Only five Jews ever engineered their own escape from Auschwitz, says Jonathan Freedland on The Rest is History. The first two were Rudolf Vrba and his friend Alfréd Wetzler. On 7 April 1944, they hid in a hole “not much bigger than a double grave”, concealed beneath a log pile near the perimeter. After lying there for three days and three nights – the longest a missing persons search could go on, under camp protocol – the pair sneaked through the fence and headed into the countryside of Nazi-occupied Poland. They had “no map, no compass, no friends”. The only guide they had to make it back to the country of their birth, Slovakia, was a memorised page in a children’s atlas. But it was enough.
Before the breakout, Vrba had become a “student of escape”, learning everything he could from a veteran Ukrainian prisoner of war. His advice: stay away from people; never move during the day; never carry money (you might be tempted to spend it); forage, but never eat meat in case you attract animals. The secret to a safe hiding place, he told them, was machorka – a cheap form of Russian tobacco – soaked in gasoline and sprinkled around your hideout. Apparently the smell repelled SS bloodhounds. Somehow, Vrba and Wetzler made it to Slovakia. And their meticulous testimony of what they’d seen – the first anybody outside Auschwitz had ever heard of gas chambers – made its own secret journey, “improbably, incredibly, through a whole procession of sometimes ridiculous characters”, to the desks of Winston Churchill in London, Franklin Roosevelt in Washington, and Pope Pius XII in Rome. In the margin of the summary document that reached Churchill, he wrote, simply: “What can be done, what can be said.”