On April 10, 1944 (some reports say April 7), two men escaped from Auschwitz: Rudolph Vrba (Vrba was born Walter Rosenberg in Topoľčany, Czechoslovakia. He took the name Rudolf Vrba in April 1944 after his escape, and changed his name legally after the war.) and Alfred Wetzler. They made contact with Slovak resistance forces and produced a substantive report on the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In great detail, they documented the killing process. Their report, replete with maps and other specific details, was forwarded to Western intelligence officials along with an urgent request to bomb the camps. Part of the report, forwarded to the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board by Roswell McClelland, the board’s representative in Switzerland, arrived in Washington on July 8 and July 16, 1944.
While the complete report, together with maps, did not arrive in the United States until October, U.S. officials could have received the complete report earlier if they had taken a more urgent interest in it.
In April, 1944 Vrba and Wetzler hid in a woodpile right under the guards’ noses for three days, traversed rugged and dangerous enemy terrain, and solicited the generosity of strangers. After an extraordinary 15-day trek covering 85 miles across occupied Poland, they finally reached people they thought they could help. At the Jewish Council headquarters in Zilina, Slovakia, they described the horrific activities of the Nazis at Auschwitz. Their tale was recorded in the Vrba-Wetzler Report, which they assumed would be distributed to the proper authorities, who would then force the Germans to stop the deportations and executions.
The men crossed the Polish-Slovakian border on 21 April 1944. They went to see a local doctor in Čadca, Dr. Pollack, someone Vrba knew from his time in the first transit camp. Pollack had a contact in the Slovak Judenrat (Jewish Council), which was operating an underground group known as the “Working Group,” and arranged for them to send people from their headquarters in Bratislava to meet the men. Pollack was distressed to learn the probable fate of his parents and siblings, who had been deported in 1942.
Vrba and Wetzler spent the night in Čadca in the home of a relative of the rabbi Leo Baeck.
The next day, 24 April, met the chairman of the Jewish Council, Dr. Oscar Neumann, a German-speaking lawyer.
Neumann placed the men in different rooms in a former old people’s home and interviewed them separately over three days. Vrba writes that he began by drawing the inner layout of Auschwitz I and II, and the position of the ramp in relation to the two camps. He described the internal organization of the camps, how Jews were being used as slave labour for Krupp, Siemens, IG Farben and D.A.W., and the mass murder in gas chambers of those who had been chosen for Sonderbehandlung, or “special treatment.”
The report was written and re-written several times. Wetzler wrote the first part, Vrba the third, and the two wrote the second part together. They then worked on the whole thing together, re-writing it six times.Neumann’s aide, Oscar Krasniansky, an engineer and stenographer who later took the name Oskar Isaiah Karmiel, translated it from Slovak into German with the help of Gisela Steiner.They produced a 40-page report in German, which was completed by Thursday, 27 April 1944. Vrba wrote that the report was also translated into Hungarian. The original Slovak version was not preserved.
The report contains a detailed description of the geography and management of the camps; how the prisoners lived and died; and the transports that had arrived at Auschwitz since 1942, their place of origin, and the numbers “selected” for work or the gas chambers.
Rudolf Vrba’s sketch of the Crematorium at Birkenau(translated in English)
The report provided details known only to prisoners, including, for example, that discharge forms were filled out for prisoners who were gassed, indicating that death rates in the camp were actively falsified.
It also contains sketches and information about the layout of the gas chambers. In a sworn deposition for the trial of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann in 1961, and in his book I Cannot Forgive (1964), Vrba said that he and Wetzler obtained the information about the gas chambers and crematoria from Sonderkommando Filip Müller and his colleagues who worked there.
Müller confirmed this in his Eyewitness Auschwitz (1979).Auschwitz scholar Robert Jan van Pelt wrote in 2002 that the description contains errors, but that given the circumstances, including the men’s lack of architectural training, “one would become suspicious if it did not contain errors.
The report was indeed sent to Allies around the world. But to Vrba’s horror, some copies took months to arrive in the right hands, and the most urgent copy was suppressed by Rudolph Kastner, head of the Hungarian Jewish underground, who worried it would destroy a deal he was trying to make with the Nazis. Kastner’s deal eventually saved about 1600 Jews on his “train to freedom,” but according to Vrba and others, the suppression of the report resulted in hundreds of thousands more being deported to the gas chambers.
The Jews of Europe needed outside assistance, but by then, Vrba and Wetzler had all but given up hope that their report would ever trigger a coordinated Allied response. Copies had been sent to the British, Americans and even the Pope, but nothing had happened. Then, in June of 1944, a copy of the report made its way to British Intelligence. It confirmed growing Allied suspicions that the Nazis were murdering millions of Jews. The document was immediately forwarded to top British and American officials.
On June 15th, the BBC broadcast the horrific details of the report. Five days later, extracts were published in The New York Times. The Nazi secret was finally out. America’s first official response was to threaten reprisals against anyone involved in the Hungarian deportations. The Vatican added the Pope’s condemnation. But despite the Allied pressure, Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian head of state and puppet to Hitler, allowed the deportations to continue. On July 2nd, the US Air Force attacked Budapest, raining bombs on the Hungarian capital. Horthy believed the raid was punishment for his refusal to stop the deportations. But in fact, the timing was a complete coincidence.