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