The death factory at Auschwitz was a closely guarded secret of the Third Reich – until two men, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, escaped to tell the world about the Nazi atrocities. Escape from Auschwitz reveals the story of their escape and explores the controversial decision by the head of the Hungarian underground not to make their report public.
A Firefly Production for Thirteen/WNET New York and ITVS International in association with Five, Channel Four International and History Channel (UK).
NARRATOR: Auschwitz was the largest of Hitler’s concentration camps.
But its dark purpose was not to house prisoners. Behind the barbed wire, the Nazis created a death factory—to secretly murder the Jews of Europe.
MARTIN GILBERT: From the moment he came to power, Hitler wanted to get rid of the Jews from Germany. He turned to what is known as the Final Solution, the extermination of all these Jewish people.
NARRATOR: By 1944, twelve thousand Jews a day were being killed at Auschwitz. But few outside its fences knew what atrocities were being committed. The prisoners had no way of getting word to the outside.
That is, until two brave prisoners decided to escape—determined to tell the world about the secret Nazi genocide.
TITLE: ESCAPE FROM AUSCHWITZ
NARRATOR: Auschwitz, was located 50 miles from Krakow, in southern Poland.
The main camp was opened in 1940. It was built to hold and kill Communists, prisoners of war, writers, gypsies, homosexuals and intellectuals.
By 1941, the Nazis began construction of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Two and a half miles from the main complex, this camp was built primarily to imprison and exterminate Jews.
Nazi records show that tens of thousands of Jews from German-occupied countries were pulled from their homes and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau each month.
They had no idea they were being sent to their deaths…
YEHUDA BAUER: The deportations were always sort of camouflaged by saying the Jews were either going to some other place to work or they were going to be transported to another place.
NARRATOR: The prisoners were moved in overcrowded cattle cars. With no food or water, some never made it off the trains alive.
The survivors arrived at Auschwitz shell-shocked, dazed and disoriented.
To the rest of the world, they had simply disappeared.
MARTIN GILBERT: Secrecy was essential for the maintenance of Auschwitz, for the continuation of Auschwitz as a killing factory. The moment it became known; then there would be revolts and riots at every railway station on the way to it. The deportations where the greatest confidence trick in history because we now know that it was a total deception; that the aim of the deportation was to murder these people.
NARRATOR: Among the many thousands of prisoners at the camp was Rudolf Vrba. Vrba was the son of a Jewish saw mill owner from Topolcany, Slovakia.
In March of 1942, Vrba had fled Slovakia for Britain, but was captured and sent to Auschwitz. He was 17 years old.
At the camp, Vrba was given the job of collecting luggage from incoming prisoners. The bags were filled with anything valuable their owners had been able to grab before they were deported.
Day after day, Vrba watched the frightened prisoners arrive. They were completely unaware of what the Nazis had in store for them.
MARTIN GILBERT: Vrba understood that, had the truth of this place been known, something would be happening. First of all the people wouldn’t be arriving because they’d be refusing to get on the trains at the departure point.
NARRATOR: But they were getting on the trains, and the Nazis clearly documented what happened when they arrived.
Husbands were separated from their wives and children; the strong were separated from the weak; the young, from the old.
Women with children, the elderly and the infirm were loaded onto trucks and taken to a special area at the rear of the camp.
They were given soap and a towel, and told to strip for a shower.
But the showers offered no water. Instead, they sprayed the trapped prisoners with deadly Zyklon B gas.
The piles of bodies were then sent to the ovens for incineration.
YEHUDA BAUER: Never before had a genocide been committed by industrial means.
Auschwitz and the other death camps were industrial establishment producing corpses.
NARRATOR: Vrba saw this horrific assembly line every day—helpless to provide any kind of warning.
MARTIN GILBERT: While Vrba was working on the ramp he witnessed the fear of being shot, and at the same time soft spoken SS men, you know, all’s going to be well, going to take an hour or two. And then you’ll be in your barracks, your, you know you’ll get a good meal, all will be well. So he witnesses the deceptions, he witnesses the horrors and he sees it day after day and night after night.
NARRATOR: The frustration and rage began to consume Vrba as he worked.
MARTIN GILBERT: He was able to say to himself what I have to do is more important than my life because what I have to do might be able to save thousands and tens of thousands of lives.
NARRATOR: What he had to do was find a way to escape. So he could tell the world what the Nazis were doing, and prevent others from getting on the trains.
As Vrba plotted, the death camp continued to operate. Thousands upon thousands were murdered on arrival.
Those who survived the first selection were hardly better off. They were beaten, starved and denigrated by the brutal Nazi guards.
Among the prisoners was Otto Pressburger, Vrba’s childhood friend from Slovakia.
OTTO PRESSBURGER: (HEBREW) We were very close, like, almost like brothers. They took away our clothes, they saved our heads. They gave us other clothes, with stripes. They tattooed numbers on our chests. My number on my chest was 2-9-0-4-5. That was my number. After that, I wasn’t Otto Pressburger; I was 2-9-0-4-5.
NARRATOR: The healthy were immediately forced into hard labor. Sadistically, the Nazis turned some Jews into supervisors. Called Kapos, they were responsible for keeping their fellow prisoners in line, and often became more brutal than the Nazis themselves.
YEHUDA BAUER: Nazis had a problem of shortage of labor and they hit on the idea that they would force individuals from among the prisoners to supervise other prisoners. Many of them behaved very badly because they felt threatened, their lives were in danger and so they took it out on the prisoners in order not to be punished themselves.
NARRATOR: Auschwitz survivor Freddie Knoller remembers the terror invoked by the Kapos.
FREDDIE KNOLLER: The biggest fear that we had was prisoners with a green triangle. We feared them as much as we feared the SS because they had the power of death and life.
NARRATOR: Most prisoners didn’t survive the torturous conditions for long.
YEHUDA BAUER: Jews normally didn’t survive 6, 7, 8 weeks at best. They became then totally apathetic to what was happening around them, and they just died off or were shipped to the gas chamber to be killed.
FREDDIE KNOLLER: I remember seeing one older man; He couldn’t stand it anymore, he went to the electrified barbed wire, he grabbed the wire and electrified himself, you know, and died, and people just collapsed, they just could not stand it.
NARRATOR: But Rudolph Vrba was not willing to give up…
MARTIN GILBERT: Vrba was a very self-contained person, he had come to recognize exactly what was happening, he had an analytical mind. He understood this was the reality, it was not an abhor ration. That within Auschwitz, this killing system was the reality. This was a very potent factor for carrying on, not becoming as so many hundreds of thousands of prisoners did in Auschwitz, demoralized, and with demoralization and loss of will to live. You became what was known as a Mussel Marne, basically a skeleton and you died.
NARRATOR: Vrba wasn’t the only one who thought about escaping. But the consequences of being caught made most prisoners think twice.
MARTIN GILBERT: There had been a number of escapes from Auschwitz and in every case; the escapee had been caught, sometimes within hours, sometimes within a few days.
NARRATOR: When escapees were captured, the entire camp was forced to stand witness as their punishments were carried out. The experience was a powerful deterrent.
DAVID CESERANI: The consequences of failure were torture and public execution. Anyone connected with the escape would also be tortured and murdered. The price of failure was a ghastly fate.
YEHUDA BUAER: They were first tortured, in order to get out of them who helped them within the camp and then they were killed. They were hung. All of them.
OTTO PRESSBURGER: (HEBREW) In front of everyone they said ‘any person who wants to escape, I’ll give you a gift—a rope like this.’
NARRATOR: But even the risk of public hanging was not enough to dissuade Rudolph Vrba.
OTTO PRESSBURGER: (HEBREW) Vrba, from the moment he arrived at Auschwitz, right away, he said ‘I’m thinking about how I can escape from here. And all the time he made plans to escape.
NARRATOR: He just had to find the right place and time…
As the Nazi’s expanded their reign of terror across Europe, more and more Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
The camp’s crematoria were kept burning night and day.
The lingering smell of death hung in the air.
FREDDIE KNOLLER: Soon every transport that arrived, somehow the air changed. There was this sweet smell and the old prisoners told us, do you see this, can you smell this sweet smell? This is the, the bodies who are being burned.
NARRATOR: Vrba knew he would need help if he wanted his escape attempt to succeed. He turned to fellow Slovakian inmate Fred Wetzler for assistance.
25-year-old Wetzler had arrived at Auschwitz from an assembly site in Bratislava in 1942—the same year as Vrba.
He was well-connected with the underground resistance in the camp, and worked as a registrar, keeping detailed records for his Nazi captors.
Wetzler used his connections to improve Vrba’s status within the camp. In June of 1943, Vrba got a new job—one that would prove crucial in his bid to escape.
YEHUDA BAUER: He was a secretary. In German it’s a ‘schriber’ which means a person who writes. He had all kinds of administrative jobs. He had to look after the index cards and register whatever the Nazis wanted him to register.
NARRATOR: Vrba’s new position meant he no longer had to wear prison garb. It also allowed him to walk unchallenged almost anywhere in the camp.
DAVID CESERANI: This also gave him an extraordinary insight into what the camp was doing. He was in the registry; he was seeing lists of people coming in. He was able to develop an extraordinary clear idea of the numbers of Jews who were being deported to the camp and murdered.
NARRATOR: By September of 1943, the Auschwitz authorities had constructed what they called the Czech ‘Family Camp,’ in preparation for the arrival of Czechoslovakia’s Jews.
Curiously, the 4,000 Czech men, women and children who filled the compound were allowed to keep their own clothes, and their hair was left unshaven.
But this was no easing of Nazi protocol. It was just a new plot to ensure that the Auschwitz killings remained secret.
MARTIN GILBERT: One group of Jews coming from Terasenstat, the concentration camp ghetto in Czechoslovakia, consisted largely of Czech Jews and their fate was being monitored by the Red Cross.
NARRATOR: The Red Cross had heard rumors about deplorable conditions at some of the camps. So the Nazi guards kept the Czech prisoners alive, healthy, and blind to the massacre that was taking place all around them. Meanwhile, it was deadly business as usual for the other prisoners.
The ruse was well-planned, and the Nazis made sure that the deception extended all the way back to Czechoslovakia.
MARTIN GILBERT: The, the deportation of Jews and many others to camps in the east created tremendous alarm in the communities from which they had been taken. And one way in which the SS system sought to calm this alarm was what is known as the postcard deception. The Czech family camp members sent these cards back to Prague or to family members or friends in Czechoslovakia, and all seemed well.
NARRATOR: But not for long…
On March 7th 1943, confident they had fooled the Red Cross and the outside world, the Nazi guards rounded up the Czechs from the Family Camp, and sent them to the gas chambers.
Vrba and Wetzler witnessed the massacre. The deception and brutality solidified their resolve to escape as soon as possible.
But they still hadn’t found a way out…
Over the following months, the emaciated prisoners were put to work expanding the camp, and building more barracks outside the perimeter fence. The construction was a clear indication that the Nazis were expecting a huge influx of new Jewish prisoners.
MARTIN GILBERT: Now you don’t double the size of a camp which is working very effectively. It must mean there’s going to be some great new arrival in terms of hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps as many as half a million people.
NARRATOR: The coarse humor of the SS guards revealed where the next shipment of Jews was likely to come from.
MARTIN GILBERT: When they saw the scale of the barracks and how wide they were and then the SS guards joking that, you know they were going to get some tasty Hungarian Salamis soon, what could that mean? That Hungarian Jews were coming?
NARRATOR: With Hitler ready to occupy Hungary, Auschwitz was preparing for the deportations that would follow. Vrba knew he had to act soon.
DAVID CESERANI: It was his desire to warn the world about this new stage of the final solution, the destruction of the Jews of Hungary that gave urgency to his determination to escape, its that that drove him on.
NARRATOR: In April of 1944, Vrba and Wetzler finally got the chance they’d been waiting for. While working outside the perimeter fence, they realized they could hide in a small cavity, within a pile of wood from the new construction.
They knew from previous escape attempts that the guards would only search for missing prisoners for three days. So if they could remain undetected in the woodpile for that long, they might be able to get away. This seemed as good an opportunity as they were likely to get. But the plan was still fraught with risk.
DAVID CESERANI: They would hide within spitting distance of the camp while the Nazi’s, while the SS were searching the surrounding area, they would remain under the noses of the SS and when the hew and cry had died down, when the dogs had gone back to the barracks, then they would make their move. They would cover the ground from the camp, out of the danger zone, to relative freedom.
NARRATOR: On April 7th, 1944, Vrba and Wetzler put their plan into action. They—and the other prisoners who helped them—knew full-well the risks they were taking. As the Nazis had made clear in other failed escape attempts, capture meant certain public execution.
Once hidden in their secret cavity, Vrba and Wetzler covered themselves with gasoline-soaked Russian tobacco—hoping it would mask their scent from the SS dogs.
Over the next few hours, they listened intently to the movements of the camp. At the end of the day, they heard prisoners finishing their hard labor, and returning inside the perimeter fence.
It was only at roll call that the guards finally realized two prisoners were missing.
OTTO PRESSBURGER: (HEBREW) After that, after Vrba and Wetzler escaped, it was three days and three nights of lineups.
NARRATOR: At just after 6pm on the first evening, the alarm was raised.
The Nazis searched frantically for hours.
At one point, a soldier even climbed onto the log pile, within feet of Vrba and Wetzler.
But when it got dark, the guards headed back inside the gates and the camp fell silent.
Throughout the night, the two men sat frozen, listening to the sounds of the victims shuffling into gas chambers, and smelling the smoke from the crematoria.
At one point Wetzler clearly heard a prisoner scream out: “Avenge us!”
For three days, Vrba and Wetzler waited silently in their cramped hiding place. The Nazis searched everywhere, but miraculously, the two men remained undetected.
Then, on the third evening, just as predicted, the guards gave up the search.
A little after 9 p.m., Vrba and Wetzler made their move.
After sitting immobile for so long, the two now had to sprint for the cover of the surrounding woods.
But even the woods weren’t safe.
MARTIN GILBERT: It was a tremendously dangerous journey, and the Germans had removed the Poles from all the towns and villages in the Auschwitz region and replaced them by ethnic Germans, ‘Volksdeutsch’ who were loyal, very loyal indeed to the Reich.
DAVID CESERANI: Once you were outside you were a marked person. Your head was shaven, you were filthy, you stank. Anyone seeing one of these escaping figures knew exactly who they were where they had come from. The Nazis were searching with dogs, there were SS teams scouring the countryside. It was an area that was already descending into guerrilla warfare, partisan warfare, it was covered with police, German troops, there were military installations, military convoys on the move very few friends.
NARRATOR: Vrba and Wetzler were careful, but they did make mistakes as they rushed to the border. On their third day, they accidentally wandered into a town.
Trying to find their way out, they stumbled blindly down alleyways and back streets, risking discovery around every hidden corner.
Exhausted, starving and lost, they took a gamble and decided to ask for help.
It was a huge risk, but they got lucky.
They were welcomed by a peasant woman who agreed to assist them.
She gave them breakfast, and a place to sleep until dark.
After a brief rest, Vrba and Wetzler resumed their journey. They were still less than half way to the Slovakian border. It wasn’t long before they had another mishap.
Hiking through a field, they stumbled upon a woman tending her crops.
Although suspicious, she eventually introduced them to a sympathetic Polish farmer, who offered to take them to the border and show them where they could cross to avoid Nazi sentries.
This final leg of the journey took two long days. But eventually, the farmer brought them to a clearing near the border.
Vrba and Wetzler waited for a German patrol to pass, then quietly slipped into Slovakia.
On April 25th, 1944, after 3 days in the woodpile, 15 days of walking, and more than 85 miles through occupied Poland, Vrba and Wetzler finally arrived at the headquarters of the Jewish Council in Zilina, Slovakia.
Not wanting to waste even a second, Vrba immediately began describing the atrocities that were taking place at Auschwitz. The Council was horrified.
The resistance fighters new the Nazis were terrorizing Jewish communities, and deporting Jews to mysterious, heavily-guarded concentration camps.
There were even rumors that the conditions in these camps were appalling. But few could imagine that the deported Jews were being exterminated en-mass.
George Klein was a junior secretary at the office of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Hungary.
GEORGE KLEIN: The Germans were very good at deception, and spreading out false information. The Nazi’s just said that they are being resettled, not even to camps but being given housing and occupations.
NARRATOR: Vrba and Wetzler revealed detail after detail about the systematic murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. But it began to dawn on them that their audience didn’t believe a word they were saying.
MARTIN GILBERT: At first they were just astonished by the story, they couldn’t believe it because what they are talking about is the death of some of there closest friends, relatives, fellow Slovaks And if you try and think of it logically, how could it have been, how could five hundred people out of a thousand have been taken off and been gassed within a few hours, and their bodies cremated. Under what system of oh, under what political structure, under what ideological system could that happen?
GEORGE KLEIN: The Jewish community in Slovakia didn’t believe them at first because it was so unbelievable. Killing is one thing, but to organize the killing to make it into a huge bureaucratic apparatus to organize the transport, to have everything streamlined that was so incredibly German efficiency, that people simply didn’t believe that it was possible.
NARRATOR: The skeptical council members decided to put the escapees’ story to the test. They retrieved records that named every Jew who had been deported from Slovakia. Then, they asked Vrba to tell them the names of people he’d been imprisoned with.
MARTIN GILBERT: He had this phenomenal memory, he memorized every transport, every train that came in, how many people were on it and how many of those people who were on it were immediately sent to the gas chamber.
NARRATOR: As Vrba recalled names, his audience sat stunned. Their book had suddenly become a ghastly list of obituaries. The people they had expected to return after the war, were already long-dead.
Finally convinced that Vrba and Wetzler were telling the truth, the Council asked them to dictate all they could remember about the Nazis’ activities at Auschwitz.
As Vrba described every detail, he made sure they realized that the horrors were far from over. He warned them that the Jews of Hungary would be next—that the camp had already been outfitted for their arrival.
DAVID CESERANI: The process of writing the report translating the reports, getting the reports from Slovakia in the middle of a war, transmitted through friendly circles to the Vatican, via the Papal Nuncio in Slovakia, to Switzerland, to the Jewish Community in Switzerland so that it could be sent to the Red Cross, to the British to the American representatives in Switzerland, circulating it to people who needed to know – all of this took time.
NARRATOR: It was time the Jewish community in Hungary didn’t have. A month earlier, the Nazis had occupied Hungary, and had immediately begun preparing for the deportations.
DAVID CESERANI: After the German Army had occupied Hungary the SS Moved in, a special SS commander, a team lead by Adolf Eichmann, a man who over the previous two and a half years had perfected the rounding up, the deportation of Jews from all over Europe to the death camps in Poland.
NARRATOR: Rudolph Kastner, leader of the Jewish Council in Budapest, understood the power that Eichmann wielded.
DAVID CESERANI: They knew about the deportations from Poland and from Slovakia, they knew when the Germans demanded Jews they were not thinking of sending them to a holiday camp. Tens of thousands of Hungarian men had already been rounded up and sent into so called labor battalions.
NARRATOR: But the Hungarian Jewish Council still couldn’t accept the leap from deportations to extermination.
GEORGE KLEIN: Polish refugees found them really almost a haven in Hungary before the German occupation and they were telling us about extermination camps. But the Hungarian Jews wouldn’t believe it. Either they said it cannot be true or said well maybe its true for the Poles but it cannot happen to us.
NARRATOR: It wasn’t until the Vrba/Wetzler report reached Hungary that the Jewish Council there finally realized all the rumors were true…
GEORGE KLEIN: I was a volunteer in the Jewish Council as a junior secretary to one of the members of the council. And one day he said that a very important report has arrived that was written by two Slovak Jews, who has escaped from one of the major death camps alive. My family was already deported when I was reading the report. I knew that I’m reading the fate of my beloved Grandmother and of my uncles, and I also, was quite clear about the fact that this is my fate. There were just these two feelings: nausea, feeling like I had to vomit, but at the same time my brain was working and my brain was saying “Look, you are looking at the truth. And you always have to know the truth.
NARRATOR: George Klein wasn’t the only one affected.
When Rudolf Kastner read the report, he was stunned. But his next reaction was not what Vrba had been hoping for, and it proved to be one of the most tragic decisions in his country’s history.
Kastner decided not to release the report to the Jews of Hungary.
He kept it secret, because he was afraid that if word of the report got out, it might ruin a deal his council was trying to make with the Nazis.
Hungarian Jewish council member, Joel Brand had met personally with Adolph Eichmann, and Eichmann had made Brand an extraordinary offer.
DAVID CESERANI: And he says to Brand that I will allow a million Jews to go free in return for ten thousand trucks loaded with supplies.
NARRATOR: Eichmann’s deal sounded too good to be true, but Brand felt he had to pursue it. He left Budapest to bring the offer to the British. Their reaction to trading Hungarian Jews for trucks was not what Brand expected.
DAVID CESERANI: Brand in all innocence believing this is a real deal, tells the British about his mission, they see a grotesque trick to allow the Germans to claim they are negotiating with the British over the fate of Jews, that they’re going to take delivery of trucks to use against the Russians. The British and the Americans can see that this is a potential bombshell, and they want to have absolutely nothing to do with the Nazi deal.
NARRATOR: Brand’s hopes were shattered. But the deal wasn’t what concerned Rudolph Vrba. It was starting to look like all his efforts to warn Hungary’s Jews had been in vain.
On May 15th, 1944, Vrba found out that despite risking his life to tell the world what was happening at Auschwitz, despite his pages and pages of detailed accounts, the Hungarian deportations were beginning.
In his mind, he had failed at the only task that mattered to him.
Two days later, forty cattle wagons carrying as many as four thousand Hungarian Jews, arrived at Auschwitz.
There was no Family Camp or work detail for these arrivals. The Nazis bypassed the selection process, and marched almost all the prisoners directly to the gas chambers.
GEORGE KLEIN: The extermination of 600,000 Hungarian Jews was the fastest campaign during the entire holocaust. It went on with incredible speed so there wasn’t much time for reflection.
NARRATOR: With so many bodies being gassed and cremated, a permanent death pall hung in the air.
YEHUDA BAUER: When the Hungarian Jews came the gas chambers were too small really to murder such huge numbers of people coming all at the same time.
NARRATOR: Back in Zilina, Vrba and Wetzler were devastated. They alone could picture every graphic image of what was happening to Hungary’s Jews.
Fearful they would be recaptured, they fled to the Slovakian mountains.
MARTIN GILBERT: Vrba was a very angry man, because he became convinced that had his report been acted upon by the Jewish leadership in Budapest, they could have stopped hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews, from, as he would put it, from boarding the trains.
NARRATOR: Now in hiding, Vrba and Wetzler could do nothing more to help the Jews of Hungary.
Deeply depressed, Vrba confided in a childhood sweetheart.
GERTA SIDONOVA: When I met him again I really didn’t recognize him because he’s changed so much. His expression from a sort of friendly, cheerful young boy totally changed. He told me everything. He told me how the death factories in Auschwitz were organized. He was very articulate about it and very um, precise about describing all the things that he has witnessed there.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile at Auschwitz, up to twelve thousand Hungarian Jews were being gassed each day.
In Budapest, Rudolf Kastner, the leader of the Jewish Council, was still hanging out hope that the Eichmann deal could succeed.
But the Allies wanted no part of it.
DAVID CESERANI: Kastner has heard nothing. He’s desperately trying to fool Eichmann into believing that the Allies are taking the offer of trucks for Jews seriously.
NARRATOR: The game of deception suited Eichmann perfectly. The longer Kastner dragged out the ‘negotiation,’ the more Jews Eichmann could send to the gas chambers.
MARTIN GILBERT: He knew that every day that these negotiations went on, another 12,000 Hungarian Jews were being murdered.
NARRATOR: Kastner, increasingly desperate to strike a deal, tried to convince Eichmann that he was making progress with the British and the Americans.
DAVID CESERANI: He says to Eichmann look how are the allies going to be convinced if they see trains rolling every day to Auschwitz. What you’ve got to do is to free some Jews, what you’ve got to do is to send a train to freedom. Eventually in an extraordinary game of bluff and bargaining, Kastner manages to raise the number of Jews to be allowed to go to safety, as a gesture of goodwill, to over one thousand, six hundred.
YEHUDA BAUER: It was a kind of Noah’s Ark, Jews from quite different backgrounds were put on that train on purpose, violently anti Zionist, ultra-orthodox fanatics, and left wing Zionist youth members, and everything in between.
NARRATOR: But for the Jews who didn’t make Kastner’s train to freedom, it was a hollow victory.
…and, the normal deportations to Auschwitz continued.
DAVID CESERANI: Why didn’t they broadcast information about the report to the Jews to Hungary, and the answer I think is it was pointless. The speed and ferocity of the German occupation , the speed of the round up and ghettoization, and then the ferocity with which the deportations were implemented, made any kind of response almost impossible to effect.
NARRATOR: Throughout Europe, Jewish resistance to the Nazis had already proved futile at stopping the deportations.
YEHUDA BAUER: There was no way the Jews could resist a whole army, there was nothing they could do, nothing whatsoever.
NARRATOR: 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.
MARTIN GILBERT: Quite by chance, by sheer accident of history, the Americans bombed Budapest, and the Hungarian region Admiral Horthy, in a panic said this deportation has to stop.
NARRATOR: The trains ground to a halt. More than three hundred thousand Hungarian Jews had already been sent to the gas chambers, but a hundred and twenty thousand others had just been saved. Seventy five times more than the number rescued by Rudolph Kastner’s freedom train.
MARTIN GILBERT: Vrba’s work, had had this amazing rescue aspect, had saved all those lives. The largest single rescue of Jews in the 2nd world war.
GEORGE KLEIN: I think he has achieved with this report all and more than was possible to achieve. I think he saved my live and the life of others who knew about the report.
NARRATOR: Vrba and Wetzler continued their efforts. They joined the Czechoslovak partisan resistance and fought the Nazis until the end of the war.
As the Americans, British and Russians advanced on Germany from all sides, the Nazi reign of terror began to collapse. The Russians moved into Poland, and on January 27th, 1945, they liberated Auschwitz. By then, the Nazis had killed an estimated one and a half million people there, in less than five years.
After the war, Rudolf Kastner moved to Israel. But his negotiations with Eichmann were never forgotten, and he was accused of collaborating with the Nazis.
DAVID CESERANI: Opinion about Kastner was bitterly divided. Naturally those who’d got out on the train he organized, worshipped him, he’d saved their lives. Those who had been rounded up in the provinces, who felt they’d been let down by the Jewish leadership in Budapest, they regarded him as little better than a traitor, someone who negotiated with the Nazis, who had saved a chosen few, and abandoned them.
NARRATOR: Kastner defended his controversial attempts to save Hungarian Jews and eventually sued for libel. The trial that followed was highly political and Kastner lost. But as he waited for an appeal, Zeev Eckstein, a Holocaust survivor and possible Israeli secret agent, took justice into his own hands.
On March 3rd, 1957, he assassinated Kastner on a Tel Aviv street.
MARTIN GILBERT: Bizarrely Kastner saved about the same number of Jews as Oscar Schindler saved. But it was always alleged that he’d, was helping friends escape knowing that everybody else was being murdered, whereas the truth was that he was testing Eichmann’s promise, in the belief that the few who were being saved that week were just the tip of the iceberg of the hundreds of thousands who were in fact going to be saved as soon as the Gestapo Allied deal was clinched.
DAVID CESERANI: And to this day he remains an extraordinarily divisive figure, those who regard him as a hero who bargained with the devil, and some who regard him as a traitor who sold his soul to the devil.
NARRATOR: Fred Wetzler stayed in Slovakia. He married a fellow survivor from Auschwitz, and became a journalist and newspaper editor.
Rudolf Vrba married his childhood sweetheart, Gerta Sidonova. He moved to Canada, where he became an associate professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia.
GEORGE KLEIN: He was not somebody who was complaining or crying about what has happened, or being full of regrets and the only real regret he had was that he could not save more people.
MARTIN GILBERT: Vrba was the figure without whom none of this could have come to pass. Vrba was the thread if you like which ran through this extraordinary story of deception and rescue.
NARRATOR: Fred Wetzler died in 1988.
Rudolf Vrba passed away in 2006.
ON SCREEN: This film is dedicated to the courage and heroism of Fred Wetzler and Rudolph Vrba.