Rudolf Vrba is not known alongside Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi as a legendary figure of the Holocaust. But it should be and will be, at least if the of the guardian Jonathan Freedland has something to say about it.
In The Escape ArtistFreedland’s riveting and meticulous account of Vrba’s courageous and successful escape from Auschwitz and his valiant but futile attempt to sound the alarm, we meet an extraordinary character who exemplified both the remarkable capacity of human beings to overcome the most inhuman obstacles imaginable and our invaluable ability to willfully ignore the most obvious evidence of such evil.
As Freedland says, Vrba’s life story represents “how history can change a life, even across generations; how the difference between truth and a lie can be the difference between life and death; and how people can refuse to believe in the possibility of their own imminent destruction, even, perhaps especially, when that destruction is certain. While the story of Vrba has been partially told before, notably in Claude Lanzmann’s opus Holocaustit has not so far been developed with the type of detailed primary source research that Freedland has conducted.
Born Walter Rosenberg in western Slovakia in 1924, Vrba was expelled from Bratislava, where he had studied at an elite gymnasium, when the jagged country fell under the fascist shadow. At age 15, Vrba and his family decamped to the town of Trnava, and a few years later received an official “resettlement notice” ordering them to show up with only one suitcase – and no gold. Rather than face what he feared would be internment across the Polish border, Vrba attempted in early 1942 an escape to Budapest, where he bonded with partisan fighters. But, unable to obtain the necessary papers, Vrba had to return to Slovakia, where border guards caught him and accelerated his resettlement process.
He was then deported to a lightly guarded labor camp in Novaky, where he hatched and executed an escape plan that brought him home to Trnava. Unfortunately, he encountered an eagle-eyed Slovak gendarme at a milk bar who noticed Vrba’s two pairs of socks, demanded to see his papers, and referred him to Novaky. Vrba then underwent another transfer by cattle car to Majdanek, a concentration camp outside of Lublin, Poland, and then another relocation to Auschwitz, where he arrived in June 1942.
At Auschwitz, Vrba first worked at Buna, the synthetic rubber factory built by German conglomerate IG Farben, before moving to Kanada, the section of the camp that looted and sorted the belongings of Jewish convicts exiting trains. It was there that he fully understood the deception employed by the SS guards to convince these Jews to calmly and peacefully enter the gas chambers for “disinfection”. It was there that he appreciated the crucial importance of warning the world of these atrocities.
“If the Nazi plot to destroy the Jews rested on the fact that the intended victims were utterly ignorant of their fate,” Freedland surmises, “then the first step in thwarting this murderous ambition was to break the ignorance, inform the Jews of capital punishment who the Nazis had passed them on. To this end, Vrba began to create a mental map of the camp, deploying his great memory, aided by his appointment as Registrar of New Inmates, which gave him access to a wealth of information.
Armed with this “unusually comprehensive expertise in the workings of Auschwitz” and convinced that the duly alerted Jews would no longer walk voluntarily towards their massacre, Vrba then began to plan his third and by far the most daring escape. While a handful of Polish and Soviet prisoners had escaped from the camp, no Jew had ever made it out alive. Determined to become the first, Vrba learned the lessons of a Red Army captain who had previously escaped from other enclosures: no meat (the German shepherds of the Nazis sniffed it), no money (the escapees would be tempted to use it and therefore interact with villagers who would betray them), and not SS accomplices (even, or especially, the corrupt guards who would inevitably turn against them).
After months of complex planning, the moment of truth came on April 7, 1944, when Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, a childhood friend of Trnava, huddled in a makeshift bunker they had painstakingly fashioned under a pile of wood heavily sprinkled with Soviet tobacco that had been soaked in gasoline to keep dogs away. Sirens sounded, announcing their demise and the ensuing manhunt, and for more than three full days the couple hunkered down, waiting for what they knew of past practice would be the abandonment of the search by the guards. After several near-exposures, they emerged from their cocoon, crawled on their stomachs under the camp’s outer fence, and slipped out into the desert, at least temporarily free.
Their harrowing journey south along the Sola River included perilous encounters with Hitler Youth hikers, SS officers, families strolling through the woods, and a Nazi search party. But Vrba and Wetzler also received help and comfort from two Polish families who risked their lives to feed, clothe and guide the escapees to the Slovakian border. There, a Slovak villager helped them board a train for the town of Zilina, where they began to fulfill their mission to warn the remaining Jewish community.
Vrba and Wetzler began by submitting testimonies to the Jewish Council, the official body that the fascist Slovak government appointed to handle Jewish affairs. Over the course of 48 hours, they cataloged their experience in great detail, including recreating maps of the various camp structures and listing from memory the transports and death counts of various countries on a weekly basis from 1942 to 1944. , representing nearly two million gassings. Incredibly, just two months later, two more Auschwitz escapees traveled to Slovakia and corroborated the Vrba-Wetzler report.
But tragically, and not through the fault of the authors, the report failed to stop the massacre, the most harrowing in Hungary, which the Nazis had recently occupied, preparing mass transports to Auschwitz. The report was quickly translated into Hungarian and passed across the border to Rezso Kasztner, the de facto leader of Hungary’s Jewish community, as well as Catholic authorities close to the Vatican. It was also passed on to a British journalist writing for a Swiss newspaper, who published an expose at the end of June, followed by a New York Times report in July. Yet by then, in the months following Vrba’s escape, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews had already been killed.
Worse still, it took seven months for the report to be fully translated into English, and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy (perhaps reflecting advice from President Franklin Roosevelt himself) refused to allow American planes. to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz; the Royal Air Force also declined to act. It seemed that the Allied leaders simply could not believe the level of depravity the Nazis had descended to.
But perhaps worst of all was the reception given to their report by the Hungarian Jewish authorities. Kasztner himself was compromised by a spurious and top-secret negotiation he conducted with Adolf Eichmann to spare all Jews in Hungary in exchange for money and the suppression of the Vrba-Wetzler report. But in the end, Eichmann only allowed 1,700 Jews to flee to Switzerland at a cost of nearly $1.7 million, while Kastzner suppressed the report and publicly suggested that the deported Hungarian Jews and convicted were safe and sound at a German farm – actions that would later lead to an Israeli court ruling (posthumously overturned) that Kasztner was guilty of “collaboration in the fullest sense of the word” and his murder in Tel Aviv. It was only in Budapest itself that the report effectively spread, as its release created international pressure on Hungary’s puppet government to prevent the deportation of the capital’s 200,000 Jews.
Vrba himself fought the Nazis as a Slovak partisan, became a professor of chemistry at the Iron Curtain in Prague and escaped one last time – in 1958, to Israel, via Vienna. Eighteen months later he moved to London, then to Boston and Vancouver, marrying twice, publishing dozens of academic papers, testifying against the Nazis, writing memoirs and generally recording his experiences for posterity. He died in 2006, haunted by his inability to save more Jews despite his extraordinary efforts. As Freedland notes, “Vrba has seen himself rather in the tradition of the Jewish prophet who comes to deliver a warning, only to weep when that warning is not heeded.”
In the end, Vrba encountered what must have been for him an irreducible paradox: the more gruesome the Auschwitz stories he (accurately) told, the less believable his audience found them. Tragically, as Freedland notes, his heroic efforts failed on a “difficult but stubborn fact: that human beings find it almost impossible to engineer their own death.” One can only hope that these efforts will no longer be ignored.
Michael M. Rosen is a lawyer and writer in Israel and a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.