1944: Escape From Auschwitz Takes Shape

Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler's first-hand accounts of the camps resulted in a detailed report on the Nazi mass murder.

David Green
David B. Green
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Visitors from around the world passing under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei 'Work Sets You Free' sign over the main gate at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, in Poland.
Visitors from around the world passing under the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei 'Work Sets You Free' sign over the main gate at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, in Poland.Credit: AP
David Green
David B. Green

April 7, 1944, is the day on which Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler began their escape from Auschwitz, a process that resulted in a detailed report that provided the world with a first-hand account of the systemic mass murder taking place there.

Rudolf Vrba (originally Walter Rosenberg, 1924-2006) and Alfred Wetzler (1918-1988) were both Slovak Jews who had been arrested in 1942 and ended up in the Auschwitz II camp, also known as Birkenau. They recognized one another from home, and decided to escape together.

In the memoirs that Vrba wrote after the war, he explained how he had attempted to commit to memory the numbers of transports arriving in Auschwitz, and their places of origin, how he had discussed the way in which Jews were killed with Sonderkommandos who worked in the camp, and how, in early 1944, a Polish kapo told him that the camp was expecting the imminent arrival of one million Hungarian Jews, for whom a new rail line, heading directly to the gas chambers, was being constructed. He also heard German SS troops saying how they looked forward to receiving Hungarian salami from the anticipated arrivals, who would be told they were coming to work at a labor camp, could be expected to arrive with provisions.

On April 7, the two men snuck into the area between the two fences marking off the camp’s inner and outer perimeters. They knew from others' earlier escape attempts that guards would continue to search for an escaped prisoner for three days after his reported disappearance. For that reason, Vrba and Wetzler hid for the next two days under a woodpile, emerging only on April 10.

Rudolf Vrba.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

They then headed by foot toward the Polish-Slovakian border, 130 kms away. Crossing into Slovakia on April 21, they got in touch with the local Judenrat (Jewish council), whose head, Dr. Oscar Neumann, interviewed them separately over three days, extracting every detail they could recall about Auschwitz. By April 27, they had prepared an extensive and carefully edited document in German and Hungarian. It included sketches of the layout of the various camps that made up Auschwitz-Birkenau, lists detailing the arrival of transports they had witnessed, and the operation of the gas chambers and crematoria. Most of what they reported was later corroborated by Holocaust historians.

On November 26, 1944, the Vrba-Wetzler Report, together with two other eyewitness accounts from Auschwitz – that of Arnost Rosin and Czeslaw Mordowicz and the “Polish Major’s report” of Jerzy Tabeau – were published by the U.S. War Refugee Board, in a document that became known as the “Auschwitz Protocols.” The same day, it received detailed coverage in the New York Times. Long before then, however, the Hungarian government had begun deporting the country’s Jews, 100,000 of whom were sent to Auschwitz between May 15 and May 27, most of whom were killed on arrival.

There is disagreement about exactly who within the Hungarian Jewish community received early notice of the Vrba-Wetzler Report, but it seems clear that Rudolf Kastner, of the Budapest Rescue and Aid Committee, had a copy of it in hand by early May. At the time, Kastner was negotiating with Adolf Eichmann for the ransoming of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis – the country’s Jewish community was 800,000-strong. Neither Kastner nor other members of the Hungarian Jewish Council made the Vrba-Wetzler Report public, presumably because they didn’t want to jeopardize negotiations with the Germans. In the end, Kastner and Eichmann arranged for the release of 1,684 Jews, and their safe passage to Switzerland.

Only after Rosin and Mordowicz, also Slovakian prisoners, escaped from Auschwitz, on May 27, and the full Auschwitz Protocols were smuggled into Switzerland, did pressure begin to mount on the pro-Nazi Hungarian head of state Miklos Horthy not to cooperate with the German demands for the Jews’ deportation. Requests from Washington and the Vatican apparently led to Horthy’s decision on July 7 to halt the deportations of the Jews of Budapest (by then Jews from the rest of the country had already been murdered). The halt was only temporary, however, since Horthy’s government was overthrown by the Arrow Cross Party in October, which established a Nazi puppet government.

Alfred Wetzler.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After the war, Vrba received a doctorate in chemistry and biochemistry, and eventually made his way to Vancouver, Canada, where he died in 2006. He published journalistic accounts of his experiences in 1961, but when he offered to testify at the trial of Adolf Eichmann that same year, the Israeli government declined, saying it could not pay his travel expenses. Instead, he submitted written testimony.

Wetzler returned to Bratislava, Slovakia, after the war, where he worked as an editor and later on a farm. He also wrote up his memoirs, under the pen name of Jozef Lanik. He died in 1988.

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