Gerta Vrba’s Story
My interest/relationship to the Vrba Wetzler Memorial project.
Rudi Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) was my childhood friend in Trnava. After having been excluded from attending school by the fascist Slovak government in 1938 we (jewish children) tried to educate ourselves. Rudi and I studied chemistry and mathematics together, and became close friends. In 1942 our paths separated.
Deportations of Slovak Jews started in the spring of 1942 and my parents and I managed to escape to Hungary, where the Jewish population has not yet been deported. Rudi was deported first to Ljublin-Majdanek and then moved to Auschwitz where he managed to survive till his escape in April 1944. I met him again in Bratislava in the summer 1944.
In the spring and summer 1944 the deportation of the Hungarian Jews started and my mother and I returned to Bratislava Slovakia, where it was easier to live under false identity. During my stay in Bratislava a friend of mine Josef Weiss arranged for me to meet Rudi, who after having escaped from Auschwitz and having managed to reach Zilina was now living in Bratislava using forged documents. My new encounter with my old friend Rudi brought out many emotions. First I noticed the change and difference in Rudi. When I first knew him he was a very cheerful, happy teenager, now at the age of 19 he was embittered and cynical. Only when he told me of his experiences in Auschwitz did I get an inkling why he changed. He described with precision and in great detail what he witnessed in Auschwitz i.e. the workings of the death factory, and the organized killing of European Jews. Rudi has been witnessing the killing for nearly 2 years. When he and his friend Fredie Wetzler learned from various sources in Auschwitz that preparations were being made to exterminate the Hungarian Jews, Rudi and Fredie decided to risk their lives and escape to warn the Hungarian Jews of what to expect. On the 7th of April 1944 Vrba and Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz and undertook a strenuous and extremely dangerous ‘walk’ through enemy territory from Auschwitz to Zilina. There with the help of the Slovak Jewish Council, they wrote a comprehensive report about what they witnessed in Auschwitz known as the Vrba Wetzler protocols.
During the summer of 1944 Rudi and I often met and our friendship was renewed. By the end of the summer Rudi left Bratislava and joined the Slovak resistance determined to fight the Germans. My mother and I stayed in Bratislava and were caught in November by the Gestapo to be deported. The information that Rudi gave me about the death camps and almost certain death there prompted me to escape from the detention camp in Bratislava, but my mother chose to stay. Thanks to the knowledge gained from Rudi I survived the war.
After the war
Living in Prague
Most Jewish teenagers had no formal education after the war. Rudi missed 4 and I 6 years of school. Both of us wanted to study at university and we had to catch up with the lost years. The new Czechoslovak government set up courses to make this possible, and both Rudi and I enrolled. It was during this time that we became very close, and fell in love.
We passed the right exams and were qualified to enroll to university. We decided to go and study in Prague, to remove ourselves from the painful memories in Slovakia. Both my parents died in camps, and I was the only survivor of our closest family. Rudi and his mother gradually became my family.
In Prague I enrolled to study Medicine and Rudi chemical engineering. These were very happy times for us. We started a new life and after the horrors of the war living in our democratic and even later communist Czechoslovakia, seemed like a dream come true. Soon we got married and rented a tiny apartment where we lived together. Both of us qualified and got good jobs. We were ready to start a family and our first daughter Helena was born 2 years after I qualified as a medical doctor. A child for us, holocaust survivors, was a special event ; it seemed to be the ultimate proof that we defied the attempt of the Nazis to annihilate us. Two years later our second daughter Zuza was born. The pleasure that our children gave us was so intense that we could hardly imagine anything more enjoyable.
With family responsibilities we became aware how difficult life in communist Czechoslovakia was. There were constant food shortages, and to keep us all fed and dressed required enormous effort. With both of us having full time demanding jobs all our energy was spent on trying to survive. This lack of time and energy made it difficult for Rudi and me to adjust and to keep our relationship going. We were not aware how badly both of us I were damaged by our war experiences and it was too difficult for us to cope with each other. Finally, things between us became so bad that we saw no other way but to separate.
In 1958 Rudi and I left Czechoslovakia separately. I remarried and settled in England. After a stop in Israel Rudi came to England so as to be able to spend time with our children. During this time a very strong bond developed between Rudi and Helena and Zuzana. Rudi didn’t talk to our children about his past, but when he wrote his book ‘I will never forgive’ the children learned about their fathers past. It was a very painful experience for both girls, and it hurt them to realize how much pain and suffering their father had to endure. Both our children grew up into beautiful adult people.
They admired their fathers’ courage who by escaping from Auschwitz at great risk to himself made a major contribution to the rescue of a large number of Hungarian Jews, and was one of the witnesses to provide first hand information about the Nazis death camps. Zuzana felt that his contribution has not been adequately recognized.
After her father’s death Zuzana organized several projects in Cambridge to honor his role in the holocaust. The most elaborate was a presentation by the Parkside School Sixth form in Cambridge on holocaust memorial day on the 29th Jan 2012 at the Guildhall that told the story of Rudi Vrba’s escape. Zuza was continuously thinking of ways how to keep the memory of her father as a holocaust hero alive.
As the 70th anniversary of the Vrba Wetzler escape was getting near Zuza thought that it would be fitting to commemorate the occasion by undertaking a march from Auschwitz to Zilina in the footsteps of Vrba and Wetzler. Unfortunately she was unable to even start this project, for she became terminally ill and died in September 1913 at the age of 59.
I met Fedor Gal in October 2013, in Prague and we discussed Zuzana’s wish and the possibility of the event she envisaged. Fedor immediately understood that such an event could play an important role in emphasizing the importance of resistance and defiance in the history of the holocaust and would provide an important educational value for understanding and commemorating some lesser known events of the holocaust. It is thanks to Fedor Gal that the Vrba Wetzler project and my daughter’s dream is becoming a reality.