The Escape Artist

The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World

Jonathan Freedland (2022) John Murray, London.
376 pages, £20.  ISBN: 978 1 529 16904 5

I uploaded this article on Saturday 27 January 2024, Holocaust Memorial Day.  That is befittingly apt.

If you have ever visited Auschwitz, this book will be a heart-wrenching reminder of its Nazi horrors.  And if you have never visited Auschwitz, why not?  Everyone should visit this place once in a lifetime.

September 1986
As a young man, the author of this book, Jonathan Freedland, had watched in London the 9-hour documentary film epic, Shoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust.  He recalls, ‘The film left a deep mark, but one of the interviewees stayed with me more than any other.  His name was Rudolf Vrba.  And then some thirty years after that night in the cinema in 1986, I found myself returning to Rudolf Vrba.  I began to look into the life of Rudolf Vrba.’  This compelling book is the result of Freedman’s research.  It is the true story of an unprecedented escape from perhaps the most famous of all Nazi concentration camps.  I first came to hear of Vrba in 2023 as Freedland’s account was serialised as Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 in the mornings as I drove to work.  It exposes the extremes of human nature – how cruel we can be to each other, and yet also how kind-hearted.

6 June 2013
In June 2013, I was on an 11-day lecture tour of Poland.  On Monday 6 June, my wife and I were driven by our good friend Dawid to Oświęcim, the city famous for being the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp.  We queued and bought tickets for an official tour.  Our guide, Dorothea, had a stark message to deliver and she communicated it, forcefully.  At least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz – it is almost incomprehensibly dreadful.  Before our tour started members of our little group were chattering away.  Once we had passed under the famous Arbeit macht frei arch, hardly another word was spoken.  We were all stunned to silence by what we heard and saw.  I have long been affected by the history, ethics and practice of the Nazi Holocaust, indeed, Chapter 11 of my 2002 book, The Edge of Life, contains eight pages on these topics.

Some words of assessment
The Escape Artist is an absorbing book.  It is Boy’s Own Paper derring-do stuff, except that its storyline is non-fictional, it is horribly true.  It contains a very personal description of some of the anti-semitic brutalities of the Holocaust as experienced first-hand.  Its hero, Walter Rosenberg, later known as Rudolf Vrba, was a determined Jewish teenager, an escapee from the Auschwitz concentration camp, a reasonable research scientist, a disconsolate husband and father, and a man whose dream of warning the world about the Nazi atrocities was only partially fulfilled.  His life was one of peaks and troughs, successes and failures.  Though such features form the backdrop to all our lives, his were way beyond the humdrum – they were harsh and stark.

The author of The Escape Artist, Jonathan Freedland, is a well-known Guardian journalist.  He has an easy writing style that melds historical fact and personal emotion.  Those qualities make for a book that is readable and informative about a subject that is shudderingly awful.  Reading it may change your life.

Dear Reader, I started out with the intention of producing a standard 1,000-word book review.  That aim soon went haywire – by page 65, I had already written over 1,500 words.  At that rate it would take 7,500 words to complete the task.  Clearly, the proposed book review had turned into a book synopsis.  Why not simply bowdlerise it?  Yet the narrative was far too gripping for me to abandon my abridgment.  I needed to carefully continue pursuing the story for my own education.  So the following are my thirty chapter synopses with Freedland’s subheadings.

The book is essentially about Walter Rosenberg, who later changed his name to Rudolf Vrba.  He was born on 11 September 1924 in Topoľčany, Slovakia to Ilona and Elias Rosenberg.  His mother had waited 10 years for a child and when he arrived, she doted on him.  When his father died, the youngster went to live with his grandparents, who raised him in a home of strictly orthodox Judaism.  He was happy and precociously clever at school and later at an orphanage in Bratislava.  One day the teenager decided to put God to the test – he ate some pork to see if God would be especially vengeful.  Nothing.  Of course not.  God was already so angry with Rudi that he needed a mediator, a Saviour, to be reconciled to God.  But Rudi rejected Jesus Christ and settled as an atheist rather than as a Christian.  Stupid boy.  Meanwhile, according to the Nazi legal definition, he was still a Jew and hence he was expelled from school and his formal education was terminated.

It got worse.  Jews were attacked in the streets and in their homes, their property was appropriated, their freedoms curtailed, they were excluded, humiliated and ghettoed, and now they had to wear the Star of David prominently.  In February 1942, the letter arrived.  Walter was instructed to present himself at a place and at a time with no more than 25 kilos of baggage.  He and his fellow able-bodied Jews were to be banished across the border into Poland and corralled in reservations – not deported, just resettled.  In defiance of the order, Walter decided he would go to England.  At first, his mother opposed her son’s scheme, then she concurred.

Five Hundred Reichsmarks

And so one night in March 1942, he set off from Slovakia towards the Hungarian border having first ripped off that Star of David from his coat.  As the snow fell, his teenage bravado began to shrink but then he arrived in Hungary!  Yet the underground comrades insisted he retrace his steps to collect false Aryan papers back in Slovakia.  En route Hungarian border guards found him, labelled him a spy and beat him up.  Eventually he struggled across the border back to the country of his birth.  But he was still a long way from London.

The seventeen-year-old was captured by Slovak border guards and put in a transit camp with almost 60,000 other Jews waiting to be deported.  The Slovaks were so keen to get rid of the Jews that for each one transported, Bratislava paid Berlin 500 Reichsmarks.  To which camp would Walter be allocated?  Perhaps some unknown camp, or perhaps even that one on the Slovak border near the town of Oświęcim.  Whichever, Walter was convinced he could, and would, escape from these current barbed-wire barracks.  He started planning.

Meanwhile, he met Josef Knapp, the ideal co-escapee from Walter’s hometown.  In due course, the pair took their chance and ran, dodged the guard, ducked under the wire, and within ten minutes they were free.  They split up and Walter headed to collect his promised false documents.  Foolishly, he entered a café where a Slovak gendarme asked for his papers.  Walter ran again but was outpaced by the official on his bike.  Walter was locked up in the local police station.  The very next day he was transported back to the barbed-wire barracks – a prisoner once more, moreover a beaten-up prisoner.

Walter’s name was on the register of deportees, so, packed into train wagons, each with 80 fearful others, including children, he was on his way to somewhere.  And, he was, of course, thinking about escape.  At the frontier of Slovakia and Poland, the cattle trucks were emptied, the Jews were counted and Nazi SS took over. from the Slovakian Hlinka Guard.  The train crawled on, water became scarce and the general camaraderie of those first few hours descended into wilful disorder.  Yet they imagined that better was to come.

The train eventually stopped outside Lublin.  The doors were opened to reveal a welcoming party of well-armed SS men.  The chilling order was given: men aged between 15 and 50 and fit for work to line up on the platform, children and the elderly to remain on board.  The doors were shut.  The train moved off.  The men were marched into Lublin and then south-east out.  They arrived at the courtyard of a clothing factory where hundreds of Jews stood in uniforms of dirty stripes.  Walter’s mood sank.  He then saw watchtowers, barracks and barbed-wire fences, men with shaved heads, bone-thin bodies and swollen feet.  It was Majdanek, a Konzentrationslager, a concentration camp.

The incomers were swiftly divided and categorised.  Walter was allocated to Working Section No. 2 with other Czech and Slovak Jews.  He was ordered to hand over his backpack at the absurdly named Left Luggage counter.  Then a wash like sheep dipped in a disinfectant bath, all bodily hair was sheared, finally he was given standard issue jacket, trousers, clogs and cap.  Disease, especially dysentery, was rife.  Food was poor and limited.  Twice-daily roll-calls were obligatory and exacting – even the dead were counted.  And, of course, there were long hours of back-breaking work.  Walter carried bricks and wood for the construction of what nobody knew.  This was how to dehumanise men.  Yet incredulously, Walter learned that his brother Sammy was detained in a nearby fenced-off field.  Just once they briefly saluted each other but failed to talk.  They never saw one another again.

Twelve days later in late June, Walter was moved from construction to farm work.  Away from the camp it should present opportunities for escape.  The 400 volunteer farm labourers were given regular clothes so the locals did not regard them as ‘slaves’.

Enter Josef Erdelyi, another contemporary from Walter’s hometown.  He was apparently trustworthy and also mindful to break out.  They quickly plotted to make a hole in the train wagon’s floor and escape after nightfall.  The plan was scotched after regular headcounts were made during the journey.  If one man escaped, ten would be shot.  At last, the journey was over.  The men were marched into another camp but this one was surrounded by trees and bushes.  The double gates bore a simple three-word slogan, Arbeit Macht Frei, Work Makes You Free.  It was 30 June 1942 and Walter was now a prisoner in Auschwitz.

We Were Slaves
Two days later, after his compulsory shower, came a new experience.  Walter lined up to be tattooed with his Auschwitz number.  The top of his left forearm was marked with 44070.  Clothed in prisoner’s stripes like a human zebra his identity was indistinguishable from the others and Walter found that a kind of living escape.  Yet, some of his compatriots were the living dead, unable to work, Muselmänner, non-men.  Death was all around.  Corpses, beaten, starved or diseased, were piled high onto carts for cremation, somewhere, somehow.

And so it was that the daily routine was set.  After roll-call, Walter and hundreds of others were marched out of the camp to the railway station and onto a factory destined to make synthetic rubber, known as Buna, for the German war effort.  First, their slave labour had to build the factory.  Walter’s thoughts of escape were changing to thoughts of survival.  Who could live on a midday litre of soup to be shared between five men?

Walter and Josef were soon reassigned to lighter work twisting metal rods.  Then, because of a typhus outbreak, they were shifted to work in gravel pits, shovelling gravel onto horse-drawn wagons.  It was soaking work that caused feet to be swollen – even Walter suffered immobility.  But then he was moved again, this time to a nearby factory making clothing and equipment for the German army.  Walter’s job was to paint 110 skis per shift, an indoor task comparatively relaxed.

During an extraordinary medical examination one nighttime, the hunt was on for those suffering from typhus – it was overrunning the camp.  Prisoners were physically tested and allocated to one of two groups.  The infected were killed – on 29 August 1932, this was the destiny of 746 prisoners.  Walter and Josef found themselves among the group of rejects.  But, but, they had erroneously joined the wrong group!  They changed sides and lived.

Being typhus-free was like a new escape and Walter was allocated new labour.  He would work elsewhere – known as Canada, not that one, this one, Kanada, a special area within Auschwitz where new arrivals’ luggage, blankets, pots and pan were sorted and searched for valuables.  The work was somewhat less frenetic and the housing more comfortable, but, as the eighteen-year-old Walter Rosenberg had slowly come to realise, they were still prisoners in a death factory, built for its proximity to the railway network, connecting Kraków and Katowice and thus enabling the easy transport of Jews and others.

The Final Solution
In late 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, the town of Oświęcim included a large number of empty barracks.  Perhaps they could be suitable for housing Polish political prisoners.  The new camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, built additional structures, including an upgrade to the existing mortuary and with added furnaces.  It was the vision of the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, to be a German powerhouse based in south-east Poland with factories powered by slave labour.

But within a few months, Auschwitz had a new and terrifying role – it was talked of as the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.  Already Jewish civilians were rounded up and shot in the back of the head.  By the end of 1941, some 600,000 Jews had so far been murdered across the region.  Another 50,000 had been herded into vans, sealed and gassed by exhaust.  Gas chambers on wheels were OK, but fixed, purpose-built camps were better – consider Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.

Auschwitz started experimenting in Block 11 during August 1941 with almost 1,000 non-Jews gassed by 4 September 1941.  Then the morgue was repurposed as a gas chamber with six holes in the ceiling to drop in pellets of the deadly Zyklon B.  Up to 1,000 could be crammed in and locked in – the try-out, naked Soviet prisoners thought they were going to be deloused.  Four minutes later it was all over – amid the heavy coughing, chaos and terror, the prussic acid granules had produced hydrogen cyanide which produced death.

Now the facilities were ready for Jews.  Additional amenities, including nearby Birkenau were adapted – the Final Solution was approaching.  Irregular gassing sessions became regular with Jews imported from many European countries.  The crematoria could burn 1,440 bodies a day, but that was not enough – gassed corpses were buried in deep ditches in the neighbouring forests.  The stench was abominable.

Big Business
Alongside Auschwitz as a killing centre, was Auschwitz as a business enterprise.  The treasures of Kanada – cash, gold fillings, diamonds, human hair, artificial limbs, anything of value were collected – between 1942 and 1944 an estimated six tons of dental gold were extracted.  And trading was also internal.  Prisoners appropriated goods from Kanada and used it as currency.  Food was favourite.  Walter treasured a page from a child’s atlas – he studied it thinking about a route of escape.

Meanwhile, Walter’s hard work was gaining him promotion within the camp.  He became a courier of goods for Bruno, a camp guard.  He was caught and lashed until unconscious and dangerously unfit for work.  Walter needed an operation on a developing abscess.  Bruno owed him and the traumatic operation was both arranged and successful.  He returned to work.

The Ramp

Now he was employed unloading the ramp by the train track.  He had arrived here several months ago.  Now he met the doomed new arrivals in what was for them the final few hours of their lives – tens of thousands of condemned faces, lined up in neat Germanic rows of five.  It was Walter’s job to clear first, the abandoned luggage from the wagons, and second, the dead bodies, perhaps 300 if the train had come over 10 days from the bitter east, or only three or four if from the purportedly civilized west a couple of days away – the dying and the dead were regarded as one.

Meanwhile, the arrivals were allocated – to the right for life, left for death, but in reality, it was either a later or an immediate death.  Amid the repeated cacophony, children crying, the parting of husbands and wives, Walter was being affected deeply and he wanted even more to escape.  But now he wanted to escape and sound the alarm.  Someone had to.

The Memory Man

One night while Walter was working on the ramp, carrying two pieces of luggage, he tripped and fell but saw through the planks a ten-foot space beneath the ramp – a hiding place he thought.  And some planks were loose!  And it was outside the camp perimeters.  So, enter the space, wait until everyone had left, then emerge and run into the Polish countryside.

But within days the ramp was reinforced with concrete.  Oh no!  Yet because he has seen murder all around, he felt more obligated to act, but not by a reckless move – for example, killing one SS guard would only lead to the killing of one hundred prisoners.  He had to escape and warn the world.  In the meantime, he would count the atrocities and store the data in his brain for later use.  After all, now he could not unsee or unremember the slaughter.

Of course, typhus came back – it never went away.  And Walter and Josef thought they might be sufferers, so they decided to attempt to lie low in Kanada rather than be sent to the hospital with its potentially deadly outcome.  But Josef could not wait, he made a dash for the fence and was shot.  In Kanda, Walter, hidden in a pile of old clothes, recuperated, though now he weighed less than seven stone.

Auschwitz was taking its toll – Walter was dying.  And yet his resilience was so admired that he was admitted into membership of the Auschwitz underground resistance.  Moreover, because he was an observer of the guards’ petty crimes, such as bribery and blackmail, they owed him.  He got a ‘good’ job sorting spectacles.  His work took him to the insanitary Birkenau, previously used to stable military horses, which now reeked of rotting flesh.  There he saw the unforgettable sight of eighteen-foot-deep craters with their smouldering bodies.

By now a disillusioned Walter could see that the underground’s primary purpose was merely comfort within the camps, not slowing the organised murder of the Jews of Europe.  Walter must escape and warn.

‘It Has Been Wonderful’
Typhus was back and a camp reorganisation put Walter to work as assistant to the registrar of the mortuary, Alfréd Wetzler.  They had first met in their hometown of Trnava.  Their task now was to deal with the dead bodies – record the tattooed number, rip out any gold teeth and throw the corpse onto a waiting truck.  He was soon promoted to registrar of Sub-section A, a new site, which gave him a measure of free movement – good news for him and good news for the underground.

He now had an intimate knowledge of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.  In addition, Walter had found love – Alicia Munk, a beautiful Czech Jewess, who met and talked with Walter every day separated by the wire fence.  But she and thousands of other Czech Jews were due to be gassed on 8 March, six months after their arrival.  They were macabre showpieces, kept as ‘special families’ to show the International Red Cross and any other observers that things were OK in Auschwitz.

Would there be a coordinated uprising in the camp?  Yes perhaps, but in reality, no.  Only a few twins escaped the gas as they were reassigned for medical experimentation, perhaps with Dr Josef Mengele, the so-called ‘Angel of Death’.  So even knowledge of their certain fate was not enough.  Denial was easier than confrontation.  Walter had to escape and tell the truth.

Escape Was Lunacy
And yet, escape was lunacy.  Trying to escape meant sure death, a certain hanging.  Others had made such plans.  For instance, Fero Langer, aka ‘Bullo’ openly bragged about his plan. With four other prisoners and the help of an SS friend, they would show forged permits, walk out of the camp for essential work, get in a prearranged truck and drive to the Slovak border.  Simple!

In January 1944, the escape siren sounded and by 18.00, the five shot bodies were on display – they had been betrayed by the SS friend.  And it happened more than once.  Never trust an SS friend was always the sober lesson.  From 1940 to 1942, only fifty-five prisoners had attempted to escape.  In 1943, the number rose to154.  However, no Jew got out alive.  But Walter had privileges of movement and connection and he had learned the local geography.  He knew that just outside the camp was the river Soal and it ran north-south to Slovakia.  If he followed it heading south against its flow, he would be free for ever.

Russian Lessons

Walter continued to use his status to keep up with the news.  Apparently, a million Jews from Hungary were coming to Auschwitz and a new 1.25-mile railway line was to be built straight to the gas chambers and crematoria.  Walter needed a mentor.  He plumped for the Russian, Dimitri Volkov, a bear of a man, a captain in the Red Army.  Once trusted friends, he gave Walter a crash course in escapology.  Do not carry money to avoid the temptation to shop and contact with people.  Do not carry meat because the SS Alsatians will sniff you out.  Carry a knife and a razor blade, in case of capture, do not get taken alive thereby avoiding interrogation.  And use a watch for time keeping and as a compass.  Never walk doing the daylight.  If you can be seen, you can be shot.  Trust no one.  Tell your plans to no one.

Yet Walter wanted a companion and partner and that had to be his best friend, Alfréd Wetzler.  More than 600 Jews from Trnava had been deported from Slovakia to Auschwitz, two years later there were only two alive – Walter and Alfréd.  Both had escape plans.  Walter shared them with the underground, who refused to back Walter’s youth and inexperience.  He was becoming more and more inpatient.  He needed a credible plan and soon.

The Hideout

Electric fences, watchtowers, armed guards and dogs had to be overcome.  Walter learned the various patterns of Auschwitz’s day and night security.  He also knew that the SS would not deviate from such patterns unless a prisoner went missing.  Such an occurrence would give him an escape route after the statutory 72-hour SS standdown of the guarded outer perimeter.  An escapee would first have to endure three days of hiding in silence, then he could break free of the outer cordon, perhaps.

Four others had similar ideas.  They had spotted a crater, which, if covered with planks could become an underground shelter, a hideout.  The four tried it.  They successfully hid there for 72 hours then carefully emerged.  They were out of Auschwitz.  Alas, they were spotted by a group of German foresters who saw the shaved heads and tattooed arms and called the police.  Days later, prisoners were forced to watch two other failed escapees flogged with 50 lashes and then hanged.  Then the four were given 36 lashes each and entirely unexpectedly marched off to Block 11, the torture centre and released given hard labour.  Later, Walter approached one named Eisenback and asked softly, ‘Do they know?’  The reply was a grunted, ‘No.’  The four had not broken.  The hideout was intact, still usable.

Let My People Go
They set the day – Monday 3 April 1944.  Coats, boots and all that was needed were sourced from Kanada.  The meeting time was set for 14.00 at the outer camp and the woodpile with two other helpers.  The hour came, but no Fred – he had been held up by a vigilant guard.  So, it was rescheduled for the next day – this time a helper was unavoidably held up.  Day three came and went – Fred was randomly stopped by guards because of his long hair.  Day four arrived but an SS guard, Viktor Pestek, had fallen for a young Jewish woman, Renée Neumann, and he wanted her freed.  That would involve a safe house for Renée and her mother on the outside.  He needed help from the Jewish resistance.  After a tip off, Pestek’s complex plan went wrong, he was arrested, interrogated and shot.  With SS activity heightened it was not a good day for Fred and Walter to escape – they paused again.

On Friday 7 April, as Walter approached the woodpile suddenly two guards grabbed him.  They were new and unaccustomed to Walter’s elaborate dress.  Would they frisk him and find incriminating items?  They found cigarettes but not the watch.  Instead, they thrashed him with a bamboo stick, which meant that he had been spared a more rigorous search.  Walter approached the hideout when another guard stopped him for a chat.  Eventually, Walter saw the others, they removed several layers of wood and Walter and Fred slipped in.  All was dark and silent.  It was Good Friday and the start of Seder, the Jewish Passover, celebrating ancient liberty from bondage.  It was appropriate.


The next three days and nights were the longest in Walter’s life.  He heard the sirens, dogs and the roll-calls.  They had a full eighty hours to hide.  In due course, though painfully thirsty and hungry, they started to lift the planks, now extra heavy because of their atrophied muscles, yet now was the time to move because the outer perimeter was unmanned.  With enormous effort the planks began to move and they pulled themselves out of the hole.  Crawling command style they reached the small forest.  Walter stretched out to touch an expected surface of a road or water of a river – it was sand, perhaps to hide mines or record the footprints of escapees.  They crossed it.  They were at the inner ditch at the perimeter of the camp.  They hit a surprise fence.  They lifted it and crawled through.  They walked on across marshy, open moorland.  It was 10 April 1944 and the duo had achieved what no other Jew had done before – they had broken out of Auschwitz.

On the Run

They were now heading south on their way to the land of their birth, Slovakia.  There they expected nothing, and no one expected them.  They had no contacts, no documents, no map, no compass.  Dawn was coming and they were still too near the Auschwitz camp.  Suddenly an SS escort passed by some 500 yards away.  They held tight, then crawled and ran to a thick group of fir trees.  A group of Hitler Youth members sat and ate their sandwiches within a stone’s throw.  It began to rain and then pour enough to scare off the Youth.  Walter and Fred marched off, found a patch of bushes, and slept.

At night, they followed the Sola, then lost it, wandered too close to a sub-camp of Auschwitz and generally strayed into unfamiliar country.  They found a sheltered, hidden spot, but in daylight it turned out to be a public park, an SS family playground.  Then they discovered themselves in the streets of Bielsko and dawn was on its way.  They had to move on.  They kept getting lost – they needed help and contrary to Volkov’s rules, made contact with a stranger.  They risked it and approached a random cottage and met a friendly woman peasant.  She fed them and allowed them to stay until the next morning.  They walked on and three hours later reached the snow-capped mountains.  It was an area teeming with German soldiers.  They hid, slept and strode on as evening loomed.

Crossing the Border
They were resting when a gun discharged and a bullet whizzed over Walter’s head.  A patrol of a dozen German soldiers had spotted them barely seventy yards away.  Against all the escapees’ rules, they ran.  The air was cracking with gunfire.  They were paralysed with fear but pushed ahead as the German dogs were closing in.  The fugitives ran and plunged across a wide stream that threatened to drown them.  Somehow, they reached the other side where the ground was covered in deep snow.  They reached a wood with the soldiers still chasing, but the dogs gave up.

Walter and Fred were now safe, sort of.  They continued to walk by night and rest by day.  It was now ten days since they started their trek.  They overlooked the Polish town of Milówka.  Walter recognised it from that page in the atlas.  By his reckoning they were within two towns of the Slovak border.  They pressed on and met a woman herding some goats.  There was a silent standoff – all parties knew the risk.  Then Walter stupidly blurted out that they were escapees from Auschwitz.  Although he wanted to tell the world, at least one person had now heard.  The woman promised them food and off she went.  Was it a trick, was she an informant?  They waited and a frightened boy arrived with a food parcel.  The old woman returned that evening with a man carrying a gun.  He was friendly and housed the two overnight and promised to lead them over the border the next day.

After two days walking with the man, he pointed to a forest and said those long-anticipated words, ‘That’s Slovakia.’  They crossed in broad daylight at 09.00.  Yet care was needed because Slovakia was still led by home-grown fascists led by Father Jozef Tiso.  To get in touch with the Jewish community they were booked to see a Dr Pollack, the local doctor whom Walter had known back in Nováky.  When they met, Dr Pollack began to tremble at the news.  Walter was the first of the 60,000 Jews deported from Slovakia to return.  And he had at last revealed the terrible truth concerning the murderous activities occurring in the Auschwitz camp.

In Black and White
That truth began to be told more widely as Walter and Fred spoke separately first to Erwin Steiner, a member of the Jewish organisation, ÚŽ, and then to more senior Jewish leaders.  Walter drew maps of the Auschwitz complex with its factories and crematoria, gas chamber and ovens.  And then the pair told of the ramps, selection process, tattooing, numbers, hangings, typhus, gas, shootings, the lot.  The listeners were looking for inconsistencies in their stories – none was found.

Throughout these events, Walter had become enraged.  Why had not the ÚŽ organisation sent an envoy to Auschwitz to discover the truth?  Why had so many believed the untruth about the much-lauded, so-called ‘resettlement’ scheme?  In the meantime, Mrs Steiner typed and merged the testimonies of the pair.  The outcome was thirty-two, single-spaced pages of rather dispassionate facts and figures.  This Auschwitz Report had flaws, perhaps the greatest was that it made no mention of the imminent threat to the Jews of Hungary – the prime purpose behind Walter’s and Fred ‘s escape.  But the document’s foreword insisted that it told of events that had already happened, not prophesies of possibilities.  OK, but Walter wanted action and he stormily criticised the Jewish leaders for their inertia.  Nevertheless, the two accepted the Auschwitz Report – better something than nothing.  It was copied and distributed.  And its sources were given false Aryan papers and new names.  Fred was now Josef Lánik and Walter became Rudolf Vrba.

Men of God

Hungarian Jewry was already under threat.  Its government had a long history as an anti-Jewish administration, so it was unlikely to be sympathetic to the Auschwitz Report.  The best option was to look to the so-called men of God.  Men, such as Dr Géza Soós, a Calvinist activist who worked in Hungary’s Foreign Ministry.  He had a young pastor friend, József Eliás, who he arranged to meet to show him the Report and ask for a Hungarian translation and six copies.  The origin of the copies must not be traceable by government officials.  This work was completed by Mária Székely, a volunteer at the Good Shepherd Mission.  It was sent to the Protestant and Roman Catholic hierarchies who, alas, did not see the urgency or size of the issue before them.  They feared a governmental backlash and thus missed the opportunity – they said little and did virtually nothing.

What Can I Do?

Back at Auschwitz, the Germans were outraged.  They demoted and flogged all Jewish registrars and assigned them to hard labour.  Other potential escapees followed the Walter and Fred model, but they were not so well planned and so were unsuccessful.  For instance, Czeslaw Mordowicz and Arnošt Rosin escaped for a few days only to drop their guard while back in Hungary where they celebrated their escape in a local tavern – they were reported and arrested and sentenced to eight days in jail.  Their experiences and testimonies were used as a seven-page addendum to the Auschwitz Report.

Though the word was out, it seemed to be doing no good.  The future victims, the Jews of Hungary, had apparently received no warning – they kept coming in the trains.  At last, a papal envoy in Switzerland, Mario Martilotti, asked to meet the escapees – Vrba and Mordowicz made the journey.  The meeting was initially delayed but finally they spoke for six hours, yet their presentation seemed to be politely accepted but with no urgency.  However, when Martilotti was told that Catholic priests were arriving at Auschwitz already dead, his mood changed, and he fainted.  When he came round he asked, ‘What can I do?’  Rudi replied, ‘Sound the alarm with all and any means.’  They hoped that sending the Report to the USA, the UK, the International Red Cross and, of course, the pope would have an instant effect.  It did not.  A few days later, close to 12,500 Hungarians arrived in a single day.  Almost all of them were gassed on arrival.

London Has Been Informed
The Auschwitz Report was being slowly circulated.  However, its thirty-two pages were far too long for newspaper headlines and so various shortened version were produced.  Sure, the truth was emerging, and people were shocked by its content, but it was making little headway in changing international attitudes, let alone stopping the death camps’ activities.  For example, for the hundreds of thousands of Jews of Hungary, it was too little too late.  Even when broadcast by the BBC and American radio it got buried, and was often simply passed onto others saying, ‘Seems more in your line.’  Take Roswell McClelland, a US bureaucrat based in Switzerland.  He received a copy of the Report but did not send it to Washington until October, nearly four months after he first saw it.  The Report needed both publication and distribution – both were sluggish.  Meanwhile, the murdering continued. 

The US policy was that the best hope for the victims of Nazism was that Nazism be defeated.  Any diversion from that goal would be counterproductive.  In other words, count the US out.  Indeed, US bombers were operating within five miles of Auschwitz – so why not bomb the gas chambers and crematoria?  ‘Why not?’ some asked.  The UK response was better.  In the hands of prime minister, Winston Churchill, and Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, the Report was read and they agreed that bombing of certain railway tracks, plus Auschwitz and other death camps should commence.  Nevertheless, their idea was rejected by Archibald Sinclair, the minister in charge of the Royal Air Force.  The Auschwitz Report reached the very heart of command of the Allies, but Auschwitz was never bombed, except once accidentally.

Hungarian Salami
Rudi would, of course, have been disappointed by the inaction of the Allies.  But his chief aim was to warn his fellow Jews.  He wanted them, above all, to have advance knowledge.  It was difficult.  On one occasion, he presented the Report to the members of the Jewish Council in Budapest urging them to save themselves.  They said and did nothing.  Was the Report unbelievable and its readers incredulous?  Had bribery produced inaction.  Moreover, there was evidence that some Jews were known to have negotiated and bargained with the Nazis.  One example involved the man charged with solving ‘the Jewish question’, Adolf Eichmann.  It was often a case of cash in exchange for Jewish lives.  The four escapees decided they would have to publish the Report themselves, so they headed to Bratislava and set up a clandestine publishing house.

Once in Bratislava, Rudi was reintroduced to Gerta Sidonová, a girlfriend of years ago from Trnava.  He was different now, still short but his eyes were filled with sadness and even suspicion.  She was glad to type up the extra copies of the Report as Rudi asked.  One such copy found its way into the hands of the Hungarian regent’s daughter-in-law and eventually into those of her father-in-law, Miklós Horthy.  As head of the Hungarian state he now knew the truth, but the deportation of Hungarians and the trains arriving at Auschwitz continued – the fate of the 200,000 Jews of Budapest remained uncertain.  By now, even the pope and president Roosevelt had made some conciliatory remarks.  Indeed, the US warned that war criminals would be held to account.  It was that statement that unnerved the Hungarian leadership rather than any sympathy for the Jews.  However, the trains from Budapest did eventually stop and it could be said that Rudolf Vrba and Fred Wetzler had saved 200,000 lives.

A Wedding with Guns

Rudi and Gerta were getting on well.  Yet all around them were changes due to invasions, governments, deportations and so on.  It was unstable everywhere, even in Slovakia.  Then Gerta and her mother had the knock on the door, ‘Open up, this is the Gestapo.’  They were interrogated for a week.  Gerta knew escape was imperative so one day she jumped out of the window of the Gestapo building and ran and ran.  Meanwhile, Rudi and a group of partisans were fighting, and winning, battles against the SS.  Within weeks, the war was over – Hitler was dead, the Nazis had surrendered.  Rudi was awarded various medals and he enrolled at a school for military veterans.  He signed up at the Czech Technical University in Prague to train as a chemical technician.  It was there that he was surprisingly reunited with Ilona Rosenberg, his mother.  And there in Prague too was Gerta Sidonová, as a medical student.  One Sunday afternoon, Rudi asked Gerta to marry him and so they were on 16 April 1949.

They were immersed in their careers – Rudi signed up for a PhD in biochemistry of the brain while Gerta researched the physiology of the nervous system.  They should have been happy.  Lamentably, Rudi would get drunk on vodka and would fly into unexpected jealous rages.  Auschwitz was still affecting him, damaging him greatly and it was hard for Gerta to live with him.  Their first child, Helena, was born in 1952.  Two years later, Zuzana was born.  The family was overjoyed with life for a while, but the parents would clash and they began to drift apart while Rudi had numerous affairs.  It was too much for Gerta, she wanted a divorce.

In February, the communists seized the government of Czechoslovakia.  His marriage was over and Rudi was lonely.  He was appointed to a university office and told to weed out students who were anti-communists or bourgeois.  He refused and was forced to resign.  He retreated into his biochemistry research.  Eventually his scholarship was recognised and the communists gave him some well-equipped laboratory space.  But he still did not feel a free man in 1950’s Prague.  He wanted to escape again.

A New Nation, A New England
He wanted to break out of communist Czechoslovakia.  His notable scientific research led the way.  He was rewarded by the granting of a passport so he could attend conferences and lecture abroad.  Meanwhile, Gerta was planning similarly to attend a European conference but using an illegal flight to Copenhagen and freedom.  Rudi was illegally heading to Israel where citizenship would be automatic.  And both were escaping on the very same day!

A few weeks later Rudi was offered a job in the USA but was not granted the necessary visa.  He disliked Israel saying it was too clannish and there were even Nazi collaborators and those who failed to circulate the Auschwitz Report prospering there.  It was certainly not ‘a land of milk and honey.’  He stayed eighteen months and then arrived in London, his dream destination as a teenager.

He was gainfully employed by the UK’s Medical Research Council.  In some ways it was an extension of his previous work and Auschwitz experience – what happens to a living creature when confronted with extreme, mortal stress?’  More locally, Rudi and Gerta still enraged one another whenever they met with their girls.  They went to court and Gerta won custody of the children with Rudi granted limited visitation rights.  The trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 brought some fame to Rudi – he told his story in a five-part serial in the Daily Herald.  Interviews and media appearances followed plus a book entitled, I Cannot Forgive.  The object of the title was apparently not Hitler and the Nazis, but it was more likely that Rudi still harboured a fury against those who failed to circulate and act upon his Auschwitz Report.  The future looked good – and then it slowly began to fall apart.  He found access to his girls harder and his research contract was not renewed.

The forty-three-year-old’s life was looking like a dead end, but the ingenious Rudi, as usual, had an escape plan.  This time, in 1967, it was to move again to yet another country, Canada, more precisely to the faculty of medicine at UBC, Vancouver.  In 1972, he was granted Canadian citizenship and a year later he was awarded a two-year lectureship at Harvard and a research fellowship at Boston.

Things were indeed looking up – he soon met the young Robin Lipson and they soon hit it off.  On 13 September 1975, they were married.  They never had children but Rudi seemed to mellow and he enjoyed cooking, mainly dishes from the old country – goulash, chicken paprikash and schnitzel.  Yet his temper could still rage.   Rudi also spent several years as an expert witness in trials involving the wicked men of Auschwitz and at times he helped Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter.  And he was at the forefront of prosecuting those who were Holocaust deniers.

I Know a Way Out

And he was a star of two of the foremost Holocaust films, The World at War and Shoah.  Though Rudi mentioned Fred on every suitable occasion, the rift between them was growing.  The principal cause?  Fred’s marriage to an Auschwitz survivor.  And he did not endorse Fred’s tacit approval of oppressive communism by his continued residence in Czechoslovakia.  They were separated by the Iron Curtain and as time went on, their accounts of the escape from Auschwitz diverged.

The truth was that neither were famous, their names were seldom heard.  Even at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, the Auschwitz Report was filed, but not under their names.  They disagreed over the ideology and actions of Zionism, whereas the leaders and supporters of this nationalist movement were many and varied, both their friends and foes.  It was not helpful that Rudi tended to use the word Zionism as shorthand for Jews in authority.

Moreover, Rudi had been variously described as anti-Zionist, anti-communist, and somewhat anti-semitic.  He was not the hero of everyone, especially among Holocaust historians.  Neither was he the archetypical old Jewish man – Rudi was tanned, fit and vigorous and seemed to come from a different age of Auschwitz survivors.  He even smiled when interviewed – his retort was, ‘Should I cry?’

He shunned collective Jewish life in Vancouver.  He almost never set foot in a synagogue.  He was awkward and angry and sometimes insufferably difficult.  His theme was always the same – the Jews of Hungary had been betrayed by those, especially Rezső Kasztner, who refused to tell the truth as found in the Auschwitz Report.  Yet others saw him differently, as a man who, despite his sufferings, had not lost his lust for life.  He was a practical joker, vain about his appearance, yet not defeated by life.  What a labyrinthian he was.

Flowers of Emptiness
Yet his life was soon to take a terrible turn.  He had always enjoyed and maintained a closeness, writing and phoning, with his daughters in England.  When Helena reached her mid-twenties, they hit a rough patch.  After three years, correspondence stopped.  She had become a staunch feminist and regarded him as a chauvinist.  He vehemently opposed her proposed career move to Papua New Guinea.  In truth, it all went terribly wrong.

She had fallen in love with a married man, who later returned to his wife.  Within a few days in 1982, Helena Vrbova was dead, a book by her side was entitled Flowers of Emptiness.  It was suicide and Rudi was utterly distraught at the loss of his firstborn.  Was Helena a second-generation victim of Hitler and the Nazis?  He was prone to blame himself – it obsessed him.  Such were the negative effects that Rudi returned to religion.  He talked about ‘my Creator’ and he began to pray.  In 1990, eight years after Helena’s death, Rudi moved back to his homeland.  He walked the streets and meditated.  That somehow brought him a sense of peace and deliverance.

Too Many to Count
The 1980s and 1990s were kinder to Rudi because he was given more of a platform for speaking on Holocaust affairs, though still less than he expected.  In 1988, Fred Wetzler died as a bitter, drunk and forgotten man.  Meanwhile, Rudi was forever convinced that, despite the publication of the Auschwitz Report, the Jews knew nothing about the atrocities awaiting them as they boarded the deportation trains.  This was peculiar, even unbelievable.  After all, Hitler had declared that, ‘the result of this war will be the complete annihilation of the Jews.’

Alas, Rudi was wrong in thinking that once the Allies knew the facts, they would act.  Some cautioned against interference because the proposed case of ‘the wailing Jews’ was overegged by ‘usual Jewish exaggeration’.  Whatever, the name and function of Auschwitz had remained largely unknown and apparently uncared about.  And an unhelpful generational split was evident – the young believed the Report, the middle-aged did not.  The latter were in effect Holocaust deniers.

Rudi remained steadfast – information alone is insufficient.  It must be believed.  Then that knowledge would lead to action.  As if that load was not enough, Rudi was suffering from bladder cancer.  For the eighty-two-year-old, the outlook after removal by surgery was hopeful.  But it returned and formed metastases in his legs.  His health declined but his greatest comfort was a renewed relationship with his daughter.  Zuza moved to Vancouver to be with her Tata every day until his death on 27 March 2006.  He had stubbornly refused to discuss funeral arrangements.  The bleak service was on a Saturday, a sabbath, nine months later a memorial event was attended by about forty people.  It was not a thanksgiving for a hero.  Was he more like a Jewish prophet delivering a warning only to grieve when it was not heeded?  Yet together, Rudi and Fred had enabled 200,000 Budapest Jews to escape.  His own life had been marked by great escapes.  Indeed, Rudi was a great escape artist who enabled countless others also to escape.

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