At this time of the year, sixty-six years ago, the Allies learnt that over 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz and murdered since May. This was thanks to the efforts of two Slovakian eyewitnesses to Auschwitz who had escaped – Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler.
By 5702/1942, Father Jozef Tiso, President of the Independent Protectorate of Slovakia, was fighting side by side with the Nazis and shanghaiing young Jews into labor battalions. Walter Rosenberg (who later changed his name to Rudolf Vrba) had made up his mind to flee to England and join the Czechoslovakian army in exile. His plan failed and on the 13th of April, 5702/1942, he and a thousand other Jews were loaded into railroad cars at Sered. The doors slammed shut so that nothing would reveal the direction of the journey; the train crossed the Slovak frontier and was taken over by SS guards. After a few of the cars had been uncoupled from the convoy, they continued on their way, arriving at night at Auschwitz.
By dint of securing easier jobs such as clerical work or working in “Canada” where
victims’ property was processed, Vrba survived the next two years.
“I found that the longer I survived, the nearer I drew to the hard core who had learned not only to live, but to prosper,” Vrba recalls. “I became recognized as a semi-permanent fixture. People began calling me by my first name; and once I was accepted by the older hands I earned promotion.”
At the time of the Eichman Trial, Vrba made a deposition in the Israeli embassy in London, explaining what he did in Auschwitz and how he knew so much of what went on there.
“I was imprisoned in Auschwitz from 30th June, 1942 until my escape on 7th April, 1944,” he recorded. “During this time I worked as a member of the so-called Sonderkommando in the Property Department. The department dealt with the property of people who had been killed in Auschwitz. I worked in this department until June 1943. I was present at the arrival of every transport to Auschwitz, or, if I was not present, as these were done in shifts, I was able to get figures from my workmates. So I was well in a position to obtain rather exact figures of how many people arrived in Auschwitz.
“in June 1943, 1 was taken out of the Sonderkommando and made registrar of the so-called Auschwitz-Birkenau KZ-Com- plex. I had, of course, the opportunity to speak to those members of each transport who were not killed immediately.”
By early 5704/1944, he noticed something that made it imperative to escape.
“We got our first hint of the horror to come when, in January, new railway tracks began edging up to the main road that lay between Birkenau I and Birkenau II,” he recorded. “The Nazis, we estimated, were preparing to kill at least a million people. For a while, we wondered in which country they would find so many Jews left; but gradually, as the clues filtered through to us, we realized who were destined to break all records. It was the Hungarians whom most of us had thought were reasonably safe. So it was that we in Auschwitz, perhaps the most isolated spot in Europe, learned a secret that was known only to the Nazi elite in Berlin.
“I knew then that this was my moment. For almost two years I had thought of escape, first selfishly, because I wanted my freedom; then, in a more objective way because I wanted to tell the world what was happening in Auschwitz; but now I had an imperative reason. It was no longer a question of reporting a crime but of preventing one; of warning the Hungarians, of rousing them, of raising an army one million strong that would fight rather than die.”
Vrba’s plan of escape was based on Auschwitz consisting of an outer and inner section. The prisoners’ living quarters in the camp covered an area of approximately five
hundred by three hundred meters and were surrounded by a double row of concrete posts connected by high-tension electric wires. Between the two rows of posts were five meters high watchtowers equipped with machine guns and searchlights. Further out at a radius of some two thousand meters, the whole camp was encircled by a second security line, also with watchtowers every one hundred and fifty meters. Between the inner and outer security lines were the factories and workshops.
The towers of the inner chain were manned at night when the prisoners returned to their barracks. During the daytime, the guards of the inner line were withdrawn and men took up duty in the outer line. At the end of the day, the garrison of the outer chain was withdrawn at twilight after it was ascertained that all the prisoners were within the inner circle. If the roll call revealed that a prisoner was missing, sirens would sound the alarm and a systematic search would be set off by guards and bloodhounds.
The secret of escaping Auschwitz was to somehow hide in the outer camp for three days until the garrison of the outer chain of sentry posts was withdrawn, and the following night the hiding escapee could make his escape. During an earlier escape attempt, prisoners had constructed a log pile in the outer camp with a cavity inside where they hid for a number of days. Although they were caught and executed, the woodpile was still there, waiting for anyone daring enough to make another attempt.
Thanks to their relatively authoritative positions at Auschwitz, Vrba and Wetzler had access to what they needed for their escape including suits, overcoats, and heavy boots, and in the afternoon they squeezed into the cavity of the wood pile.
“It took me at least an hour to impregnate our temporary prison with dog repellant…” Vrba recalled. “We could not stand up and became cramped sitting. We did not dare talk and that made time hang even more heavily. Time stood still. Then the siren split my thoughts asunder. A hundred, two hundred, five hundred feet beat a tattoo. A thousand voices shouted and two thousand answered them. Orders ricocheted from barracks to barracks and the dogs gave anxious, plaintive tongue. The search was on.
“Boots scrabbled up over the planks sending a little shower of dust and grit down on top of us. Then the dogs, snuffling, panting, their nails scraping the wood as they slithered and tumbled from plank to plank.”
Back in Slovakia
On the night of April 10th they heard the longed for shout, “Postenkette Aziehen, cordon down!” and scrambled out, viewing their prison for the first time as outsiders. Although the distance from Auschwitz to the Slovakian border was eighty miles as the crow flies and far longer due to their efforts to thread between towns to avoid capture, they made it thanks to a few friendly Poles who risked their lives helping them on their way.
Once in Slovakia, their first job was to warn the Jewish committees of the real meaning of “resettlement camps” before the transports to Auschwitz began. By April 25th the two youngsters were relating their story at the Jewish Council headquarters of Zilina in northern Slovakia. They also wrote a detailed report that became part of the “Auschwitz Protocol” used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, which incorporated information from two additional sources.
Based on their testimony, Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandel sent letters to people to beg the allies to bomb Auschwitz included, was a map of Auschwitz detailing where the gas chambers were.
“One million Hungarians are going to die,” Vrba warned the Jewish Council. “Auschwitz is ready for them. But if you tell them now they will rebel. They will never go to the ovens. Your turn is coming, but now it is the Hungarians’ hour. You must tell them immediately.”
“Don’t worry,” came the soothing reply. “We are in daily contact with the Hungarian Jewish leaders. Your report will be in their hands first thing tomorrow.”
“Have you sent my report?” Vrba asked the next morning. “Have the Hungarians got it yet?”
“Yes, it is in their hands. At this very minute it is being examined by Doctor Kastner, the most important man in the whole Hungarian committee.”
Reassured, Vrba relaxed the next few days until one morning he saw the house servant crying.
“They’re deporting the Hungarians,” she sobbed. “Thousands of them. They’re passing through Zilina in cattle trucks.”
Oscar Krasnansky, a Jewish council member, told Vrba that he was “a little anxious about the way things were working out” and had sent a copy of his report to the Papal Nuncio of Slovakia and had arranged for him to meet them. Vrba went, even though confident “that already the Jewish leaders of Budapest had warned their people and killed forever Eichman’s operation.”
Convinced of the truth of the story, Vrba writes, the Papal Nuncio went to Geneva and from there it went to the Red Cross, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt, and Pope Pius XII. By June 25th, the Papal Nuncio of Hungary was handing a letter from the Pope to Admiral Miklas Horthy, Regent of Hungary; the next day, a note arrived from Mr. Cordell Hull, the US Secretary of State, threatening reprisals, and on July 5th, Professor Karl Burskhardt, President of the International Red Cross, made a personal appeal to Horthy to desist.
On July seventh, Mr. Anthony Eden, Britain’s Foreign Secretary announced in the House of Commons that up to a million Hungarian Jews were in the process of extermination. This is Vrba’s version of what happened; historians describe the sequence of events a little differently.
Dismayed at the high-level intervention, Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s head of state, stopped the deportations on July 9th. Although the deportations resumed in October after Germany’s direct takeover of Hungary, railroad transportation was by then impossible and about thirty percent of Hungary’s Jews survived the war.
Vrba became a distinguished medical researcher after the war and wrote the stirring account of his war years from which this article is derived. There are allegations that due to his book’s criticism of Klausner and the Hungarian Judenrat, many of whom later held prominent positions in Israel, the book was quietly suppressed in Israel and rarely mentioned even by historians; decades passed before it was translated into Hebrew. Was it perhaps an inconvenient truth?
(Sources: Vrba, Rudolf & Alan Bestic. Escape from Auschwitz. New York: Grove Press Inc., 1964. Description of camp defenses from the Vrba-Wetzler Protocol)