IIt was around September 1942, the month of his 18th birthday, that Rudolf Vrba made a crucial decision. He had been imprisoned in Auschwitz since June and worked on the ramp where most new arrivals were sent straight to their deaths. The SS sometimes reassured them or even joked with them right up to the doors of the gas chambers.
What Vrba realized, writes Jonathan Freedland, was that rationalized mass murder depended on “a cardinal principle: that the people who came to Auschwitz did not know where they were going or for what purpose”. for “it is much easier to slaughter lambs than it is to hunt deer”. It would be his mission to “escape and raise the alarm”.
It took until April 10, 1944, but eventually Vrba and his fellow inmate Alfred Wetzler “realized what no Jew had ever done before: they had escaped from Auschwitz.” They had sat motionless for three days amidst a heap of planks in a lumber yard, after scattering cheap Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline all around to ward off tracker dogs. They relied on strict Nazi routine: in the event of an escape, the camp was put on full alert for precisely 72 hours before security in the outer areas was released, assuming the prisoners had to be escaped.
As he prepared to escape, Freedland tells us, Vrba, a man very skilled in numbers who later became an organic chemist, “systematically collected[ed] the data of industrialized murder”. He remembered the origins and approximate number of each transport that arrived at Auschwitz. (Decades later, he noticed a waiter in a New York restaurant with a number tattooed on his arm and instantly told him he must be a Jew from Będzin in Poland who had been sent to Auschwitz in the summer of 1943. ) Moreover, he had been forced to work in a variety of roles and had thus acquired what Freedland calls “unusually comprehensive expertise at Auschwitz”: how it functioned as “an economic center” as well as a death factory, black markets, resistance groups, even deals between greedy SS officers and prisoners who agreed to loot for them in “Kanada,” the store that held the personal effects of murdered Jews.
All this meant that the Vrba-Wetzler report, completed in late April 1944, provided a much more detailed picture of the Holocaust than the more fragmentary rumors and accounts that had emerged before. Even after escaping from the camp, the pair had many dangerous encounters and strokes of luck as they made their way back to their native Slovakia, relying only on a brief glimpse of a children’s atlas that Vrba had met in “Canada”. There was a warrant for their arrest and they were surrounded by often hostile Polish peasants, but they had finally managed to tell their story to the world.
It quickly had an impact. When the first newspaper article about the report was published in a Swiss newspaper in June 1944, it resulted in 383 articles in the Swiss press alone, more than had been “published”. [in the UK] of the Final Solution throughout the war”. World leaders could no longer ignore the Holocaust.
Even while still in Auschwitz, Vrba had heard rumors that the camp was being expanded to accommodate the arrival of around one million Hungarian Jews, the last large surviving European community. The report appears to have been a major factor in prompting the Pope, Roosevelt, and even his daughter-in-law to pressure Admiral Horthy, the regent of Hungary, to stop the deportations. The US President also made it clear that Horthy would be held accountable for his actions in the (then likely) event of an Allied victory. So he decided to challenge the Germans – and thus saved the lives of 200,000 Jews in Budapest.
Freedland also has a lot to say about the afterlife of the Vrba-Wetzler report. There have been fierce debates, in Israel and elsewhere, about the extent to which wartime Jewish leaders, and in particular Rezső Kasztner in Hungary, helped facilitate the Nazi extermination program by encouraging respect rather than the revolt. Others asked incisive questions about why the allies refused to bomb the camps or the railroad lines leading to them. Vrba never shied away from such controversies and sometimes alienated Jewish audiences, according to Freedland, by refusing to “serve a morally comfortable narrative in which the only bad guys were the Nazis”.
It was around 2016, “in the age of post-truth and fake news,” that Freedland began reflecting on the man who risked everything to let the world know the truth. Vrba’s two wives were still alive and eager to be interviewed about his rich but somewhat troubled post-war life in Czechoslovakia, England and Canada. Much of this is interesting, but at the heart of The Escape Artist is an utterly gripping account, incorporating a sober but poignant image of life in Auschwitz and a kind of heroic adventure story.
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Escaped Auschwitz to Tell the World by Jonathan Freedland is published by John Murray (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply