The Unforgettable, Cinematic Life of Rudolf Vrba
Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by
Jonathan Freedland was published by Harper in 2022. It is 376 pages and it
includes twelve pages of black-and-white photographs and maps, as well as an
index, end notes, and a bibliography.
In The Escape Artist, Jonathan
Freedland, a British journalist, tells the story of Rudolf Vrba (1924-2006),
who, the book claims, was "the first Jew ever known to break out of
Auschwitz and make his way to freedom – one of only four who pulled off that
The Escape Artist is one of the very best books I've ever read on any topic, and I recommend it without reservation to any reader with a high school or above reading level. The subject matter is, of course, important, but in lesser hands Vrba's tale would be an overwhelmingly agonizing read. Freedland's masterful skill performs the minor miracle of crafting a graphic record of the Holocaust that is also a page-turner. Freedland pulls no punches. He informs the reader of the exact nature of the hell the Nazis operated. But Freedland moves quickly, and brings the reader with him on a breathtaking ride. In any case, only a portion of the book takes place in Auschwitz. The rest records Vrba's childhood, his heroic efforts to alert the world to the Nazi genocide of Jews, and his final days in Canada and the United States.
Freedland is a thriller author as well
as a journalist, and Vrba's story is over-the-top exciting, full of close
calls, superhuman feats, matchless courage and not one but three star-crossed
romances. Freedland loves Rudi Vrba, a complicated and at times difficult hero.
The author's affection for his protagonist propels the reader forward. The
title of the book promises something of a happy ending – we know that Vrba will
successfully escape hell and expose to the world the Nazis' diabolical crimes.
Vrba's name is not as familiar as that
of Anne Frank, Primo Levi, or Elie Wiesel. Freedland guesses that that is
because Vrba could never be what the world, or his fellow Jews, wanted in a concentration
camp survivor; more on that, below. Freedland writes, "Maybe, through this
book, Rudolf Vrba might perform one last act of escape: perhaps he might escape
our forgetfulness and be remembered."
"Rudolf Vrba" was a nomme de
guerre underground resisters would eventually assign to the man born Walter
Rosenberg. Like many folklore heroes, little Walter Rosenberg was the apple of
his mother's eye. She was a stepmother to her husband's other children, but for
ten years she had tried to have a child of her own. Finally she was blessed
with a son. Vrba's father owned a sawmill in Slovakia. His father died when he
was four, and his mother went to work as a saleswoman. Vrba's grandfather
raised him in Orthodox Judaism. Vrba visited a restaurant and sampled pork.
When God did not strike him dead, he broke with Jewish faith. On identity
papers, rather than identifying as "Jewish," he identified as
Czechoslovakia was a new nation that had
come into existence after World War I, in 1918. The territory had previously
been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a small, landlocked state in
central Europe, with a population of 14.8 million people. Most industry was in
the western, Czech part of the country, but much of that industry was
controlled by ethnic Germans. Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's first
president, was born to a poor family. His father was a carter and his mother
was a cook. Edvard Benes, the second president, was the tenth child of a
Slovaks, in the mountainous east, were
majority agriculturalists. Slovaks owned a tiny percent of the nation's
industry. Wealthy aristocratic families, often German or Germanized Slavs,
owned a disproportionate percentage of the land. Hungarians had suppressed
education in Slovakia. "Although
in 1937 Slovakia's population, including its minorities, amounted to 24
percent of the republic's total, its share of the country's industrial
production was only about 8 percent. The contribution of Slovak agriculture was
only slightly more favorable." Even after the creation of Czechoslovakia,
Slovaks felt themselves to be the poor relations of the Czechs.
Jews occupied a middleman minority
position. They were often merchants, shopkeepers, and tavern owners, and often
differed linguistically and culturally from the surrounding population. They
were more likely to be literate, urban, and white collar, and to speak German
After having been dominated by Germans
and Hungarians, some Czechs and Slovaks chose ethno-nationalism as the path to
their desired future. Ethno-nationalists were often anti-Semites, as well as
being opposed to Gypsies, aka Rom, and Hungarians. Anti-Jewish riots broke out
in Czechoslovakia in the interwar period. Even so, Gerta Sidonova, the woman
who would become Rudolf Vrba's first wife, could
report that, "Her early years were happy and peaceful. It was in 1939
that things changed, following the Nazi invasion."
On September 30, 1938, Germany, Italy,
France and the United Kingdom signed the Munich Agreement. This agreement took
territory away from Czechoslovakia and gave it to Germany. British Prime
Minister Neville Chamberlain called the Munich Agreement "Peace for our
time." The British and French hoped that by appeasing Hitler's territorial
demands in Czechoslovakia, war with Germany could be averted.
Hitler was lying when he said that the
land he took from Czechoslovakia was "the last territorial demand I have
to make in Europe." Nazi Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939.
Paris fell to Nazi Germany on June 14, 1940. The Battle of Britain began in
July, 1940. As Churchill put it, "England has been offered a choice
between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war."
Historian William L. Shirer argued in The
Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that Nazi Germany could have been defeated
in 1938. "Inspecting Czech fortifications, Hitler tells Goebbels, 'we
would have shed a lot of blood,'" reports the International
After the Munich agreement, a rump
portion of Slovakia, after territorial losses to Hungary and Nazi Germany,
became the Slovak Republic, a client state of the Third Reich. This was a tiny
state of only 2.6 million people. Slovakia had never been an independent state,
and, thanks partially to Hungarian suppression and also simply to poverty and
Slovakia's agricultural profile, there was only a small Slovak intelligentsia.
Father Jozef Tiso, a Vienna-educated Catholic priest, served as president of
the Slovak Republic.
Before the war, Tiso had been active in
fighting alcoholism and poverty. He associated those problems with Jewish
tavernkeepers and merchants. Tiso's Slovak Republic persecuted Jews, expelling
Jewish students from schools, and confiscating Jewish property and businesses. Slovak
gendarmes went so far as to enter Jewish homes and farms and loot them in full
view of helpless property owners. The Slovak Republic bragged that it enacted
draconian anti-Jewish legislation more extreme than Nazi Germany's Nuremberg
Laws. Jews "were banned from owning cars, radios, or even sports
equipment." And Tiso's Slovakia collaborated in the Holocaust, actually
paying the Third Reich a fee for "resettlement" of Jews who were, in
fact, sent to death camps in Poland. The Slovak Republic had a pre-war Jewish
population of 88,951; approximately
60,000 were murdered. The 1944 Slovak National Uprising attempted to
overthrow Tiso. It was suppressed by Nazis. Tiso was finally executed by
hanging in a reconstituted, post-war Czechoslovakia in 1947.
In short, the odds that a Slovak Jew
like Rudolf Vrba would survive to age 81 and would someday frolic with his
grandchild were slim to none.
Teenage Vrba, in spite of the Slovak
Republic's anti-Semitism, insisted on identifying as a Slovak. He wanted to
travel to England to fight with the Czechoslovak army in exile. Instead he was
transported to Majdanek, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Freedland describes in graphic detail the horrors of train transports of
unsuspecting Jews, packed into cattle cars with no free space, no water, and
just one bucket for waste. Similarly graphic descriptions create nightmarish
images of concentration camps. This reader will not soon forget the brief
description of Nazis torturing and then shooting dead a Slovak rabbi named Eckstein.
After Majdanek, Vrba was transported to Auschwitz. From his first sight of the
camp, Vrba, who was highly intelligent, began to commit every detail to memory.
Vrba filled various jobs at Auschwitz.
He worked construction, on almost no food, surrounded by SS guards whipping him
and kicking his fellow Jewish slave laborers to death. IG Farben engineers and
managers, well-dressed and looking professional, visited the construction sight
and paid no heed to the hideous conditions under which enslaved Jews labored. After
a month, out of a hundred workers, Vrba was one of two to survive.
Vrba was reassigned to Kanada, the
Auschwitz storehouse of goods stolen from the arriving Jews who were
immediately gassed. Nazis ordered their Jewish slaves to find every hidden
valuable. Prisoners squeezed toothpaste tubes in search of diamonds. A Jew who
tried to keep an apple was immediately flogged to death. "In one month
alone, some 824 freight containers were transported by rail from
Auschwitz" to Germany. Worn clothing was distributed to Germans through
the Winterhilfswerk, or winter relief fund. "Between 1942 and 1944,
an estimated six tons of dental gold were deposited in the vaults of the
Reichsbank." Those gold teeth were often ripped from the still foaming
mouths of gassing victims.
No one explained to Vrba that
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a death camp. He slowly came to that conclusion while
working in Kanada. He noted that he was sorting through baby clothes and canes
for the elderly and he never saw children or the elderly in the part of the camp
he occupied. Slowly but surely he realized that Jews were arriving and, unlike
him and other strong young men like him, these newly arrived Jews were not
being slowly worked, beaten, and starved to death, but instead were immediately
murdered. "The thought did not form immediately. It took time, perhaps
because it was too enormous, too at odds with everything Walter had learned,
and wanted to believe, about science and progress and civilization."
Later, Vrba was assigned to the
unloading platform. He worked about three hundred transports that carried, in
total, three hundred thousand people. Vrba was determined to memorize every
detail, hoping someday to report to the world exactly what was transpiring at
Trains from western Europe brought victims
"from Paris or Amsterdam, people raised to expect the best of the
civilized Germans" who "were primed to believe that they were at long
last in the hands of German officers who would, naturally, ensure that food and
drink would be available, that their luggage would be looked after, and that
order was about to be restored … SS men, their manners impeccable, might help
the sick clamber aboard, offering a helping hand … 'Good God,' they might say 'in
what state did these horrible Slovaks transport you? This is inhuman.'"
"A well-dressed Czech mother"
said to a German officer, "'Thank God we're here.' She was one of those
deportees who believed that the nation of Goethe and Kant would at least bring
a measure of sanity to proceedings … The SS man, gloved, his uniform creased in
all the right places, gave her his most benign and trustworthy smile … 'My dear
lady. We are civilized people.'"
Freedland describes how Nazis hid the
truth of the death camps as long as possible. Even when discussing their
actions with fellow Nazis who knew exactly what the Final Solution entailed,
they used euphemistic vocabulary. Nazis hid death camps in remote regions in
occupied territory. Victims were assured that they were merely being
"relocated." "It is much easier to slaughter lambs than to hunt
deer." Those prisoners, like the Sonderkommando, who handled corpses, and who
knew exactly what was going on, were isolated from other prisoners and eventually
killed. Prisoners were also hostages to each other. They knew if one escaped or
rebelled, other prisoners in the escapee's block would be tortured and killed. Vrba,
though a good worker, was once himself slated for elimination. In one of many
random acts that prolonged his life, a nameless Polish prisoner, "in a
gesture of generosity that made no rational sense," removed Vrba's name
from a list of those to be killed.
Vrba witnessed the creation of the Theresienstadter
Familienlager, or Theresienstadt family camp, 17,517 Jews from
Czechoslovakia who were not immediately murdered. Nazis established this camp
in September, 1943, and allowed Jews to live for several months before gassing
them. Why? Possibly to fool Red Cross observers. If observers saw Jews living
in Auschwitz for several months they might believe that the Final Solution
really was all about "relocation," not mass murder.
SS officers greeted new family camp arrivals.
They "could not have been more solicitous, laughing and chatting, handing
out fruit to the adults and sweets to the children, tousling the hair of those
who held tight to their dolls and teddy bears." The camp's Jewish inmates
were mass murdered in two actions, one in March and another in July, 1944.
There were 1,294 survivors of the family camp, including Otto Dov Kulka, who
would go on to become an Israeli scholar of anti-Semitism. He died at 88 in
Rudolf Vrba was surviving Auschwitz by
telling himself that he must eventually serve as a witness. If Jews knew that
the trains were taking them to their deaths, not to "relocation,"
they would become more difficult to control. That was Vrba's hope. The family
camp "jolted" Vrba. Vrba was assigned by the Auschwitz underground
resistance to see how many in the family camp would be willing to revolt. They
had nothing to lose. "They could see the chimneys; they could smell the
smoke." "Too many of the Familienlager inmates could not
accept that the SS would murder the very children they had played with, whose
names they knew … These Jews had the information. The trouble was, they did not
believe it." A potential leader of a revolt, faced with impossible choices,
poisoned himself. Alicia, the family camp girl with whom Vrba lost his
virginity, took her place on a truck to the gas chamber. "It has been
wonderful," she said.
Vrba's method of escape was ingenious,
courageous, and makes for a breathless read. I'm not going to spoil the details
of his epic escape here. After clearing Auschwitz and evading immediate
capture, Vrba and his fellow escapee, Alfred "Fred" Wetzler, moved on
foot toward Slovakia, the land of their birth. They had to cover fifty miles over
increasingly mountainous terrain. Vrba and Wetzler knew that "any Pole
found harboring, or even assisting, a Jew would be executed. Conversely, a Pole
who found a Jew in hiding and gave them up would be rewarded."
A peasant woman fed and sheltered the
escapees. She warned them that because of local partisan activity, the many
Germans in the area might shoot any strangers on sight. The woman knew that
"many Poles had already been killed for making the mistake of giving
food" to strangers. Why did the Polish peasant woman help? Perhaps because
she had had two sons. One was already dead; the other was a prisoner in a
concentration camp. When Vrba and Wetzler left, the poor woman insisted on
giving the men money, though she seemed to subsist on not much more than
potatoes. After they moved on, they noted that locals appeared afraid of them,
but would "accidentally drop half a loaf of bread near their path."
In another encounter, the two
immediately identified themselves to a woman herding goats. "We've escaped
from Auschwitz," they said, knowing that that information would be enough
to get them killed. The woman gestured toward a goat hut where she gave them
bread and a blanket. She told them to wait there; later, a boy brought them
potatoes and meat. An old man in "shabby clothes … carrying a gun"
arrived. The gun frightened the escapees, but the man had merely brought them
more food. The goat-herding woman cried as the old man took Vrba and Wetzler to
another hideout, where they were able to sleep in real beds, and where their
Polish host gave them new shoes.
The Pole further risked his life by
guiding Vrba and Wetzler through territory regularly patrolled by Germans. The
Pole said that the Germans stuck so closely to their schedules that they were
easily evaded through careful timing. Finally, the old man pointed to a forest.
"That's Slovakia," he said. Vrba asked the old man's name, but the
man wouldn't give it. Vrba understood. If Nazis captured Vrba, he couldn't gave
away a name he didn't know. The old man provided Vrba with an address in
Slovakia. He instructed Vrba to tell the people at the address that "the
living hillsman from Milowka" had sent them. The old man teared up as he
sent Vrba and Wetzler on their way.
Once they arrived in Slovakia, using the
old Pole's nomme de guerre, Vrba and Wetzler were again helped by a local, who,
again, living under a Nazi client state, was risking his own life by offering
that help. This man gave the escapees peasant garb and assigned them to tending
to his pigs. That way they would avoid detection.
For me, reading of these kindnesses was
a whiplash experience after pages of brutality. I soldiered through the
Auschwitz descriptions, stone-faced. When I read of the humanity exhibited by
these nameless peasant heroes, I cried.
Vrba and Wetzler prepared a meticulous
report documenting the Final Solution as it was being carried out in Auschwitz.
The Escape Artist describes the many good people, Jewish and non-Jewish,
in Nazi-occupied territory and in free lands, who worked hard to get the report
in front of as many eyes as possible, from Jewish civilians in Hungary to world
leaders. For example, Dr.
Geza Soos, a Calvinist anti-Nazi resister, worked on distributing the
report in Hungary.
Unfortunately, too many others wanted
nothing to do with the realities exposed in the Vrba-Wetzler report. They
buried it, slow-walked it through bureaucratic channels, or refused to believe
it. World leaders, Freeman suggests, refused to take actions they could have
taken to address the ongoing Holocaust. Perhaps most pertinently, Jews and
others living under Nazi occupation had limited power to act.
American and British leaders believed
that defeating Nazi Germany militarily should be their sole focus. Various
government officials and press organs decided that putting too much emphasis on
Jews might alienate the public. "Yank, a US Army journal" even
after requesting details about Nazi war crimes, "declined to use the copy
of the Auschwitz report … Yank found it 'too Semitic' and requested a
'less Jewish' account." Some in American and British administrations wrote
the report off as what they perceived as Jewish exaggeration of persecution. One
member of the British Foreign Office wrote, "In my opinion, a
disproportionate amount of the time of the office is wasted on dealing with
these wailing Jews." One Jew who read the report "seemed incredulous
that 'civilized Germany' was executing people without due legal process."
Vrba was profoundly disappointed in what he assessed as his fellow Jews'
hesitancy and inaction. His attitude would contribute to his being persona non
grata to various Jewish organizations in the years to come.
Some Jewish leaders begged the Allies to
bomb the rail lines leading to Auschwitz. "The War Department did not
undertake a study of whether bombing the railway lines was militarily feasible;
no one looked for alternative means of halting, or even slowing, the transports
… US reconnaissance planes flew over Auschwitz taking aerial photographs often
in the spring and summer of 1944 … the images were detailed and revealing. They
showed everything the Vrba Wetzler report described … No one ever examined
In Hungary, Rezso Kasztner, a Jewish
leader, privately offered Adolf Eichmann a bribe to allow 1,684 Jews to escape.
Freedman writes, "the Jewish rescue committee handed over $1,000 per head
for every passenger on the Kasztner train, a total of $1,684,000 …and, more
precious still, a Jewish community that would be sufficiently pliant and
passive to enable the deportations to proceed smoothly … The Nazis wanted
Kasztner's silence. And they got it. Kasztner kept the Vrba-Wetzler Report to
himself and the small leadership circle around him." Kasztner did, though,
"order the distribution of the notorious postcards which purported to
offer greetings from those who had been 'resettled' in new homes."
One can only imagine how crushed Vrba
felt. He survived Auschwitz by telling himself that he would expose Nazi crimes
to the world, and that doing so would save lives. It didn't work out that way,
but Vrba's astounding resiliency would not allow him to sit back and wallow in
despair. He joined the Slovak resistance, fought in at least nine battles
against SS units and many raids against German artillery posts, and lived to relish
the sounds of SS men's death throes. After the war, Vrba was awarded the
Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery, the Order of the Slovak National Insurrection,
and the Medal of Honor of Czechoslovak Partisans.
Vrba reconnected with Gerta Sidinova, a
girl he had known before the war, and they married. Because Vrba was a former
partisan, he was able to receive an enviable apartment in the new, communist
Czechoslovakia. The couple had two children, Helena and Zuza. Rudi and Gerta resumed
their educations interrupted by war. He would get a PhD, and she an MD; both
would become published scientists.
But all was not well. Rudi was a
difficult husband. He was suspicious, verbally abusive, and given to drinking
alone. He had multiple affairs. Some liaisons were conducted on the living room
couch in the apartment he shared with his wife and daughters. Vrba even
denounced his wife to the SNB, the Czech secret intelligence service.
Vrba became disillusioned by communist
Czechoslovakia. He was followed. He would return home to find that unseen agents
had interfered with objects in his home, a common communist tactic to unnerve
victims. A professor, he was asked to remove "bourgeois" students
from his classes. He was forced to resign when he refused to cooperate fully.
He had a PhD, but had to take a night shift job on a technician's salary. In
1952, Rudolf Slansky, a leading Czech communist, and fourteen other leading
communists were subjected to a Stalinist show trial. Eleven, including Slansky,
Vrba noticed that no one in the new
Czechoslovakia wanted to talk about the Holocaust. Rather, the official line
focused on the suffering of communists under Nazism. Vrba realized he had to
escape again. Independently of Rudi, Gerta had made the same decision. They
both, separately, escaped on the same day. She took a circuitous route to
Rudi went to Israel. He didn't like the "clannishness."
He didn't like the "romance of a perennially persecuted nation at last
capable of defending itself. As far as he was concerned he had already defended
himself." Also, he still assessed Jewish leaders as having failed their
own people. He didn't want to be around Israeli survivors of Europe's Jewish
Vrba joined his ex-wife and daughters in
England. There, again, Vrba's "paranoia" irked Gerta. She went to
court and won total legal custody of their daughters. Vrba alienated his
employers. He moved to Vancouver, where he became a professor of pharmacology. When
he was almost fifty, he met a beautiful 24-year-old, Robin, whom he married. He
began to "mellow," but he still had a bad temper, and he was given to
assessing strangers as to whether or not they could survive a concentration
camp. He convinced his young wife never to have children, because, he said, having
children makes you weak.
Decades after the war, people finally
began to talk about the Holocaust. Vrba appeared on Claude Lanzmann's Shoah,
but he never became a household name. "He would not serve up a morally
comfortable narrative in which the only villains were the Nazis." Vrba
still blamed various Jews. "Handing a platform to Rudolf Vrba" came
"to seem like a risk." "Israel's preeminent scholars … played a
part in preventing him from entering the pantheon of revered survivors."
Too, Vrba didn't look like a victim. He
had been a mere teen in Auschwitz and he still had a full head of dark hair. He
was "tanned, fit, and vigorous … loud and confident … dapper in a leather
coat and fedora, a feather in its band … He deploys sardonic, sarcastic humor …
he would offer no uplifting aphorisms, reassuring his audience that,
ultimately, human beings were good."
In 1982, Dr. Helena Vrbova, just short
of thirty years old, while researching malaria in New Guinea, died. She was in
the midst of an unhappy relationship with a married man. Vrba said that losing
his daughter to a suspected suicide was the worst event in his life, because he
could not fight back. Vrba suddenly began speaking of God, a God he had
rejected in his youth.
Vrba faced another shock in his old age.
He discovered that the report he and Fred Wetzler had prepared was not the
outside world's first inkling of the Holocaust. Before Vrba and Wetzler, Polish
resistance fighters Jan Karski, Stanislaw Jaster, and Witold Pilecki, at
immense risk and with much suffering, had conveyed messages to the Allies. The
Polish government in exile published "The
Mass Extermination of Jews in German-occupied Poland," a December,
1942, address to the United Nations.
In other words, the major premise of the
book, that Rudolf Vrba, nee Walter Rosenberg, escaped from Auschwitz to warn
the world, and save the lives of Jews, or at least turn them into
"deer" Nazis would have to "hunt" rather than
"sheep" they could systematically slaughter, is not accurate. Others
had warned the world before Vrba. That makes this astounding life, which
Freedland follows in vivid, compelling prose right up to his death at age 81
from bladder cancer, no less fascinating and, indeed, awe-inspiring.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery