Escape from Auschwitz: told for first time in English

Author: By Paul Bignell

Alfred Wetzler, a Slovak Jew, was one of the tiny number of people to escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau, Europe’s heart of darkness during the Second World War, where an estimated 1.1 million Jews arrived of whom scarcely 7,000 survived the onslaught of the Nazis.

Wetzler and his companion Rudolf Vrba, also a Slovak Jew, were arrested by the Nazis in 1942 in Slovakia and sent to the death camp for slave labour. Wetzler was 24 and Vrba was just 18. Wetzler spent two years in the camp, witnessing some of the worst atrocities known to man. It was this experience that founded the basis for the memoirs he would later write: “It is incredible how tough human life can be, how quickly a person, even with a broken arm, a dislocated foot, a broken head and bitten by dogs, will do what is asked of him when over him hangs the cudgel waved by the goodwill of the Reich.”

It was in the spring of 1944, with the assistance of other prisoners, that the pair managed to escape, initially by hiding under a huge woodpile for four days in the corner of the camp until the search for them was called off. The duo then escaped through a hole under a fence at nightfall. But it was what they did afterwards that was truly heroic. The two men had also smuggled out damning evidence – a ground plan of the camp, construction details of the gas chambers, crematoriums and, most convincingly, a label from a canister of Zyklon gas.

The dossier, later known as the Auschwitz Protocol, was telegrammed to Churchill when the pair finally made it back to Slovakia. The evidence eventually led to the bombing of several government buildings in Hungary, killing Nazi officials who were instrumental in the railway deportations of Jews to Auschwitz. The deportations halted, saving up to 120,000 Hungarian Jews.

The historian Sir Martin Gilbert said: “Alfred Wetzler was a true hero. His escape from Auschwitz, and the report he helped compile, telling for the first time the truth about the camp as a place of mass murder, led directly to saving the lives of thousands of Jews – the Jews of Budapest who were about to be deported to their deaths. No other single act in the Second World War saved so many Jews from the fate that Hitler had determined for them.”

The accounts of Wetzler’s time at Auschwitz and his daring escape has been made available this week, 19 years after his death, in a book entitled Escape From Hell: The True Story of the Auschwitz Protocol. Wetzler originally wrote the account in 1963, under the pseudonym Jozef Lánik, which he used in the Slovak resistance movement.

It has taken until now for the work to be translated into English. Peter Varnai, a scientist at Cambridge University has lobbied for the book to be translated and published for English audiences. He said yesterday: “I sincerely believe this story should set an example of high moral courage for new generations.”

Sir Martin concurred: “Although Alfred Wetzler did not know it, his courageous escape proved a life-saving one for a whole community. Wetzler had been a central figure in one of the most remarkable acts of saving lives in the Second World War.”

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