Growing up in Lithuania, I was painfully aware of the Holocaust, the lost people, and the broken lives of those who survived and those who were touched by the suffering. Probably for that reason I have never really sought more stories connected to this horrific period and shameful years of the history of mankind. And that’s why this book was a bit of a surprise for me.
It’s a very detailed account of a man who escaped Auschwitz at the age of nineteen years old – born Walter Rosenberg but known now as Rudolf “Rudy” Vrba. He was the first man to escape Auschwitz and eventually helped to save more than two hundred thousand Jewish lives however he never stopped believing it could have been so many more. He also was always wary and questioning other survivors, for he was very aware of how the Nazi machine was working and what one would need to do to survive.
Born in former Czechoslovakia Rosenberg was only a teenager when the war broke out. He spent just over 21 months in Auschwitz. After his escape, and after the war he studied and eventually became a biochemist and associate professor of pharmacology. He died in Canada in 2006.
Concept of disbelief
For me, the most shocking thing probably was the concept of disbelief. Not because someone was telling lies but because the truth was so incomprehensible. In one particularly haunting episode, a group of deportees is lining up for selection when a truck piled with corpses crosses the railway tracks in front of them. A shiver runs through the crowd, and people gasp. Then the truck drives on, and the Jews on the platform compose themselves. “They concluded that it was their eyes, not their captors, that were telling lies,” Freedland writes.
Similar accounts are in the book even in less obvious ways:
“And yet life in the family camp went on as it had before. The musicians staged concerts, the amateur actors put on plays. The rival political factions kept debating the ideal future, even though the only certainty was that they had no future. Walter concluded that even incontrovertible knowledge of one’s fate was not enough. If people were to act, there had to be a possibility, even a slim one, of escaping that fate. Otherwise, it was easier to deny what was right in front of you than to confront the reality of your own imminent destruction.” (137p)
Secret of his success
Jonathan Freedland wrote this breathtaking, riveting story because Vrba’s life deserves the same attention as other Holocaust celebrities. Vrba probably had zero interest in this kind of notoriety cum power. And that plus a possibly paranoid personality that made him suspicious of everybody seems to have been the secret of his success. His only interest was his mission to save lives. Vrba has been also known later on in his life to always warn journalists seeking out a story that he was not a “standard” storyteller of his experiences – he was cautious and temperamental. I was quite intrigued also that Vrba learned more about “escapology” from Dimitri Volkov, a Ukrainian-Russian POW (prisoner of war) who had escaped from Sachsenhausen, another Nazi concentration camp. The key was to carry no money or food and live off the land. A watch was needed, as was a knife which could be used for suicide because capture meant torture and death. Salt and matches were also needed and most importantly, trust no one.
In my opinion, Freedland has written a remarkable account combining the history of the Holocaust with the life experiences of a young man, who will emerge emotionally damaged from the war and suffering from PTSD. The book is well-researched and well-written, an absorbing read, and an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust.
Jonathan Saul Freedland is a British journalist who writes a weekly column for The Guardian. He presents BBC Radio 4’s contemporary history series The Long View. Freedland also writes thrillers, mainly under the pseudonym Sam Bourne.
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, by Jonathan Freedland.
Publisher: Hachette UK, 2022, 400 pages
ISBN 152936907X, 9781529369076
cover: drawing by Evelina Kvartunaite