Early in March 1942, in rebellion against the deportation laws, Vrba ripped the yellow Star of David off his clothes and left his Czechoslovakian home in a taxi, heading for Britain via Hungary. Later, having been intercepted by frontier guards, he was first sent to the Novaky transition camp in Slovakia, where he tried to escape, but again was caught and beaten. On June 14 1942 he was deported to the Majdanek concentration camp in Poland and two weeks later, on June 30, to Auschwitz. After six months in Auschwitz, he was transferred to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and had the number 44070 tattooed on his arm.
From August 1942 until June 1943 Vrba was assigned - both in Auschwitz and in Birkenau - to work in the special slave labour unit that handled the property of those who had been gassed. In camp slang, the unit was known as "Canada" because of the food and the gold and other precious materials that the Germans confiscated from the luggage of the incoming "resettlement" deportees. The Auschwitz treasures from "Canada" were packaged for Germany, and the gold was quickly melted into ingots and deposited in the Reichsbank.
A major aspect of Vrba's duties during 1942 and 1943 was to be present at the arrival of most transports of deportees and to sort the belongings of the gassed victims. From this vantage point he was able to assess how little the deportees knew about Auschwitz when they entered the camp. Their luggage contained clothing for all seasons and basic utensils, a clear sign of their naive preparation for a new life in the area of "resettlement" in the east.
In the summer of 1943, Vrba improved his position for collecting information when he was appointed registrar in the quarantine camp for men. At the beginning of 1944, he noticed that preparations were under way for an additional railway line, for an expected transports of Jews who, in the SS camp language were called "Hungarian salami". Transports from different countries, Vrba would later explain, were characterised by certain long lasting provisions packed in the prisoners' luggage for the final journey into the unknown.
As he subsequently wrote: "When a series of transports of Jews from the Netherlands arrived, cheeses enriched the wartime rations. It was sardines when a series of transports of French Jews arrived, halva and olives when transports of Jews from Greece reached the camp, and now the SS were talking of 'Hungarian salami', a well-known Hungarian provision suitable for taking along on a long journey."
For almost two years he had thought of escape, at first selfishly, because he had merely wanted his freedom, but now, "I had an imperative reason. It was no longer a question of reporting a crime but of preventing one." He began his first scientific study: to assess every unsuccessful escape attempt, to analyse its flaws and to correct them.
On Friday, April 7 1944, (the eve of Passover), Vrba and Wetzler sneaked into a previously used hideout sprinkled with gasoline-soaked tobacco to prevent the dogs from sniffing them out. They stayed there for three nights, until the camp authorities assumed that the two men had already got beyond the outer perimeter. When the cordon of SS guards that had surrounded that perimeter was withdrawn, Vrba and Wetzler were ready to sneak out.
They knew one thing for certain: as shaven-headed inmates, clad in striped pyjamas and with numbers tattooed on their arms, there was no point in relying on any help in the world outside Auschwitz. "At the moment of our escape," explained Vrba, "all connections with whatever friends and social contacts we had in Auschwitz were severed, and we had absolutely no connection waiting for us outside the death camp where we had spent the past two years." As he later phrased it: "We were de facto written off by the world from the moment we were loaded into a deportation train in the spring of 1942. To start with, we had to step into a complete 'social vacuum' outside Auschwitz. The only administrative evidence of our existence was an international warrant about us, issued telegraphically and distributed to all stations of the Gestapo."
The Vrba-Wetzler report continues to generate historical debate to this day. Many, including Vrba himself, have questioned whether the report was disseminated and acted upon as rapidly and as forcefully as it should have been. In an unanswerable "what if", Vrba continued to question to his last day whether more victims could have been saved had the allied and the Jewish leadership of the time pursued a more vigorous course of action in light of his report. This line of thought has at times made his ideas somewhat incongruent with the predominant Israeli historical narrative concerning the events of that time. Whereas the two escapees accurately predicted the fate of the Hungarian Jews, what they could not have foreseen was that their postwar memoirs and documented report would be kept from the Israeli Hebrew-reading public.