Association of Jewish Refugees honours two Auschwitz escapees who warned the world of what they witnessed

Alfréd Wetzler and Rudi Vrba are credited with saving the lives of 200,000 Hungarian Jews


Left to right: Rudolf Vrba's granddaughter Hannah, AJR CEO Michael Newman OBE, Ambassador of Slovakia to the UK Dr Róbert Ondrejcsák, translator and Slovak literature promoter Julia Sherwood, Director of AJR Refugee Voices Dr Bea Lewkowicz, author and journalist Jonathan Freedland, and the director of the Sered' Holocaust Museum Dr Martin Korčok, April 15, 2024 (Credit: AJR)

Eighty years since two Slovak Jews, Alfred Wetzler and Rudi Vrba, escaped from Auschwitz to warn the world about the deportations of Hungarian Jews, The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) brought together experts and descendants to honour their heroism and to discuss how their story could be remembered today.
The fully booked event saw over 100 people gather at the Slovak Republic Embassy on Monday evening, with the Sloavkian ambassador, Dr Róbert Ondrejcsák, and AJR CEO Michael Newman OBE introducing the proceedings.

Alfréd Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, who met for the first time in Auschwitz death camp, were among the first people to not only successfully escape from the camp, but also to inform the world about the horrors of the industrial killing taking place there.

The two survived for almost two years in the camp, far longer than the average of those selected to be labourers, before escaping and trekking some 140km to Žilina, Slovakia, where they recounted the horrors of the camp in detail to the Slovak Jewish community.

The publication and circulation of their 32-page testimony, which became known as the Vrba-Wetzler report, sent shockwaves throughout the world and was critical in putting pressure on the Hungarian regent, Miklós Horthy, to halt the deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz.

The compiled report “literally stopped one train in its tracks”, author Jonathan Freedland said, and saved some 200,000 Jews from being deported from Hungary and meeting the same fate as the 437,000 Hungarian Jews who had already been murdered in death camps.

Freedland, whose book based on the story, The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, reached number two in the 2022 Sunday Times bestsellers list and was shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year, was one of the evening’s panellists.

He said: “Those 200,000 people and their children, and their grandchildren, and now their great-grandchildren, owe their lives to the truth-telling of Alfréd Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba. There are, I would guess, more than a million people alive in the world now because of what they did. It’s a huge achievement.

“It’s why I say these two men are towering figures of the Shoah who should be remembered alongside Oskar Schindler or Anne Frank and the huge names we associate with [courageousness during the Holocaust], and for a very long time they were not.”

Dr Martin Korčok, Director of the Holocaust Museum in Sered’, Slovakia, provided attendees with contextual information about the “rife” antisemitism and anti-Jewish legislation in Slovakia at the time and the country’s collaboration with Nazi Germany. Using a presentation of maps and pictures, Korčok spoke about the background of the Slovak-speaking two men, their escape route out of Auschwitz and the circumstances surrounding the founding of the Vrba-Wetzler report.

He said that despite Vrba and Wetzler being relatively unknown to many in Western Europe, the section dedicated to their memory in the Holocaust Museum in Sered’ is one of their most popular educational programmes.

Several members of Rudolf Vrba’s family were in the audience, including his granddaughter Hannah who showed pictures of herself as a young girl with him and spoke about the positive memories she and the family had of him.

Relative of Alfred Wetzler and director of AJR Refugee Voices, Dr Bea Lewkowicz, organised the evening and shared her memories of meeting both Wetzler and Vrba.

His Excellency Róbert Ondrejcsák, Ambassador of Slovakia to the UK remarked: “Today, as we reflect on the legacy of Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler, we are reminded of the power of resistance in the face of tyranny, and the importance of bearing witness to injustice wherever it may occur. We are proud to partner with The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) to honour the legacy of these two courageous men, ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are never forgotten, and that the voices of the victims continue to resonate across the generations.”

Michael Newman OBE dedicated the evening to AJR member George Donath, who had passed away a few days previously. Newman referred to Vrba and Wetzler’s escape as “one of the truly remarkable and miraculous episodes in the history of the Holocaust and Second World War”.

He added, “It is a great pleasure to be partnering with HE Slovak Ambassador again, following the event we organised to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2023.”

AJR is the leading national charitable organisation exclusively delivering social, welfare and volunteer services to Jewish victims of Nazi oppression living in Great Britain.

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