Human brains were not yet prepared to absorb the idea of mass murder on the scale of Auschwitz. — Rudolf Vrba
During a return visit to Auschwitz, Rudolf Vrba recalled and described his escape with Wetzler that eclipsed all others in terms of its historical impact…
Even though the new killing centre known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau was where at least one million Jews would be murdered in the various crematoria, Rudolf Vrba also found himself in the place from which he stood the best chance of escaping, according to Birkenau survivor and historian Erich Kulka who once outlined the numerical possibilities for a successful escape in his essay, Attempts by Jewish Escapees to Stop Mass Extermination (Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 47 No. 3/4 Summer – A 1985, from Indiana University Press):
“A total of 105 prisoners escaped from the largest camp of the Auschwitz complex, Birkenau, where the conditions for escape were better than in the other camps. The extensive work areas around this camp and the relatively small number of SS guards made it possible for the prisoners to find shelters necessary for escape. Whereas in the main Auschwitz camp the ratio of SS men to prisoner was 1 to 14, in Auschwitz III – Buna Monowice it was 1 to 23 and in Auschwitz II – Birkenau it was 1 to 64.”
Rudolf Vrba first planned to escape from Auschwitz – Birkenau on January 25, 1944 with Charles Unlick, a Polish-born French army captain. Captured at Dunkirk, Unlick was a Block Senior in the Quarantine Camp where Vrba was the Registrar.
Physically strong and charismastic, Unlick was a big-hearted fixer inside the camp who had two of the most villainous SS officers on his black market payroll, Buntrock and Kurpanik (both of whom would be hanged with their commandante Rudolf Hoess at Auschwitz). Unlick hatched a scheme to escape by having himself be locked inside the toolbox of a truck that routinely delivered supplies of wood into the Quarantine Camp. The truck was to be driven out of the camp by an SS man who spoke Yiddish, a bizarre situation that was explained to Vrba by Unlick: the driver was a German who had been orphaned in Romania and raised by a Jewish family. Unlick invited Vrba to join him in this getaway plan. A bon vivant who doubled as the best-dressed prisoner in the camp, Unlick celebrated their pact by producing a bottle of French cognac that he poured into their glasses as if it was beer. Unlick toasted their return to the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph and his wife… but it was not to be.
After Vrba expressed his admiration for Unlick’s expensive belt, Unlick told Vrba to appear at the appointed spot at 7 p.m. three days hence. Accordingly, Vrba appeared at 6:45 and waited. Unlick was a no-show. Vrba waited until 7:15. Disappointted, he accepted an offer of goulash soup with one of the camp’s foremost Slovak intellectuals, Andrej Milar, in Block Seven. Later Vrba learned the wood delivery had arrived and it had been unloaded at Block Fourteen. Vrba hurried to the woodpile but the delivery truck had gone. He returned to converse with Milar but did not share any of his distress. There was an unwritten law within the camp that mentioning any escape was too dangerous for both the speaker and the listener. By 8 p.m. the camp has horrified by the news that Unlick had been shot dead in the chest while failing in his attempt to hide inside the tool box of the truck.
In a daze, after staring at Unlick’s corpse for a minute, Vrba walked back to Block Seven and consumed the remainder of Milar’s goulash soup supply on auto-pilot. Milar chastised him for gorging himself after seeing his closest friend lying dead (Milar apologized to Vrba five years later at the University of Slovakia). Vrba went back to the corpse now on display and washed the mud off of Unlick’s face. The corpse was left on display for days. The SS driver had simply driven his truck to an empty garage, unlocked the toolbox and shot Unlick in the heart, pocketing the small fortune he had been promised for the undertaking. When the body was stripped for disposal, Vrba, as the deceased’s best friend, was accorded first choice as to what to take. The boots? The expensive jacket? Vrba insisted he would take only the belt. For decades after that, Vrba wore Charles Unlick’s belt as his only memento of Auschwitz. In 1999, he donated it to London’s Imperial War Museum.
When he and Alfréd Wetzler did escape on April 7, 1944, Vrba led the way beyond the camp to Slovakia, via the Sola River, a route he had gleaned from a page in a child’s atlas. Now an annual trek is held to retrace and commemorate one of the great escapes of the twentieth century. [See THE TREK]
The main camp in the centre bordered the Oświęcim–Bielsko road running alongside the Soła River. After the area’s Polish inhabitants had been removed and their buildings were demolished, the open space was relatively easy to control with electrified fencing, police dogs and guard towers.
Interviewed by the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann for the ground-breaking documentary Shoah (1985), Vrba discussed resistance in Auschwitz and his escape from the camp. There are a couple of blackouts in this video.
WETZLER ON THE ESCAPE
As German anti-Semitic laws were increasingly imposed, more Jewish businesses were expropriated in Slovakia and far fewer Jews were able to earn a living. By the spring of 1942 most of Slovakia’s eighty thousand had been herded into the cities of Sered and Novaky. As the head of the section of the Gestapo concerned with implementing the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann “offered” to take seventeen thousand of the unemployed Jews off the Slovakian government’s hands. Ostensibly, they were to be given jobs in German-operated factories. On April 13, 1942, Alfréd Wetzler (or Weczler) found himself crammed with approximately threescore other men into a small freight car, sharing a single bucket of water. With 640 other men he was part of a vanguard that constituted the world’s most notorious hell on earth, Auschwitz. He survived for two years before he and Rudolf Vrba made their historic escape.
Testimony of Alfréd Wetzler:
“We finally carried out our plans to escape on 7 April 1944. According to our previous arrangements, on that day we, i.e. me and Rosenberg, met in the BIII sector (Mexico). It was 1 p.m. when the lunch break finished. We reached our hiding place near the Weberei [weaving mill where sealing for submarines was manufactured]. Having pushed a few frames away we got inside. The hole was covered up by … our fellow prisoners Bolek and Adam, who for a few days always remained near the bunker at this time. The ground around the bunker was dusted with tobacco. … We remained in the main cave until the evening. Around 6 p.m. we heard the siren. It meant that they noticed our absence in the camp. After the siren we crawled inside into the side section of our hideout. Lying squeezed and immobilized one next to the other, we had scarves tied around our mouths so as not to reveal where we were by accidental coughing. A watch with phosphate coated hands was the source of our orientation in time. We spent 80 hours like that in the bunker. At night, after the roll call, we could hear the voices of the search party perfectly well. We were the most afraid of the dogs. However, our worries turned out to be unnecessary, as the hiding place was well concealed and secured.
“After three days, on April 10 at night, at 9 p.m. we left our shelter as we had already heard how the guards had been removed from the large guard chain [grosse Postenkette]. It is necessary to make it clear that if another prisoner had escaped in the period while we were in hiding, Postenkette would have remained. It would have been a disaster for us personally, as we were not prepared for staying in hiding for such a long time.
“When we began to leave the cave, it turned out that due to the fact that we were lying on our stomach for such a long time, our muscles weakened. We had with us some bread and coffee in a bottle, but we were too excited to eat. It was a large effort for us to remove the boards over the bunker. The activities which we had previously been able to perform without any major effort now constituted a challenge, we had to mobilize all our strength to uncover the hole. We could not … make any noise, as a patrol may have been walking around nearby. It all took us quite a lot of time, but finally we abandoned our hiding place.
“The night was clear. The moon was shining. Having left the bunker, we headed east. Walking through the empty part of the sector we reached the inner ditch … and then, continuing in the ditch, made to its second part, running along the northern wall of the “Mexico” fencing. In the middle of the sector, we went across the camp fencing. At the time, it was not electrified yet. We were, however, equipped with special handles … to raise the wire lying on the ground. The fact that there was no lighting on the fencing additionally facilitated the passage. When we were already on the other side, we walked the entire camp around, following the shape of an arc. … While passing the camp, we saw its lights for the first time, we saw the flames coming from the chimneys of the crematoria.”
Source: Alfréd Wetzler, A-BSMA, Testimonies Fonds, vol. 40, pp. 37‒39.
Photo gallery of Alfréd Wetzler, Rudolf Vrba’s companion in escape
(Click to enlarge)
AGAINST THE ODDS
Auschwitz II-Birkenau was created after SS General Reinhard Heydrich convened the Wannasee conference on the outskirts of Berlin entitled “Desires and Ideas of the Foreign Office in Connection with the Intended Total Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe.”
Aside from Vrba and Wetzler, only Siegfried Lederer, their friends Czesław Mordowicz and Arnošt Rosin, and the seldom recognized Cyla Cibulska [See THE SIXTH JEW] would also successfully escape from Auschwitz II (Birkenau) as Jews [See MORDOWICZ-ROSIN ESCAPE]. Historian Danuta Czech has identified other Slovakian Jews who had attempted to escape from Auschwitz in 1942 and failed in Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz–Birkenau 1939–1945 (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 1989, p. 214). They are: Leopold Almasi (#32695), Martin Weiss (#30715), Zoltán Hochfelder (#33319) Isak Herskovic (#30256) Jozef Spitza (#30223) Franz Hauser (#31647), Moric Citron (#33603) and Ladislav Lilientahl (#29878). Unproven estimates of more than six Jewish escapees from Auschwitz Birkenau constitute wishful thinking.
It had been far easier for Poles to escape because they generally had better living conditions and gained jobs that afforded some freedom of movement. The Polish historian Tadeusz Iwaszko has estimated that from the summer of 1940 until January 1945, up to 667 inmates managed to escape from Auschwitz but security measures were less advanced in early years. One has to also take into account that Poland is undergoing a revisionist era during which that country’s role in the Holocaust is being reduced, so even the statistics from the Auschwitz Museum itself cannot be entirely presumed to be accurate.
It wasn’t until 1943 that Jewish prisoners were elevated to administrative roles which did not require prisoners’ striped garb. For the mortuary, Wetzler had kept track of all those prisoners who died outside of the gas chambers; Vrba had spent a year as blockschreiber for Block 15 of the Quarantine Camp. [The German and Yiddish word for writer, or scribe, is Schreib or “Schreiber” (keeper of records).] These men were sufficiently trusted to have been given better lodgings and relatively free range in the camp. Wetzler could hold private meetings his little office where cadavers could sometimes be stacked from floor to ceiling. Their Slovak cohort Ceslav Mordowicz recalled once meeting Wetzler when he was using a corpse as a makeshift coffee table, outside his office.
The successful escapes made by just six Jews were made from Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a complex that was connected by a railway line to the more rudimentary base camp known as Auschwitz I. According to historian Erich Kulka, the ratio of SS men to a single prisoner in the original Auschwitz I camp was 1 to 14; and but in the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp it was 1 to 64 while construction was underway to prepare for the huge influx of Hungarian Jews. In Auschwitz III (Buna Monowice) it would be 1 to 23. [There were also a few dozen, outlying sub-camps from which non-Jews were able to flee more easily–see MAP at the bottom of this page.]
Statistics on escapes are clearly estimates. Whereas Henryk Świebocki in Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s publication of Auschwitz, 1940-1945: Central Issues in the History of the Camp (2000) tells us 127 out of 802 attempts to escape (757 men and 45 women) were successful from 1940-1945, and 150 of these attempts were made by Jews, the Auschwitz Museum has informed visitors, virtually or in person, that as many as 196 prisoners can be said to have escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau and its various confines out of 928 attempts. Erich Kulka made the incredible statement that 76 Jews escaped but he failed to name them. He adds, “Barely a dozen successful escapees were traced after the war.” Again, no names are provided but he proceeds to cite the two escapees from the “Gypsy Camp” who succeeded on November 19, 1943, Jerzy Tabeau and Toman Cieliczjo.
The Vrba expert Ruth Linn estimates there were 500-700 attempts to escape from Auschwitz, some 75 of which were made by Jews (out of whom only five succeeded during three escapes in April and May of 1944). The Polish author Ján Zaborowski claims “in total, 667 inmates escaped […]” from the Auschwitz Concentration camp. According to our knowledge, 270 inmates were caught by the camp guards. We have exact reports about the fate of 100 inmates whose escape was successful. No one knows exactly what happened to the other almost 300 escapees. […] A third of the heroes of the Auschwitz escapes were Poles (232), while the other most numerous groups were Russians (95) and Jews (76).”
Ruth Linn’s sober–and sobering–estimates make the most sense. It must be noted that ten-meter-high guard towers were stationed every fifty meters as an inner perimeter sentry chain in the second, much larger Auschwitz camp erected near the village of Brzezinka, aka Birkenau (aka Auschwitz II), making it far more difficult to escape there than from the smaller Auschwitz I, established on the grounds of a former Polish army camp in 1940. Not all failed escapees were publicly murdered; some survived torture and were transferred to the penal unit (Strafkompanie) where, according to Kulka, “they experienced the ultimate in Kapo and SS bestiality.”