Helen Karsai, a Vancouver oncologist and the North Vancouver-based oncologist Joseph Ragaz were likely the only other people who knew Vrba—other than his second wife Robin Vrba and his first wife, Gerta Vrbova—when they participated in the second annual Vrba Wetzler Memorial Trek from Auschwitz to Karsai’s hometown, Žilina, in order to trace Vrba and Wetzler’s eleven-day path to freedom, in 2015. With them on this second annual gathering was Karsai’s relative, Misko Katuska, a Slovakian who brought along a Slovakian film crew to interview the participants and document the journey.

Starting the Trek in 2015

Starting the Trek in 2015 

The Trek’s primary organizer Fedor Gál was motivated to organize the trek after getting to know Rudi Vrba’s first wife, Gerta Vrbová, who came to him in Prague and said, “My [second daughter] Zuzana has died [in 2014]. She once had a dream that an international community would walk the trail that her father took as he fled from Auschwitz to Žilina.” (See the advertising poster here.)

Gerta Vrbova and Robin Vrba on the Trek

Robin Vrba, Gerta Vrbová and Misko Katuska 

Near the border of Poland and Slovakia, trekkers come upon a memorial signpost erected by Slovak sculptor Fero Guldan. In 2015, one of the trek leaders, Peter Leponi, read the following text from Vrba’s I Escaped From Auschwitz at the signpost.

“On the next day, as we worked our way through a field, we stumbled upon a Polish peasant woman. We stood in silence, gazing at each other trying assess the situation. The old woman showed no fear but she knew that we were on the run. If she helped us, the Germans might kill her. If she did not, we might kill her. I recovered first. “We’re heading for the Slovak border. Could you show us the way? We’ve escaped from a camp, from Auschwitz.

“It was pointless trying to deceive her. And suddenly I realized for the first time, I was talking about Auschwitz to a stranger. Of course, it meant nothing to her, but I felt that if I died at that moment at least I had told one person.”

Karsai addresses Trekkers Aug. 25, 2015

Karsai addresses Trekkers Aug. 25, 2015. 

At Žilina, trekkers completed their pilgrimage by visiting the former Jewish nursing home where the Auschwitz Report was compiled.  In 2015, a plaque was unveiled in response to the growing interest of the hikers, most of whom took the train to Žilina. On the wall there is now a stylized artistic logo depicting two men on the move, with barbed wire. The rooms in which Vrba and Wetzler were interviewed separately to assure their objectivity have since been restored and the building has been converted into a memorial site.

In 2015, Gerta Vrbová addressed the pilgrims in the renovated Neolog Synagogue in Žilina synagogue, one of final destinations for the hike. “I want to thank those who have organized this. I think it is very important for people to not only see what happened in Auschwitz, but also to participate in a physical way, to understand what it meant to escape. I hope this will continue and the memory of Rudi Vrba and Fredi Wetzler will be kept alive, and our children and grandchildren will remember it all.”

Robin Vrba reiterated Gerta Vrbová’s words of gratitude. “It’s heartfelt and a wonderful tribute to Rudi Vrba and Fredi Wetzler, and it’s a really important message for people in general to know the need to fight against fascism and Nazism. After walking the whole walk, which was not that easy for me, I realized, when we got to the Slovak border, I realized I understood Rudi a little bit better. And I realized he loved the Slovak nation. It just came to me when I arrived there. It was very, very poignant and very, very emotional.”

These memorial activities in 2015 were coordinated by Fedor Gál, Mojmir Kallus, Radek Hejret, Jaroslav Sloboda, Raberet Schmidt, Peter Leponi, Milan Svitek, Peter Pothe, Robert Blasko and Pavol Frankl. The walk was organized by ICEJ – International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem. “They were tremendous people,” Karsai recalls. “I got to know them well because my bad knee did not permit me to walk the long distances. I would start in the morning with the group, but then I gladly accepted a ride in their van.

Joseph Ragaz, Helen Karsai and Robin Vrba

Joseph Ragaz, Helen Karsai, Robin Vrba.

“There were memorable opportunities for non-Slovak speakers, and many things were translated into English. I recall that when I was asked to speak during the last evening in Žilina synagogue (where my mother’s family used to go for High Jewish Holidays before the war), I was asked to translate into English and at one point I switched to Slovak and the organizer translated what I said into English.”

Except for a hiatus for the Coronovirus pandemic, the (usually five-day) trek from Auschwitz continued annually since it began in 2014 with 40 participants. After the hiatus, the Trek was re-instigated on August 1, 2022 and viewers around the world were invited to watch via Facebook.

Here is a link to the photos from the 2022 trek.

Here is another link with about 90 photos of the 2022 Trek.

In August of 2017, Robin Vrba wrote, “I want to thank everyone who joined the Memorial March over the last 4 years, and especially to thank those who devoted their work and time to make the March a success, ICEJ, Fedor Gal, Mojmir Kallus, and Peter Svec, and Robert Schmidt. Rudi’s daughter, Zuza Vrbova, had the vision to create this event in order to honor her father’s achievement.  The Walk is a profound reflection of Zuza’s spirit.  She once told me that the purpose in life is to connect with the soul of people who held a special place in her heart and she managed to accomplish this goal in her short life of 59 years.  Amazingly, I felt Zuza’s spirit as we marched through the Polish hills and valleys, conversing with one another, reflecting on Rudi and Freddy’s escape, who in their incredible act of heroism, left an indelible mark in the annals of history. May the March continue for many years to come and inspire others to reflect on what “freedom” means to all of humanity.”

Spaces are going fast for the 2024 Vrba Wetzler Trek. If you wish to join the Trek this year, click here.

Next: FREEDLAND ON VRBA