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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Book Review: ‘The Escape Artist,’ by Jonathan Freedland

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The report made its way to Walter Garrett, a British journalist working in Zurich, who broke the news of mass extermination at Auschwitz on June 24, 1944. The news reached the pages of this paper on July 3. Garrett brought the report to Allen Dulles, then a senior U.S. intelligence official, who professed to be shocked by its contents. “We must intervene immediately,” he said.

But, according to Freedland, Dulles had already received the report from a British diplomat and passed it on to Rosewell McClelland, a local representative of the newly formed War Refugee Board, commenting, “Seems more in your line.” McClelland, for his part, took four months to send the report to Washington. The head of the Office of War Information declined to publish it on the grounds that it was not credible. Yank, an official publication of the U.S. Army, called the report “too Semitic” and asked for a “less Jewish account.”

“The Escape Artist” includes harrowing details about Auschwitz that still have the power to shock. But the reactions to Vrba’s testimony by those in power — ranging from lack of interest to outright antisemitism — are nearly as horrifying. Freedland allows that Vrba’s expectations were naïve, citing the Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, who argues that by early 1944, the Jews of Hungary already had enough information to piece together their fate. The problem, in Bauer’s view, wasn’t “inadequate publication of information so much as inadequate absorption of it”— they may have been aware of the facts, but didn’t truly understand their implications. That may well be true. Still, Vrba’s story teaches us to be aware of the human mind’s propensity to allow itself to be deceived, when confronted by facts that seem too horrible to believe.

In one particularly haunting episode, a group of deportees is lining up for selection when a truck piled with corpses crosses the railway tracks in front of them. A shudder runs through the crowd; people scream. Then the truck drives on, and the Jews on the platform compose themselves. “They concluded that it was their eyes, not their captors, that were telling lies,” Freedland writes. The next time an abyss yawns before us — whether it be in Kyiv or in Washington, D.C. — we owe it to them to stare into it.

Ruth Franklin’s next book is a biography of Anne Frank for the Yale Jewish Lives series.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World | By Jonathan Freedland | Illustrated | 395 pp. | Harper | $28.99

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