From the time the death camp at Auschwitz received its first inmates in 1940 until it was taken by the advancing Red Army in early 1945, very few people even attempted to leave the camp of their own free will. Hundreds of thousands walked into the camp, only to be turned to dust, having been fed to a ghastly machine that used their gassed remains for fuel. Numerous prisoners would be transferred from this massive “production” center to other camps, and nearly 20,000 would be forced to leave when the Russian guns got too close for German comfort.
But escape? Well, there were numerous attempts, but success was almost impossible.
But not totally impossible.
On April 7, 1944, Rudolf Vrba (on the left) and Alfred Wetzler (on the right) took their shot at freedom. And while these two had no other companions, they had the assistance of many. A new camp in the “Mexico” section was under construction, and there was a large pile of wood sitting outside the fences of the main camp, but inside the guarded outer cordon. Men belonging to the camp underground dug out a foxhole underneath the pile of wood and, at 2pm that Friday afternoon, Wetzler and Vrba entered the hole.
They went in alone, but not empty-handed. They carried detailed plans of Auschwitz and its location, as well as the names of officers. Filip Müller, a fellow prisoner in the crematoria and eventual author of Eyewitness Auschwitz, did his part as well. He writes, “I handed to Alfred a plan of the crematoria and gas chambers as well as a list of names of the SS men who were on duty there. In addition I had given to both of them notes I had been making for some time of almost all transports gassed in crematoria 4 and 5.” Müller also described to the men in detail the extermination process and provided them a real prize, a label from a Zyklon B canister. Of course, these were the canisters that held the cyanide pellets used to gas those arriving on the trains.
Wood was quickly piled over the opening, followed by dirt. But since their German captors searched with dogs specially trained to sniff out escapees, wood and dirt alone wouldn’t be enough. Soviet POWs, experienced in escape attempts, suggested drenching the area with paraffin (kerosene) followed by a generous dusting of tobacco.
Shortly after the 7pm roll-call, the sirens began wailing throughout the camp. The absence of Wetzler and Vrba had been discovered, and the waiting process now began for those who knew of their escape. It was well-known that the outer cordon around the camp would only be removed after three days of searching for escapees. The plan was to have the two men sit in their pitch-black hovel for 3 days, then make their way out under cover of dark.
Inside the camp, the men held their breath, eyeing the gallows already constructed for the to-be-captured prisoners…gallows on which Wetzler and Vrba would never swing. Miraculously, the two men emerged from their hideout three nights later and, wearing Dutch suits and boots taken from the camp, made their getaway. But more than that, with all pro-German authorities scouring the countryside for them, they successfully reached the Polish/Slovakian border and crossed over.
They reached Jewish friends and, using their contraband from the camp, began making detailed reports about Auschwitz and its activities. The rumors that had been floating around since Wannsee were now confirmed for all the world to see and hear.
Recommended Reading: Eyewitness Auschwitz