Life & Culture

The man who escaped from Auschwitz so he could warn Jews of what awaited them there

In The Escape Artist, The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, JC journalist Jonathan Freedland tells the incredible story of Slovakian teenager Rudolf Vrba


The new book by Guardian and JC columnist Jonathan Freedland tells an entirely true story. But the beginning brings to mind Freedland’s alternate life as a thriller writer, lending a wholly justifiable excitement to the account of a teenager’s daring escape from Auschwitz and his attempts to warn the world of what was happening to the Jews.

It tells the little-remembered story of Rudolf Vrba, the Slovakian teenager, who succeeded in breaking out of Auschwitz in 1944.

Together with his companion escapee Fred Wetzler, with whom he wrote a forensically detailed account of the life of the camp, Vrba was desperate to let the world know of the horrors being perpetrated inside Auschwitz by the Nazi regime, and even more desperate to save any more Jews from going to their deaths.

But, as Freedland painstakingly explains, Vrba was only partly successful. In a series of scarcely credible delays, what became known as the Vrba-Wetzler report was sometimes not taken seriously enough, and, all too often, not believed at all.

For the rest of his life, Vrba, who died in 2006, maintained that Jews died as a result of a lack of information about their ultimate destiny. Reading Freedland’s breathtaking account of Vrba’s life, it is hard to disagree.

From the very start of The Escape Artist — so called because Vrba didn’t just escape from concentration camps once, but several times — Freedland repeatedly reminds readers of Vrba’s age. Fourteen when his education was cut short by Nazi exclusions in Slovakia, 17 when he entered Auschwitz in 1942, just 19 when he and Fred Wetzler managed their near miraculous escape in April 1944.

The Escape Artist is not one of those Holocaust books with endless imagined dialogue or feelings. Drawing forensically on Vrba’s own writings, court proceedings, family memoirs, Freedland can produce a source for everything, even down to a moment where Vrba, hidden in an underground wood and mud construction in Auschwitz, felt sweat running down his face.

They planned the escape with meticulous care, hiding in a newly dug trench, hidden by the wooden planks covering it. They even scattered tobacco to put the search dogs off their scent.

After three days they correctly calculated that the search for them would end and they would be able to move on to freedom.

Freedland first came across Vrba in Claude Lanzmann’s epic nine-hour film, Shoah, which he first saw as a 19-year-old in London. “Vrba seemed of a different generation from the other interviewees, though actually he wasn’t,” Freedland says now.

“He leapt off the screen, he seemed fit, exuberant, playful, tanned, handsome: as though he came from another world from the rest of the witnesses”.

He was briefly in the same room as Vrba in 1988 at a conference convened by Robert and Elisabeth Maxwell — but they did not meet. But in 2016, with the election of Donald Trump, a debate began world-wide about “post-truth, a new time of disinformation and lies. At the back of my mind something nagged about Vrba. And then, when lockdown began, [I thought about] good information that you could trust, and how it could be a matter of life or death. I found myself thinking about Vrba again.

"That was his great insight as a teenager, that the difference between truth and lies could be the difference between life and death.”

“It struck me as so important to the story. It adds to the achievement. It’s extraordinary anyway, what he did, but to do it so young… Physically, to pull off the feat of escape, is something you’d have to be very young and fit and strong for. But actually to have had the insight that he had, to have analysed the situation, where he realised that the key link in the chain was ignorance. And that the strongest act of resistance, of halting the killing machine, would be to stop that ignorance.

"To warn Jews, don’t get on those trains, because this is what waits at the other end”.

Perhaps Freedland’s greatest stroke of luck — what he is happy to call “bashert”, or fate — came with the improbable discovery that Rudolf Vrba’s first wife, Gerta, was still alive, aged 93, and living in Muswell Hill in north London.

“I contacted Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and, not knowing if Gerta was alive or dead, asked if she was on the HET radar”.

Karen Pollock dug out an email address connected to University College, London, and with not much hope, Freedland wrote a delicately-worded email, designed to catch the eye, as he thought, of a son, daughter or executor.

Instead, 20 minutes later, Gerta herself wrote back and asked him to visit her. “I could not believe it”, he says. “It was a voice from history”.

As he explains, this happened during May and June 2020, “in really serious lockdown”.

Nevertheless he went to see her straight away, and the two sat in her garden, sitting socially distanced, talking over five sessions.

On what proved to be the last visit, Gerta said she wanted to give him something, difficult for her to retrieve, but her grandson Jack would help. Jack brought down from the attic a red suitcase, containing Vrba’s letters, many written to his daughters, and mostly in English.

Gerta, then the only person still alive who had known Vrba before Auschwitz, told Freedland: “I trust you”. She died not long after their last phone conversation, leaving him with an extraordinary treasure trove of letters and family photographs, a powerful and compelling start for this book.

Gerta knew Vrba when they were still teenagers, when he still had his original name Walter Rosenberg. Theirs was “a stormy relationship”, says Freedland, but Gerta, looking back on their marriage, told him that each of them was “very badly damaged”, both by the Holocaust and personal tragedies which followed. Vrba was, says Freedland, a much better husband to his second wife, Robin, who also talked to him at length from her home in New York.

To have achieved what Vrba did — and did so young — leads Freedland to judge him as “a man in full”, who lived a long and complex life. To some extent Vrba reinvented himself after the Holocaust, keeping the name awarded him by his resistance hosts once he had escaped, and never reverting to being Walter Rosenberg. He became “a scientist and a scholar, a husband, a father and a grandfather”.

And yet there is a lingering sense of a promise unfulfilled. Vrba was restless in the post-war years, unhappy in his turbulent marriage to Greta, moving from country to country, including England, Israel and finally Canada.

Despite not wanting to be defined by the Holocaust, he spent many hours testifying as an expert witness at numerous war crime trials, his testimony all the more valuable because in his two years in Auschwitz, he rose up through the ranks of the most despised prisoners, eventually doing quite a high-level job with extra food and accommodation privileges.

He was one of the very few Jews in Auschwitz who saw the death camp’s almost every aspect, from slave labour to the crematoria, from the cynically named “welcome” train ramp as hundreds of Jews arrived, to collecting and sorting their possessions in the “Canada” warehouse.

“He wasn’t an easy man to like”, acknowledges Freedland. “But I hope the book makes the case that Holocaust survivors shouldn’t have to be spiritually uplifting, saintly figures.

"Some of them were difficult, scratchy people. I think that’s legitimate. But I also think that it played a big part in why he wasn’t more famous. He wasn’t like Eli Wiesel. An encounter with Wiesel was like an encounter with the Dalai Lama. Rudi was a more awkward customer. He unnerved even [filmmaker] Claude Lanzmann by his tendency to smile ironically, when talking about the most appalling things a human being could ever witness. I’ve read court transcripts where even the judge gets irritated by him”.

Despite admitting that Vrba was plainly an infuriating character, Freedland retains huge admiration for him, and hopes, 80 years after the escape, he can be judged more fairly. The one person about whom Freedland has changed his mind, however, is the controversial Hungarian Jew, Rudolf Kasztner, for whom Vrba maintained a lifelong loathing.

Freedland establishes that Kasztner saw the Vrba-Wetzler report, but did not pass the information on to save all of Hungarian Jewry, only a small number for whose lives he had negotiated with Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.

“I was quite ready to say that [Kasztner] was Vrba’s blind spot that he couldn’t get past. But the evidence is even more damning than one had previously imagined. I think many Jews were reluctant to accept that, partly because of the use, and I would say abuse, of the Kasztner case, made by the most unbending anti-Zionists. I would hope, particularly in Israel, that people can get past Vrba’s stance on Kasztner. Because I do think it’s his vituperative loathing of Kasztner that has prevented Vrba being acknowledged as a true hero of the Holocaust, in Israel and in the wider Jewish world.”
In a letter to a TV producer of Auschwitz and the Allies, based on Martin Gilbert’s book, Rudi Vrba wrote: “I’m not the clichéd Holocaust survivor.” Freedland’s book triumphantly proves that to be true.

The Escape Artist, The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, by Jonathan Freedland, is published this week by John Murray (£20)

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