Saturday, August 1, 2020

A Miraculous Escape from Auschwitz - A WWII Story

by Cindy K. Stewart


Courtesy of Auschwitz.org

Walter Rosenberg, who later changed his name to Rudolf Vrba, and fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler escaped from the infamous Auschwitz Death Camp on April 7, 1944. Their method of escape was rather unique, and the comprehensive report they wrote about the mass executions taking place at Auschwitz helped to save the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

Walter was 15-years-old when he was forced to leave school and study at home due to the anti-Jewish laws passed by the pro-Nazi German protectorate of Slovakia. Three years later, at age 17, he'd had enough. He tore the Star of David off his clothes and left home in a taxi, hoping to make it to Great Britain. At the Hungarian border, frontier guards captured him and sent him to a transition camp. Hoping to improve his situation, he volunteered for a "Work Farm" assignment, which was in reality a one-way trip to Auschwitz. He held various jobs at Birkenau (Auschwitz II), where the gas chambers and crematoriums were located.

By April of 1944, about 90% of the new arrivals to Auschwitz (6000 people) were sent straight to the gas chambers each day. Drunken SS guards spilled the news that Hungarian Jews would soon arrive. Auschwitz II had a very active camp underground/resistance organization made up of prisoners who worked in various departments in the camp. After the group learned that Rosenberg and Wetzler wanted to escape, the members aided their plans. It was past time to expose the Nazi's secret crimes to the outside world. 


Confiscated clothing in the "Kanada" section of Auschwitz
Courtesy of Wikipedia. Public Domain.

The underground gathered data from the central registry, a list of the SS officers working around the crematoria, drawings of the layout of the gas chambers and crematoria, records of the transports gassed in two of the crematoriums, and a label from a Zyklon B canister. In one department, prisoners sorted through the large quantities of items confiscated from the new arrivals and packaged the goods to send to Germany. From this supply, the underground gathered suits, socks, underpants, shirts, a razor, a torch, glucose, vitamins, margarine, cigarettes and a lighter for Rosenberg and Wetzler. 


Courtesy of Auschwitz.org
A barbed wire perimeter surrounded the barracks where the prisoners slept at night, and the Nazi guards erected another external perimeter during the day. A stack of wood for constructing new buildings had been placed in a construction area between these two perimeters. The men created a hollowed-out space in the wood pile, and on Friday, April 7th, 1944, Rosenberg and Wetzler, clad in suits, overcoats, and boots, climbed inside their hiding place. A Russian POW had previously told them they needed to soak strong-smelling Russian tobacco in petrol and dry it out to hide the men's scent from the guard dogs. Their underground helpers piled wood around the escapees and sprinkled the area with the prepared tobacco. 


Rosenberg had observed that after someone went missing at Auschwitz, the SS would hunt for them for three days and three nights before calling off their search. The two men stayed in the wood pile undetected for three nights and throughout the fourth day. After nearly 80 hours, they crawled out of their hiding place at 9:00 PM on Monday, April 10th. 

Rosenberg and Wetzler headed south to Slovakia, eighty-one miles away. Polish civilians assisted them with food and shelter, and they crossed the border after eleven days. A peasant family in Slovakia put them in contact with a nearby Jewish doctor who sent them by train to the Slovak Jewish Council in Žilina. Although the Slovakian government had turned over thousands of its Jews to the Nazis who deported them, part of the Jewish community was left alone to operate its schools and synagogues as a show piece for German propaganda.


Vrba and Wetzler's Escape. Courtesy of Wikipedia and Martin Gilbert.
Rosenberg and Wetzler wrote a full report of the atrocities taking place at Auschwitz, including drawings and detailed facts to back up their testimony. Rosenberg signed the report with his new name - Rudolf Vrba. The report was translated from Slovak into German and completed on April 27th. It was copied and taken to Hungary, Switzerland, the UK, Romania, and the United States. The story eventually hit the newspapers, and leaders of several countries pressured Hungary to stop the deportations. The U.S. and Britain bombed Budapest on July 2 and dropped leaflets stating those responsible for the deportations would be held accountable.
Miklos Horthy
Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Although the Nazi's had invaded Hungary in March of 1944 to prevent the country from withdrawing from the war, the Germans had left Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy in power. After the Allies bombed Budapest, Horthy reasserted his authority and ordered an end to the mass deportations. Prior to that, 437,000 Hungarian Jews had been sent to Auschwitz between May 15 and July 7. The order to stop the deportations resulted in the sparing of 200,000 Jews in Budapest.

Vrba and Wetzler survived the war, wrote books about their experiences, and lived to an advanced age. Vrba argued to the day he died that more lives could have been spared if the report had been disseminated immediately. He maintained that politics had played a part in keeping their account quiet for a time. Over the years many theories have been presented for why this may have happened, but that's a story for another time. 


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Sources:

Memorial and Museum Auschwitz Birkenau - "Escapes and Reports"

Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team - "Rudolph Vrba - I Escaped from Auschwitz"

Wikipedia - "Rudolph Vrba" 

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Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, is a 2020 finalist for the Georgia Romance Writers Maggie Award of Excellence, placed second in the 2019 North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations contest, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-nine years. Their married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren live only an hour away. Cindy’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you for posting. I had not heard about these men, and I can't imagine what it was like hiding for three days wondering if I would be captured.

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    1. Thank you, Linda! Can you imagine lying still for that long?

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  2. What an amazing story, thank you for highlighting it!

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, Connie! I'm glad you enjoyed the story.

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  3. This is a heart wrenching, yet at the same time, heart warming narrative of two courageous men and a lot of wonderful people helping. It demonstrates the God-given power generated when people join and work together to fight against evil. Those two men not only freed themselves, at great risk, but had a mission to help other poor suffering souls. It's plain to see God's hand in their escape. What an encouraging story, thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for your comments, Marlene! I love to read stories about people who risk their lives to help others, and I love to see God's handiwork, especially in the darkest times. More to come!

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  4. Cindy, what a great article! Whenever I learn about people escaping from or even living through the treatment of the Nazi death camps, I marvel at the tenacity and resilience of the God-given human spirit. Thanks for sharing about this amazing escape.

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    1. Thank you, Kathleen! It's amazing that so many of these people lived through such unimaginable times but later went on to lead meaningful lives.

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