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The Escape Artist

The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz To Warn the World

Walter Rosenberg, aka Rudolf Vrba, and Fred Wetzler were the first Jewish inmates to successfully escape from Auschwitz. Shrewdness, meticulous planning, extraordinary bravery and a big dose of luck helped Rosenberg and Wetzler succeed where  many had failed before. The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland is Vrba’s story and one that will leave you reeling. Although many of us will have read Holocaust stories before, the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps never fail to shock and cannot be told too many times. A must read.

In 1942, seventeen-year-old Rudolf Vrba, along with the rest of the male, able-bodied Jewish population of Slovakia, were shipped off to ‘resettlement’ camps in Poland. Rudolf’s destination was Auschwitz. Thanks to a strong constitution he would survive disease, gruelling work, beatings and malnutrition and eventually end up in jobs that gave him insight into how the concentration camp worked. His extraordinary memory allowed him to build up a picture of the systematic and deceiving methods of the Nazis. The more he witnessed, the more he became determined on escaping to warn the world of the horrors of the camps.

The story of the actual escape is a nail-biting thriller, including several close calls with SS officers and Polish peasants of questionable loyalty. As it turned out, escaping was only half the job. Getting their story to be taken seriously by the right people proved a challenge. The Vrba-Wetzler Report would eventually end up on the desks of Churchill and Roosevelt, but even then, action was painfully slow. The trauma of Auschwitz would continue to haunt Rudolf’s professional and personal lives; the tenacity and stubbornness that made his escape possible not always an advantage.

The author Jonathan Freedland first came across Vrba as a teenager in a documentary film about the Holocaust. Thirty years would pass before he started writing The Escape Artist, spurred on by the frighting arrival of ‘alternative truths’. The book is the result of hours and hours of interviews with Vrba’s first and second wives, diaries, letters and historical records. The matter-of-factly style of Freedland’s story makes it all the more shocking. An absolute gripping read.

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