The man who escaped Auschwitz

An extraordinary new book shows heroic survivors may not be who we want them to be
July 21, 2022
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz
to Warn the World
Jonathan Freedland (RRP: £20)
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Given how quick genocide deniers are to muddy the waters, incredulity can be a dangerous response to stories about the Holocaust. Yet in the case of Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist, incredulity would seem to be a valid response—at least at first.

The author draws on his skills as both journalist and thriller writer to tell a story that would be a gift for any writer. Rudolf Vrba, a 19-year-old Slovakian Jew, escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 together with fellow inmate Alfréd Wetzler. That escape (the first by Jewish inmates to succeed) required a mind-boggling degree of ingenuity, bravery and sheer luck. But what’s even more remarkable is what came after. Vrba and Wetzler produced a report that explained in close detail the process of extermination in Auschwitz (including estimates of numbers killed) that was circulated internationally and read at the highest levels. Vrba went on to fight in the Slovakian national uprising, becoming a scientist in post-war Czechoslovakia before eventually settling in Canada.

The incredulity I felt on reading the book was that Vrba isn’t better known. That’s even more surprising given that he wrote his autobiography after the war and was interviewed for The World at War and Shoah

Freedland solves this “mystery”: Vrba was inconvenient. His testimony had helped to delay and curtail the deportation of Hungarian Jews—but he made his lifelong frustration that governments and Jewish authorities never did more to act on his warnings well known. His forceful and combative nature—which certainly helped in surviving Auschwitz—made him an uncomfortable presence in postwar Holocaust discourse.

So The Escape Artist is something more than an extraordinary tale; it is a case study that shows that those who survive to tell the tale may not be who we want them to be.