These video clips were taken from the 1973 Thames Television series, ‘World at War.’ Vrba collaborated with them on Episode #18, ‘Genocide.’ Vrba is about 50 years old in these videos.

Rudolf Vrba was one of 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.


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.


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.

Filip Muller

Vrba’s main informant about the gas chambers was his fellow Czechoslovakian prisoner Filip Müller. For an interview with Müller, visit The US Holocaust Memorial Museum Interview conducted by Claude Lanzmann in German.

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.


The Two Camps

“Auschwitz consisted of two camps. The ‘mother’ camp which was relatively small, called Auschwitz One and the Birkenau Camp, called Auschwitz Two, where there were four crematoria with gas chambers. The first half year I lived in Auschwitz One, and the next one and half years I lived in Birkenau, Auschwitz Two. Those two camps were surrounded by an outer chain of sentry posts, and you can see that just between them was passing the railway line which connected Vienna to Cracow.”

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 were 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 understand 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. Although Vrba devotes the entirety of Chapter 7 (A Naked World) to what occurred after he was transferred to Block Eighteen, he does not dwell at length on the dire deadliness of the slave labour there, where previous few men were able to survive more than a month or two. By his fifth week there, Vrba and his companion Josef were “probably the sole survivors” from a contingent of 1,600 men who had been herded like cattle for two hours to reach a slave labour wasteland in which men were reduced to behaving like “a pack of starving wolves.” Vrba’s life was spared after his companion Josef arranged for them to work under the separate guidance of a French-speaking contractor. Ironically, their lives were subsequently spared by the outbreak of a typhus epidemic that temporarily curtailed construction at Auschwitz III.

Bizarrely, after the war, Vrba would be offered a job as an industrial chemist there–which he rejected. Along with other Buna survivors, Vrba joined a lawsuit against the industrial giant IG Farben in 1961, for back wages. A West German court awarded him 2,500 marks (approximately $5,000 in 2020 funds) but no compensation was paid to the relatives and dependants of those who had not survived–hence approximately 90% of the slave labour force at Buna was not recognized in the reparations lawsuit. [From Chapter 9 onwards in British P.O.W. Denis Avey’s memoir The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz (2011, foreword by Martin Gilbert), the reader can find a more extensive description of what it was like for labourers to attempt to survive within the massive construction zone of the Buna Monowitz compound. Avey, as an English-speaking soldier, had a much superior diet and better lodging than the Jewish prisoners for whom he felt much pity.]

Vrba’s life was spared when his bout of typhus eventually enabled him to gain a transfer to the so-called Kanada compound of Birkenau—a warehouse complex so named because its storehouse of stolen goods approximated the 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. “One week in Kanada,” he later wrote, “taught me more about the real purpose of Auschwitz than I had learned in the three months that had passed since my initiation.” Vrba’s transfer to the Kanada compound was orchestrated by a former Slovak dentist, Laco Fischer, who had already survived five months in Auschwitz and therefore knew the ropes.

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 identity 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 be decades before Vrba could ascertain how and why this was the case.

According to British writer Laurence Rees, Zionist spokesman Rudolf Kasztner, 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, 1944. But rather than inform Hungary’s Jews, Kasztner, along with Orthodox Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Weissmandel and Philip von Freudiger—according to Vrba—were complicit in silence. Approximately 437,000 Hungarian Jews went pliantly and obediently to Auschwitz after Kasztner, Weissmandel 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 Kasztner 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, Kasztner also wanted to pay Eichmann to allow a trainload of 1,684 Jews—mainly Jews of Kasztner choosing, including his family and friends—for safe transport to Switzerland.

Vrba eventually alleged that Kasztner’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 Kasztner, 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 81.

Rudolf Hess and his Executioners

TWO HANGINGS: Rudolf Hoess (centre) was taken back to Auschwitz for his execution by hanging on his own Auschwitz gallows on April 16, 1947. The longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoess (or Höss, Höß or Hoeß,) is not to be confused with Hitler’s second-in-command Rudolf Hess who was jailed for life for having committed “crimes against peace.”  After 40 years in Berlin’s Spandau Prison, the much better-known Hess also died from hanging. He supposedly hanged himself in captivity as an apparent suicide in 1987.  A video about Rudolf Hoess is here.  

If you can speak German, you can listen to Rudolf Vrba speaking about Auschwitz here. Audio only.




Friedrich Hartjenstein was in charge of Auschwitz-Birkenau when Vrba escaped. Hartjenstein was tried and found guilty for murder and crimes against humanity—twice, by the British and by French – but he died of a heart attack while awaiting execution in Paris on October 20, 1954, at age 49.

Recommended: Homecoming of an Auschwitz Commandant by Jürgen Gückel (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Verlage, 2021)