|Vrba: hid in a woodpile|
The prisoners had been engaged in hard labour for much of the morning. They were working in an area of Auschwitz that lay between the two perimeter fences. It was some distance from the gas chambers, but the stench of death was nevertheless in the air.
In the early afternoon, two of the prisoners - Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler - began surreptitiously monitoring their brutal guards. Both men were nervous, for they were about to do something of the greatest possible danger.
At around 2pm, they noticed that the guards had momentarily turned their backs. Vrba and Wetzler made a sudden dash for a nearby woodpile. It had a hollowed out space in the middle with just enough room to hide two men.
|Auschwitz: escape was almost impossible|
No sooner were they inside than their comrades - who knew all about their plan to escape from Auschwitz - concealed the hole with wooden planks. Vrba and Wetzler had been prisoners in Auschwitz for almost two years. They had first hand experience of the brutality of life in one of the Nazi regime’s most notorious extermination camps.
Vrba, a Slovakian Jew, had been arrested by the Nazi authorities after trying to flee his homeland. Sent to Auschwitz, his job was to dig up bodies that the camp commanders wanted to incinerate.
|'Canada': Auschwitz storehouse|
He soon managed to get himself transferred to one of the camp storehouses, known to inmates as Canada. It contained clothing, food and medicine: Vrba began pilfering supplies and, in this way, managed to keep himself healthy.
In January, 1943, he was transferred to nearby Auschwitz II Birkenau. While here, he kept a careful count of the number of prisoners arriving and also noted the belongings of those that had been gassed. In this way, he was able to calculate the number being killed.
By the spring of 1944, he reckoned that 1,750,000 Jews had already been exterminated.
|Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz|
He noted that most arriving Jews were carrying their possessions with them. This alarmed him, for it implied that they genuinely believed the Nazi fiction that they were going to be resettled.
It suddenly dawned on him that he had to warn Europe’s Jewish population that stories of resettlement were a lie: they were all being transported to death camps.
Vrba teamed up with fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler when he came to make his escape bid. The two men knew their absence would be noted at the evening roll call: they also knew that the SS would undertake an intensive search for three days. They therefore decided to remain in the woodpile for more than 72 hours before making a dash for freedom.
Their plan began well. On April 10 - their fourth night in hiding - they made their escape, wearing Dutch clothes and boots they had stolen from the storehouse. They headed directly for the Polish border with Slovakia, some 80 miles to the south.
After a fortnight on the run, they reached the Slovakian town of Cadca, where the two men met the chairman of the Jewish Council, Dr. Oscar Neumann.
|Hungarian Jews: sent to the gas chambers|
Neumann encouraged them to write a detailed report of everything they saw. This they duly did: it would become known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report.
It contained a meticulous description of Auschwitz, along with an account of how prisoners were housed and selected for work. It also provided information on the shootings and gassing of inmates.
The report was soon being circulated in Hungary: shortly afterwards, in mid-June, 1944, it reached US intelligence and was made public. Parts of it were broadcast by the BBC World Service.
|Horthy: allied with Hitler|
The report horrified Allied leaders: they appealed to Miklos Horthy, Regent of Hungary, to stop the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. They said that he and his ministers would be held personally responsible for the killings, which had already claimed the lives of 437,000 Hungarian Jews.
Horthy, trapped in an uneasy alliance with Hitler, had to tread with care. Nevertheless, he ordered the deportations to stop with immediate effect.
The news brought some comfort to Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler. They’d risked everything in escaping from Auschwitz. If caught, they’d have been executed immediately.
Instead, their bold dash for freedom was to prove instrumental in saving the lives of tens of thousands of Budapest Jews.
My latest book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War is available here, price £11.40. The American edition will be published in October.
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail
'Engaging, page-turning and thought-provoking... a fascinating subject' Victoria Hislop