On April 7, 1944, a nineteen-year-old named Walter Rosenberg and a twenty-five-year-old from the same town in Slovakia named Fred Wetzler became the first Jews to escape from Auschwitz. The two made their way through the Polish countryside and into their native country, where Rosenberg—taking the name Rudolf Vrba as cover—tried to get the story of what he saw to his fellow Jews, and to the world at large. Robert Philpot, reviewing a new biography of this forgotten hero, writes:
As soon as they crossed the border, Wetzler made contact with Slovakia’s Jewish council, the only communal organization the regime still allowed to function. The men were then subjected to a grueling 48-hour interview and cross-examination, both to establish their credibility and to record their story.
From their interviews, Oskar Krasnansky, one of the council’s most senior members, compiled a 32-page, single-spaced report, complete with professional drawings based on Vrba’s and Wetzler’s testimonies. The . . . report methodically detailed the horrors of Auschwitz and, crucially, the fictions deployed by the Nazis from the moment the cattle-truck doors were slammed on departure to that at which the gas-chamber doors were locked.
Reactions to the report in London and Washington also revealed that, despite the horrors it contained, old prejudices remained unshaken. The U.S. Army magazine, Yank, for instance, declined to use material from it in a feature on Nazi war crimes, requesting instead “a less Jewish account.” Meanwhile, in the UK Foreign Office, civil servants bemoaned the “usual Jewish exaggeration” and the amount of time expended on “these wailing Jews.”
But, alongside these responses, there was also a swirl of disbelief surrounding the report’s revelations: one which affected not only the Allies but even some Jews themselves. It was perhaps best captured by the words of the French-Jewish philosopher Raymond Aron: “I knew, but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”