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Escape Artist

I’ve just finished reading a book called “The Escape Artist”, by Jonathan Freedland. It’s the story of a man variously called Walter Rosenberg, and then Rudolf Vrba. He was a Slovakian Jew, imprisoned in Auschwitz during the second world war, and one of the first two (of I believe only four in total) Jewish escapees from that camp. The author, Jonathan Freedland, is a journalist and broadcaster who also writes excellent thrillers under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, and in this book he has created the tension of a thriller as he describes the preparation and the actual escape. But it’s not a thriller; it is a piece of fact, and the horrors described are not the easy fictional violence and mayhem of a spy novel or a police procedural - what is here actually happened, to real people, in Europe, arguably the most ‘civilised’ part of the world. And it was only eighty years ago.

Rudolf Vrba (we’ll stick with just the one name) was clearly a remarkable man. Deported from Slovakia initially to Majdenek as an eighteen year old, he was moved to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he was one of those selected for work rather than immediate death, and over the course of the next two years or so, he saw the entire workings of the camp’s murder machine. He was blessed - or perhaps, given what he saw, cursed - with a near photographic memory, which meant he was able to remember the details of the trains arriving at the camp, where they were from and the way the arrivals were split - some for immediate death, some for slave labour first. Over that time, he became more and more certain that it was his duty to escape and tell the world what was going on. This imperative became stronger, when they learned in the camp that the transportation of the last Jewish population in Europe, in Hungary, was close.

So Vrba and his fellow Slovak Fred Wetzler put into practice the escape plan they had developed. They were successful, and eventually walked across the border into Slovakia, where they were hidden in a series of safe houses while they prepared their report on the reality of Auschwitz; this is where Vrba’s remarkable memory proved its worth. The report was then translated and disseminated to a variety of international figures - Jewish leaders, Allied heads of government, the Pope and so on. The reactions were less than Vrba had expected; although it is generally accepted that around 200,000 Hungarian Jews were saved, a lot more were not. Vrba was less than impressed. Just as an example, a request was made to bomb the railway lines heading for Auschwitz; the RAF claimed it had to be done by day, and the split of responsibilities gave them night bombing and the USAAF day bombing. The USAAF then decided they couldn’t spare the men/machines/time from their other activities over German cities. In truth, the Allies probably didn’t really know how to handle the hot potato.

After the War had finished, Veba went back to his studies, and became a scientist and academic, first in communist Czechoslovakia, then, thinking better than the totalitarian state, in the UK and finally Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast. By all accounts, he was a successful, happy family man and academic; but those same accounts also warn that the shadow cast by his time in Auschwitz never left him, nor did a lasting antipathy towards those whom he felt had failed to act quickly enough on the information he had brought out about the camp. He testified in many holocaust trials in various places, his remarkable memory for numbers and statistics being crucial in some of those cases.

So why should you read this book now? The first half or two thirds of it are horrific; I had to put it down several times as it described the workings of the murder machine, because the brain the cannot process the awfulness. A comfortable read it most certainly is not. But remember the words of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” You don’t have to approve of the excesses of the IDF in Gaza; that’s another issue. Some of those protesting in western cities are legitimately trying to make a case for peace (maybe naïve, given the history), but others are baying for blood. One of the founding principles of the United Nations was “Never Again”. I fear we are treading very close to a cliff edge, where that may be swept away. We need to read books like this precisely so that we do remember the past, and - but this may be a vain hope - ideally learn from it.


The Escape Artist, by Jonathan Freedland, is published by John Murray.

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