Auschwitz was Hitler’s largest concentration camp. Nazi records show that tens of thousands of Jews from German-occupied territories were sent there to be executed each month, and by 1944, 12,000 Jews a day were being murdered inside its barbed wire fences. This appalling massacre was one of Germany’s most heavily-guarded secrets, carefully concealed from the outside world. But two Auschwitz prisoners, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, were determined to expose the horrors of the Nazi genocide and stop the killing factories forever. To do that, they had to escape from the heavily-guarded camp. Others had tried, but all had been captured and publicly executed.
As the Nazis expanded their reign of terror across Europe, more and more unaware Jews were deported to Auschwitz. The prisoners were forced to expand the camp, making room for the ever-more-frequent cattle trucks overfilled with frightened souls. In 1943, after witnessing the methodical and swift extermination of thousands of Czech Jews and hearing rumors that the Jews of Hungary would be next, Vrba and Wetzler knew they had to break out and tell people not to get on the trains. “It was (Vrba’s) desire to warn the world about this new stage of the Final Solution,” says historian David Ceserani in the film. “The destruction of the Jews of Hungary gave urgency to his determination to escape that drove him on.”
In April, 1944 Vrba and Wetzler hid in a woodpile right under the guards’ noses for three days, traversed rugged and dangerous enemy terrain, and solicited the generosity of strangers. After an extraordinary 15-day trek covering 85 miles across occupied Poland, they finally reached people they thought they could help. At the Jewish Council headquarters in Zilina, Slovakia, they described the horrific activities of the Nazis at Auschwitz. Their tale was recorded in the Vrba-Wetzler Report, which they assumed would be distributed to the proper authorities, who would then force the Germans to stop the deportations and executions.
The report was indeed sent to Allies around the world. But to Vrba’s horror, some copies took months to arrive in the right hands, and the most urgent copy was suppressed by Rudolph Kastner, head of the Hungarian Jewish underground, who worried it would destroy a deal he was trying to make with the Nazis. Kastner’s deal eventually saved about 1600 Jews on his “train to freedom,” but according to Vrba and others, the suppression of the report resulted in hundreds of thousands more being deported to the gas chambers.
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.
The trains ground to a halt. Three hundred thousand Hungarian Jews had already been sent to the gas chambers, but instantly, one hundred and twenty thousand others were saved, seventy five times more than the number rescued by Rudolph Kastner’s freedom train. An estimated one-and-a-half million prisoners were killed at Auschwitz in less than five years. But according to historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Vrba’s and Wetzler’s efforts were “the largest single rescue of Jews in the second World War.”