The Escape Artist

by Jonathan Freedland

In April 1944 a teenag­er named Rudolf Vrba was plan­ning a dar­ing and unprece­dent­ed escape from Auschwitz. After hid­ing in a pile of tim­ber planks for three days while 3,000 SS men and their blood­hounds searched for him, Vrba and his fel­low escapee Fred Wet­zler would even­tu­al­ly cross Nazi-occu­pied Poland on foot, as pen­ni­less fugi­tives. Their mis­sion: to tell the world the truth of the Final Solu­tion. Vrba would pro­duce from mem­o­ry a breath­tak­ing report of more than thir­ty pages reveal­ing the true nature and scale of Auschwitz — a report that would find its way to Roo­sevelt, Churchill and the Pope, even­tu­al­ly sav­ing over 200,000 Jew­ish lives. A thrilling his­to­ry with enor­mous his­tor­i­cal impli­ca­tions, THE ESCAPE ARTIST is the extra­or­di­nary sto­ry of a com­plex man who would seek escape again and again: first from Auschwitz, then from his past, even from his own name. In telling his sto­ry, Jonathan Freed­land — the jour­nal­ist, broad­cast­er and acclaimed, mul­ti-mil­lion copy sell­ing author of the Sam Bourne nov­els — ensures that Rudolf Vrba’s hero­ic mis­sion will also escape oblivion.

Published by John Murray, London in 2022

ISBN: 9781529369052

I rated this 5 stars out of 5

I had been toy­ing with pur­chas­ing this book for a lit­tle while: I would walk into the book­store, pick it up, read the blurb, think to myself Do I have the men­tal and emo­tion­al sta­mi­na at the moment for a book about the Holo­caust? and then like the cow­ard I am I would always put it back down and slink over to the Trav­el shelf.

Then dur­ing a chat in the office one day with one of my col­leagues she men­tioned how much she’d adored the book, so I pur­chased it and set­tled down one evening in bed to read it. And wow! I’m so glad I did, and so relieved that I did­n’t deprive myself of read­ing it.

The book is cap­ti­vat­ing and superbly writ­ten. The sto­ry itself absolute­ly infu­ri­at­ed me. I found myself stop­ping, putting the book down, and then Googling var­i­ous camp guards to see whether they got their come­up­pance in the post-war after­math. Spoil­er alert: most nev­er did, nei­ther imme­di­ate­ly after the war nor in the eight decades after. So I would shake my head at what depths man can sink to, woe­ful­ly pick the book back up and read on… only to be infu­ri­at­ed again on the next page.

There are so many sto­ries in this book of peo­ple who were as strong as a human can be, whilst being as weak as a human can be, and often in the same moment. Wil­ful igno­rance, coura­geous brav­ery, delib­er­ate and cold-blood­ed hatred, super­hu­man endurance, moral apa­thy and self-serv­ing cow­ardice: all in one per­son, one sto­ry, told over and over again about many peo­ple, and their many sto­ries. Wal­ter Rosen­berg, lat­er call­ing him­self Rudolf Vrba, saw and sur­vived things that would have shat­tered most men, and his post-war strug­gles come as lit­tle sur­prise when one con­sid­ers the depth of human deprav­i­ty he had wit­nessed. I’m typ­ing this review and even whilst think­ing of read­ing about dis­card­ed chil­dren’s dolls on a moun­tain of per­son­al belong­ings of gas cham­ber vic­tims it’s hard to con­tain my emo­tion and out­ra­geous anger. This man Rosenberg/Vrba not only con­tained it, but fought it, and ulti­mate­ly helped to stop it. Instead of suc­cumb­ing to this deprav­i­ty he did what no oth­er Jew had ever done before: he broke out to warn the world and try to stop the car­nage. In doing so he saved hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives.

It gets even more frus­trat­ing after that: time and again the Allies tried to ignore, min­imise or out­right deny the reports and rumours trick­ling out of Nazi Ger­many about what was going on. Vrba is even con­front­ed with resis­tance from oth­er Jews. Nobody seemed will­ing to think the unthink­able: that mankind was capa­ble of such raw bru­tal­i­ty and hate. I can’t tru­ly say I total­ly blame them: I’m strug­gling to think about it 80 years later.

Read this book. You owe it to the vic­tims, and to Rudolf Vrba, whose sto­ry should be much bet­ter known.

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