Thirty years ago, Alfred Wetzler died in his native Slovakia. He and his friend, Rudolf Vrba, risked their lives and escaped Auschwitz so they could warn other Jews and the world in precise detail what was happening behind the fences and gates of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp. Although they were not successful in their attempt to save Hungary’s Jews from marching to their deaths at Auschwitz, Vrba and Wetzler did succeed in saving some Jews as well as compiling and publicizing the first record of the Nazis’ systematic atrocities at the camp.
Rudolf Vrba, formerly Walter Rosenberg, was born on Sept. 11, 1924, in the Slovakian town of Trnava. The son of a sawmill owner, he was expelled from high school in Bratislava due to Slovakia’s version of the Nuremberg Laws. He worked as a laborer in Trnava until March 1942, when he was arrested and, on June 14, 1942, he was deported to the Maidanek concentration camp and later to Auschwitz.
Alfred Wetzler was born on May 10, 1918 in the same town as Vrba. He was sent to Birkenau on April 13, 1942. Later, he too was sent to Auschwitz.
Both Vrba and Wetzler held administrative jobs in Auschwitz, which allowed them access to many different areas of the camp and finally to plan their escape. “There had been a number of escapes from Auschwitz and in every case; the escapee had been caught, sometimes within hours, sometimes within a few days,” the late British historian and Oxford professor Martin Gilbert said in a 2011 episode about Vrba and Wetzler’s escape in the PBS series Secrets of the Dead. As the English historian David Cesarani added, “The consequences of failure were torture and public execution. Anyone connected with the escape would also be tortured and murdered.”
In his book I Escaped From Auschwitz, Vrba wrote, “It was a simple plan and I literally stumbled across it by accident.” When an escape occurred, the two men noticed, the Nazis would look for the escapee for three days, after which they would give up on the search. If they could survive the initial search period, they reasoned, their chances of survival would increase.
On April 7, 1944, almost two years after Wetzler arrived at Auschwitz, he and Vrba hid in a cavity created within a woodpile in an expansion area of new construction in the camp for the Hungarian Jews. They covered themselves with gasoline-soaked Russian tobacco, hoping it would mask their scent from the SS dogs. After remaining immobile in the hiding spot for three days, they sprinted for the woods. But even though they were outside the hellish place, they were still not safe, as the Germans had expelled the Poles from all the towns and villages in the Auschwitz region and replaced them with ethnic German Volksdeutsch.
“Once you were outside you were a marked person. Your head was shaven, you were filthy, you stank. Anyone seeing one of these escaping figures knew exactly who they were and where they had come from,” Cesarani said. “The Nazis were searching with dogs, there were SS teams scouring the countryside. It was an area that was already descending into guerrilla warfare, partisan warfare. It was covered with police, German troops, there were military installations, military convoys on the move. Very few friends.”
Vrba and Wetzler were careful, but they made mistakes along the way as they rushed to the Slovakian border. On the third day on the run, they accidentally wandered into a town. With the risk of being discovered, they tried to find their way out by stumbling down alleyways and back streets. Exhausted, starving, and lost, they asked for help and were welcomed by a peasant woman who agreed to assist them.
Another close mishap occurred when they were less than halfway to the Slovakian border, running into a woman tending to her crops. Although suspicious, the woman introduced them to a sympathetic Polish farmer, who offered to drive them to the border and direct them where they could cross to avoid the Germans.
On April 25, 1944, 15 days after fleeing Auschwitz and after walking more than 85 miles through occupied Poland, Vrba and Wetzler finally arrived at the headquarters of the Jewish Council in Zilina, Slovakia. There, Vrba described to the Council the atrocities taking place at Auschwitz. The Council was horrified. At the time, there were rumors the conditions in these camps were appalling. But few could imagine the Jews being exterminated en masse.
The two men revealed detail after detail about the systematic murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. But it began to dawn on them that the Council didn’t believe a word they were saying. According to Gilbert, the people at the Jewish Council were “astonished by the story, they couldn’t believe it because what they [were] talking about is the death of some of their closest friends, relatives, fellow Slovaks.”
Gilbert added that the councilmen couldn’t imagine something systematic where, out of 1,000 people, half of them would be taken off a train and gassed within a few hours.
“The Jewish community in Slovakia didn’t believe them at first because it was so unbelievable,” George Klein, a junior secretary of the Jewish Council at the time, said. “Killing is one thing, but to organize the killing, to make it into a huge bureaucratic apparatus to organize the transport, to have everything streamlined that was so incredibly German efficiency, that people simply didn’t believe that it was possible.”
Vrba, who had a phenomenal memory, told the councilmen the names of the people with whom he had been imprisoned. “[Vrba] memorized every transport, every train that came in, how many people were on it and how many of those people who were on it were immediately sent to the gas chamber,” Gilbert explained. Convinced the truth was being told, the Council asked them to recall all they could about what was transpiring at Auschwitz. Vrba warned them that Hungary’s Jews would be next and that the camp was ready for their arrival.
In their book, Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, historians Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum wrote that Vrba and Wetzler were able to compile the report through the “many dozens of Auschwitz prisoners who at great risk collected top-secret information on the camp crematoria.”
According to Ceserani, the process of writing and translating the reports and sending them to places such as the Vatican, the Jewish community and American representatives in Switzerland, and the Red Cross took time. By the time the report had been compiled and translated, Germany had occupied Hungary and had begun preparing for mass deportations of its Jews.
Rudolf Kastner, who was the leader of the Jewish Council in Budapest, received the Vrba-Wetzler report and was stunned, but did not release the report to the Jews of Hungary. He kept it a secret because he thought that if the information was revealed, it would derail a deal he and the Council were trying to make with the Nazis.
Joel Brand, a Hungarian Jewish council member, met personally with Adolf Eichmann, who made Brand an extraordinary offer. Eichmann would allow a million Jews to go free in exchange for 10,000 trucks loaded with supplies. Brand, feeling that the deal was too good to be true, pursued the deal. He brought the deal to the British who saw this deal as, according to Ceserani, a “grotesque trick to allow the Germans to claim they are negotiating with the British over the fate of Jews, that they’re going to take delivery of trucks to use against the Russians.”
On May 15, 1944, over a month after the escape, Vrba learned that despite risking his life to tell the world what was happening at Auschwitz, despite his pages and pages of detailed accounts, the Hungarian deportations were underway. He believed he had failed.
Two days later, approximately 4,000 Hungarian Jews arrived at Auschwitz. The Nazis bypassed the selection process and almost all of them were led to the gas chambers immediately. “The extermination of 600,000 Hungarian Jews was the fastest campaign during the entire Holocaust,” the Jewish Council’s George Klein said. “It went on with incredible speed so there wasn’t much time for reflection.”
Vrba and Wetzler were devastated. Fearful they would be recaptured, they fled to the Slovakian mountains. Now in hiding, Vrba and Wetzler felt there was nothing more they could do to help the Jews of Hungary. In Budapest, Rudolph Kastner still hoped the Eichmann deal could succeed even though the Allies wanted no part of it. Eichmann knew that as Kastner dragged out the negotiations, more Jews were being sent to the gas chambers.
In the end, Eichmann allowed over 1,600 Jews to go to safety. However, the normal deportations to Auschwitz continued. Ceserani remarked that the reason why information was not broadcast to the Jews of Hungary is that it would have been “pointless.” “The speed and ferocity of the German occupation, the speed of the round up and ghettoization, and then the ferocity with which the deportations were implemented, made any kind of response almost impossible to effect,” he said.
In June of 1944, the Nazi secret was finally exposed as a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler report was received by British Intelligence. The document was forwarded to top British and American officials. According to the PBS documentary, “On June 15, the BBC broadcast the horrific details of the report. Five days later, extracts were published in the New York Times.”
The Vrba-Wetzler Report reached Switzerland on June 18. Historian Yisrael Gutman wrote, “Now, not just the name of the place was revealed; it was also shown to be the place that had so often figured as ‘the unknown destination’ or as ‘somewhere in Poland.’ ”
On July 2, the U.S. Air Force attacked Budapest, raining bombs on the Hungarian capital. In response, Admiral Miklos Horthy of Hungary, who supported Hitler, had the trains stop the deportations. It was only a coincidence. At the time, more than 300,000 Hungarian Jews had been sent to the gas chambers, but 120,000 Jews had been saved, 75 times more than the number of Jews saved in the Kastner deal.
As the war was nearing its end, Vrba and Wetzler joined the Czechoslovak partisan resistance and fought the Nazis until the end of the war. By the time the Americans, British, and Russians advanced into Germany, the Nazis’ reign of terror began to collapse. On Jan. 27, 1945, the Russians liberated Auschwitz. By then, the Nazis had killed an estimated 1.5 million people there in a span of under five years.
After the War, Wetzler stayed in Slovakia and married a fellow survivor from Auschwitz. He became a journalist and newspaper editor. He passed away in 1988. Vrba married his childhood sweetheart, Gerta Sidonova, and moved to Canada, where he became an associate professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. He died in 2006. Both men were heroes who used their ingenuity under terrible circumstances to expose a ghastly story to a world that was largely indifferent to their plight.
Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, is observed in Israel and around the world on 27th day of Nisan, which falls on April 11-12 this year.