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FORMER PRISONERS RECEIVE STATE DECORATIONS IN MEMORIAM FOR TELLING WORLD OF AUSCHWITZ

Two Jewish WWII heroes honoured

AMONG the 18 people decorated by President Ivan Gašparovič on January 1 were two Slovak citizens who on April 6, 1944 became the first prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp to escape and tell the world about the atrocities that were occurring.

AMONG the 18 people decorated by President Ivan Gašparovič on January 1 were two Slovak citizens who on April 6, 1944 became the first prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp to escape and tell the world about the atrocities that were occurring.

The information provided by Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg was recorded in what came to be known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report, or the Auschwitz Protocols.

Wetzler, who died in February 1998, was awarded the MR Štefánik Cross, first class (in memoriam), while Rosenberg, who after he escaped took the name Rudolf Vrba, received the Order of the Double White Cross, first class (in memoriam), following his death in March 2006.

The men described the methods of mass murder the Nazis were using in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and provided a history of events at the camp since April 1942 as well a lay-out of the camp facilities. Their 32-page report reached the International Red Cross at the end of April 1944, and was read by leading representatives of the Hungarian Jewish community. The Vatican and the Allied leadership received the information in June 1944.

However, deportations to Nazi death camps continued for another six months after that, because the Allies refused to believe what they had read. It was not until two other Auschwitz escapees confirmed Wetzler and Rosenberg's story in the US press in November 1944 that the authorities realized it was true.

Historians now say that if action had been taken as soon as the information was received, some 430,000 Hungarian Jews could have been saved from the gas chambers. However, due to pressure from London to stop the deportations in late 1944, a further 600,000 Hungarian Jews were saved from scheduled executions.

"Many people in Slovakia don't know about these individuals, even though they are famous abroad," noted Stanislav Mičev, the director of the SNP Museum in Banská Bystrica. "The democratic world didn't act as these men hoped they might, but despite that their activities were not wasted. They shook the conscience of the world, and they fully deserve this award. It's just a pity they're not around to collect it."


The escape


Wetzler, a labourer by trade, was born in Trnava in 1918, while Vrba, a professor of pharmacology, was born in Topoľčany in 1924. At Auschwitz, which they reached in 1942, they did office work that allowed them to roam the camp and gave them insight into how it worked.

They prepared long and carefully for their escape, and were helped by their fellow inmates. They hid under baulks of wood used for building accommodation that the Nazis had left unguarded in a shaded area near the outer wire. Other camp inmates spread gasoline and tobacco on the wood so they would not be detected by the dogs of the camp guards. They spent three days under the logs until the Nazis called off the search for them, and then slipped over the wire in the night.

Their journey to Slovakia from Poland took them 21 days, as they could travel only by night. "It's amazing they managed that 100-kilometre journey to Slovakia after all they had endured," said Mičev. Incredibly, they joined the resistance in Slovakia on their return.

After reaching Žilina they also acquired forged "Arian papers", or documents identifying them as non-Jews. Wetzler's documents identified him as Jozef Lánik, while Rosenberg took the name Vrba.

Both later published their experiences in Auschwitz, Wetzler in a book in 1945 titled "The Grave of Four Million People" under the pseudonym of Lánik. Vrba emigrated to England, Israel, and finally to Canada, where he wrote "I Cannot Forgive" (1964) and "I Escaped from Auschwitz" (1988).

"These two men are symbols of courage, and it is fitting that they received these decorations," said historian Katarína Hradská. "Some things will never be erased from history."

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