Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


The story of Rudolf Vrba
Extract from Auschwitz and the Allies by Martin Gilbert

Rudolf Kasztner

Ten Questions to the Zionists from Rabbi Weissmandel

THE KASTNER TRIAL - shown at the Jewish Film Festival in 1997

Czech film about Rabbi Weissmandel: Among Blind Fools

The Nizkor Project: Dedicated to the millions of Holocaust victims who suffered and died

Simon Wiesenthal Centre

Shamash: The Jewish Internet Consortium: Holocaust Home Page

The Confession of Adolf Eichmann

Revolt of Warsaw's Jews

 Jews of Hungary website

Hannah Szenes: famous Jewish partisan betrayed by Kastner

Jews not Zionists website

Purchase Pefidy by Ben Hecht


Rudolf Vrba, born Walter Rosenberg in Tropoljany, Czechoslvakia in 1924, was the Jewish Slovak resistance fighter who escaped from Auschwitz in 1944 to get the news of the Holocaust to the world. He contacted the Jewish Council and told them what was going on in the death camp and the fate with awaited the Hungarian Jews. His account also reached Rudolf Kastner who ignored it. Vrba later commented:

"It is my contention that a small group of informed people, by their silence, deprived others of the possibility or privalage of making their own decisions in the face of mortal danger"


Rudolf Vrba, born in Czechoslovakia in 1924

Some historians have argued that a giving the Hungarian Jews this warning would have made no differance - because they claimed the Jews of Hungary were not prepared to revolt and that any rebellion against the Nazi's would have been suicidal. Vrba, though, sees it differantly:

"Passive and active resistance by a million people would create panic and havoc in Hungary. Panic in Hungary would have been better than panic which came to the victims in front of burning pits in Birkenau. Eichmann knew it; that is why he smoked cigars with the Kasztners', "negotiated", exempted the "real great rabbis", and meanwhile without panic among the deportees, planned to "resettle" hundreds of thousands in orderly fashion . . ."

Rudolf Vrba shown holding a Hebrew version of his Book "I Escaped Auschwitz" during a recent visit to Israel. He presently lives in Canada. Read an account of this published in The Jerusalam Post

Below is a full account of Vrba's dramatic escape from Auschwitz on Friday, April 7th 1944 - just hours before the first night of Passover. The extract is from Auschwitz and the Allies by Martin Gilbert (Michael Joseph, London, England,1981)

From pages 192-198

On April 7 (1944) two trains reached Auschwitz from western Europe. The first, from Holland, contained 240 Jews, of whom sixty-two men and thirty-eight women were tattooed and sent to the barracks, and the remaining 140, including twenty-two children, were gassed. Later that same day a second train arrived from Belgium, and 206 men and a hundred women were tattooed and sent to the barracks, while the rest, 319 in all, including fifty-four children, were sent straight to the gas chamber.

The destruction of the family camp on March 7 had made a profound impression on a young Slovak Jew, Walter Rosenberg, who subsequently changed his name to Rudolf Vrba. Several of Vrba's close friends had perished in the family camp, and he felt an urgent need to inform the outside world both of what had already happened at Auschwitz, and of the preparations which those in the camp knew to be taking place to kill a substantially increased number of victims, most probably from Hungary. "I was attracted,' Vrba later wrote, 'by the possibility to damage the plans of the Nazis by divulging them to the Hungarian Jewish population while they are still in freedom, and can take to the streets.' (1)

Vrba had been in Auschwitz since June 1942, and for nearly two years he had found ample opportunity to observe the killing process at work. On three previous occasions he had made plans to escape, in December 1942, May 1943 and January 1944, but had been unable to carry them out. Now, together with a fellow Slovak, Alfred Wetzler, he contacted the secret International Resistance Group inside the camp, and put his plan of escape to David Szmulewski one of the representatives of the resistance leaders 'I have been told,' Vrba later wrote, 'that due to my inexperience, personal volatility (impulsiveness) and other factors the leadership dismissed my intentions as unreliable." (2)

The resistance leaders understood, however, Vrba's intense personal feelings about the destruction of the family camp, and gave him their assurance that, even if they could not help him escape, no obstacle would be put in his way. On March 31 his resistance contact, Szmulewski saw him again, to tell him of the resistance leaders' decision. "Szmulewski himself,' Vrba later recalled 'was very sorry because of the unfavourable "higher decision" but expressed the hope that in the case of "no success" I would be able to avoid interrogation and thus avoid a catastrophe for those who had had contact with me before.'

The two escapees were determined to alert the outside world to the reality of Auschwitz, and to the fate that seemed to be in store for the Jews of Hungary. Wetzler, who was twenty-six, had been an actual witness of the destruction of the Theresienstadt family camp. Vrba was nineteen and a half. Both had been born in Slovakia. Both had been brought to Auschwitz nearly two years before. What these two men had seen and learned during those two years was to provide the basis for the first comprehensive report to reach the west.

From August 1942 to June 1943 Vrba had worked in a special 'Clearing Commando', known colloquially as 'Canada', then situated in Auschwitz Main Camp. On the arrival of each train at the railway sidings, the Commando's task was to drag out the dead bodies, and then take all the luggage of the deportees for sorting, and to prepare it for dispatch to Germany. Thus for ten months Vrba was present at the arrival of almost most every train, and committed to memory their place of origin and the number of deportees in each.

In June 1943 Vrba was transferred from 'Canada' to become one of the registrars in the Quarantine Camp at Birkenau, and as a registrar he had the opportunity of speaking to those new arrivals who had been selected from the incoming trains for slave labour, instead of for gassing. Here again, he both knew and memorized the details of the incoming transports, including the sequence of tattoo numbers allocated to each group as it arrived. In addition, many of the trucks taking people from the railway sidings to Crematorium IV drove past within only a few yards of Vrba's 'office'. As Vrba himself later wrote:

". . . it was part of my duty to make a summarized report of the whole registration office, which report was daily conveyed to the so-called Political Department of the concentration camp Auschwitz. Having this duty enabled me again and again to obtain first hand information about each transport which arrived in the area of the Auschwitz concentration camp." (3)

From his 'office', Vrba also witnessed the construction of a new railway siding inside Birkenau itself. Work on this siding, or 'ramp had begun on 15 January 1944. 'The purpose of this ramp,' Vrba later recalled, "was no secret in Birkenau the SS were talking about 'Hungarian Salami' and 'a million units' . . . my lavatory was 30 yards from the new ramp, my office about 100 yards."

Vrba had also been able to make contact with the Czech family camp, as his work as registrar enabled him to move during the daytime between several sections of Birkenau He could make full use of this ability, he later recalled, 'by taking a bundle of papers' with him, moving to a section of Birkenau adjacent to the family camp. Then he could contrive to 'get lost' among the prisoners in that section, and without even having to shout, he could speak across the barbed wire between the sections, to other prisoners. There were even times when he had been able to pass written messages across to the family camp, and to receive messages in reply.

Two days before the actual gassing of the family camp, the SS had imposed an internal camp curfew. But a number of those marked out to die had at the same time been transferred to the very section in which Vrba was then a registrar. 'Thus, for the last two days of their lives , he later recalled, 'I had unlimited contact with them." (4)

Like Vrba, Alfred Wetzler had also been a registrar, but in different parts of Birkenau, including the mortuary. He too had established contacts which enabled him to collect information about every aspect of the killing process. The facts which he and Vrba were able to assemble and to memorize, included the number of Jews 'put to death by gas at Birkenau from April 1942 to April 1944, listed by their country of origin, and the dimensions of the camp.

While planning their escape, Vrba and Wetzler had even been able to make contact with several of the Jews forced by the SS to drag the corpses from the gas chambers to the crematorium. These Jewish slave labourers were formed into a special unit, or Sonderkommando. At regular intervals, they too would be gassed, and then replaced by a new group. But those whom Vrba and Wetzler contacted were able to give them details about the size and workings of the gas chambers themselves. These facts also the two men committed to memory.

Two hours before the evening roll-call of April 7 Vrba and Wetzler were hidden by their colleagues in a specially prepared hide-out which a number of inmates had prepared during work on an extension of the camp which was then under construction beyond the camp's inner perimeter. This area, known as 'Mexico', was being prepared to house the expected Hungarian Jews.

The hide-out was a gap in a woodpile, made up of wooden boards. These boards were being stored as part of the building material for the extension of the camp. Before the inmates returned to their barracks within the inner perimeter, they sprinkled the surrounding area with petrol soaks and tobacco, to prevent the two hundred guard dogs of Birkenau, kept there for just such occasions, from sniffing out the would-be escapees. This latter advice had come from the experience of Soviet prisoners-of-war.

At evening roll-call, after the 'Mexico' workers had returned to their barracks, the sirens sounded. Two prisoners were missing. The guards and dogs began their search. For three days and nights there was a high security alarm, with continuous roll-calls and searches. (5) Throughout those three days a tight cordon of SS guards was kept around both the inner and outer perimeters.

But the hide-away remained undiscovered, and by the evening of April 10, the camp authorities assumed that the two men had already got away. The cordon of SS guards which had surrounded the outer perimeter of the camp withdrawn.

On April 9 the head of the SS units responsible for guarding the camp, Waffen SS Major Hartenstein had already telegraphed news of the escape to Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. Copies of his telegram were sent to the SS administrative headquarters at Sachsenhausen to all commanders of Gestapo and SID units in the east, to all Criminal Police units, and to all frontier police posts. The telegram gave the names of the two men, Identified them as Jews, and added: 'Immediate search unsuccessful. Request from you further search and in case of capture full report to concentration camp Auschwitz". (6)

The telegram went on to state that Himmler himself had been informed of the escape, and that the fault 'of any guard' had not so far been determined.

The search within the outer perimeter of the camp having been called off at 10 p.m. on April 10, Vrba and Wetzler slipped past the outer line of watchtowers, and with incredible courage set off southwards toward Slovakia.

After their escape, Vrba and Wetzler had worked their way southwards from Birkenau 'without documents, without a compass, without a map, and without a weapon". (7) Carefully avoiding the German 'new settlers' who lived, as at Kozy, in former Polish homes, who were often armed, and had the authority to shoot "unidentifiable loiterers' at sight, they headed steadily towards the mountains, shunning all roads and paths, and marching only at night. One evening they were fired on by a German police patrol, but managed to escape into the forest. Later they met a Polish partisan, who guided them towards the frontier, and then, on the morning of Friday April 21, they crossed into Slovakia, finding refuge with a farmer on the Slovak side, in the small village of Skalite.

On April 6, the day before Vrba and Wetzler began their escape, Reuven Zaslani of the Jewish Agency had already warned British intelligence in Cairo of a German radio broadcast in which the Germans 'propose eliminating a million Jews in Hungary'. (8)

On the following day, as Vrba and Wetzler crouched in their woodpile, and were hiding within half a mile of Crematorium IV, the Geneva Zionists were once again telling the Allied representatives in Switzerland what they knew of the fate of European Jewry This time they told their story to the United States Minister in Berne, Leland Harrison, and his first Counsellor of Legation, J. Klahr Huddle.

Once more Gerhart Riegner and Richard Lichtheim who headed the delegation, reported for more than an hour on the news which had reached them from Nazi Europe. Several thousand Dutch Jews, they said, had beer) saved from deportation as a result of receiving Palestine certificates. But the Polish Jews interned in Vittel were less fortunate: recently the Government of Paraguay 'had refused to recognise" those documents and passports which had been issued by the Paraguayan consul in Berne, while several other South American consuls who had issued similar documents 'had been dismissed'.

The Zionists and the American diplomats then had what was described as ,a general discussion' about the 'tragic fate' of the Jews of Europe. Riegner handed Harrison two photographs. One showed "the dead bodies of the Jews in Transnistra", Rumanian Jews who had been deported eastward in the autumn of 1941, and the other showed what Riegner called 'one of the death chambers in Treblinka".

This second photograph, Riegner told Harrison, 'was corroborating evidence to the report lately issued by Polish circles and describing the death camp of Treblinka". (9)

Once again, there was no mention of Auschwitz. Not even its name appeared in the report of this long meeting. Yet the gas chambers there had already been in operation for nearly two years. And as Vrba, Wetzler, and their terrible information began the journey southward, the SS were making plans to build two more gas chambers, to repair the crematoria, and to begin what they hoped would be the rapid, uninterrupted, and secret destruction of the 750,000 Hungarian Jews whose fate they now controlled.

From Pages 201-205

Throughout April (1944), while the SS prepared to deport the Jews of Hungary, other Jews were being brought to Auschwitz as before. On April 9 the first of three trains reached Auschwitz from the Majdanek concentration camp, which was evacuated as the Red Army drove steadily westwards. For eight days these "evacuees" had been shunted towards Auschwitz in a sealed train, without water, or medical help. During the journey, twenty of them cut their way out of the train at a wayside station, and tried to escape. All were shot. A further ninety-nine were found dead on arrival at Auschwitz. Tile survivors were tattooed, and sent to the barracks.

On the following day, April 10, a train reached Auschwitz from Italy, and on April 11 from Athens. Of 1,500 deportees in this second train, 1,067 were gassed. On April 29 a further train arrived from Paris, including the Vittel deportees with their once precious, now valueless Latin American passports. On April 30, from a train from Italy, only thirteen men were sent to the barracks, while all the women, children and old people were gassed.

Equally unknown to the Allies, the Jews of Hungary were being prepared for deportation to Auschwitz. The first stage of the Nazi plan, the scaling of the Jews into ghettoes, had already begun on April 16, in Ruthenia. Nine days later, the question of rescue took an unexpected, dramatic turn : oil April 25, Joel Brand, a leading Hungarian Zionist, was taken to SS headquarters in Budapest. As Brand recalled two months later, Eichmann 'snapped' at him, as soon as lie was seated:

You know who l am. I solved the Jewish question in Slovakia. I have stretched out my feelers to See If your international Jewry is still capable of doing anything. I will make a deal with you. We are in the fifth year of the war. We need . . . (10) and we are not immodest. I am prepared to sell you all the Jews. I am also prepared to have them all annihilated. It is as you wish. It is as you wish. Anyway, what do you on want ? I presume for you the most important are the men and women who can produce children.

Brand then recalled the following conversation:

Brand: I am not the man to decide that old men and women should be left behind, and only people capable of producing children should be saved.

Eichmann: Quite. Well, I want goods for blood.

Brand: I did not understand at first and thought Eichmann meant money.

Eichmann: No. Goods for blood. Money comes second.

Brand: What goods?

Eichmann: Go to your international authorities, they will know. For example - lorries. I could imagine one lorry for a hundred Jews, but that is only a suggested figure. Where will you go ?

Brand: I must think . . . (11)

This meeting between Brand and Eichmann, unknown at the time either to the Jewish Agency or to the Allies, was to lead within a few weeks to both the Agency and the Allies becoming directly involved in the fate of Hungarian Jewry, and in an SS act of deception on a massive scale: for Eichmann wanted Brand to make contact with the Jewish Agency representatives in Istanbul, and with the Allies, and to offer a commercial barter, the Jews of Hungary, alive, in exchange for goods and money: 'Goods for blood', as Eichmann had expressed it.

With the truth about Auschwitz still unknown in the west, such an offer contained a tantalizing appeal. But at the very moment when it was being made, evidence was reaching the Jewish leadership in Slovakia which contained full and horrific details of the gassings at Auschwitz. The source of this news was the two Auschwitz escapees, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, whose message had begun its westward journey with their escape from Auschwitz 'on April 10 and their meeting with the Slovak farmer at Skalite on April 21.

As Vrba later recalled:

'We met accidentally on the march within one kilometre of the German-Slovak border. He was working in his fields. He saw that we had crossed the border "on our stomachs", and invited us for lunch.'

The farmer's name was Canecky. During lunch he explained to Vrba and Wetzler that 'in almost all the neighbouring villages' there were Jewish doctors who had been exempt from deportation in the summer of 1942 because of the 'dire lack' of doctors in Slovakia. The exemption had covered the doctor's wife and children, but not his parents, brothers or sisters.

The farmer then told the escapees that in the town of Cadca there was one such Jewish doctor, a Dr. Pollak. Vrba realized that this was the same man whom he himself had met at the time of his own deportation in June 1942, and who, as a doctor, had been deleted at the last moment from the deportation list.

To walk over the mountains to Cadca would have taken the two men at least three days. But if they could wait in Skalite until Monday morning, they could take a train. This they did, dressed as local peasants, and pretending to transport the farmer's pigs for sale in Cadca's Monday market. As the local train was controlled by local Slovak gendarmes, and not by Germans, the risk for someone speaking Slovak, and dressed as a peasant, was relatively small. So it was that the two men reached Cadca without incident. There, as Vrba later recalled:

I walked into Dr. Pollak's surgery pretending to be a patient. There was a female nurse present in his office, so I pretended I came to complain about a 'gentleman's disease' and I said I wanted the woman nurse to go out. Once alone with Dr. Pollak I explained to him briefly who I was and from where I knew him and from where I now came.

When Dr. Pollak learned from me that all his 'resettled' relatives were dead, he became somewhat shaky, and asked me what he could do for me. I asked him to immediately contact the Jewish Council in Bratislava. Before I left his office he, Dr. Pollak, suggested that lie put bandages on my feet so that the nurse would not suspect something unusual, because I was a long time in his office (about fifteen minutes).

He gave me the address of some of his friends, and we, i.e. Wetzler and myself, slept in Cadca We travelled to Zilina next morning by train, dressed as peasants. Oil the morning of Tuesday, April 25, at about to a.m. we met the first representative of the Jewish Council, Mr. Erwin Steiner, in a park in Zilina. We (Wetzler and l) were drinking slivovitz in the park and waiting for Steiner. Without hair, in peasant shirts and drinking slivovitz in public we attracted no attention, as this was a common habit of newly recruited (already shorn) soldiers in Slovakia. Thus we met the Jewish Council, with my feet still in bandages provided by Dr. Pollak.' (12)

On hearing the two escapees' story, Steiner at once contacted the Jewish community in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. The man to whom he spoke, by telephone, in Bratislava was Oskar Krasnansky a chemical engineer, and a leading Slovak Zionist. Although Jews were not normally allowed to travel by train, Krasnansky managed to obtain permission from the Police, and made his way to Zilina.

At Steiner's house Krasnansky found the two escapees: 'They were in poor health, and undernourished', he later recalled. 'They had eaten almost no food for three weeks'.

Krasnansky was impressed by the escapees' 'wonderful memory', and for two days he cross-examined them on the 'reality' of Auschwitz. Then, after providing them with false Aryan papers, he sent them for safety to the town of Lipovsky Mikulas. (13)

Using Council documents brought specially from Bratislava, Krasnansky checked the escapees' account of the arrival of trains from Slovakia to Auschwitz with the Council's own statistics of the departure of these trains from Slovakia to their previously 'unknown destination'. Then Krasnansky wrote a covering note to their report, stating that it contained 'only what one or other, or both, experienced, witnessed, or had knowledge of directly'. Krasnansky added:

The statements coincide with the reports, undoubtedly only fragmentary, but reliable, that have been received up until now, and the information supplied on individual transports corresponds exactly with the official listings.

Hence the statements are to be considered as completely authentic. (14)

The question was now discussed in Bratislava: what was to be done with this Vrba-Wetzler report? According to Krasnansky, he himself wrote it out in German, and gave it to a typist, Gisi Farkas, who made several copies. 'One copy', he later recalled, 'we sent to Istanbul. But it never arrived there. The man to whom we gave it, who was making the journey, had been sent from Istanbul as a "reliable courier". But possibly he was a paid spy. As far as we later learned, he gave it to the Gestapo in Budapest'.

Krasnansky handed a second copy of the report to the Slovak Orthodox rabbi, Dov Weissmandel who had contacts with the Orthodox community in Switzerland, and who offered to try to smuggle it there, for transmission to the West. (14)

A third copy was given to Monsignor Giuseppe Burzio the Papal Chargé d'Affaires in Bratislava, who went it on to the Vatican on May 22, after himself questioning the two escapees. But the Vatican's own records suggest that Burzio's report only reached there five months later.' (15)

The most urgent need, Vrba and Wetzler believed, was to transmit the report to Hungary, and to alert Hungarian Jewry to their own potential fate. Krasnansky himself translated the Vrba-Wetzler report into Hungarian, and prepared to give it to Rudolf Kasztner the head of the Hungarian Jewish rescue committee, on his next visit to Bratislava.

Kasztner who made the short train journey from Budapest fairly frequently, was expected in Bratislava before the end of April. But on April 25, the very day on which Krasnansky was cross-examining Vrba and Wetzler in Zilina, Kasztner and the Hungarian Jewish leadership in Budapest were receiving Eichmann's offer to negotiate 'goods for blood': to avoid the death camps altogether in return for a substantial payment.

On that fatal day, April 25, two events had coincided: the truth about Auschwitz had reached those who had the ability to make it known to the potential victims, and the offer had been made to negotiate 'goods for blood'. Those Hungarian Jewish leaders who wished to follow up the negotiations Were unwilling to risk the negotiations by publicizing the facts about the annihilation process at Auschwitz. Yet that process was known to them from April 28, three days after Eichmann's first meeting with Brand, when Kasztner travelled to Bratislava, where he was given a copy of the Vrba-Wetzler report, and took it back to Budapest. (16) But by then Kasztner and his colleagues in the Zionist leadership in Hungary were already committed to their negotiations with Eichmann, and to the dispatch of their colleague, Joel Brand, to Istanbul. They therefore gave no publicity whatsoever to the facts about Auschwitz which were now in their possession.

To this day, Vrba remains convinced that had the facts which he and Wetzler brought to Bratislava been immediately publicized and circulated throughout Hungary, many of the 450,000 Jews who were later to be deported, but who were as yet still in Hungary, would have been stirred to resist, evade or otherwise obstruct their deportation. Had the deportees had "knowledge of hot ovens", Vrba later wrote, 'Instead of parcels of cold food, they would have been less ready to board the trains and the whole action of deportation would have been slowed down".

Not urgent warnings to their fellow Jews to resist deportation, but secret negotiations with the SS aimed at averting deportation altogether, had become the avenue of hope chosen by the Hungarian Zionist leaders. Their people thus became the innocent victims of one of the countless Nazi deceptions of the war; "a clever ruse", as Vrba himself later reflected, 'to neutralize the potential resistance of a million people', and lie added:

Passive and active resistance by a million people would create panic and havoc in Hungary. Panic in Hungary would have been better than panic which came to the victims in front of burning pits in Birkenau. Eichmann knew it; that is why he smoked cigars with the Kasztners', "negotiated", exempted the "real great rabbis", and meanwhile without panic among the deportees, planned to "resettle" hundreds of thousands in orderly fashion . . . (17)

During the first two weeks of May the deportations to Auschwitz continued from Paris, from Yugoslavia, from Berlin, and from the industrial labour camp at Blechhammer. On May 14 a train arrived bringing sick and old Jews, and Jewish children, from Plaszow, a slave labour camp in the suburbs of Cracow. All were gassed.

For the Jewish Agency, the dispatch of Palestine certificates continued, their sole known means of rescue. During May the first certificates began to reach Belgium, sent from the Palestine Office in Geneva through the International Red Cross, and these gave protection, it was later discovered 'to some 600 recipients'. (18)

Among the many enquiries that had been made was one oil behalf of Yitzhak Gruenbaum (Greenbaum), Polish-born chairman of the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency, whose son Eliezer had been living in Warsaw on the outbreak of war. Early that spring Gruenbaum himself had telegraphed to Gerhart Riegner in Geneva: 'Find my son'. Riegner's first reaction, as he later recalled, was amazement that Gruenbaum should even imagine that it was any longer possible to find anybody in Poland:

If anybody knew what the fate of Polish Jewry had been, it is Gruenbaum. He was the personification of the fight for Jewish rights in Poland before the war. It was a completely crazy idea to find an individual there, to find the son of a father in Poland. after two and a half years of killing . . .

But Riegner did not shrug off the request. Instead, tic later recalled:

I had a crazy idea of my own. I sent tell Red Cross packages to ten different camps, each in the name of Yitzhak Gruenbaum's son. And from one camp, confirmation came . . . (19)

This was indeed so; on March 1 a postcard from Eliezer Gruenbaum reached the World Congress in Geneva, confirming receipt of the parcel. From Geneva, Richard Lichtman at once wrote to Jerusalem to inform Eliezer's father that his son was alive, and that the postcard had come from a camp in Upper Silesia. The name of the camp was Jawischowitz. It was, Lichtheim added, 'practically the same place as Birkenau'. (20)

Jawischowitz was in fact one of several industrial regions in the Auschwitz area to which Jewish slave labour from Auschwitz and Birkenau were sent. It was in no way 'practically the same place'. But the name 'Birkenau' like that of 'Auschwitz' still masked its true function from those who used it.

According to Eliezer Gruenbaum's postcard, which had been sent from Jawischowitz on April 29, he had received 'three food parcels' through the World Jewish Congress relief organization, Relico, and it was Relico's Geneva office which had received his postcard, which had taken only six days to make its journey from Upper Silesia to Switzerland.

The name 'Birkenau' again appeared in a Jewish Agency message on May 3. although once again, as in Lichtheim's letter of May 1, it was not linked or associated in any way with the name 'Auschwitz', of which it was so integral a part.

The second mention of Birkenau was in a telegram from Yitzhak Gruenbaum's representative in Istanbul, Eliezer Leder who reported to Jerusalem that the British Consulate in Istanbul had confirmed the Palestine certificates recently issued for Hungary and Rumania, and that he, Leder, now wished to know whether it was 'advisable sending same Birkenau'. (21)

This telegram is a clear pointer of just how little was known of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. But ignorance and hope were a powerful combination; and hope that at least some Jews could be rescued was given further encouragement on May 5, when the British Consul in Geneva, H. B. Livingston, informed the Jewish Agency representatives there that the Germans had agreed to a third exchange, 'covering 279 Jews for 111 Germans', and that this exchange could take place 'about mid-May'. (22)

Here was a possibility of saving a further 279 Jews from Nazi Europe; Jews from Poland who, if they could be found, could now be brought out. Both the relatives of Palestinian Jews, and 'veteran Zionists' were eligible. The problem was to find them. In the previous exchange, a majority of those on the list had never been found. They had, in fact. already been deported, and gassed. Now the search began again.


1 Rudolf Vrba, letter to Martin Gilbert, 30th July 1980.

2 Rudolf Vrba, letter to Martin Gilbert, 11th July 1980.

3 Deposition by Dr. Vrba for submission at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Israeli Embassy, London, England, 16th July 1961. Vrba papers.

4 Rudolf Vrba, letter to Martin Gilbert, 30th July 1980.

5 The horror of roll-calls at Auschwitz has been described by many survivors - such as Filip Witter, Auschwitz Inferno London, England, 1979, pages 1-6. On 28 October 1940, for example, 84 Poles died during a single morning's roll-call in Auschwitz Main Camp (report sent by the Polish Underground on 31 October 1942, received in London on 28th May 1943, Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum archive. PRM 76/1/13).

6 Text of the telegram in Erich Kulka. Five Escapes from Auschwitz, Yuri Suhl (editor), They Fought Back: The Story of Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe, London 1968, page 232.

7 Rudolf Vrba, letter to the Martin Gilbert, 29th November 1980 .

8 Report of an interview, Foreign Office papers, 921/152, 6(5) 44/14, Top Secret. Zasani's purpose, the interviewer recorded, was to advance further the Jewish Agency's scheme 'for infiltrating Jews into Hungary and Rumania to stimulate resistance among the Jews there'.

9 "Note: re visit to American Legation, Berne on Friday 7 April 1944", Geneva, 11th April 1944, copy in Central Zionist Archives, L 22/92.

10 Left blank in the original text of the interrogation.

11 Interrogation report, File No. SIME/P 7769, No. SIMET 7769, page 18 18. in Foreign Office papers, 371/4-,81 1. The interrogating officer was Lieutenant W. B. Savigny.

12 Rudolf Vrba, letter to Martin Gilbert, 30th July 1980.

13 Quoted in Erich Kulka, Five Escapes from Auschwitz, Yuri Suhl (editor), They Fought Back: The Story of Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe, London 1968, page 233. Krasnansky's note was first published by the War Refugee Board in Washington on 26 November 1944. Al part of the official publication of the Vrba-Wetzler report.

14 Oskar Krasnansky, conversation with Martin Gilbert, Tel Aviv, Israel, 22 December 1980.

15 Report No. 2144 (A.E.S. S 7679/44), sent from Bratislava 22 May 1944, annotated in the Vatican, 22 and 26 October 1944. Bruzio's covering note of 22 May 1944 is reprinted in full in Actes et Documents du Saint Siège Relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, volume 10. Le Saint Siège et les Victimes de la Guerre, January 1944 -July 1945. Vatican 1980.

16 Statement by Oskar Krasnansky and Dr. Neumann, Yad Vashem archives.

17 Rudolf Vrba, letter to Martin Gilbert, 30th July 1980.

18 Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Bulletin, 'Jerusalem, January 1945, page 7.

19 Gerhart Riegner, letter to Martin Gilbert, 1 October 1980.

20 Central Zionist Archives, L22/135. Eliezer Gruenbaum survived the war, and emigrated to Palestine, but was later killed during the first Arab-Israeli war of of 1948.

21 Central Zionist Archives, S 26/1190.

22 Central Zionist Archives L 22/56.

© Martin Gilbert, 1981.