Walking in the footsteps of Vrba and Wetzler, Part 2

by Radek
, organiser of the Vrba-Wetzler memorial march

we stood at the edge of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp,
approximately at the place where on 7 April 1944 two Slovak Jews, Walter Rosenberg (Rudolf Vrba) and Fredie Wetzler (Jozef Lanik), hid before they escaped from Auschwitz, the seventy year old
Fedor Gal, initiator of the idea to establish the tradition of the Vrba-Wetzler
memorial march said: “Now is the time to be silent and walk”.

On the 20 August 2015 we set off in the footsteps of Vrba and
Wetzler after they escaped from Auschwitz Birkenau. For some of us this was not
the first time. In 2014 about 40 of us gathered, in 2015 an additional 60 joined: Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Brits,
Canadians, Israelis, and Americans. 


We started with a tour of Auschwitz, where we had the
opportunity to absorb the terrifying atmosphere of the place which is forever
marked by the unimaginable suffering of many thousands prisoners and mass

Given what Vrba and Wetzler had seen by April 1944, and what they guessed might happen next in Auschwitz, they could no longer wait and decided to attempt their
escape from the most strictly guarded factory of death in history. 

with only a small map removed from a schoolbook and two small knives they
embarked on a 140 km long journey to Zilina in Slovakia. They
walked at night on foot, without food or drink, occasionally waist deep in
snow, avoiding encounters with German guards, relying on  their instinct and occasional help of Polish

They achieved the impossible – in three weeks they reached the central
office of the Jewish Council in Zilina, where in two separate rooms in the
house of an old people’s home, each of them separately composed a detailed thirty
two page report about what was really happening to the Jewish people
transported to the “east”.

And so we walked in their footsteps. The oldest participant was 74 and the
youngest not quite 15 years old. During the first day of the march we were joined by a few young disabled people with their helpers from the Institute of
Jedlicka for disabled people in the Czech republic.

The first day we had to
walk 34 km before we reached our first destination, Pisarowice – a Polish village where Vrba and Wetzler for the first time dared to ask for the help of some Polish peasants. We read parts from
Rudi Vrba’s book, I escaped from Auschwitz, to remind us of the reality at the time of their escape. In the
evening we enjoyed the Polish hospitality and continued to talk about the
issues we started exploring during the day.


so it continued for additional 5 days – during the day we walked on paved roads
and unmade paths across the hills of the Small and Silezian Beskydy mountain
range. We chatted about history and contemporary challenges, we helped each other
and are got to know each other. We were there from different parts of the
world, young and old, women and men with very varied experiences. 

We took advantage of the expert knowledge of our excellent Polish guides and their volunteer helpers. Our heavy luggage was deposited and cared for in the
accompanying cars, which are also relied on by some of us when our body
tells us it had enough walking. We look forward to the evening when we put our tired bodies to bed for a well deserved
rest, aware that this comfort was not available to Vrba and Wetzler. We were lucky with
the weather, so that all of us reached our final destination Zilina in
good health and in a happy mood.

Our memorial journey ended in Zilina with a
celebratory culture program attended by many others. We followed this the next day by taking part
in a conference that discussed the Holocaust from a wider historical

With the 2015 Vrba-Wetzler memorial march now over, we are preparing the next. The
tradition is established. Will you join?

This is part of a series of blogs leading up to Holocaust Memorial Day on Wednesday 27 February. Tomorrow we will be sharing accounts of the march by two young participants.

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