The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland review – the man who broke out of Auschwitz

“It was my good fortune” are the opening words of Primo Levi’s memoir If This Is a Man, and good fortune is the chief reason Levi gave for his survival in Auschwitz. Other factors helped too: fitness, intelligence, adaptability, usefulness about the camp, sturdy footwear. But at crucial moments he and other survivors were saved by luck.

Rudolf Vrba didn’t just survive Auschwitz, he escaped from it – he and his companion Fred Wetzler were the first Jews to do so. Vrba was 19. The story of how he got away is astonishing and what happened as a result (or failed to happen) is an indispensable part of Holocaust history. But when Vrba died in 2006, only a handful of people attended his funeral and a mere 40 were there for his memorial service nine months later. Jonathan Freedland’s gripping book sets out to bring him to prominence as a name to rank with Levi, Anne Frank and Oskar Schindler.

Rudolf Vrba was a name he took on, for self-protection, towards the end of the war. He was born as the German-sounding Walter Rosenberg in 1924 and grew up in the west of Slovakia. Expelled from school at 14 because he was Jewish, he forged his own education; his command of several languages – German, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian – came in useful later. For a time he hung out with fellow teenagers forced to wear the yellow star, including Gerta Sidonova, whom he would eventually marry. When internment loomed he bolted to Hungary but was arrested; then he escaped from a transit camp and was arrested again. In June 1942 he arrived at Auschwitz.

He thought of the digits tattooed on his arm – 44070 – as a lucky number. With men around him dying from disease, malnutrition and slave labour, he was among the more fortunate, being given less onerous work on a brutal building project; a transfer to a job painting skis for German troops; a last-minute reprieve from joining the 746 men executed during a typhus outbreak. Luckiest of all, he was sent to an elite department within the camp known as Kanada, where he sorted through the clothes, baggage and valuables that new arrivals deposited before being taken to the gas chambers.

The work in Kanada was meticulous; even toothpaste tubes were squeezed out in case diamonds had been secreted inside. A bonus for prisoners was finding food to eat and luxury items that could be bartered (Vrba once discovered $20,000 but destroyed the notes rather than risk smuggling them out or handing them to the Nazis). Kanada was Auschwitz at its plushest, but it was there that he first grasped two odious truths: that the Nazis were stealing Jewish goods as a business venture (trunks full of gold and cash would be freighted off to SS headquarters in Berlin) and that exterminations were being carried out on a massive scale, with four out of every five Jewish arrivals being selected for immediate death. A keen science student, Vrba was good with numbers, and in his next post, on the platform where the trains came in, he began memorising figures and working out where each convoy had come from. The innocence of the people disembarking from cattle trucks horrified him. He needed to tell the world what was happening in Auschwitz. And the only way to do it was to escape.

He had memorised the route to the Slovakian border. But he also knew that when a prisoner went missing an intensive search would be conducted and security tightened for 72 hours. He needed help, and the dilemma was who to trust. In the end, his companion was a fellow Slovak, Fred Wetzler. They hid in a tiny scooped-out bunker under a pile of wooden planks. SS men walked close by with sniffer dogs but thanks to the machorka – Russian tobacco soaked in petrol and dried – wedged in the timbers, they missed the scent of the pair hiding underneath. After three nights, the two crawled out in the dark and crept out of the camp.

The journey to the Slovak border – walking at night, hiding by day – included many close shaves. At one point bullets were fired at them, at another they woke in the middle of a park where SS men were strolling with their families. But after 15 days, befriended by a farmer and disguised as peasants herding pigs, they reached safety. An equally tough mission followed: to tell the truth about Auschwitz to senior Jewish figures, compile a report on the number of deaths there (an estimated 1.7 million), and persuade Hungary to stop its transports and save its Jews from the massacre. The last ambition was largely frustrated, though up to 200,000 Jews who would otherwise have died were spared.

Vrba published his own Auschwitz memoir (as told to the London journalist Alan Bestic) in 1963: I Cannot Forgive, it’s called, a typical cold war title. But Vrba ends it in 1945, with three-quarters of his life still to run, and despite an angry epilogue it doesn’t explain how little his message about Auschwitz was heeded. With the help of Vrba’s letters, his first wife, Gerta, his widow, Robin, and numerous scholars, Freedland expertly fills that and many other gaps.

He also fills out the story of Vrba’s life after the war, when some of the luck that had sustained him in Auschwitz ran out. Marriage to Gerta produced two daughters but was short-lived because of his volatility and womanising. He forged a distinguished career as a biochemist, but failed to settle in either Israel or London. Relations with his Auschwitz escape partner soured, because Wetzler thought he’d taken all the credit. Worst of all, his eldest daughter took her own life, a tragedy he never recovered from. Yet he looked youthful, brimmed with confidence, loved to travel and had a goofy sense of humour. His abrasiveness and paranoia drove people away. But at trials and in interviews, he continued fighting to bring Nazis and their collaborators to justice.

Vrba had three core beliefs about Auschwitz: that the outside world didn’t know about the “final solution”; that once they did know, the allies would intervene; and that once Jews knew, they would refuse to board those fateful trains. Without in the least diminishing Vrba, Freedland disproves all three. Word of the Nazis’ “cold-blooded extermination” had got out at least 18 months before his escape. Allied policy was inhibited by inertia and antisemitism (“In my opinion a disproportionate amount of time of the Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews”, wrote someone in the Foreign Office in London). And whereas younger Jews believed Vrba, the majority were with philosopher Raymond Aron, who said: “I knew but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”

Against such odds, Vrba could do little. But he did save lives, as Freedland shows. And though his life was a series of escapes – from his name, country and marriage, as well as from Auschwitz – he stayed true to who he was, and to his mission to make the world face the truth about the Holocaust.

The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland (John Murray, £20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Jonathan Freedland talks to Hadley Freeman about the book in a Guardian Live event on Tuesday 21 June 2022, 8pm.

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