Vrba was one of the first teenagers herded onto a cattle car bound from his Czech home to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Assigned to sort the luggage of prisoners destined to die immediately or become slaves, Vrba memorized the trains’ arrival dates, number of boxcars and origins.
Next, he was sent to the main warehouse at Auschwitz, which held plunder from a million victims. Finally, he was forced to count the bodies of the dead.
After learning that new chambers would hold another million Jews, Vrba and a friend made a break for it. They hid in a pile of wood covered with gasoline-soaked tobacco to throw the dogs off their scent, then spent three weeks crossing the mountains of southern Poland.
Hidden at last in Slovakia, they dictated a report that reached Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Pope Pius XII. Later known as the Auschwitz Protocol, their report detailed the horrors of the concentration camps—including maps of the crematories and accounts of the Nazis’ atrocities—and became a seminal document of the Holocaust.
The report stopped the deportation of Jews to the camps, and for that, it is credited with saving 100,000 lives.
Still, Vrba felt his report should have done more. Eventually becoming a professor in Canada, he continued teaching about the Holocaust until his death this year.
Bottom line: Brains, pluck and fortitude can help you save your own skin, but it takes special determination to help others.
—Adapted from “The prisoner who revealed the horrors of Auschwitz,” The Week.