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On the morning of April 7, 1944, SS guards gathered their haggard group of workmen together, performed the perfunctory roll call and then marched the men outside Birkenau’s main gate, where the laborers set to work building a new barracks. As the workers toiled away, two men managed to slip undetected into a small space created inside a stack of construction lumber. Other collaborators quickly and discreetly spread gasoline-soaked tobacco around the pile of wood to mask the men’s scent. The two prisoners knew that when the alarm sounded, frenzied guard dogs and their handlers would be dispatched to hunt for them. When the prisoners’ absence was discovered that evening, camp sirens signaled the escape and a wide area outside the camp was searched for several days to no avail.

The two prisoners were Rudolf Vrba and his friend Alfred Wetzler. Vrba and Wetzler knew the Nazis would only look for them for three days and then call off the search. On April 10, the men emerged from their woodpile hideout and began the second leg of their escape to freedom.

When Vrba and Wetzler decided to attempt an escape, it was not to save their own lives, but to deliver a message to Jews in Hungary that they were about to be sent to a Nazi-run death camp in Poland. Vrba and Wetzler escaped a dragnet to deliver one of the first accounts of atrocities being committed at Auschwitz.

Eighty-two-year-old Vrba died of cancer this spring in his adopted home of Vancouver, British Columbia. Born Walter Rosenberg in the Slovakian village of Topolcany, Vrba was arrested by the Nazis in March 1942 and sent to the concentration camp at Majdanek. Three months after his arrival, the 18-year-old was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was put to work removing the bodies of those who had perished aboard train cars en route to the camp.

Vrba was present at the arrival of virtually every train at the camp until June 1943, when he was transferred to the quarantine section of the satellite camp at Birkenau. Vrba and a group of other prisoners kept track of the number of people that arrived at the camp by truck and train, and they supplemented their records with numbers gathered by workers at the camp’s crematoriums.

In July 1961, Vrba made a deposition at the Israeli Embassy in London, for submission at the trial of Adolf Eichmann: “From 30th June, 1942, until my escape…I worked as a member of the…Sonderkommando in the Property Department. I was present at the arrival of every transport to Auschwitz—or, if I was not present…I was able to get figures from my workmates.”

Vrba further stated, “My statistics were compiled during the war; they were part of the material of the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trial…the number of people killed in Auschwitz until April 7th, 1944, was about 1,750,000 with a maximum possible error not exceeding more or less than 10 percent.”

Vrba and Wetzler used a map torn from a child’s atlas to help them find their way. Eight days after making their escape, Vrba and Wetzler crossed into Slovakia, where a farmer helped them contact a Jewish doctor in the town of Cadca.

The doctor referred the men to the Slovak Jewish Council in the town of Zilina. Vrba spoke in detail of the shipments of Jews and others, the exact location of the camp, the systematic robbery and murder of those sent to the camp and the disposal of their remains. He reported: “My statistics, which were conveyed…to the representatives of the Zionist Organizations in Slovakia, were based on the following: On direct observation of the trains and the number of wagons; by discussions with those…who were not killed…but kept as prisoners; by having access to data of the so-called Economic Department, which dealt with the property of the killed people; and on the basis of reports of the registry office of the Quarantine Camp. All these figures were checked by direct information from prisoners who worked in the gas chambers and in the crematoriums in Auschwitz.”

The report, which became known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report, or the Auschwitz Protocol, was completed on April 27, 1944. The document became the first eyewitness account of the atrocities to reach the West. Copies of the report were delivered throughout Slovakia, Hungary and Switzerland.

Following his escape, Vrba joined the Czech resistance movement. When the war was over, he studied chemistry and eventually obtained a postgraduate degree in science. In 1963 Vrba published I Cannot Forget, a memoir in which he stated his belief that Jewish Councils were complicit in the deportation of the last of the Slovak and Hungarian Jews, a view that made him controversial. In 1967 Vrba emigrated to Canada, where he served on the Medical Research Council of Canada. He later became an emeritus professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. Rudolf Vrba’s friend and fellow escapee Alfred Wetzler died in Slovakia in 1988.


In a stunning policy reversal, the German Justice Minister has announced that a trove of documents related to the Holocaust will be made accessible to outside researchers. The archives, which are stored in a former SS barracks in the town of Bad Arolsen, reportedly contains the details of some 17 million people, including Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, forced laborers and others, who were persecuted in some way by the Nazis.

Germany had previously resisted providing access to the estimated 30 to 50 million documents, citing privacy considerations. The archive is administered by the International Tracing Service (ITS), which operates as a branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The documents contain a wide range of information and fill more than 15 miles of file drawers and cabinet space. They include registration documents, interrogation reports, identity cards and even delousing records. Schindler’s list—transport orders detailing the movement of Polish Jews to factories owned by German businessman Oskar Schindler—is also housed at the archives.

The 11-nation commission that oversees the archives (consisting of representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Greece, Israel, United States and Luxembourg) has agreed to amend the 1955 Bonn Treaties, which govern the use of the archives.

The ITS has used the documents to help people learn about relatives who were victims of Nazi atrocities, and since 1945 ITS has responded to more than 11 million requests for information from people in more than 60 countries. The files have been used to help survivors secure medical treatment, reparation payments and even pensions. The reports are, in some instances, the last record of individuals who were killed and who would otherwise have vanished into anonymity.


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.