Life & Culture

The teen who tried to warn the world about Auschwitz

Jonathan Freedland's new book details the extraordinary tale of the first Jewish prisoner to escape the Nazi death camp


Jonathan Freedland has told Cliveden Literary Festival about a remarkable teenager who tried to warn the world about the Nazi's genocidal intent after escaping the horrors of Auschwitz.

The columnist’s new biography, The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World, details the life of Slovakia-born Walter Rosenberg, who later changed his name to Rudolf Vrba.

Aged just 19, he became the first Jewish escapee from the death camp, navigating himself and his companion after memorising a torn-out page from a children’s atlas found amongst the confiscated belongings of his fellow prisoners.

Mr Freedland admitted that Mr Vrba’s epic tale had been “in the back of his head” for decades. 

“I was 19 years old in the cinema watching [Claude Lanzmann’s] Holocaust epic in 1986, I was sitting there watching this documentary - suddenly onscreen explodes this figure.

“Others were grey and pale, [Vrba was] tanned, handsome, speaking in English in New York City - wearing a tan leather coat, like Al Pacino in Scarface - he had escaped from Auschwitz. 

“He had been there for two years and had worked as a slave. He was an uber witness. He saw everything.” 

For Mr Freedland, the story is particularly pertinent to what he described as the “post-truth” political era. 

“I found myself again and again from 2016 on really thinking again about this man. 

“He did the ultimate act of truth-telling, at the most extreme possible risk.”

Mr Freedland stressed that his progress on researching and writing the book was slow as he “wanted to make sure that every last detail was correct.

“I didn’t allow myself to make up anything at all. It was too important in the face of the Auschwitz deniers."

However, Mr Freedland, who has previously authored thriller novels, said he wanted to ensure his account of this story was “gripping.” 

“It wasn’t hard to do this because this is the most thrilling escape story of the second world war,” he added.

“It's harder to read about this than it is to write. There is something about metabolising this horrendous information that makes it easier than just reading it.”

Mr Freedland said that Mr Vrba had been “embarrassed” in later life, as he had not immediately realised the true purpose of Auschwitz upon arrival.

However, his assumption that Jews would be made to work or resettled was not atypical of those sent to extermination camps throughout the period. 

”The key component of this Nazi killing machine is deception. The Jewish believe they are going to be resettled in new homes. They had been lied to every step of the way. He [Vrba] understands that someone needs to get out and share the deception. 

“If the Jews had the information they might panic, if there was a stampede, so much harder for the Nazis to kill them.

"Rudy worked for 10 months straight on that railway platform.

“He saw the selections, but also saw the whole morally upside-down universe, he witnessed it all”

“Every transport was given numbers and then the number was tattooed on the people who were on that transport. And it meant that Rudy would see people around the camp and see their numbers and now if they were on an early transport or a late one.” 

While Mr Freedland said many people had doubted Mr Vrba’s memory skills, he was convinced of them after hearing a story in which he encountered a fellow Auschwitz survivor in a New York restaurant.

“The waiter had a tattoo on his arm and he [Rudy] knew exactly the date and camp he had come from”.

Upon his escape from the camp and flight to the tiny incognito Jewish community that remained in Slovakia, Mr Vrba and his co-escapee Alfréd Wetzler co-wrote a report on the mass murder taking place at Auschwitz. 

The report, eventually distributed by a Jewish journalist based in Switzerland, is credited with preventing the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in July 1944, likley saving over 200,000 lives.

Despite his extraordinary courage, Mr Vrba's story was also one of exclusion. His funeral in 2006 was poorly attended, and his later life had found him excluded from a high school Holocaust memorial event in Vancouver. It was suggested that the event organisers disliked Mr Vrba's penchant for “pointing the finger” at various parties he said had refused to heed his warnings of the Nazi extermination programme, from the allied powers to certain Jewish leaders.

However, Mr Freedland said he had been “astonished” by the reception for The Escape Artist so far.

“Rudy did not in life become iconic, his memoir was not regarded as a classic. The fact that his actions did save 200,000 lives did not make him famous. He did not have the fame of Schindler”

“He knew he was not the cliched holocaust survivor. An encounter with a survivor should be like an encounter with the Dalai Lama. He was an angry man.”

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