Escape was lunacy, escape was death. To attempt it was suicide. That much had been taught to Walter Rosenberg early, within a week of his arrival in Auschwitz, aged just 17, at the start of July 1942. One afternoon, he and thousands of others had been forced to stand in silence and watch a public hanging, performed with full ceremony. The SS men had lined up with guns over their shoulders and marching drums strapped around their necks, while out in front stood two mobile gallows, wheeled into position, one for each condemned man.
The stars of the show were announced as two prisoners who had tried and failed to escape. Walter and the others had to watch as the men were brought out; a Kapo, one of the prisoners deployed by the SS to do the brute work of enforcement, tied their ankles and thighs with rope, then placed a noose around each of their necks. Afterwards, the inmates were kept there a full hour, forbidden even to look away. They had to stand, in silence, staring at the two dead bodies twirling in the wind. The corpses had notices pinned to their chests, written as if the words were spoken by the dead themselves: “Because we tried to escape … ”
Walter understood that the Nazis wanted him and every other prisoner to conclude that escape was futile, that any attempt was doomed. But Walter drew a very different lesson. The danger came not from trying to escape, but from trying and failing. From that day on, he was determined to try – and to succeed.
Before long, he had made himself a student of escapology, taking lessons from some of Auschwitz’s most battle-hardened inmates – chief among them a grizzled captain in the Red Army – and forging ties with the camp’s secret underground resistance, slowly acquiring the knowhow to attempt what no Jew had done before. This yearning to break out was rooted in more than a desire to save his own skin: his aim was much larger than that. For he had come to understand something essential about the death factory that was Auschwitz: that the crime unfolding before him rested on a great and devastating act of deception.
Most Jews were sent on arrival at Auschwitz to the gas chambers, but some, like Walter, were held instead as slave workers. For nearly two years, he remained a prisoner – kept alive by a series of random, accidental twists of fate – and in that time he saw almost every aspect of the Auschwitz slaughterhouse in action. He was never one of the Sonderkommando, those Jews compelled to do the most gruesome work of all – retrieving corpses from the gas chambers – but he witnessed every other stage of the process of industrialised murder.
For 10 months, he worked on the Judenrampe, the railway platform where incoming trains pulled in, delivering hundreds of Jews in cattle trucks from all across Europe, like so much livestock. His job was unloading each transport and, as he did it, he detected a pattern. The Nazis lied to their victims at every step of their journey towards destruction. The people falling out of those stinking cattle trucks had boarded them believing they were being taken to new lives in a new place: “resettlement in the east”, the Nazis called it. The Jews on those trains had packed up their belongings and held on tight to them because they thought they were building a new home, one that would need pots and pans, clothes for their backs and toys for their children. They believed that because that was what the Nazis had told them, and it was what their own friends and families had told them, in the form of postcards home that they did not realise had been written at gunpoint.
The lying carried on the instant the SS men unlocked the wagons. If they were in a hurry, they would be brutal. But if there was time, if the weather was good, the SS men might lay on a different show. They would pretend that the dreadful journey the new arrivals had endured had been some kind of aberration, a mistake that was about to be rectified. “Good God,” they might say, “in what state did those horrible Slovaks transport you? This is inhuman.” Those transported from Paris or Amsterdam, people raised to expect the best of the civilised Germans, were primed to believe that anyway; to feel relief that, at long last, food and drink would be available, that their luggage would be looked after and that order was about to be restored.
If time permitted, the pretence would continue as the new arrivals climbed on to the trucks that would take them to the killing sites. SS men, their manners impeccable, might help the sick clamber aboard. For those heading to the death chambers on foot, there was more reassurance in the form of inquiries about the Jews’ professional qualifications or trades back home. Why would they ask such things if they did not intend to make use of the deportees’ skills?
If anyone asked where they were being taken, the answer came back: “For disinfection.” Given how squalid the journey had been, that made sense. More reassurance came on that trek past the Birkenau section of the camp from the sight of an ambulance – a green military van bright with a red cross – driving slowly behind their ragtag column, occasionally picking up those who could not keep walking by themselves. The vehicle did carry a doctor. But his purpose was not healing the sick or saving lives. The medic inside was the SS doctor who would supervise the gassing, and the cargo on board consisted of cans of Zyklon B: poison gas. Walter knew all about that: one of his occasional jobs was to load the deadly canisters on to the vans.
The scene of the crime itself was disguised. The doomed believed they had been brought to a secluded, bucolic spot, a farmhouse alongside two wooden huts for undressing. By crematoria IV and V, there were flower beds. Once there, the deception did not let up. These were the Jews’ final minutes, but the Nazis encouraged them to believe in a future they did not have. “What is your trade? A shoemaker?” the officer would ask again. “We need them urgently, report to me immediately after!”
As the victims followed the order to strip off their clothes, the SS would tell them that they were about to bathe, that they should stay calm and that afterwards they would be given “coffee and something to eat”. That was when a reminder would come to tie all shoes into pairs: “Afterwards you won’t have to waste time finding the other shoe.” In fact, the SS knew that the shoes of murdered children would only be of use for German families back home if they came in pairs.
When the Jews were finally pushed inside the gas chamber, the trickery did not end. The sign on the doors read, “To the baths”. In crematorium II, the ceiling was dotted with fake showerheads. (Even the gas itself was part of the deception: the manufacturers of Zyklon B had altered their product, ridding it of the almond smell that, previously, had acted as a warning to anyone who got within inhalation distance.)
Walter soon understood that all this was not some cruel and elaborate joke. It had a clear and rational purpose. That much was plain from his own work on the ramp. He and his fellow slaves of the “clearing command” were under the strictest orders not to breathe a word to anybody getting off the trains. There was to be no contact whatsoever. Walter had seen what would happen if that rule were broken.
One night there came a transport from the concentration-camp-cum-ghetto of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. One of those disembarking was a well-dressed Czech mother, holding the hands of her two small children, and she was clearly relieved to have arrived at last. She said as much to a German officer: “Thank God we’re here.” She was one of those deportees who believed that the nation of Goethe and Kant would at last bring a measure of sanity to proceedings. That proved too much for one of Walter’s young comrades who, as he ran past her, hissed words meant both to scold and warn: “You’ll soon be dead.”
The woman looked not so much scared as affronted by this intrusion from a ghoulish man in pyjama stripes, his breath foul, his head shaved, a prisoner who was surely therefore some kind of criminal. Instantly, she approached a German officer as if she were the aggrieved patron of a Prague department store, demanding to see the manager. “Officer, one of the gangsters has told me that I and my children are to be killed,” she complained, in perfect German.
The SS man, gloved, his uniform creased in all the right places, gave her his most benign and trustworthy smile and said: “My dear lady, we are civilised people. Which gangster said this to you? If you would be so kind as to point him out.” She did as she was asked, and the officer took out his notebook and quietly wrote down the number of the prisoner, visible on the man’s tunic. Afterwards, when everything was finished and all the people had gone, the officer sought out that prisoner and had him taken behind the wagons and shot. Walter was among those who carried his corpse back to the camp. At around the same time, the woman who had complained was gassed, along with her two young children.
Running back and forth on the Judenrampe for those 10 long months, whether carrying corpses or suitcases, Walter gradually understood why the Nazis were so bent on keeping their victims ignorant of their fate, even to the last. They needed their killing machine to run smoothly and without disruption. Given the time pressure the SS were often under, with another transport coming down the track, there was no room for delay caused by panic or, worse, rebellion.
It was essential that the Jews coming off those trains did not know what fate awaited them. If they did, they might begin to cry out, they might start pushing and shoving, they might refuse to form columns, in neat rows of five, and instead rush for the barbed-wire fences or at their captors. True, they would be overwhelmed eventually: the SS carried submachine guns and their victims had nothing but their own bodies, weakened by hunger and thirst. But, still, there were sometimes a thousand or more people on that platform, outnumbering the Nazis by perhaps 10 to one. If the Jews knew what was coming, what sand might they be able to throw in the gears of the machine that was poised to devour them? They might not stop it, but they could slow it down.
Walter saw it with new clarity. The difference between truth and lies was the difference between life and death. The factory of murder that the Nazis had constructed in this accursed place depended on one cardinal principle: that the people who came to Auschwitz did not know where they were going, or for what purpose. That was the premise on which the entire system was built. Auschwitz was an abattoir and Walter had seen enough of those in the countryside of his native Slovakia to know that it is much easier to slaughter lambs than it is to hunt deer. If you have to catch animals individually, hunting them down one by one, it is slow, awkward work. It is never as fast or efficient as driving thousands at a time, herded and neatly organised, towards their deaths. The Nazis had devised a method that would operate like a well-run slaughterhouse rather than a shooting party.
Walter understood it well because he was standing every day and every night on the threshold of the abattoir. The sight of it nearly broke him. In those 10 months, there were some fellow prisoners who feared Walter was about to crack. But just at the point when he might have come apart, he was filled instead with a hot and unstoppable urge: he had to act. Somebody had to escape and sound the alarm, issuing the warning that Auschwitz meant death. Around the time he turned 18, Walter concluded that person should be him.
On 7 April 1944, after days of delay, weeks of obsessive preparation, months of watching the failed attempts of others, and two years of seeing the depths to which human beings could sink, the moment had finally come. It was time to escape.
The two other prisoners were already there, at the designated spot. Wordlessly, they gave the nod: do it now. Walter and fellow inmate Fred Wetzler did not hesitate. They climbed on top of a woodpile, covering a hole that had been prepared by other would-be escapees, found the opening and dropped inside. A second later, their comrades moved the planks into place above their heads. One of them whispered: “Bon voyage.” Then all was dark and silent.
Without delay, Walter set to work. He pulled out the machorka, the cheap, Soviet tobacco the Red Army captain had told him about, soaked in petrol and dried, exactly as instructed. Slowly, he began to wedge it into the cracks between the wooden boards, hoping against hope that the Soviet prisoner of war was right, that the scent would be repellent to dogs. If the captain’s confidence was well founded, Walter and Fred should be able to crouch in this bunker beneath the woodpile, silent and undisturbed, for exactly as long as they needed: three days and three nights.
Walter stared at the phosphorescent hands of his watch. Time was crawling. He wanted to stand up, to stretch, but he could do no such thing. It was too risky to talk. At one point, Walter felt Fred, who at 25 was six years older than him – both of them from the same small Slovak town of Trnava – take his hand and squeeze it.
At 6pm that Friday night came the shriek of the siren. It was a howl to make the air vibrate and the blood freeze in your veins, a thousand wolf packs baying in unison. The noise was appalling, but every inmate welcomed it: it meant that at least one of their number had been found missing from the evening roll call, possibly escaped. That was their cue. Fred and Walter moved out of the main space under the woodpile, which had been built to hold four, and wriggled into a kind of passageway that could accommodate only two. It was intended to be an extra layer of protection: a hiding place within the hiding place. The pair crammed in and lay dead still, side by side.
They knew what the siren would bring. The pounding of close on 2,000 pairs of jackboots, tramping across the ground, the senior men alternately swearing and barking orders, their dogs slavering as they rooted out any sign of frail, quivering human life, 200 of them, trained and primed for this very purpose. The search had begun and it would not let up for three days.
Fred and Walter could be precise about that because the Nazis had a security protocol from which they never deviated. This outer part of the camp, where prisoners laboured as slaves, was guarded only during the daylight hours when the inmates were working. No need to watch over it at night, when every last prisoner was herded back inside the inner camp, with its double lines of electrified wire fences.
There was only one exception to that rule. If an inmate was missing, presumed to have attempted an escape, the SS kept up the outer ring of armed sentry posts for 72 hours as they searched. After that, they would conclude that the escapee, or escapees, had got away: from then on, it would be the responsibility of the Gestapo to scour the wider region and find them. If a prisoner could somehow hide in the outer area, during those three days and nights after the alarm had been sounded – as Walter and Fred were doing now – then he would emerge on the fourth night into an outer camp that was unguarded. He could escape.
Somehow the hours dragged their way through Saturday to reach Sunday. The SS kept up the search. Fred and Walter froze as they heard two men, Germans, a matter of yards away. It was in the early afternoon, and they could pick up every word. “They can’t have got away,” said one. “They must be still in the camp.” The Germans began speculating about Fred and Walter’s likely hiding places. “How about that pile of wood?”
Walter and Fred did not move. The two Germans climbed on top of the woodpile, which they proceeded to dismantle, board by board.
Walter grabbed his knife. Fred did the same. And then, not for the first time, Walter’s life was saved by a random moment of good luck. Far off there was a sudden commotion, the voices distant but excited. Fred and Walter could hear the men just above them pause, their ears seemingly cocked to pick up what was happening. A second passed. Then another. Finally, one of the pair said: “They’ve got them! C’mon … Hurry.” And, down below, Fred and Walter heard their would-be discoverers scramble away.
Sunday night passed into Monday. The morning shift returned, bringing with it the same din, the same barking, both human and animal, for another 10 hours, each minute passing at the same agonising pace.
At 6.30pm, Walter and Fred finally heard the sound they had longed for. Announced loudly, it rang out: Postenkette abziehen! It was the order to take down the grosse Postenkette, the outer chain of sentry posts, shouted from one watchtower to the next and then the next, circling the entire perimeter. To Fred and Walter, those words, bellowed out by the men who had enslaved them and murdered hundreds of thousands of their people, sounded like the sweetest music. It was an admission of defeat by the SS, recognition that they had failed to recapture the two prisoners they had lost.
For Walter, even inching out of the side cavity sent a sharp pain shooting through his arms, legs, trunk and neck. His muscles were stiff and cold, his first movements jerky and uncertain. Finally they were in the main pit. They hugged each other in the darkness.
Now they took a deep breath and pressed their palms against the roof, trying to give the bottom board a push. But it would not move. They tried another spot. Still it would not budge. Had they accidentally sealed themselves into their own tomb? They had assumed that, if you could pile a plank on, you could take it off. But lifting boards is easy from above. Not so from below, when the weight of the entire stack is pressing down.
Shoving in tandem, grunting with pain, they managed to lift one of the bottom planks no more than an inch. But it was enough to give them purchase. Now they could get hold of it, just enough to shove it sideways. Fred turned to Walter with a smile. “Thank God for those Germans who nearly found us,” he whispered. “If they hadn’t moved those planks, we’d have been trapped.” They summoned their strength again, shifting and shoving the boards until they could, with excruciating effort, haul themselves up and out. At last, they had done it. They were out of that hole in the ground. Exhausted from the exertion and the three days’ confinement, the two men paused to take in the night sky. It was clear; the moon was shining.
They needed to get going, but first they put the boards back in their original position. Part of it was a determination to be thorough, to leave no clue for those who would be here the next morning. But part of it was the hope that this concealed hole might serve as an escape hatch for someone else. Fred and Walter were on their way to becoming the first Jews to engineer their own escape from Auschwitz. They did not want to be the last.
Then they headed west, towards the little birch wood that gave Birkenau its name. They advanced not on foot, but on their stomachs, inching along, commando style. They did not get up until they had reached the trees, the same small forest that held the pits that had once burned corpses day and night.
The perimeter fence was not like the ones they had known from the inner camp. It did not have lights attached to each post; the wire was not electrified. Even so, the pair were taking no chances. They had fashioned in advance something that could function as a kind of clothes peg, protecting their hands as, working from the bottom, they lifted the wire above the ground. That made an opening big enough for them to crawl through.
Now they were on the other side of the fence. They would stay close to it, walking a near-complete circuit. Before long, they passed the inner camp, the lights that marked its perimeter warm and glowing. If you did not know better, the sight could almost look cosy, given the barren bleakness all around. Except they did know better. For they could also see the chimneys of the crematoria, pumping out their greenish-blue, oil-refinery flames and their thick smoke of death. The pair took a last look, as clear as they had ever been that they never wanted to see this place again.
They kept on, walking as stealthily as they could, their limbs still stiff, slowed down by the marshy terrain. At about 2am, crossing open moorland, they reached a signpost with a warning to those coming in the opposite direction: “Attention! This is Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Anyone found on these lands will be shot without warning!”
It had taken them far too long, but they had at last reached the end of the vast “zone of interest” that enveloped the camp. For a moment at least, they could congratulate themselves. On 10 April 1944 they had each achieved what no Jew had done before: they had broken out of Auschwitz. And now they would embark on their true mission: to warn the world of the horrors within.
After escaping the camp, Walter and Fred went on the run, trekking across the mountains, marshlands and rivers of Nazi-occupied Poland, without a map or compass, to reach their native Slovakia. There, they wrote a 32-page report, the first detailed account of the mass slaughter under way in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It would eventually reach Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and the pope, and by a series of extraordinary moves save 200,000 Jewish lives. While in hiding, Walter adopted an alias – Rudolf Vrba – a name he would keep until his death in Vancouver in 2006, aged 81. His postwar life would take a series of unexpected turns – and include several more escapes – but he never stopped testifying to what he had seen, determined that the world should know the truth of Auschwitz.
This is an edited extract from The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by Jonathan Freedland (John Murray Press, £20). Order a copy for £17.40 from the Guardian Bookshop.
Jonathan Freedland talks to Hadley Freeman about the book in a Guardian Live event at 8pm on 21 June.