Above: Rudolf Vrba (left) and Alfred Wetzler
ON THIS DATE in 1944, nineteen-year-old Rudolf Vrba and twenty-year-old Alfred Wetzler escaped from Germany’s largest concentration camp in order to tell the world about the magnitude and mechanics of the camp’s mass extermination and warn of Nazi plans to exterminate Hungarian Jews, who were scheduled to be the next victims on Hitler’s list.
In the spring of 1944, 12,000 inmates were being murdered every day at the Auschwitz camp in southern Poland, and the camp was being expanded to increase the death tally. Vrba and Wetzler, both Slovakians, had learned of Nazi plans to import Hungarians from, among others, a guard who had sickly joked, “We’re gonna get some tasty Hungarian sausage soon.”
Fleeing Auschwitz seemed impossible, but the two devised a plan in which they soaked themselves in gasoline-soaked Russian tobacco to mask their scent from German dogs and hid under a woodpile for three days. On April 10, 1944, Vrba and Wetzler emerged from the woodpile and began a remarkable journey, traversing 85 miles of German-occupied Poland and reaching freedom in northern Slovakia on April 24. The two then informed Jewish leaders of Nazi plans for Hungarian Jews and compiled the 32-page Vrba-Wetzler Report.
Vrba hoped that Hungarian Jewish leaders, on receiving the Vrba-Wetzler report, would spread the word about Auschwitz, resulting in a mass refusal to board trains bound for the Nazi killing factory, but that didn’t happen. Rudolph Kasztner, a Hungarian Jewish leader, buried the Vrba-Wetzler Report, believing it could ruin a trucks-for-lives deal he was negotiating with the Nazis. Kasztner’s swap did prevent one trainload of Jews from leaving Hungary, but on other days the trains ran as scheduled, shipping more than 300,000 victims to their death.
If the Vrba-Wexler Report saved fewer lives than its authors wished it nonetheless kept 100,000 or more Hungarian Jews alive. After the report reached Great Britain and the U.S., the Allies launched a bombing raid on Budapest to halt the deportations.
British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, speaking on the 2008 PBS documentary Escape from Auschwitz said Vrba and Wetzler were responsible for “the largest single rescue of Jews in the second World War,” and that Vrba “was the figure with- out whom none of this could have come to pass.”