As World War II recedes further into the past, Jonathan Freedland has revived one story from the Holocaust that’s both historically significant and a riveting read. Freedland, the author of several thrillers and a correspondent for The Guardian, writes with a novelist’s verve to tell the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz.
The Escape Artist opens with Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg) and Fred Wetzler, another young prisoner, in the middle of an escape attempt. With the help of two other prisoners, Vrba and Wetzler climbed into a woodpile to hide, the first step in escaping the death camp. “For the teenage [Vrba], it was an exhilarating feeling—but not a wholly new one,” Freedland writes. “Because this was not his first escape. And it would not be his last.”
In the late 1930s, leaders in Slovakia seized Jews’ assets and steadily banned them from public life, including schools. Even so, a young Vrba taught himself new languages and learned chemistry from an illicit textbook. As deportation approached, Vrba tried to escape to England but landed in a transit camp. He escaped the camp, got captured again and was eventually sent to Auschwitz. The Nazis had convinced the deported Jews that they were merely being resettled, but once inside Auschwitz, Vrba began to understand the truth: The Nazis were methodically killing millions of Jewish people.
When Vrba was put to work in the section of Auschwitz that processed stolen Jewish belongings, he found a new level of corruption: The Nazis had stolen every material possession from each deported Jewish person, and SS guards were making deals with enslaved workers to keep certain valuables. The brutality and inhumanity of Nazis at every level is chilling and can make for difficult reading. At the same time, Freedland’s depth of research gives a more complete picture of Auschwitz, and Vrba’s inventiveness and ultimate escape from the camp, and his efforts to tell the world the truth about its horrors, make for a gripping narrative.
The book’s last section follows Vrba through his long postwar life in Canada, where he worked as a biochemistry professor at the University of British Columbia. Vrba wrote his own memoir in the 1960s, but now The Escape Artist vividly brings his story to a new generation of readers.