Tomas Radil’s Story

Unarmed Resistance against Fascism and the Escape of Vrba and Wetzler from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp

The German Nazis, having succeeded in winning over the majority of the German nation with their destructive ideology and subdued most of Europe with their military force and terror, intended to gradually take over most of the world, enslave peoples and kill all those they considered enemies. They wanted to create a “Thousand Year Reich” based on the continuous application of their ideology.

The first and foremost task of those who opposed the Nazis was to prevent them from succeeding. Fight and resistance against Fascism were in principle defensive in nature. The main mission was to save the lives of potential victims on an international scale.

The actual conduct of war against Germany and its satellite countries by armed as well as unarmed resistance was a means to achieve this objective. The Germans and their allies had to be defeated as soon and as comprehensively as possible, so that they could not continue persecuting and murdering their victims.

However, before this final victory would be achieved, it was essential to prevent the Nazis from annihilating the hundreds of thousands of potential victims already concentrated in camps scattered across the territory of the German “Reich” as well as other hundreds of thousands of people surviving in Nazi-controlled Europe, not yet imprisoned but predestined by Nazi ideology to share the fate of the former.

It is in this context that the escape of both inmates, Rudolf Vrba (VRBA, Rudolf: I escaped from Auschwitz, Barricade Books, 2002) and Alfred Wetzler (WETZLER, Alfred: What Dante did not See, [in Slovak] Bratislava, 2009), from the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau is of the utmost importance. Their aim was to bring an objective testimony about the mass killing of Jews in gas chambers in that camp and the burning of their bodies in crematoria. They also wanted to alert the world to the fact that in April 1944 (before their escape), secret technical and organizational changes were under way in the camp, most likely in order to prepare for the planned mass extermination of Hungarian Jews, to be carried out at the quickest possible pace immediately after the German occupation of Hungary, which took place on 19 March 1944.

It has to be considered that both inmates were among the privileged in Birkenau. This is why they had knowledge about the operation of the “death factory”. Such knowledge formed the subject of their testimony, which they wanted to communicate to the Allies. They were able to organise and carry out their escape, they were in good physical condition, they had access to civilian clothes etc.

The privileged inmates performed almost all the tasks necessary for the continued operation of the camp. Two mutually different privileged groups can be distinguished (RADIL, Tomáš: At 14, Alone in Auschwitz, [in Czech] Praha, 2009). On the one hand there were those who assisted the SS in “exterminating the enemies of the Reich”, which was the main function of the camp. They were capos of various types, heads of prison labour and housing units etc. They did so in the hope that they would have a better chance of survival due to better nourishment, lighter work and exclusion from groups selected for extermination by gas. Such hopes were, however, seldom fulfilled. Usually the killing machine swallowed them, too, and they were readily replaced by new volunteers willing to play the role of “executioners’ henchmen”. No special professional qualification important for the “factory”, which would make them indispensable at least until new “experts” were trained, was required for these positions. These witnesses to the crimes and atrocities, repression, exploitation, torture and murder committed by the Nazis could not be left alive. Vrba and Wetzler had nothing in common with this group of criminals.

The second group of privileged inmates, which included Vrba and Wetzler, were professionals in many fields. They included craftsmen, technicians, doctors, cooks, many different administrative workers compiling regular reports about the camp for the camp SS as well as higher hierarchy etc. It was these inmates who ensured the continued operation of the camp, which could be likened in its complexity and variability to a large city or an industrial complex.

The capacity at Birkenau reached up to 100 thousand simultaneously accommodated inmates. Most of the arrivals were murdered before they could even begin to understand where they were, while the remaining ones were sent, after a few days, to camps in Germany, where their labour was used for the benefit of German war economy until their total exhaustion. After having been worked to death, they were also slated for liquidation. Each coming transport may have contained about two and a half thousand people. The transports were arriving according to schedule day and night. Belongings of the victims, including golden teeth, valuables concealed in bodily apertures and hair of the murdered were sorted by a group of inmates – professionals, recorded, packed and sent to the Reich. Were this large group of qualified and trained prison staff, or its part, to be liquidated, the trouble-free operation of the “death factory” would be jeopardized. This is why the privileged professional inmates were provided with such boarding and living conditions that they could fulfil their tasks “until further notice”. Which meant that, in the end, they would be liquidated as well. The essential question was who would survive longer: Nazi Germany, which was already being defeated by the Allies – or its privileged slaves, so far surviving under better prison conditions.

These inmates also collaborated with the Germans but they did not participate in their crimes, which formed the very essence of the camp. However, they maintained the system, thereby enabling the killing. This group of inmates could be called “old hands”: they were acquainted with the complex camp structure, to a certain degree they knew each other and cooperated, they had an idea who their SS superiors were, sometimes they could discern what was in the works, they represented the only section of inmates who were capable of any kind of organised resistance, and sometimes they helped the non-privileged inmates. There was a continuous struggle for power, positions and the consequent benefits within this group, motivated by the hope of a better chance of survival. Those who were capable of reaching higher levels of hierarchy in this prominent group of inmates were not always beyond reproach, positive aspects of their activity notwithstanding.

When assessing the escape of Vrba and Wetzler from Birkenau, it has to be pointed out that these “old hands” (not in terms of their age but of the length of stay in the camp and their position within the privileged prison society) had much higher chance of survival in the camp than the non-privileged inmates. On the other hand, the likelihood of a successful escape was negligible because the SS guarding system was very efficient, the neighbouring Polish population was usually not very positively disposed towards the Jews and it was difficult to find a long-term safe haven within accessible distance. Certain death awaited those caught fleeing. Escaping prisoners could be shot, clubbed to death or hanged in a cruel manner in the camp to discourage other inmates from similar attempts.

From the ethical point of view, the escape of Vrba and Wetzler, whose objective was to warn and prevent continued deportations to Birkenau, in particular from Hungary, was an act of heroism! In order to help other Jews survive, they took upon themselves much higher risk than that to which they were exposed in the camp! This remains a fact, regardless of whether their report, which they compiled in Žilina and asked the Slovak Jewish underground to deliver, reached the intended audience and whether the international Jewish institutions, the Western Allies, the Vatican and others reached appropriate conclusions and carried out necessary actions. All this was beyond the power of Vrba and Wetzler.

On 14 May 1944, deportations from Hungary, except from Budapest, began and by 9 July approximately 450,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in cattle cars. Most of them were killed there by gas and their bodies were burned. Part of the transports were routed through Košice, others through Žilina where they were witnessed by Vrba and Wetzler who lived there illegally.

Vrba and Wetzler were Slovak Jews. During the Slovak National Uprising Vrba became member of a partisan unit in the Slovak mountains, fought until the end of the war and received a medal for bravery. Wetzler survived illegally. They were both Jewish and Slovak and in such cases one cannot count people as being 50% Jewish and 50% Slovak. Linear arithmetic does not apply here. Both of them were fully Jewish and fully Slovak! Therefore, it is proper to consider Vrba and Wetzler both Jewish and Slovak national heroes with all the consequences.

Two methods of resistance against different forms of Fascism could be considered and played an important role during the period in question. One was the armed struggle, by armies fighting on different fronts against Nazi Germany and its allies; in national uprisings in the satellite countries against local governments controlled by the Germans (including the Slovak National Uprising) as well as directly against intervening German forces; in partisan units attacking the occupiers and their local helpers, in armed resistance and uprisings, rarely occurring in ghettoes and concentration camps, and the like.

Unarmed struggle included resistance movements thwarting by available means activities of the Fascists behind the frontlines, diversions disrupting war production and transport, espionage on behalf of the Allies and also mutual help to other anti-Fascists in occupied countries etc. Mutual solidarity among unprivileged inmates played a similar role: they associated in small, mutually supportive collectives, thus strongly increasing their chances of survival. Contrary to short-sighted and false assertions, the inmates in concentration camps did not behave passively “like sheep”, incapable of resistance: they also fought against Fascism by the means available to them. Without their active efforts, many more inmates would have died in the concentration camps. It is absurd to call these inmates, dead and alive, “martyrs”! The heroic act of Vrba and Wetzler was part of this unarmed resistance. They sacrificed themselves and risked their own lives to prevent the continued killing of hundreds of thousands in the Birkenau extermination camp.

The anti-Fascists, individuals and groups, lived under unequal conditions and had different opportunities for choosing the method of fighting. Another important factor was whether they had the possibility and opportunity to engage in anti-Fascist activity. The ethical dividing line between those who fought against Fascism and those who did not was not defined by their using armed or unarmed struggle in an effort to save the lives of victims. The real criterion was whether, in the fight against Fascism, these individuals and groups did or did not do everything that was within their vastly different powers and possibilities.


Tomáš Radil (Czech Academy of Sciences, Institute of Physiology) Prague, September 2014