THIRTEEN/WNET NEW YORK’S SECRETS OF THE DEAD TRACKS TWO UNSUNG HEROES’ HARROWING ESCAPE FROM THE AUSCHWITZ DEATH CAMP AND THEIR EFFORTS TO SAVE HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF JEWS FROM THE NAZI “FINAL SOLUTION” IN ESCAPE FROM AUSCHWITZ, APRIL 30 ON PBS
Submitted to: Television 
Posted: April 25 2008

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The First Documentary Film Entirely Dedicated To Telling The Spectacular Story Of Rudolph Vrba And Alfred Wetzler’s Heroic Efforts to Expose Nazi Atrocities

Includes Dramatic Reconstructions And Rare Interviews With Eyewitness Survivors And Holocaust Historians

Auschwitz was Hitler’s largest concentration camp. Nazi records show that tens of thousands of Jews from German-occupied territories were sent there to be executed each month, and by 1944, 12,000 Jews a day were being murdered inside its barbed wire fences. This appalling massacre was one of Germany’s most heavily-guarded secrets, carefully concealed from the outside world. But two Auschwitz prisoners, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, were determined to expose the horrors of the Nazi genocide and stop the killing factories forever. To do that, they had to escape from the heavily-guarded camp. Others had tried, but all had been captured and publicly executed.

Vrba’s and Wetzler’s extraordinary story unfolds in Thirteen/WNET New York’s SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Escape From Auschwitz, premiering Wednesday, April 30 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). The 60-minute film, narrated by actor Liev Schreiber (CSI, Manchurian Candidate), was shot on location in Hungary, and juxtaposes re-enactments with provocative archival footage and insightful survivor and historian accounts.

“There have been dozens of documentaries about the Holocaust and Auschwitz, but none have focused on this tragic yet uplifting story of perseverance and heroism,” says Jared Lipworth, executive producer of SECRETS OF THE DEAD. “These two selfless men risked their own lives, risked certain execution, to try and save hundreds of thousands. Those are staggering numbers, yet so few people know this story.”

Escape From Auschwitz traces the steps of these brave men as they planned and executed the impossible. Vrba and Wetzler, both Slovak Jews, were forced to keep records for their Nazi guards. The jobs served them well, allowing them see details of the Nazi death factory and walk freely around the camp. Vrba took careful notice of what he saw.

“(His role) gave him an extraordinary insight into what the camp was doing. He was in the registry, he was seeing lists of people coming in,” explains historian David Ceserani in the film. “He was able to develop an extraordinary, clear idea of the numbers of Jews who were being deported to the camp and murdered.”

As the Nazis expanded their reign of terror across Europe, more and more unaware Jews were deported to Auschwitz. The prisoners were forced to expand the camp, making room for the ever-more-frequent cattle trucks overfilled with frightened souls. In 1943, after witnessing the methodical and swift extermination of thousands of Czech Jews and hearing rumors that the Jews of Hungary would be next, Vrba and Wetzler knew they had to break out and tell people not to get on the trains.

“It was (Vrba’s) desire to warn the world about this new stage of the Final Solution,” says Ceserani in the film. “The destruction of the Jews of Hungary gave urgency to his determination to escape…that drove him on.”

In April, 1944 Vrba and Wetzler hid in a woodpile right under the guards’ noses for three days, traversed rugged and dangerous enemy terrain, and solicited the generosity of strangers. After an extraordinary 15-day trek covering 85 miles across occupied Poland, they finally reached people they thought they could help. At the Jewish Council headquarters in Zilina, Slovakia, they described the horrific activities of the Nazis at Auschwitz. Their tale was recorded in the Vrba-Wetzler Report, which they assumed would be distributed to the proper authorities, who would force the Germans to stop the deportations and executions.

The report was indeed sent to Allies around the world. But to Vrba’s horror, some copies took months to arrive in the right hands, and the most urgent copy was suppressed by Rudolph Kastner, head of the Hungarian Jewish underground, who worried it would destroy a deal he was trying to make with the Nazis. Kastner’s deal eventually saved about 1600 Jews, but according to Vrba and others, the suppression of the report resulted in hundreds of thousands more being deported to the gas chambers. Eventually, the report made its way to the British and the Americans, and the deportations were soon brought to a halt. Three hundred thousand Hungarian Jews had already been sent to the gas chambers, but instantly, one hundred and twenty thousand others were saved.

An estimated one-and-a-half million prisoners were killed at Auschwitz in less than five years. But according to historian Sir Martin Gilbert, Vrba’s and Wetzler’s efforts were “the largest single rescue of Jews in the second World War.”

SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Escape From Auschwitz is produced by Firefly for Thirteen/WNET New York. Alex Dunlop is producer and director. At Thirteen, Jared Lipworth is executive producer. William R. Grant is executive-in-charge.

Visit the SECRETS OF THE DEAD Web site at pbs.org for more information. In previous seasons, the award-winning strand has devoted episodes to such topics as the Salem witch trials, the tomb of Christ, the Titanic, the black plague, the Allied hunt for Nazi scientists, D-Day, and the ill-fated South Pole expedition of Robert F. Scott. The series has received eight CINE Golden Eagle Awards, among numerous other honors.

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Thirteen/WNET New York is one of the key program providers for public television, bringing such acclaimed series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, Charlie Rose, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, Wide Angle, Secrets of the Dead, NOW With David Brancaccio, and Cyberchase – as well as the work of Bill Moyers – to audiences nationwide. As the flagship public broadcaster in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut metro area, Thirteen reaches millions of viewers each week, airing the best of American public television along with its own local productions such as The Ethnic Heritage Specials, The Thirteen Walking Tours, New York Voices, and Reel New York. Thirteen extends the impact of its television productions through educational and community outreach projects – including the Teaching and Learning Celebration – as well as Web sites and other digital media platforms. More information can be found at: www.thirteen.org.

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Press Contacts:

Donald Lee

Thirteen

212.560.3005

leed@thirteen.org

Debra Falk

Thirteen 212.560.3013

falk@thirteen.org

April 23, 2008

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    Contact Information:
    Debra Falk
    Thirteen/WNET New York
    212-560-3013  

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