Auschwitz started as a Polish army barracks in southern Poland. In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Poland, and by May 1940, the site had been converted into a political prison. But did you know some people escaped the concentration camp?
Rudolf Vrba and another man escaped Auschwitz by noting that the search lasted only three days when prisoners went missing. They hid in a hole outside the inner perimeter fence for three days before fleeing on the fourth day.
The Great Escape
Since its inception in June 1940, several hundred people have attempted to flee Auschwitz, but only about 150 have managed to do so permanently. The Germans shot prisoners trying to flee or captured, tortured and executed them in front of the entire camp.
After three days of hiding in the woodpile, the two fugitives made their way out of the camp and into the countryside via Poland. During the early years of Auschwitz, Polish farmers and villagers were eager to assist escapees and strike a blow against the despised SS garrison. They assisted fugitives and local underground organizations such as the Home Army, Polish Socialist Party, and Peasant Battalions.
By the time Rudolf and Alfred escaped in 1944, the Germans had replaced the Polish residents of the Auschwitz region with ethnic Germans devoted to Hitler and the Third Reich. Rudolf realized he and Alfred would have to cross the Czechoslovakian border on their own.
They tried to blend into the landscape, but they stood out because their heads were shaved, filthy, and smelled like camp. The SS used dogs to track them down, and German troops and military convoys were on the move. The two fugitives were in grave danger.
Despite their caution, Rudolf and Alfred made mistakes on their perilous journey to the border. They stumble into a town on their third day on the run. They stumbled down alleys and back streets, expecting to be met by a German patrol at every turn. They knocked on the door of a nearby house, exhausted and lost, and a peasant woman agreed to assist them. She provided them with breakfast and a safe place to sleep until nightfall.
Rudolf and Alfred resumed their journey after a day’s rest. They were still not even halfway to the Slovakian border when they came across a woman tending to her crops.
She was initially wary of them, but she eventually introduced them to a friendly Polish farmer who agreed to take them to the border and show them a safe crossing point. The final leg of their journey took them two days, but the farmer eventually led them to a clearing near the border. They waited for a German patrol to pass before sneaking into Czechoslovakia. (Source: Windows To World History)
Trying to Convince the Jewish Council
On April 25, 1944, Rudolf and Alfred arrived at the Jewish Council headquarters in Zilina, Czechoslovakia, after three days of hiding in the woodpile outside Auschwitz and fifteen days of walking more than 85 miles through occupied Poland.
Rudolf told the Jewish Council about the atrocities he and Alfred witnessed at Auschwitz. Its members shook their heads in utter shock.
The Jewish Council, which was skeptical, put Rudolf and Alfred’s story to the test. They asked Rudolf for the names of people who had been in Auschwitz with him and compared the names to records of Jews deported from Czechoslovakia.
Escapees served as the foundation for a report describing Auschwitz’s early history and events from April 1942 to April 1944. (Source: Windows To World History)
Image from Economist