Inspiring Stories About People Who Escaped The Holocaust
The Holocaust was indisputably one of the most horrific events in human history. It also showcased moments of defiance, and inspirational stories about escaping the Holocaust affirm the endurance of the human spirit, even in the bleakest times.
It wasn't easy to escape a concentration camp - they were prisons designed to detain and kill. Guards didn't hesitate to shoot prisoners who stood too close to fences or appeared to flee. They also interrogated, tortured, and executed people who they believed were plotting an escape. The decision to escape a camp was thus incredibly risky.
Like many who survived the Holocaust, some prisoners who escaped could not have done so without help, either from fellow prisoners, compassionate civilians, or sympathetic guards. Others seized freedom by themselves. All of the prisoners who managed to escape did so thanks to their grit, resolve, creativity, courage, and strength.
It's important to note that for every person who found a way out of the camps, many, many more Jewish prisoners had their lives taken from them. In total, Germany's Nazi state and its collaborators murdered 6 million Jews.
Though few managed it, the ones who succeeded at escaping the camps carried their stories with them.
- Photo: US Army Signal Corps / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain1937 VOTES
Chana Gronowski Helped Her 11-Year-Old Son Simon Off The Train That Was Taking Them To Auschwitz
Germany invaded Belgium in 1940 - and with German occupation ultimately came the deportation of Belgian Jews.
In 1943, 11-year-old Simon Gronowski and his mother Chana were among the deportees from Brussels. They were forced on a train bound for Auschwitz.
After the train departed the station, the Belgian Resistance made themselves a nuisance to the train operators, who suddenly deployed the brakes. Members of the resistance then cut open one of the train doors, and 17 imprisoned people managed to escape the train.
The train began to move again, and Chana was determined to get her son off the train before it was too late. As Simon shared decades later, his mother lowered him into a hole in the train:
My mother held me by my shirt and my shoulders. But at first, I did not dare to jump because the train was going too fast for me. I saw the trees go by and the train was getting faster. The air was crisp and cool and the noise was deafening. I remember feeling surprised that it could go so fast with 35 cars being towed. But then at a certain moment, I felt the train slow down. I told my mother: "Now I can jump." She let me go and I jumped off.
He would never see his mother again.
Free from the train, Gronowski ran into the woods and kept walking until he came across a village. There, he asked a woman for help, and she took him to the local police station.
The police officer didn't turn him in to German officials. Instead, Gronowski recalled that the policeman told him, "I know everything. You were in the Jewish train and you escaped. You don't need to worry. We are good Belgians, we won't betray you." He sent the young boy home to Brussels.
Back in Brussels, Gronowski was reunited with his father, who had been at a hospital when German officials stormed the family's home and arrested Simon and Chana.
- Photo: Flarn2006 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.02973 VOTES
Leo Bretholz Used Science To Escape A Train On Its Way To Auschwitz
When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Leo Bretholz fled his homeland and eventually ended up in France. His position became precarious once more when Germany invaded France, since France's Vichy regime collaborated with its invaders. Bretholz was eventually arrested, temporarily imprisoned at the Drancy transit camp, and sent to Auschwitz in 1942 on a train with nearly 1,000 other Jewish deportees.
Bretholz determined that he wouldn't reach Auschwitz - he had to get off the train. So Bretholz and Manfred Silberwasser, another deportee, spent hours prying open iron bars in their train car to create an opening big enough for them to slip through.
The two young men used science to maximize their efforts. As Bretholz explained decades later:
We know that when you make a cloth wet, a towel wet, it has tensile strength in wringing it, you can wring it, and when you twist it, it becomes like a tourniquet. So we took off our sweaters and dipped them into that human waste in the bucket [in the train car] - and didn't even have to use the bucket because we were squatting in [urine], and walking in it, and inhaling it, and it's still up there in my nostrils right now.
We used these sweaters to twist around the bars - and twist, and twist, and twist until all the liquid had poured out and has been twisted out. By that time, it had developed strength, and we did that often enough, alternating between him and myself, until the bars started to somewhat move in the frame. We saw them move. Why? Because the rust in the frame started falling down in dust. Rusty dust. And when we saw these bars moving, that was the light at the end of the tunnel. [...]
We knew that if we would continue that often enough, that eventually these bars will be giving enough for us to be able to bend them.
Finally, they managed to create an opening of about a foot across. When the train slowed to turn a corner, Bretholz and Silberwasser jumped. They laid low in a ravine before walking towards a village. The two escapees managed to track down the village priest, hoping that he would help them. Bretholz later recounted:
[...] We told him that we had escaped from a train. We were very frank with him, and we didn't know - he could have been a collaborator too, you know? But we felt we were in good hands as we saw the face of the man. And he said, "[...] I can let you stay here for the night. But in the morning, very early, I'd have to get you out of your warm bed, because between five and six, a patrol can come by here almost regularly."
So he gave us milk, and bread, and cheese, put us into a feather bed, into a crisp white sheet. After being in Drancy with straw on a cement floor and vermin and putrid stench, it was like you were on a cloud.
The next morning, the priest roused the men, gave them a letter of introduction to another priest they could trust, and sent them on their way.
Bretholz survived the war and immigrated to the United States.
- Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain3677 VOTES
Brute Force Enabled Chaim Engel And Selma Wijnberg To Escape Sobibor On Foot
Sobibor was an extermination camp located in German-occupied Poland; its purpose was to take the lives of the prisoners who crossed its gates. Over the course of the conflict, the Third Reich killed 250,000 Jews there.
Not all of the prisoners perished, however. Some were selected as laborers to keep the camp running. Their tasks included serving German officers, sorting through the clothing of murdered prisoners, and burying them. But even this position in the camp didn't guarantee safety: At Sobibor and other camps, laborers were still hurt.
On October 14, 1943, some prisoners at Sobibor put an escape plan into action when they feared the camp would soon close and they would all perish. Using weapons they had secretly collected, prisoners in an underground resistance movement took out 11 German officers and fled the camp. Though roughly 300 prisoners initially escaped, around 100 were swiftly recaptured. Only about 50 of the escapees were still living when the war ended two years later.
Chaim Engel and Selma Wijnberg - who met and fell in love at Sobibor - were among those who successfully escaped. As Chaim later recalled, once the uprising started, the couple had two choices: escape or die. He recalled:
[Selma] gave me a knife [...] I don't think I was a big hero or a big courageous man, but I figured it's self defense and survival. If I don't do it, it might spoil the whole thing. So I, I instinctively... there's no decision. It's not a decision. You just react [...] I went with the man in the office, and we killed this German. With every jab, I said, "That is for my father, for my mother, for all these people, all the Jews you killed."
After their escape, Chaim and Selma hid in Poland. In the diaries that she kept, Selma described how they stayed out of sight from authorities and civilians who would have turned them in. "We are in a little hayloft and live together in a little corner," she wrote. "There is a sheet on top of the straw below us and we cover ourselves at night with hay."
Chaim and Selma survived the war, married, and eventually moved to Connecticut.
- Photo: Marissyb29 / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain4674 VOTES
Motke Zeidel Escaped With An Entire Brigade Through An Underground Tunnel
Motke Zeidel spent some of WWII in the Vilna Ghetto, a small zone in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius where all of the local Jewish residents were forced to live. Many of Vilna's prisoners were moved to the camps or sent to Ponary, where they were shot and disposed of in a mass grave.
In 1944, Zeidel was sent to Ponary, too. But instead of being shot, he became one of approximately 80 prisoners - known as the "Burning Brigade" - who were forced to perform the grim work of digging up tens of thousands of fallen Jews and burning them to erase any trace of the crimes committed there.
It was clear to Zeidel and his fellow prisoners that, just because they had been temporarily spared, the Nazis wouldn't let them leave Ponary when their work was done. As Zeidel later recounted, "From the moment when they made us bring up the corpses, and we understood that we wouldn't get out of there alive, we reflected on what we could do."
So the Burning Brigade hatched an audacious plan: They secretly built a tunnel out of the camp. From there, they could get help from resistance fighters that were in the area.
On April 15, 1944, they put their plan in motion. Zeidel later described the final moments of his escape through the tunnel:
I started to work and I still hadn't quite finished when there were already 20 people in the tunnel and I felt I really could no longer, I didn't have any more air to breathe. I had a bar of iron in my hand and I tried, I attempted to make holes in the surface of the soil and suddenly I made a hole, two holes, and finally I had air. It was then that we cut the electricity, there was electricity inside the tunnel, and when we took off...
[W]hen we removed the chains and I opened the hole, I widened it and I had open air. When I stuck my head out, I already saw the sky, the stars, but I also saw a group of German soldiers who looked precisely in the direction of our tunnel.
Zeidel escaped, but the majority of the brigade wasn't so lucky; German soldiers caught on and shot many as they escaped. Of the 40 who attempted to flee through the tunnel, only 15 made it into the cover of the forest.
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David Wisnia Escaped By Hitting A Guard Over The Head And Running To Find American Troops
When David Wisnia was sent to Auschwitz in 1942, the skilled musician's talent likely saved his life: As a singer, Wisnia performed for officers and thus didn't have to do heavy labor.
Two years later, Wisnia was sent to Dachau, another concentration camp. At Dachau, he was forced on a death march. At one point during the forced march, Wisnia obtained a small shovel - and he used it to seize his freedom. In an oral history interview, Wisnia later recalled:
We made an attempt, a whole group, to run away, but they rounded us up. On the next time, I figured I ain't [sic] going with a group, I'm going by myself. [...] I had a shovel over there on the side. It was one of the guys that was guarding us. I smacked him right in the head as he was trying to gather us, there was nobody else and I took off.
Wisnia eventually found his way to American troops. It was a surprise - he had expected to find Russian troops, not American ones. Though he had difficulty communicating with the Americans - he didn't speak English - the soldiers provided care for Wisnia and employed him for the rest of the war.
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Rudolf Vrba And Alfred Wetzler Escaped After Hiding For Days In A Pile Of Lumber
Slovakian-born Rudolf Vrba was imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942. While there, he was selected to be an enslaved laborer: Vrba had to sort through the belongings of prisoners who had passed in the camp's gas chamber. Later, he labored as a registrar.
After two years at the camp, Vrba was desperate to flee - but who could he trust to help him escape? As he recounted in his memoir, Vrba turned to Alfred Wetzler:
Discussing escape, indeed, with anybody was almost impossible. It was regarded as a rude word not to be mentioned in company, for the Germans were by no means fools and had their agents planted everywhere. This, of course, made the whole project even more difficult, though in this respect, I was lucky. I had one friend, Fred Wetzler from my hometown Trnava, whom I could trust implicitly.
Vrba and Wetzler crafted a plan based on observation. SS guards, they noted, spent around three days searching for escapees. So all Vrba and Wetzler had to do was evade detection for three days and maybe, just maybe, they'd have a decent chance of survival.
So on April 7, 1944, they hid in a pile of lumber on a tract of land being prepared for the camp's expansion. As Jackson Richmond wrote in Tablet:
They covered themselves with gasoline-soaked Russian tobacco, hoping it would mask their scent from the SS dogs. After remaining immobile in the hiding spot for three days, they sprinted for the woods.
A few weeks later, Vrba and Wetzler made it back to Slovakia, where they provided detailed intel about Auschwitz to the Slovak Jewish Council. From there, the information circulated around the world, shocking and horrifying all who read it.