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Gerta Vrbova was born as Gerta Sidonova in Trnava, Czechoslovakia [present day Slovakia] in 1926 as the only child of Max Sidon and Josephine Frank. Her father had a kosher butcher shop which he ran with his grandfather’s brother – Daniel Sidon & Sons. Her mother had a workshop where she manufactured Venetian blinds. Both parents came from large families who were all close and Gerta has happy childhood memories – feeling happy and safe. The family was not religious but kept the high holidays. She liked school but everything changed in 1939 when Jewish children had to leave schools and even her best friend, a non-Jewish girl named Maruska, turned against her. It was this girl’s father who later took over her father’s butcher shop. She describes a time when the young people – not able to attend schools - educated themselves with books and helped each other and this is when she first met Rudi Vrba, her future husband.
In 1942 the deportations of young people in Slovakia began. The Slovaks paid the Germans money to deport their Jewish population. At this point her family decided to flee to Budapest where her mother had a very successful and affluent brother. Another uncle (a non-Jewish man married to her aunt) helped them to cross into Hungary. The Hungarian uncle provided false papers but they couldn’t work. Her law-abiding father followed the call to register and never came back. He was taken to a labour camp where he later died. Her mother and Gerta returned to Bratislava where they organised new Slovak false papers and Gerta worked. At that point she happened to meet Rudi again who had escaped Auschwitz and written the Vrba-Wetzler-Report with his fellow escapee Alfred Wetzler. Gerta and her mother were denounced and detained at a Gestapo prison from where Gerta escaped by jumping out off a window. Her mother did not come with her but stayed with her mother, Gerta’s grandmother, they were deported and didn’t survive the Holocaust.
Gerta managed to hide with the help of her former boss and went to Budapest again. Her family there couldn’t help as they were all in hiding. However her former French teacher’s brother, a civil servant for the fascist Horthy government helped her by declaring her a fascist refugee from eastern Hungary which had been taken over by the Russians already. From there she went later to Szeged where she worked for a Zionist organisation and even enrolled in the university. But soon she returned to Trnava and claimed her parents’ house back with the help of Russians. After learning about her parents’ death she sold the house and went to Bratislava where she obtained the qualification for university studies. She didn’t want to stay in Slovakia and went to Prague with a good friend and Rudi Vrba and started studying medicine. Rudi and Gerta got married in 1947 and had two daughters. Their marriage sadly failed – she thinks it is due to both their experiences during the war time. She met her second husband at a conference which she attended as a researcher neuroscientist. As he was English – Sydney Hilton – she decided to leave Czechoslovakia. With the help of a friend she crossed the Tatra Mountains with two little children and flew from Poland to Denmark where she had to stay until she could marry Sydney a year later. They had two more children together and Gerta’s career progressed. She had important positions in the Royal Free Hospital and King’s College. Rudi Vrba who was a loving father had moved to London to be near his two daughters, Helena and Zuza. Gerta and family followed Sydney to Birmingham to further his career until she returned to London after the second marriage failed. She thinks the reason is that she was a woman who needed her independence and was devoted to her career. She has published many professional books but also autobiographies. Her message is that we must never forget that the Holocaust happened and fight against injustice and wrong for a better future.
Sidon. Frank. Vrbova. Vrba-Wetzler. Trnava. Budapest. Bratislava. Prague.Szeged. London. Ravensbrück. Auschwitz. Royal Free Hospital.King’s College. Vrba-Wetzler-Memorial-March
Well, Maruška was my best friend. And we used to go cycling. I had an uncle who had a farm outside Trnava and we used to go visiting him. And one day we went cycling to my uncle and then we stopped. And then Maruška said to me that this is the last time she can see me because her father told her that if she’s going to be friends with a Jewish girl he will not benefit at all from being in the fascist Hlinka Guard and he will not get any - perks from being- being sort of fascist. And that she is not allowed to see me. And that was terribly painful for me, because I thought that she was a real, true friend and that she will stand up to that and continue to be my friend. But she- I never saw her after that. And she just didn’t want to have anything to do with me. And I don’t even know to this day what happened to her.
Well, we went to- this was again arranged by my uncle. We went to a village that was close to the border. And we had a guide… that took us in the evening when it got dark. And it was April so there were very short nights. And he took us when it got dark, and we walked across the border. He was showing us what to do. And he- we had to- while we were in the Slovak part of the- of the side of the border, we had to wait for the guards to pass. And then there was a time interval bet- between the guards changing that he knew about. And he took us across at that interval. And then we came to the Hungarian part. And there, we waited till it bec- became light. And I remember mother and I we went to a church. And then we took a- a train or something. And I had an aunt that lived in a village or in a small town near the border so we went to this aunt’s house. And then we had a rest. And then we took a train to Budapest...And in Budapest my uncle had a big American car that picked us up from the railway station and then we were treated very well. And then we- my uncle rented a flat for us. And that’s where we then stayed...We had to have forged papers and they could be bought by- for money, by people. And so, yes, I had to become somebody else and learn very well what I was. And who I was.
Yes, well it was- he [Rudi Vrba] was unrecognisable [after his experience in Auschwitz] because he was a sort of very attractive young boy. Trusting and with a wonderful sense of humour before. And very sort of… engaging person. And then when I saw him again, there was tremendous change. He looked quite different. And not only because he was two years older and strong and muscular, but it was in his eyes that was sort of quite different.
But it was terrible to leave her [mother] there actually [in a Gestapo prison]. That was a terrible decision. And I did- I was sort of doubting whether it’s the right thing. But then I remember, I went to the window to shake out the dust- dust or something. And there was outside there, and there was life there. I couldn’t resist it. So I jumped out of that window.
Well, first of all, I was very surprised how bad the childcare was in this country [UK]. And I was also very surprised that there are many types of freedom. Cause the freedom for women - women - was much less than that in Czechoslovakia. So it was a big shock, because...Everywhere. In the workplace, everywhere. I remember I went for a job interview in- at University College in ’59 or ’60. Must have been ’60. And I was pregnant with my first daughter. And this guy that interviewed me said that, “Well, you are very suitable for this job but I can’t give it to you because it wouldn’t be fair to your child.
I wanted them [her children] to be able to adjust. Wherever they were, to do the thing that they enjoyed doing and to adjust. And… I guess that’s what I did achieve. I didn’t want them to be either very Czech, or very Jewish or very anything.
I think that we should not forget that- that this happened. And that one should fight against any backwardness and terrible things that are happening today. I mean, if you think about it, that- that there is a war in Syria for seven years. And people can’t sort out their differences other than killing each other, is something after this Holocaust experience- we haven’t learned anything! And I think that this is the message I’d like to send that one should learn that you don’t achieve anything by killing people. And the Holocaust was a sort of most unique thing that ever happened, actually. This technological, planned murder of a group of people.
I went to this office in the centre of Budapest & pretended to be a fascist refugee fleeing the Russians. They gave me a huge flat & lots of money. I got money from them every week. That was very useful. I had a big flat where I could hide people that needed accommodation. My friends, 2 boys & the girl, were staying. They went out & were caught by the Gestapo - the Hungarian fascists & shot into the Danube. She managed to escape. The boys never came back. A lot of people were shot in the Danube. She jumped before they shot her. And then she came out, frozen… That was terrible. Because they were with me quite a long time in that flat. Those three.
It was a terrible time. The siege of Budapest was the longest siege of any European city during the war. I was in Buda. But the Zionist organisation that was helping people was in Pest. I went there 1 day before all the bridges were blown up. You couldn’t go, after that. We decided that we are going to go away from Budapest because it was still under siege. So we walked from Budapest to Szeged, about 200 kilometres. One of the most horrible winters. It was terrible. I had such frostbite. But I just wanted to get away from the front.
Partly walking & partly we got lifts from the Russians. Lorries. They had lorries & sometimes gave us a lift. The Russians weren’t very nice. It was quite dangerous. I was 18. Another girl was 15 & they were always trying to rape her. So it was terrible. You could talk yourself out of it. I could speak Russian quite well & tell them that I’m on their side, my boyfriend is a partisan & is fighting. You could always- you could talk yourself out of it. But it was- You had to be able to chat them up. It wasn’t always easy."