One of the most outstanding stories of escape from Auschwitz-Birknau is the story of Alfred Wetzler and Rudolph Vrba-Rosenberg. It took place on April 7, 1944. According to the opinions of several historians, the Vrba-Wetzler Report, often referred to as the Auschwitz Protocol, one of the most famous documents in the free world at that period, was a major contributing factor in multitudes of Hungarian Jews not being sent to Auschwitz.
Wetzler and Vrba, two Jewish youths from Slovakia, arrived at Auschwitz early in the operation of the camp. Having been witness to the atrocities occurring in the camps, they found themselves in positions as official secretaries of the camp. This job gave them access to files that contained information about all the horrific activities, the torture, and brutality, and of course the murder. They copied down all the information they could lay their hands on, thus endangering their lives. If discovered, the SS would torture them and then murder them on the spot. Yet, they felt it their sacred duty to document the atrocities and publicize the whole story to the free world. Thus they had to escape. But how to escape Auschwitz-Birkenau? Very few were successful in avoiding the guards, and of those few, only a handful actually survived.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was made up of three main camps: Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Buna. Around each one of these main camps was a security ring, an internal double fence of electrified barbed wire. Powerful flood lamps lit up the area each night. For every 10 yards there was a guard tower manned by an SS soldier armed with a heavy machine gun. Each evening the Jews would return from their work and gather inside the outside fence. A count was made. If the number matched the number count from the morning, the guards in the outside towers were released from duty for the night. If one Jew, even one, was found missing, an alarm was sounded and a massive search was commenced, encompassing thousands of personnel, accompanied by 200 dogs. This continued until either the escapees were caught or three days passed. In the interim, the watch around the outside fence was maintained day and night. At the end of three days, if the escapees were still not tracked down, the Germans assumed that they would not be found in light of the intensive search that had transpired within the confines of the camps, and the search was handed over to the authorities outside the camps.
Vrba and Wetzler’s plan was simple. They would hide for three days, somewhere outside the inner fence, but within the outer wall. On the third night, after the guards were released, they would slip away under the fence. But how could they hide in a place so well guarded? Where would they hide? How could they evade the intense search that would take place?
Luck had it that at that time the Germans decided to build a new camp called “Mexico” in expectation of the Hungarian Jews. In advance of the building they brought long, wide boards of wood with which to build the barracks. The boards were temporarily stored in piles. A group of Jews had the job of piling up the wood. With the approaching holiday of Sukkos in mind, the Jewish underground arranged that one of the piles would be arranged such that inside was a small compartment, large enough for two or three people to sit, but which could not be discerned from the outside. The pile would look just like all the other piles. It was into that tiny compartment that Vrba and Wetzler crawled and hid.
Night fell, and they heard the Jews returning to the camp; they knew that they were being counted. Then the alarm siren went off, and the search began. For two and a half days, patrols of armed Germans with dogs passed near and on top of their pile. But they weren’t discovered. Even the dogs didn’t detect them. They learned a trick from a Russian officer that Russian tobacco soaked in kerosene confuses a dog’s sense of smell and so the dogs never found them.
Two days passed, then night, and then another half a day. It appeared they were about to succeed. The search parties were tiring. It was the afternoon of the third day; all they had to do was to wait for nightfall. Suddenly, they heard voices. Two guards were still searching. One said to the other, “Otto, perhaps they’re inside the pile of wood?”
“Yeah, sure!” answered the second German, “and the two Jews are inside listening! Forget it. The dogs were here.”
But they didn’t give up. They kept on trying. Vrba and Wetzler were lying inside, their nerves on the verge of bursting. Many attempts at escape from Auschwitz had failed, and finally they were almost successful in slipping away – and here were two Germans approaching their hiding place. The guards removed one layer of boards. Then a second layer. There had been three layers of boards covering them from the top. Only one layer was left. The two Jewish youths, hiding inside, were preparing their knives as a welcoming gift for the two Germans. But they also realized that even if they kill those German criminals, someone else would catch them. They saw themselves being led up to the gallows, beaten and mutilated. Now at the last minute, right on the verge of their great escape, before their getaway had succeeded, they were about to be caught!
Suddenly, they heard a noise, and the two Germans said to each other, “Ha! They caught them!” and then ran away.
Two hours passed, night fell, and they heard the all-clear signal pass from one tower to the other. They waited another two hours until it was pitch-black darkness. All that was left was to lift up the boards, step outside, and slip under the outside non-electrified fence to freedom. Simple to say, but not for inmates of Auschwitz. They attempted to push up the pile of boards on top of them. Only one row of boards remained, and they found they just didn’t have the strength. For three days they had not eaten or drank. Combined with no sleep and nerve-racking strain, cramped into such a small compartment, Vrba and Wetzler simply didn’t have the strength to lift up the remaining boards.
Out of desperation they mustered their last remaining ounce of strength, and slowly, slowly they pushed up another inch, another inch, until they finally pushed off the final layer of boards and stepped out of their hiding place. Vrba said to Wetzler, “Imagine what would have been if those two German criminals hadn’t taken off two layers of boards? If we couldn’t remove one layer half a foot thick, then for sure we would’ve had no chance with one and a half feet of wood!”
Within two hours they were outside the camp. The first person they met was a German peasant woman whose son had been sent to an SS prison camp. She hated the Nazis with a passion. Instead of turning them in, she gave them food. The first Pole they met was a member of the Polish underground and he helped them escape over the border to Slovakia. The first Slovak they met was also a member of the underground and he helped them make contact with the Jewish community in Jernina. And thus was written the famous Vrba and Wetzler Report outside the borders of Auschwitz.
“Many, O L-rd my G-d, are Your wonderful works that You have done, and Your thoughts that are toward us; none can compare to You; if I would declare and tell of them, they would be more than can be numbered” (Tehillim 40:6).
Sitting in our sukkos, we can’t help but think about Vrba and Wetzler sitting in theirs! In life, we may find ourselves inside a hole. The Germans are lifting off the layers of planks. But we are in a better situation than Vrba and Wetzler. Vrba and Wetzler thought they were about to be caught and they were cursing the whole world. They were not able to know that at that very moment Hakadosh Baruch Hu was opening the door for their escape to freedom. We, on the other hand, are clearly aware of this, because the parts of the play that we do see are so obviously part of His master plan.