservative Catholic priest named Andrej Hlinka in 1938, the leadership of Slovak People’s Party—officially called Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party—had sided with the Nazis under the leadership of Jozef Gašpar Tiso. Under Tiso, freedom was lost in increments. Jews were paid lower wages; jobs were first allocated to non-Jews; their travel was restricted. For instituting the yolk of crypto-fascism, Tiso would eventually be executed by hanging in Bratislava in 1947, convicted of both war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Gerta was sometimes allowed into Walter’s backyard chemistry lab to witness his various experiments that enabled him to change the colours of various solutions or the consistency of a substance. He tried to teach her the rational principles involved until one day his laboratory exploded. Eventually, Gerta Vrbová would become a globally respected neurologist who studied nerves and published more than 270 scientific papers; as Rudolf Vrba, Walter Rosenberg would become an internationally recognized expert on bio-chemistry of the brain.
Walter finally took extreme umbrage when he was re-classified first and foremost as a Jew, not as a Slovak, in February of 1942. “I simply would not stomach the suggestion that I was no longer a member of the community and that therefore I would have to be cordoned off, like a North American Indian,” he recalled. “The only difference between us, indeed, was that the Indian was left in his own country.”
The following month, Slovakia gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first Axis partner to formally consent to the deportation of its Jews within the context of the “Final Solution” when Slovakian government officials signed an agreement with Germany to expedite deportations of able-bodied, young Jewish men to Poland.
First, a trainload of young women were sent first. A National Geographic article in 2020 has outlined where and when the Holocaust was formally commenced in Czechoslovakia. “One morning we woke up,” recalled Edith Grossman, at age 95, “and we saw outside on the street glued on the sides of the houses an announcement that all the Jewish girls, unmarried girls, from 16 up have to come to the school [on] the 20th of March, 1942 for work.” At 17, she had dreamed of becoming a doctor. Her 19-year-old sister, Lea, wanted to be a lawyer. But the quisling government of the Slovak Republic began implementing the Nazi Party’s draconian laws against the Jews, forbidding education for children beyond the age of 14. “We couldn’t even have a cat,” she recalled.
Officials in her hometown of Humenné assured families that girls would work as “contract volunteers” in a factory that was making boots for troops. When Edith and Lea out the door to register to become part of this new female workforce, she thought they’d be back for lunch. Some 200 girls gathered at the school to register for an SS official of the Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron). A doctor ordered all girls to strip for a health exam. Although this absolutely unheard of, they all obeyed. It was Friday and their parents were waiting outside, prior to Shabbat. The girls were whisked out of the back exit of the school and herded towards the train station.
There was no chance for the girls to say goodbye to their parents. On their train ride through the Tatra Mountains they tried to lift their spirits by singing the Slovak anthem. Nearly a thousand young women were gathered at Poprad, about 75 miles west of Humenné. Eventually, after five days in a barracks, they were forced to board dank and empty cattle cars. The guards beat them until they cooperated. “I was with my sister and the closest friends of ours—we wanted to be together,” she says. “There was nothing inside. There wasn’t a bucket. No water. Not anything. Just a little window.”
For this first, official transport of the Holocaust, according to the updated National Geographic article by Heather Dune Macadam, “The fascist government wanted to eliminate fertile bearers of the next generation of Jews, but also, according to Slovak historian Pavol Mešťan, it was easier to get families to relinquish daughters than sons. In addition, it was thought that the girls would entice their families to follow them to the relocation camps, Mešťan says, where Jews were being ‘resettled’ or ‘rehomed’—Nazi euphemisms for killed.” After twelve hours in the frigid cattle car, they were forced to disembark at Auschwitz where prisoners in striped uniforms used sticks to hurry them along. Until their arrival, Auschwitz had mostly been reserved for male prisoners of war, resistance fighters and political opponents of the Nazis. Edith’s arrival with her sister marked a new era of unremitting horror that would later be dubbed the Holocaust.
When the deportations of young people in Slovakia began in 1942, the Slovak puppet government agreed to pay Germany 500 Reichsmarks (about $245 USD) per Jew. In return, of course, as older Jews were shipped out of the country for “re-settlement”, the properties and possessions of the deportees could be seized at no cost. For the rest of life Vrba would steadfastly identify theft of Jewish property and possessions, under the guise of “Aryanization,” as one of the chief motivations for the Holocaust.
Soon there were five main transit camps in Slovakia–at Patrónka, Nováka, Poprad, Sereď and Žilina. The deportation of families can be traced to April 11, 1942. Approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population of approximately 80,000 would be deported via 57 transports using six deportation trains between March 25, 1942 and October 20, 1942. This mass removal of an estimated 57,628 Jews in seven months did not go unnoticed from its outset. Historian Eduard Nižňanský notes that the German ambassador to Slovakia, H. Ludin, sent a telegram to Berlin from almost the outset of these transports, on April 6, 1942, reporting, “The Slovak Government agreed on the transportation of all Jews from Slovakia without any pressure from the German side. Even the President personally agreed to the transportation, in spite of an intervention by the Slovak Episcopate… The transportation of Jews continues steadily, with no complications.”
Gerta’s law-abiding father registered as a Jew and was soon taken to a labour camp, never to return. Her mother, on the other hand, was determined to flee to Budapest where she had an affluent brother. A non-Jewish uncle assisted Gerta and her mother to reach Hungary and they assumed false names. Ultimately, their false papers were inadequate. Mother and daughter returned to Bratislava, hoping to get new Slovak false papers, and Gerta took a secretarial job. Eventually, Gerta and her mother were detained at a Gestapo headquarters. Gerta was able to escape by jumping out off a window, after making the dreadful decision to leave her mother behind–knowing her mother could not manage the physical feat of leaping to the ground below. Her mother and grandmother were deported and killed by the Nazis.
Vrba on Civil Liberties Lost
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Germans and their collaborators killed approximately 263,000 Jews who had resided in the territory of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1938. The USHMM corroborates the Slovakian estimate that approximately 57,000 Slovakian Jews were deported between March and October of 1942; non-Jewish Slovaks did the dirty work for the Germans. Members of the Slovak ethnic German paramilitary Freiwillige Schutzsaffel (Volunteer SS) initially worked alongside the Slovak People’s Party’s paramilitary wing, the Hlinka Guard, to “concentrate” Slovakian Jews, primarily men, in camps at Sered, Novak and Vyhne. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, nearly all but 300 of these Slovakian internees would be killed at Auschwitz, Lublin/Majdenek and Sobibor.
This was a massively successful mass murder spree to ignite the Holocaust. It is worth noting that the eradication of the large majority of Slovakian Jews did not go unnoticed. Nižňanský has recorded that Ivan Kamenec, in 1992, noted that the Vatican representative in Bratislava, G. Burzio, wrote to Rome as early as March 9, 1942, just before the genocide was to begin: “The deportation to Poland of 80,000 people, who would be left at the mercy of the Germany, is a death sentence for a large portion of them.”
“When it was announced to me,” Vrba told French interviewer Claude Lanzmann in 1978, “from the Jewish community leaders that I would have to come and let myself be shipped to an unknown place, naturally it did not come into my mind to obey such a stupid instruction…”
“They said first that only men from 16 to 30 would have to be re-settled and if they go voluntarily nothing will happen to their families. And only those who were not married were supposed to go. All the contact was channelled through a so-called Centre for Jews. That was the Jewish Council. I was surprised that everybody did obey.”
Vrba on the Jewish Councils
Vrba on the Caste System
[In 2000, the Slovak parliament inaugurated the Memorial Day for Victims of the Holocaust and of Racial Violence to be observed annually on September 9 to mark the date in 1941 when the Slovak government issued its decree on the status of Jewish citizens known as the Jewish Codex. The annual observances hosted by the Holocaust Documentation Centre in Bratislava, at its central Holocaust Memorial, acknowledge that deportations resulted in the murder of approximately 70,000 Slovak Jews.]
Disgusted by Slovak subservience and appalled at the prospect of being “deported like a calf in a wagon,” Vrba, at 17, ripped the yellow Star of David from his shoulder in early March and set off from his hometown of Trnava, travelling east in a taxi, at the suggestion of his mother, who had given him 200 crowns, the equivalent of $62 in 2017 dollars, and reminded him to change his socks. He recalled that her face did not betray any emotion as he left.
Jews were no longer permitted to travel on trains. A non-Jewish taxi driver risked his own neck to take him as far as the town of Sered, where it was snowing heavily. When Vrba was unable to pay the fare of 400 crowns, the taxi driver took pity on him and charged 100 crowns instead, with a note to his mother so she could make up the difference. From there, so as not to be detected, Vrba walked all night.
He had hatched a very naïve plan: either join the Czechoslovak army-in-exile in England, or else join the Titoists in Yugoslavia. Either way, not for the last time, he felt it was escape or die.
At dawn, when he reached the home of a friend in the Hungarian border town of Galanta, it was explained to him that anyone caught sheltering a Slovak would be jailed immediately, allegedly for helping a spy. Vrba gratefully accepted a quick bath and breakfast as elaborate precautions were taken to buy him a second class train ticket for Budapest.
Four hours after his arrival in Galanta, the would-be Slovak resistance fighter was given 30 pengő (Hungarian currency) to supplement his remaining 100 crowns along with a copy of a local, anti-Semitic newspaper. In this way, he could best conform and disguise himself as a Hungarian.
Vrba successfully boarded the train for Budapest buoyed by the knowledge that had the name of a Socialist underground worker in Budapest. Unfortunately, this man was out of the city so Vrba was shunted off to meet his brother who had become a member of a local Fascist organization to fit in. The fake Fascist brother sheltered Vrba in his home for ten days until Vrba’s hopes were severely dashed by a visit to the headquarters of a local Zionist organization. There a Zionist official threatened to turn him over to the police, seemingly appalled by the fact that Vrba was hoping to gain work by acquiring false Hungarian documents. So this was what the outside world was like.
“Had I torn up the Talmud and jumped on it,” Vrba recalled, “I do not think I could have shocked him more.”
Denied help from his fellow Jews, Vrba agreed with his “Fascist” host that he would be better off returning to Trnava. There he could await the procurement of false documents to identify him as an Aryan instead. Budapest, he was told, would be too dangerous without them.
Armed with another copy of another Fascist newspaper, Vrba backtracked towards Slovakia. Three hours later found himself once more on the outskirts of Galanta, this time plodding his way through a muddy field. Here he experienced the first of many beatings. He had been meandering happily homeward in the darkness until he heard voice shout, “Halt!” He wanted to run but after he was shot at by Hungarian border guards, he surrendered.
First, he was captured and severely beaten in the moonlight. Then, when ten border guards had assembled, a corporal with a pock-marked face hit him in the face with the butt of his revolver. Accused him of being a spy, the teenager was beaten semi-conscious for half-an-hour; then taken for interrogation by an officer. Vrba wrongly assumed the worst was over. Instead, his inquisitor beat him even more severely with a truncheon for three hours.
When the officer believed he was relatively inconsequential and harmless, Vrba was put back into the custody of the border guards. As he was being marched back into the woods, Vrba expecting to be shot, he remembered he had successfully hidden his money. It was sewn into the fly of his trousers. He offered it to his captors, hoping to save his life, but that was not why he lived. The two members of the Hungarian border militia were afraid they had taken Vrba too far over the border into Slovakia. A gunshot could endanger their own lives. With a bayonet at his throat, Vrba listened to them argue about what to do.
It was only then that Vrba realized his two Hungarian captors were as frightened as he was. They let him get up and he began walking away, expecting a bullet in the back at any second. He recalled, “I walked fifteen yards and then I ran, zig-zagging, ducking, weaving, waiting for a bullet that never came.” He ran about one hundred yards into the darkness before he tripped and fell. Exhausted, beaten semi-conscious, he could never be sure how long he lay in the dirt before he woke with a dog panting in his face.
A Slovak voice said, “Jesus, he’s still alive!”
“You should be dead!” said another Slovakian border guard. “We always find them dead!”
But this was not a reprieve. The guards were Christians who despised Jews. After he received some brandy and some cursory medical treatment at a local inn, Vrba was taken to a prison cell at a local police station for questioning. His troubles were just beginning.
The morning after his arrest, Rudi Vrba was taken to a barbed wire compound in nearby Nováky where Vrba, to his horror, he found himself to be the youngest of several hundred men marooned inside precisely the kind of “resettlement camp” he had been hoping to avoid. The men were only allowed to go outside to visit the latrine, always in the company of an armed guard. Most of the inmates were dejected, fearing deportation to Poland, except for those in a portion of the camp reserved for a local work detail. Bribery was required to get transferred into this much-preferred ‘safe’ area.
It didn’t take Vrba long to use his wits and get a job running errands. This enabled him to leave the barracks and explore escape opportunities. When he saw the perimeter of the compound was poorly guarded, he soon hatched an escape plan. First, Vrba stockpiled clothing, one item at a time, with a sympathetic plumber in the work camp area who had a private locker. He then persuaded the Hlinka guards that he required an assistant for his food run errands. He selected Josef Knapp, also from Topoľčany, because he had access to money.
After several weeks of careful planning, the pair went under the wire and were soon running joyously into the woods. It was a Sunday so they impetuously decided to attend the soccer match at the nearby stadium. Freedom! There they drank beer, ate sausages and winked at the girls. Sleeping in the woods after midnight, they were woken by train whistle. Josef wondered aloud what it was carrying. Cattle? Coal?
“Or Jews,” Vrba said.
The next day, as planned, they split up. It was important not to be recognized. Knapp went to nearby Velke Uherce, where he was unknown, while Vrba caught a train to Topoľčany, where he had not been since age three. There Vrba was able contact Knapp’s girlfriend, Zuzka. Her father was a banker. Zuzka wanted to go to Topoľčany at once.
Zuzka’s parents had mixed feeling about providing a hideout for Vrba so he gratefully assented to being housed in a garden shed, eating meals among the spades and forks and rakes. The town of Velke Uherce was only half an hour away but Zuzka did not return the first day, or the next.
Vrba began to realize that Knapp had left him in the lurch; his co-escapee had his money, his girlfriend and his freedom. Before catching a train to Trnava, Vrba thanked Zuzka’s parents for their reluctant hospitality and explored the town of his birth, but this betrayal by a young man from his own birthplace would teach him an extremely important lesson: trust no one.
A kindly Jewish man listened to his story and gave him an excellent pair of shoes that had belonged to his deported son; they fit Vrba perfectly and boosted his spirits. There was still some time left to see the house in which he had been born. This fanciful notion proved to be his undoing.
Suddenly, he heard the squeal of bicycle brakes behind him.
“Good morning,” said a gendarme, with much formality. “May I see your documents, please?”
There followed a desperate chase scene, between a cyclist and a pedestrian, resembling a scene from an ancient Keystone Cops b&w movie. The burly and capable policeman, a former military man, was not to be denied his prey.
Ultimately, Vrba was again pinned by an expert. The policemen explained why he was suspicious: Earlier, when he saw Vrba inside a cafe, he had noticed Vrba was wearing two pairs of socks. That made no sense in warm weather.
His captor asked, “Are you a Jew or a thief?”
But this time there was no beating—at least not right away. “I don’t blame you for running,” said the policeman. “I did the same when the Cossacks came at me with sabres on the Russian front!”
The policeman dutifully, but not without some gentlemanly reluctance, escorted his otherwise unremarkable captive to headquarters.
The next morning, two Hlinka guards took Vrba taken to the train station. After he was guarded on his return trip to Nováky, he was methodically beaten to a pulp by a gang of camp officers who wanted to teach him a lesson he’d never forget, using their fists, boots and rifle butts,
Then he had first meeting with an SS officer. This sealed his fate. Having successfully escaped from Nováky, Vrba could have been put to death as an example to others. Instead, the SS officer identified Rudolf Vrba as a troublemaker who must be sent immediately to Poland.
“I think he probably felt the Hlinka men might kill me; if that happened, the news might filter through to the deportees and upset them. The SS did not want their charges upset; they wanted them to go nicely and cheerfully to the gas chambers without causing any hitch.”
Vrba was deported in an overcrowded box car, without water, with only one shared bucket for human waste, for his arrival at the Nazi concentration camp in western Poland called Majdanek (aka Maidanek), on June 14, 1942. Nobody on the train was told their destination.
Soon after he arrived at Majdanek concentration camp, situated three miles south-east of Lublin in German-occupied Poland, he briefly saw his brother Sammie, ten years older. They were able to briefly raise their arms in mutual acknowledgement. This muted hello was their final goodbye.
Vrba’s head was shaved, he was forced to wear a prisoner’s uniform and wear wooden shoes and a cap that had to be removed every time he came within three yards of an SS officer.
Majdanek was one of the largest concentration camps, with 227 structures that included two wooden gallows and three gas chambers where Zyklon B was first used to murder prisoners in the winter of 1941. Mass murder using poison gas began in October of 1942. According to the US Holocaust Museum, research indicates the SS deported between 74,000 and 90,000 Jews to the main camp.
It has also been estimated that up to 500,000 people passed through Majdanek, of whom 200,000 perished, and approximately 125,000 of these were Jews. Nobody can be certain. Captured almost intact by Soviet troops in July of 1944, Majdanek was the first major concentration camp to be liberated and remains the most preserved.
A crude forerunner of the more mechanized killing grounds, Majdanek would be closed in November, at which time all its remaining 17,000 inmates, male and female, would be murdered and buried in mass graves. The day-long killing fest, code-named Harvest Festival, would be recorded in copious detail by an SS man named Erich Muhsfeldt.
You can read more about Muhsfeldt and the genocide at Majdanek here. As chief of the crematorium, Majdanek’s maestro of murder, Erich Muhsfeldt, was executed after a post-war trial.
Bullets and gas were spared at Majdanek; starvation was the major killer. “Not only were the living counted, but the dead, too,” Vrba recalled. “They were piled up neatly behind us, a pathetic heap of corpses, some scraggy with starvation, some bloodstained from beating, and some who had died simply because they no longer had the will to live.”
The next few days were instructive. Vrba observed kapos for the first time; often these were criminals who were strangely dressed in an assortment of odd clothing, as special class of subservients who were privileged to do the dirty work for the SS in return for survival. Every morning at roll call there were new corpses. Vrba was assigned to be a builder’s labourer.
Vrba only spent twelve days inside Majdanek. He wanted to escape at any cost. At the first opportunity, he naively volunteered for “farm work” at some unknown place called Auschwitz. He would later comment that conditions at Auschwitz were better than at Majdanek.
For this train journey, eighty men would be crowded into each train car. The S.S. did not want the citizens of Poland to be frightened by gaunt scarecrows in prison pajamas, so they outfitted with the cargo with dead men’s caps and civilian clothing.
“Their motives worried me not a bit,” he said. “The cap made me feel as if I was off to a wedding!” Again, in the stifling heat, there was no water after twenty-four hours. This trip took two-and-a-half days.
He was transferred to Auschwitz on June 30 at age seventeen.
Next: REMEMBERING VRBA