Magazine Slovakia

Super Slovaks: the Great Escapes of Gerta Vrbová

A new Slovak film, The Auschwitz Report, has been released and will be playing in cinemas across Europe this summer. Directed by Peter Bebjak, the film depicts the story of two Slovak Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, who in April 1944, escaped from Auschwitz and provided the outside world with detailed evidence of the mass murder taking place there.

Thanks to the efforts of such film makers, this heroic story is becoming more widely known. There is also a Vrba Wetzler Memorial group on Facebook which organises annual walks following their escape route from Auschwitz to Slovakia.

Probably less widely known is the equally heroic story of Gerta Vrbová, the woman who married Rudolf Vrba after the Wwr. Gerta grew up in Trnava where her family owned a small butchers shop. Her happy childhood came to an end one day in September 1939, when she arrived at school to find several of her classmates standing outside the closed gate. On the gate hung a sign saying, “Jews and Czechs are excluded from the school.”

The situation worsened as the collaborationist Slovak government subjected the Jewish population to further restrictions. Gerta’s family were deprived of their right to own a business. In the Spring of 1942, rioters smashed the windows of their home, and rumours began to spread of deportations to ‘work camps’. The family decided to escape and so began a period of changing identities and crossing borders in order to survive.

Gerta’s first escape was when she and her mother made their way through the meadows, avoiding guards, to reach the small town of Sládkovičovo which was then on the Hungarian side of the border. They made their way to Budapest where friends helped them find work and false identity papers. By 1944, the Hungarian Government was under increased pressure from Nazi Germany to deport the Jewish population. Gerta was forced to flee again, back across the border to Slovakia.

It was during these months that she met up with her childhood friend, Rudolf Vrba. He shared his experiences in Auschwitz, and forewarned her of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. After she and her mother were arrested, she made the desperate decision to leave her mother by jumping out of a first floor window in the Gestapo building in Bratislava. Gerta’s autobiography says this was in Edlova ulica which is now called Ulica Ľudmily Podjavorinskej.

Gerta was still in enormous danger. She had no identity papers, no more than a few coins in loose change, not even a coat to protect her from the pouring rain. She hid in a church near Michalská brána in the old town Bratislava and eventually managed to make contact with a friend who helped arrange yet another cross border escape back to Hungary.

Gerta and Rudolf met again after the War in communist Czechoslovakia. They married and had two daughters, before divorcing in 1956. Gerta studied medicine at Charles University in Prague, graduating in 1950. She had to escape the country once more in 1958. This time she was fleeing the communist regime. Gerta crossed the Czechoslovak border into Poland with her two daughters and from there made her way to Britain where she remarried a British scientist and pursued a career in neuroscientific research.

The size of a country cannot be measured in miles alone. The bilingual book Super Slovaks / Super Slováci tells the stories of 50 Slovaks who have changed Slovakia and by doing so shaped the world.

Gerta always worked to inspire young scientists, particularly women. In her later years, Gerta shared her experiences of the Holocaust through an autobiography, Trust and Deceit, and by giving frequent talks. She knew that her story could serve as both a warning and an inspiration to others.

In 2016, Gerta returned to Slovakia and welcomed a group of hikers who had followed Rudolf’s escape route from Auschwitz to the Slovak border at Skalité.

She died in October 2020, aged 93.

The bilingual book Super Slovaks presents other famous Slovaks from Svätopluk to Peter Sagan and each beautifully illustrated biography combines to tell the history of Slovakia. It has been written by a team of Slovak and international historians and will be enjoyed by expats interested in learning about Slovak history, as well as younger readers who can enjoy it independently, or with parents.

The book is also proving popular with Slovaks abroad who want to share their culture with younger family members. The bilingual text means that it can also be a language learning tool. The thought-provoking questions after each biography encourage active engagement with the characters and will be sure to prompt discussion.

By David Keys, Zuzana Palovic and Gabriela Bereghazyova

Art work by Natasa Stefunkova

Co-founded by authors Zuzana Palovic and Gabriela Bereghazyova, Global Slovakia is a Bratislava-based not-for-profit organization that seeks to promote Slovakia on the global stage and foster a constructive discussion about the country’s past history, current events and future perspectives. You can also follow them on Facebook!

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