Rudolf Vrba was one the world’s foremost authorities on Auschwitz.
In his sworn deposition for the trial of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and within his book I Cannot Forgive that was first published two years later, Vrba reveals that he and Wetzler gained their vital information about the layout of the gas chambers and crematoria from Sonderkommando prisoner Filip Müller [pictured below] who worked there from May of 1942 until their closure. This was confirmed when Müller, born in Sered, Czechoslovakia in 1922, eventually published his own book, Eyewitness Auschwitz (1979).
Rudolf Vrba’s estimation of how many people were murdered at Auschwitz matched the overall total that the camp’s longest-serving commandant Rudolf Hoess’ originally provided after he unsuccessfully went into hiding as a gardener and was eventually put on trial for crimes against humanity. Before Hoess [pictured at the bottom of the page] was taken back to Auschwitz to be executed on the camp’s gallows, he wrote a self-serving autobiography in his prison cell in Krakow. The proofs of the “dreadful document” [as Vrba called it] were sent to Vrba by the book’s publisher for fact checking.
THE PRICE OF A LEMON
Upon his arrival at Auschwitz on June 30, at nine o’clock in the evening, Rudolf Vrba was at first impressed by the relative neatness and order of the camp. When he saw the famous brass letters in an arch across the main gate, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Brings Freedom), still feeling young and strong, he was encouraged by the message. Later he’d write, “It was like some monstrous April Fool joke.”
Soon after everyone was paraded past the notoriously brutal and gigantic SS Oberscharfuherer Jakob Fries, Vrba received his tattoo number 44070 (“I chose the top of my left forearm”) and his zebra stripes. It was nearly always dangerous to be noticed in Auschwitz, quite possibly deadly to be singled out, so Jews became their numbered selves for much of the time.
The optimism of this self-confident Slovak teenager was only dissipated when he discovered the true nature of “agricultural work.” He had volunteered his services to unearth and burn 107,000 corpses, mainly Jews, including 20,000 Russian prisoners of war. At this site, drunken and merciless S.S. overseers with whips, bolstered by one bottle of schnapps each, per day, as a reward for their ghastly supervision, would be welcome to punish or kill the workers with abandon. As the putrefied bodies were removed from the mass grave and stacked in piles for burning, the stench of decomposing flesh would be sickening.
Only 300 out of the 1,400 in the work crew lived to the end of the job, and then they were killed anyway for knowing too much. It was the same for the Sonderkommando units who dragged the victims from the showers. They were annihilated at six-month intervals to ensure the truth about mass executions could never be divulged.
In his memoir, Vrba maintains he never had to undertake this ultra-grim “agricultural work” that he describes so well. He recalls how he was spared from ever labouring “knee-deep in decomposing flesh” by one very brief conversation that occurred on his second evening in the Auschwitz camp when he and his barrack inmates were introduced to a burly and menacing looking kapo named Franz. This seemingly cruel overlord had a red triangle on his tunic indicating he was a political prisoner.
“Let’s have a look at you bastards!” he bellowed. Vrba recognized this man’s Viennese accent because Vrba himself had been raised not far from the Austrian capital.
Like someone shopping, examining the merchandise, Kapo Franz punched Vrba lightly in the stomach to see if he was strong. Vrba didn’t flinch. “Strong boy, eh?” said the seemingly menacing tormentor. The kapo the felt his bicep. Vrba flexed it. The kapo approved.
“Where are you from?”
Obediently, Vrba gave a one-word answer. “Slovakia.”
The following exchange saved his life. The kapo asked if Vrba spoke German.
Vrba’s examiner tapped his own leg with a club and he peered into Vrba’s face. “Okay, you’ll do,” he said. “Come with me.”
Vrba followed him in his wooden shoes, out of the barracks.
Only later did Vrba learn that Franz purchased him from the Block Senior of the barracks for one lemon.
Vrba’s memoir spares the reader somewhat from the grim details of initially working within the “Cleaning Commando.” He was more overt about the conditions when interviewed by the United States Holocaust Museum.
“I was part of the selection committee,” he said, “greeting the incoming trains and we had to clean up the mess. After each transport arrived, I realized this process was pre-planned… Transports of three or four to sixteen a day would arrive. This went on for about two years. People inside the trains where degraded totally. They defecated in front of each other, women menstruated,
children and others were throwing up. This caused fighting with each other. They didn’t understanding what was really going on. They were under unbelievable stress, thinking that all this would stop once the train stops. But that was not the case. This was all planned out well by the Nazis — very civilized, clean, white-gloved people.
“We, the prisoners in striped clothing, would not have been believed if we were to tell them ahead of time that they are going to be gassed. So, as they got out of the wagons quickly, they were met with SS encircling them and if a word was said, without warning they were shot. There was a cleaning commando, which I was part of for about 10 months. This was the cleaning up team. When a transport arrived, the SS unlocked the locks. The commando opened the doors. They were not to talk to the people in the wagons (train cars), not give any signs, punishable by instant death. Two SS men standing at the wagon ordered people to get out quickly. Anyone not moving fast was hit with a walking stick.
“Sometimes they used a different technique. They told the people to please step out, not take their luggage with them because these criminals standing around would take their trunks, but make sure their names are on the luggage, so it can reach them. Women with their children were sent off to the gas chambers together because women would have caused problems if their children would have been snatched away from them. The healthy men and women were selected out fast. The people selected for the gas chambers were hauled off in a truck to the nearest chambers, the truck was raised, the door opened, the people got out, got undressed to go to the showers. They were told they will get water and food after the shower, which of course never happened.
“We, the prisoners, couldn’t protest because if we did, a few things could happen. Either one would be clubbed, beaten, or men would smile and write down our number and once whatever we were doing would be finished, we would be slowly clubbed to death. We couldn’t warn people at their arrival even if we were not clubbed to death immediately. We were watched. When we were attending to the crippled and wounded, when we had to get them onto the trucks which could carry them to the gas chambers, we couldn’t even put them on a blanket. We either had to drag them or, if they could run, make them run until they dropped, then drag them onto the truck. No resistance was possible. The possibility might have existed many months before they were to enter the train cars. Perhaps they could have saved themselves somehow.”
This was degrading and unsanitary work. Striped-trousered peons had to efficiently and thoroughly empty and clean the filthy railway cars littered with corpses and excrement. Manhandling newly-dead carcasses, removing gold from teeth, pilfering and sorting all Jewish possessions–it was like some lost ‘n’ found department in Hell. Belief in any benevolent God was also a casualty. Vrba also later wrote, “I have been present emptying wagons, where 30% of people were dead and they had probably been dead for four or five days.” Vrba has stated he was present for the arrival of nearly every train for ten months. As verified by those who knew him, he had what is often referred to as a “photographic memory.” He was able to commit to memory the arrival of each train and the number of deportees in each new shipment of human cargo. This task gave him a reason for staying alive.
He later survived as a labourer in the deadly construction zone for the Buna industrial compound and later within the so-called Kanada compound of Birkenau—a warehouse complex so named because its storehouse of stolen goods approximated the Jews’ vision of faraway and vast Canada as a paradise on earth. This plunder of Jewish belongings, along with the seizure of their properties and businesses, was the mercantile motive for the Holocaust that Vrba never under-estimated.
In June of 1943, Vrba was accorded the much-desired job of registrar within the Quarantine Camp at Birkenau, often enabling him to converse directly, and even privately, with the new arrivals who were spared the gas chambers. Vrba’s access to the approximately ten percent of arrivals who were not selected on the platform for mass murder enhanced his ability to keep track of their countries of origin as well as the sequence of tattoo numbers accorded to each new shipment.
From his tiny headquarters or “office” alongside the route for trucks that took doomed arrivals directly from the railway sidings to Crematorium IV, Vrba was uniquely positioned to continue his self-imposed regime of memorizing the extent of the genocide in tandem with his countryman Alfréd Israel “Fred” Wetzler, a register in the morgue for inmates not murdered in the crematoria. (Born on May 10 in Trnavsky, Slovakia, Wetzler would be accorded the false name of Jozef Lanik when he went into hiding after their escape. After the war, he would continue to use the name Lanik to publish his non-fiction account Tomb of Four Million People. He later reverted to using his birth name.)
Accorded better lodging, much better food and relative freedom of movement in return, Vrba had a love affair with a woman in the so-called Czech camp, a special section of Auschwitz in which a contingent of Czech Jews were able to keep their clothes and hair, live in relative comfort, etc., separated from the reality of the killing grounds, in case the Nazis were ever required to show the conditions of Auschwitz to the outside world.
In January of 1944, as a new rail line was built only 30 yards from his lavatory, Vrba overhead the SS jokingly refer to pending shipments of “Hungarian salami.” Auschwitz was anticipating “a million units” of Hungarian Jews.
The extent of this imminent influx would later be measurable by the increase in the number of Sonderkommandos required to dispose of the corpses: Prior to Vrba’s escape, in 1943, approximately 400 Sonderkommandos were trapped within the futile process of preventing their own demise by hauling away the carcasses of the dead (sometimes their own loved ones). After Vrba’s escape, in 1944, the ranks of the Sonderkommandos or Hilflinge (helpers) at Birkenau would swell to 900.
Undoubtedly, Rudolf Vrba’s miraculous escape from Auschwitz with Prisoner #29129, Alfréd Wetzler, was motivated by a firm resolve to inform the world of the impending slaughter. It is usually interpreted as altruistic. But it is open to conjecture as to how much he was simultaneously motivated by the despair and anger he felt following the execution of his first lover from the “model Czech camp.”
In brief: After their escape and their report was made in Zilina, both Auschwitz whistleblowers were allotted an undercover stipend of 200 Slovak crowns each, per week—about an average worker’s salary at the time—and advised to go into hiding because their joint testimonies were so vital. Their identify papers enabled them to pass as pure Aryans back through three generations. For Vrba, the subterfuge “to sustain me in an illegal life in Bratislava” was not daunting in comparison to the wits and luck required to survive for almost two years in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Slovak army revolted against the Nazis on August 29, 1944, at which time the existence of Czechoslovakia as a country was re-asserted and Vrba gladly joined a partisan unit in September of 1944 as Rudolf Vrba. As a partisan, Vrba excelled as a machine gunner under the command of Milan Uher and received the Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery, the Order of the Slovak National Insurrection and the Order of the Meritorious Fighter.
As soon as Czechoslovakia was liberated, Vrba legalized his “nom de guerre.”
Vrba and his fellow Slovak escapee Wetzler had provided precise reportage about Auschwitz that convinced Allied leaders such as Winston Churchill and FDR about the horrific details of The Final Solution—and yet the remaining Jews of Slovakia and Hungary had not been forewarned about the murderous agenda of Auschwitz. It would decades before Vrba could ascertain how and why this was the case.
According to British writer Laurence Rees, Zionist spokesman Rudolf Kastner, de facto head of the Aid and Rescue Committee, had received a copy of the document, later known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report, during his visit to Bratislava on April 28, 1943. But rather than inform Hungary’s Jews, Kastner, along with Orthodox Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Weissmandl and Philip von Freudiger—according to Vrba—were complicit in silence. Approximately 437,000 Hungarian Jews went pliantly and obediently to Auschwitz after Kastner, Weissmandl and von Freudiger were made fully aware of the ghastly fate that would most certainly befall nine-tenths of Hungary’s Jews.
Vrba gradually learned that Kastner and Joel Brand, as representatives of the Aid and Rescue Committee, had attempted to negotiate a private deal with SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Adolf Eichmann—a former mathematics teacher—hoping to exchange the lives of one million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks and other goods from the Allies. On his own, Kastner also wanted to pay Eichmann to allow a trainload of 1,684 Jews—mainly Jews of Kastner’s choosing, including his family and friends—for safe transport to Switzerland.
Vrba eventually alleged that Kastner’s desire to expedite a private deal with the Nazis was a heinous crime against humanity. The Jewish leadership had agreed to avoid spreading public panic in the hopes of gaining a peaceful reprieve for a chosen few.
Eichmann shrewdly prolonged the negotiations with Kastner, enabling the Nazis to continue to efficiently expedite their unmitigated transport of approximately 12,000 Jews per day to Auschwitz.
Vrba scathingly alleged: “That the negotiators and their families were, in fact, pathetic, albeit voluntary hostages in the hands of Nazi power was an important part of these ‘deals’.”
For alleging Jewish culpability, the charismatic, handsome and outspoken Vrba was feared, vilified and derided by mainstream Jewish historians. The truth about Auschwitz was ugly enough; to admit that Jewish leaders had consorted with Eichmann was not to be countenanced. Consequently, the likes of Czech-born historian Yehuda Bauer, author of Rethinking the Holocaust, sought to depict Vrba as a wounded soul.
Vrba lived only two years in Israel, where he was largely expunged from the official, Jewish annals of the Holocaust during his lifetime because he would not remain silent. He would remain estranged from mainstream Jewish leadership and Judaism until he died at age 82.
If you can speak German, you can listen to Rudolf Vrba speaking about Auschwitz here. Audio only.
For more of Rudolf Vrba’s reflections on Auschwitz, click here for clips from the movie Shoah.
Next: VRBA ON THE TRAIN RIDE