“After days of delay, weeks of obsessive preparation, months of watching the failed attempts of others and two years of seeing the depths to which human beings could sink, the moment had finally come. It was time to escape.”
So begins Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist, the dramatic true story of how two young Czech Jews, Rudolf Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg) and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz in 1944 and tried to alert the world about what was happening in that Nazi death camp.
The experiences of Vrba (1924-2006) and Wetzler (1918-1988) have been chronicled previously, first in Vrba’s autobiography, I Cannot Forgive, published in 1963. (Wetzler also wrote about it, but only in the form of a novel, which was published in Czechoslovakia and attracted little attention.) The story of Vrba and Wetzler also appears, in briefer form, in the major scholarly histories of the Allies’ response to the Holocaust, such as The Abandonment of the Jews by David S. Wyman, and The Jews Were Expendable by Monty N. Penkower.
But The Escape Artist is the first book-length study of how Vrba and Wetzler broke out of Auschwitz and what happened when they revealed the truth to the outside world. Author Jonathan Freedland is a journalist, not a historian. The result is a gripping, fast-paced narrative that tells a powerful and important story, although in doing so, it occasionally sacrifices some of the historical context and nuance that a scholar would have brought to the subject.
“A FACTORY OF DEATH”
Freedland describes Vrba as a lifelong “escape artist,” someone whose naturally rebellious personality enabled him to repeatedly cheat death. As a student in an elite Czech high school, “the other boys did as they were told—but not [Rudi],” he writes. In early 1942, 17-year-old Vrba eluded the first Nazi deportations of Jews from Czechoslovakia by fleeing to Hungary. Later, he escaped from the Novaky transit camp. In the summer of 1942, Vrba was recaptured and sent to the Majdanek death camp, but he was then transferred to Auschwitz. There he was reunited with Wetzler, a boyhood friend.
At first, Vrba had difficulty absorbing what he was seeing around him, “because it was too enormous, too at odds with everything [Rudi] had learned, and wanted to believe, about science and progress and civilization.” But soon he came to understand that Auschwitz was nothing less than a “factory of death.”
Among “the living dead, walking skeletons with bowed heads and sunken, hollow eyes,” Vrba’s old defiant instincts were not immediately roused. But after being assigned to the Auschwitz storehouse that contained mountains of victims’ suitcases and other personal belongings, Vrba began to recognize the significance of deception in the murder process—and the need for him to take action to disrupt it.
The Jews had brought their personal belongings with them on the deportation trains because they had been tricked into believing they were starting a new life in “the East.” Vrba watched as SS men slyly reassured newly-arrived deportees, sometimes even joking with them, as they unwittingly lined up to enter the gas chambers. The mass murder process depended on “one cardinal principle: that the people who came to Auschwitz did not know where they were going or for what purpose,” because “it’s much easier to slaughter lambs than it is to hunt deer.”
Vrba had at first believed “escape was lunacy, escape was death,” but his new awareness of the Nazi deception strategy “filled him with a new determination, urgent and fervent, to break out” of Auschwitz. He made it his mission to “escape and sound the alarm.” Vrba intended to warn the Jews who were still alive in various European Jewish communities, because, as Freedland puts it, “if the Jews knew what was coming, what sand might they be able to throw in the gears of the machine that was poised to devour them?”
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