Seventy years ago today, two men pulled off the greatest escape in human history—from a Nazi death camp in southern Poland.
Most of the world doesn’t know their names, but we should. Rudolf Vrba was only 19 when he escaped Auschwitz. Fred Wetzler was only 25.
They are my heroes. They executed their ingenious plan on April 7, 1944, and not simply to save their own lives but to tell the world the truth about what Adolf Hitler was really doing to annihilate the Jewish people. They risked their lives to proclaim the truth, and in the process they helped save more than 100,000 Jewish lives.
It is their stories that inspired me to write The Auschwitz Escape. Now here is a brief version of the true story:
To misunderstand the nature and threat of evil is to risk being blindsided by it.
In 1933, the world was blindsided by the rise of Adolf Hitler.
In 1939, it was stunned by the German invasion of Poland and the Nazi leader’s bloodthirsty quest for global domination. Perhaps most tragically, most of the world did not understand Hitler’s plan to annihilate the Jews until it was almost too late.
Today, we face dangerous new threats from Iran, North Korea and a rising czar in Russia, not from Germany. Yet curiously, in recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor have each warned that as we confront current challenges, we must be careful to learn the lessons of history regarding how the world failed to understand the threat posed by Hitler and the Nazis and deal with it decisively, before events spin out of control.
I agree, and as an example, I would point to the extraordinary events that occurred in the spring of 1944.
Four men pulled off the greatest escape in all of human history, and from a Nazi death camp in southern Poland. They did not simply escape to save their own lives. Nor did they escape merely to tell the world about a terrible crime against humanity that had been—and was being—committed. What set these true heroes apart is that they planned and executed their escape in the hope of stopping a horrific crime before it was committed—the extermination of the Jews of Hungary.
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of these escapes, and to draw attention to the significance these unknown—or unremembered—events and the lessons they have to teach us, I recently wrote a work of historical fiction, The Auschwitz Escape. I changed the names of key figures involved so as not to put words in their mouths that cannot be verified to be their own. But it is my deepest hope that the book will cause many to dig into the real history of these remarkable heroes.
Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler were Slovak Jews. They escaped from Auschwitz on April 7, 1944.
(Note: In the novel, I explain exactly how they did it, what supplies they needed, what their escape route was, how they outfoxed the guards, etc.—an extraordinary story.)
Arnost Rosin was also a Slovak Jew. Czeslaw Mordowicz was a Polish Jew. Together they escaped from Auschwitz on May 27, 1944.
Upon making it safely to Czechoslovakia, Vrba, only 19 years old, and Wetzler, 25, linked up with the Jewish underground. They explained Auschwitz was not simply a labor camp, as most thought, but rather a death camp. The Nazis were systematically murdering prisoners, mostly Jews, using poison gas called “Zyklon B,” then burning their bodies in enormous ovens.
The men explained the Nazis were dramatically enlarging an expansion camp a few miles from Auschwitz called Birkenau, building new train tracks, enormous new gas chambers and massive new crematoria. They had also completed ramps leading all those arriving in the cattle cars directly into the gas chambers.