Advanced Search

Learn About The Holocaust

Special Collections

My Saved Research




Skip to main content

Rudolf Vrba - Auschwitz

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5016 | Film ID: 3226, 3227, 3228, 3229, 3230, 3231, 3232, 3233, 3234, 3235

Rudolf Vrba was a Slovakian Jew who escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 in hopes of warning the world about the imminent destruction of the Hungarian Jews and inciting the Jews to revolt. He describes working on the arrival ramp for ten months and witnessing as Jews from various countries went to the gas chambers. He and Lanzmann debate the culpability of the Jewish council members and other Jewish leaders, who Vrba describes as traitors who collaborated with the Nazis.

FILM ID 3226 -- Camera Rolls #98,99 -- 01:00:00 to 01:22:24
CR 98: Rudolf Vrba and Claude Lanzmann sit on a bench in Central Park. It is fall and they wear warm clothing. Initially both Lanzmann and Vrba appear in the frame but then the camera zooms in to focus on Vrba's face. He smiles as he tells parts of the story; it is slightly incongruous because of the nature of what he is discussing. Vrba says that he is not sure if the statistics about the number of escapes from Auschwitz are correct or not. [CLIP 1 BEGINS] He escaped in order to give warning about the impending deportation and destruction of the Hungarian Jews. He also wanted to survive. Vrba says that when he was first instructed by the Jewish community leaders in Slovakia to present himself for deportation it never occurred to him to actually follow such a "stupid" order. In his opinion many Jews were too accustomed to conformity and to following those who had a high social or religious status. He escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 because he hoped that his information about the impending deportations would spread panic and slow down the killing process.

CR 99: 01:11:13 Vrba and Lanzmann discuss Vrba's use of the word "voluntary" to describe those Jews who arrived as instructed for deportation. Vrba says that at Auschwitz the Germans' method was to kill many prisoners in reprisal if anyone attempted to fight back. If he risked his life in order to bring the message of what was happening at Auschwitz, then his survival was justified. Vrba says that prisoners in the camp called those who were gassed upon arrival "civilians." Vrba worked at the arrival ramp for about nine months [CLIP 1 ENDS]. He begins to describe his work in the Canada Command (Kanada Kommando). Members of the Canada Command were responsible for sorting the clothes and possessions of new arrivals. The nickname "Canada" came from the food and medicines that the prisoners could steal while they sorted. The name came from the fact that the country Canada had a reputation as a land of plenty.

FILM ID 3227 -- Camera Roll #100 -- 02:00:00 to 02:09:23
CR 100: Vrba and Lanzmann now stand on a bridge in Central Park Lanzmann asks Vrba to describe his feelings as he waited on the arrival ramp, knowing that most of the Jews on the trains would be gassed immediately. Vrba says he did not feel particularly moved, it was not the time to feel emotion. Instead the thought occurred to him that these hundreds of thousands of people were disappearing from somewhere. 02:01:59 Cut -- see transcript, page 10. Vrba did not understand why people did not wonder about the fate of the people who disappeared before them. He says the key to survival was to accept the reality of the situation and he continues to describe the arrival process. 02:05:16 Cut -- see transcript, page 11-12. 02:05:53 Cut -- see transcript, page 12. The ramp was completely cleaned between each transport. If several transports were due to arrive on the same day then the Germans would use more brutal methods to drive the Jews out of the train cars. If they had time, however, the Germans would exhibit a "typical Prussian humor" and seemed to have a good time. In every transport there would be some people who were dead or dying. The audio continues past the video for a few seconds at the end of this tape.

FILM ID 3228 -- Camera Rolls #101-104 -- 03:00:00 to 03:33:54
CR 101: Vrba and Lanzmann are still on the bridge in Central Park. Vrba's first task once a transport arrived was to remove the corpses from the train. 03:01:28 Cut -- see transcript, page 14. Vrba loaded both the dead and the dying onto trucks. 03:02:59 Cut -- see transcript, page 15. He next removed the luggage from the train cars. Transports arrived at all times of the night and day. Lanzmann asks how people could still have hope when they arrived in trains carrying people who had already died. Vrba says that people coming from the west were more likely to think that it had all been a mistake and that things would get better, and the Germans sometimes played into this by pretending to be shocked at the treatment the people had received. Vrba sometimes attempted to talk to the new arrivals, even though punishment for doing so was death. Sound cuts out at 03:09:41

CR 102: 03:10:24 [CLIP 2 BEGINS] Vrba tells the story of a member of the Canada Command who attempted to warn a woman from Theresienstadt that she was going to die. She complained to an SS officer and the man was killed, as were the woman and her children. Vrba says that the point of warning the woman was perhaps to create panic on the ramp, some kind of "hitch in the machinery." Vrba describes two times when unrest occurred or almost occurred: once when a truck overloaded with bodies got stuck on the railroad tracks within sight of a transport of French Jews, and once with the arrival of a transport of Dutch Jews from a mental institution. The handicapped Jews would not follow orders until the SS started being nice to the nurses in order to get them to help with the management of the prisoners. In the end they were all gassed, including the nurses. Lanzmann and Vrba discuss the arrival of the Greek Jews, and how different they looked and spoke (most spoke Ladino) [CLIP 2 ENDS].

CR 103: 03:21:36 Shots of Vrba and Lanzmann on the bridge. No audio. Panning shots from the bridge over Central Park.

CR 104: 03:22:43 [CLIP 3 BEGINS] The location of the interview has moved inside an apartment. Vrba stands by the window and the evening skyline is visible. Vrba explains the meaning of the term "Canada Command" and describes how the possessions from the luggage were sorted and graded. He describes the valuables that the luggage yielded to the SS. Vrba would take money that he found and throw it in the lavatory to keep it out of the hands of the SS. He elaborates on the functioning of the command: they worked in rotation at the trains and sorting luggage. There was a group of perhaps 20 women whose sole job it was to press out toothpaste from tubes that arrived with the prisoners, in search of valuables that might be hidden there [CLIP 3 ENDS].

FILM ID 3229 -- Camera Rolls #105-107 -- 04:00:00 to 04:29:25
CR 105 : Vrba is now seated at a table in front of the window. Lanzmann asks Vrba about the transport of Jews from Theresienstadt who were kept alive for six months in Auschwitz and then gassed. Before he tells the story, Vrba explains something of the system by which prisoners were accounted for. He was doing tasks for the resistance at this point. Vrba was a registrar, recording the numbers of prisoners in a particular block. He was living near the Czech family camp when this particular transport arrived. He noticed that the families were kept together, they brought their luggage into the camp, and their hair was not shorn. It became known that these Czech Jews held cards which indicated that they would be gassed after six months, but this reprieve of six months did not make sense.
CR 106: 04:11:14 Cut -- see transcript, pages 33-34. The rest of the story of the family camp is missing. Vrba talks about what resistance means in the context of what he calls an execution camp. 04:12:22 Cut -- see transcript, page 35. Vrba explains the difference between an extermination camp and an execution camp (he prefers the latter term). He says that Ausrottung, or extermination, is a term that originated with the extermination of insects and he therefore finds it unsuitable to describe the destruction of the Jews. He returns to the story of the family camp, saying that another transport arrived on December 20th and received the same treatment as the earlier one. Vrba's job was to find people in this special group who would be willing to join the resistance. He met Fredy Hirsch, a German Jew who had emigrated to Prague. Lanzmann points out that Hirsch was a Zionist.

CR 107: 04:18:07 Lanzmann asks Vrba how resistance in Auschwitz was different from resistance in other concentration camps. Vrba says that Auschwitz contained many people who had already previously resisted the Nazis. Vrba was "picked up" by the resistance about five months after he arrived in Auschwitz. A member of the resistance named Farber (or Ferber?) approached him when he was extremely ill and arranged for medical care and extra food. Vrba stole medicines from luggage on the ramp and passed messages from one person to another. He says the resistance sometimes blackmailed the Germans and used rivalries among the SS to their advantage. He says that the treatment of prisoners in Auschwitz got better in 1943, partly due to the resistance's successful efforts to replace the criminals who held certain positions (kapos and others) with political prisoners. Lanzmann asks Vrba to return to Fredy Hirsch. Vrba describes him as a spiritual leader of the Czech family camp, especially interested in the welfare of the children.

FILM ID 3230 -- Camera Rolls # 108,109 -- 05:00:00 to 05:12:30
CR 108: Vrba and Lanzmann are still in the apartment with a view of the Manhattan skyline. Vrba says that he began to realize, through his observations on the ramp, that the improvement of the conditions in the concentration camp actually contributed to the orderliness with which the Germans were able to carry out the killing process, and he realized that the Germans were probably in favor of the improvements in the concentration camp. 05:03:02 Cut -- see transcript, pages 41-43. As the 7th of March approached, there was a rumor that members of the first Czech transport would be moved to a place called Heidebeck, but the resistance was suspicious, especially when they realized that there was no transport scheduled.

CR 109: 05:07:12 Vrba informed Fredy Hirsch that the resistance had learned that no transport was scheduled and so it was quite likely that the first transport would be gassed. 05:07:29 Cut -- see transcript, page 44-45. The people of the Sonderkommando were ready to join the Czechs in an attack and this was the first time that an uprising was seriously considered. Fredy Hirsch objected, saying that he did not believe the Germans would gas them after the good treatment they had received. Vrba was instructed by the resistance to tell Hirsch that they were certain to be gassed, that the Sonderkommando had already received the allotment of coal to burn the bodies. 05:12:06 Cut -- see transcript, pages 47-49. Vrba tells the very end of the story of Fredy Hirsch, who killed himself when asked to help fight the Germans (the story of the suicide itself does not appear in the outtakes). Fredy knew that in any case the children would die - either in the fighting or in the gas chamber, and this was too much for him to bear.

FILM ID 3231 -- Camera Rolls #110,111 -- 06:00:00 to 06:08:00
CR 110: 06:00:36 Cut -- see transcript, pages 49-50. Audio but no video for the first few seconds after the cut. Vrba explains that the Jews from the Czech family camp were loaded onto the trucks and the members of the Sonderkommando knew that if the truck turned left the only place they could be going was to the gas chamber. Some of the doomed prisoners sang the Czech national anthem and some the Hatikvah. They were gassed that night and Vrba realized that the resistance was not prepared for an uprising but only for the survival of the members of the resistance. At that point Vrba decided to escape, which he did exactly one month later [on April 7, 1944] 06:02:19 Cut -- see transcript, pages 50-51.

CR 111: 06:02:20 Lanzmann asks Vrba who he met after his escape, how he conveyed the information that he had to give, and whether they believed him about what was happening in Auschwitz. Vrba says that first of all it was not hard to memorize all of the statistics about Auschwitz, because for him there was a picture behind every transport that he saw arrive at the camp. He was also aware that a million Hungarian Jews were to be murdered in the next few weeks at the camp. He and his "co-escapee" Fred Wetzler reached Slovakia on April 21st. In the town of Tczaza he found a doctor friend of his and told him about Auschwitz. He told his friend that of the 60,000 Jews who were deported about 67 men and 400 women remained alive.

FILM ID 3232 -- Camera Rolls #112-116 -- 07:00:00 to 07:33:46
CR 112: [CLIP 4 BEGINS] Vrba repeats what he told Dr. Pollack, that of the 60,000 Slovakian Jews sent to Auschwitz only 67 men and 400 women remained alive. Dr. Pollack arranges for Vrba and Wetzler to travel to Zilina and meet with Andre Steiner and other members of the Jewish Council. Vrba discovered that the Jewish Council had records of all the Jews who had been deported in 1942, because, "they have organized those deportations." Lanzmann asks whether they knew about the gas chambers, to which Vrba replies that people don't know what they don't want to know, despite the fact that 60,000 of the 90,000 Slovakian Jews had been deported and Auschwitz was only 70 km away. Vrba says that if he could make the trip from Auschwitz to Zilina, then anyone could have made the trip from Zilina to Auschwitz in order to look. He and Wetzler were separated in order to have their information transcribed. The resulting report was 30 pages long.

CR 113: 07:11:33 Vrba begins to answer Lanzmann's question about how Vrba and Wetzler were treated by the Jewish leaders but the phone rings.

CR 114: 07:12:14 Vrba says that the Jewish leaders were somewhat patronizing, which rubbed Wetzler the wrong way, but Vrba tried to maintain a "friendly atmosphere" because he knew that they must work with these people. He says that the leaders were controlled and matter-of fact, not emotional, about the details that the two men provided. He says that he and Wetzler were given assurances that their information would be passed on, because the deportation of the Hungarian Jews would be starting any day [CLIP 4 ENDS].

CR 115: 07:17:17 During this period was the first time Vrba ever heard Rudolf Kasztner's name. Vrba and Wetzler were told not to include the information about the deportations of the Hungarian Jews because they should not "prophesize the future" but report only what they had seen first-hand. The Jewish leaders told Vrba that it was not necessary to meet Kasztner, that they should simply enjoy themselves after what they had been through. The last few seconds of this roll have audio but no video.

CR 116: 07:22:41 Wetzler and Vrba remained in Zilina, while the Jewish leaders assured them that they would inform Kasztner about the position of the Hungarian Jews. A Jewish maid informed them that two transports carrying Hungarian Jews had passed through Zilina, and that the Jewish Council knew about it. Lanzmann questions this because the transports did not start until May, but Vrba says that according to a book by a colleague of Kasztner (Biss), two small transports carrying Jews who had been convicted of crimes went to Auschwitz in April, before the rest of the Hungarian deportations. Lanzmann points out that the Jewish leaders did indeed deliver the Vrba report abroad. Vrba's answer to this is: who was deported from abroad? He also disputes that the report was ever delivered abroad. Lanzmann asks again how Vrba explains the actions of the Jewish Council and Vrba begins a long explanation involving the fact that the members of the Council were Zionists, and that they were the ones who chose which 60,000 Jews were deported in 1942 and which 30,000 were able to stay in Slovakia. The transcript notes that this is the end of the first day of filming.

FILM ID 3233 -- Camera Rolls #132-134 -- 08:00:00 to 08:33:56
CR 132: Vrba's hair is somewhat disheveled. The interview is still taking place in the apartment with the big windows and the night sky behind him. Vrba says that the Hungarian deportations in May were so successful that the Nazis could not keep up with the killing and disposal of the bodies. Vrba says he did not mention the idea to bomb the crematoria and rail lines in Auschwitz to the members of the Jewish Council since he knew that they had no bomb-making capability. What he wanted them to do was to warn the Jews of Hungary what was coming, as well as make them aware that they (the remaining 30,000 Jews of Slovakia) were not safe. He says the Jews of Slovakia were more relaxed in 1944 than in 1942, because there was a strong anti-Nazi movement in the country and the collaborationist elements were less sure of themselves. Vrba says that he and Wetzler were isolated and therefore did not know for six weeks that the deportations from Hungary were going forward. They only found out when they came into contact with two other Auschwitz escapees, Ernst Rozin and Zeslov Morgowich. Rabbi Michael Weissmandel requested a meeting with Vrba. Vrba knew of Weissmandel from his childhood, because he was from Nitra, as was Weissmandel. Weissmandel led the Nitra Yeshiva and was active in rescue efforts during the war. He survived and re-founded the yeshiva in the United States.

CR 133: 08:11:33 Vrba and Morgowich, who had escaped Auschwitz in June, went to meet with Weissmandel in Bratislava, in the old Jewish quarter, where the rabbi had moved with his yeshiva. Vrba found the sight of orthodox Jews, dressed in their traditional garb at the yeshiva an incongruous and even comical sight after what he had seen at Auschwitz. Lanzmann comments on Vrba's animosity toward Weissmandel, but Vrba denies that he is judging Weissmandel.

CR 134: 08:22:42 Vrba says that Weissmandel showed an enormous amount of compassion when told about Auschwitz. Vrba was not interested in compassion, because he had learned in Auschwitz that compassion is dangerous, and it is a human characteristic for that which is dangerous to eventually become repugnant. Vrba wondered where Weissmandel was while the orthodox Jewish community was being slaughtered and why the Germans installed in Bratislava this rabbi who fit all their antisemitic stereotypes. However, Weissmandel was "tolerant" of Vrba and Morgowich, told them that he considered them ambassadors of all the dead Jews of Auschwitz, and asked what he could do for them. Vrba explained that people must be informed about what deportation means and encouraged not to get on the trains, and Weissmandel agreed. Vrba also suggested the bombing of the rail lines into Auschwitz, and secondarily the crematoria, and dropping weapons and parachutists into the camp. At this point in the discussion Vrba had very "warm feelings" for Weissmandel because he was the first person to talk concretely about what could actually be done.

FILM ID 3234 -- Camera Rolls #135-137 -- 09:00:00 to 09:34:48
CR 135: Vrba was certain after his meeting with Weissmandel that his warnings would be passed on to the Hungarian Jews. He also had a meeting with the representative of the papal nuncio in a monastery near Bratislava. The representative was quite familiar with the details of the report and cried over it then and there. He said he would take it to Switzerland with him. He asked after the fate of priests in Auschwitz. Lanzmann asks if Vrba is aware that his report was disseminated abroad and that it "made a lot of noise." Vrba says he was not made aware of this until about ten years after the war. Lanzmann asks Vrba's opinion about why his report caused a sensation, because the basic facts of it were already known by 1942.

CR 136: 09:11:33 [CLIP 5 BEGINS] Vrba says that he was not aware of what was known and what was not known in the West, so he thought that what was in the report was new. Also, the report described statistics and mass murder happening on an industrial scale. Lanzmann asks Vrba why he thinks the Jewish leaders of Hungary did not warn their people that deportation meant death. Vrba says that the Jews were tricked into going on the trains. The Jewish Council members were useful to the Germans only if they could draw up deportation lists and ensure orderly deportations. So the Jewish Councils collaborated (committed treason) with the Germans. Vrba says that most of them were Zionists and had gained the trust of the people. Lanzmann disagrees, saying that many Jewish Council members were not Zionists. He says in the case of Kasztner the situation was complicated, because Kasztner was negotiating with the Nazis in order to save Jews and therefore had to remain silent.

CR 137: 09:22:44 Lanzmann repeats that in his opinion, Kasztner did not warn the Jewish population about Auschwitz because he was negotiating with the Nazis to save them. Thus by trying to save at least some of the Jews he doomed them. Vrba takes strong exception to this, calling it a whitewash. He says that Adolf Eichmann agreed to save those one or two thousand Jews in order to keep the machinery flowing smoothly, and that those Jews who were saved were all of Kasztner's choosing. He says Kasztner was a traitor. Lanzmann asks him what he thinks of the general idea of the Jews negotiating with the Germans. Vrba says it was ridiculous, that resistance was the only way [CLIP 5 ENDS]. He says that the orthodox Jews would not listen to the Zionist members of the Jewish Council, they would only listen to their rabbis, such as Weissmandel. An orthodox rabbi could have told his people, no, do not get on the trains, fight to the death here. In order to keep the deportations moving, then, the Jewish Council had to extend their protection to the orthodox community, such as having a yeshiva in Bratislava, 120 miles from Auschwitz. Vrba says that Weissmandel's negotiations with Wisliceny were also ridiculous. Lanzmann says that some people say that Weissmandel's negotiations with Wisliceny resulted in the deportations from Slovakia stopping in 1942. Vrba says this is utterly ridiculous, that the pattern of the Nazis was never to deport entire populations at once.

FILM ID 3235 -- Camera Rolls #138,138A,139 -- 10:00:00 to 10:14:02
CR 138: Vrba says that Weissmandel was a puppet in the hands of the Zionists and that he was allowed to remain in Bratislava with his family and students as long as he did not tell the truth to the rest of the orthodox Jews who were deported to Auschwitz. Lanzmann interrupts him to say he thinks that Vrba is being too severe and that Vrba seems to exonerate the Nazis. Vrba says that of course the Nazis were the murderers, but that they were only able to commit murder on such a monumental scale with the help of traitors. Lanzmann says that Vrba has no nuance in his opinion, and asks Vrba why he smiles when he talks about these matters. Vrba says he was not aware that he smiles so much, but he can only smile when Lanzmann tells him that there are people who credit Weissmandel with saving their lives during the war.

CR 138A: 10:10:17 Extreme close-ups on Vrba's face. Mute.

CR 139: 10:11:05 Mute shots of Vrba.

Event:  November 1978
Production:  1985
New York, NY, United States
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2021-06-03 12:47:11
This page: