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Confronted with Rudolf Vrba’s report on Auschwitz, Churchill and Roosevelt hesitated and did nothing

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BOOK OF THE WEEK

THE ESCAPE ARTISTS

by Jonathan Freedland (John Murray £20,400pp)

Jonathan Freedland was a 19-year-old college student when he attended Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust. It left a deep impression on him, but one interviewee stood out.

His name was Rudolf Vrba, hugely charismatic, with the leather-clad swagger of Al Pacino. At age 19, Vrba had escaped from Auschwitz — one of only four Jews to do so — to tell the world what happened in the death camp.

Equally remarkable was the fact that so few people had heard of him.

Thirty years later, Freedland, now a highly respected writer, began to take a closer look at his life in search of those who had known him. As it turned out, Gerta, Vrba’s teenage sweetheart in war-torn Slovakia, who later became his first wife, was now living alone in London at age 93. She spoke to Freedland for a long time and gave him a briefcase with Vrba’s letters.

Rudolf Vrba (pictured) escaped from Auschwitz at the age of 19 to tell what had happened. His report found its way to Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt and the Pope

She died within a few days. Vrba’s second wife and widow, Robin, was in New York and also spoke extensively with Freedland.

Slowly the pieces fell into place and the result is this portrait of a brilliant but troubled man whose life was barely believable. It’s compulsively readable, as you’d expect from Freedland who, writing as Sam Bourne, is the author of several best-selling thrillers.

But it’s much more than that: at a time like ours, when the value of truth is sometimes questioned, this powerful book is about truth itself, and why some people aren’t willing to face it. You will not believe what you cannot imagine.

Vrba, then Walter Rosenberg (Vrba was his nom de guerre when he went into hiding after his escape), was born in 1924 in what is now rural Slovakia and was precociously brilliant and fiercely independent of thought.

Vrba remembered every detail of the massacre he witnessed and documented everything he saw

Vrba remembered every detail of the massacre he witnessed and documented everything he saw

He had an extraordinary memory, a skill he would need if he later memorized every detail of the carnage he would experience.

In the summer of 1942, Walter ended up in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in German-occupied Poland. Slowly it became clear what was going on. It was a factory of death, specially prepared for Himmler.

When the ‘resettlement’ trains arrived after long journeys without water, food or toilets for the passengers, most of the women, plus all the children and the elderly, would be marched into the gas chambers.

There, the doors would be sealed and the Zyklon B pellets — or hydrogen cyanide — trickled in through holes in the roof by men in gas masks. Trucks started their engines to drown out the screams of the victims.

He remembered every detail of the massacre

When the screaming stopped, slave laborers entered the rooms to take the dead to the ovens. They found bodies piled against the doorways where the desperate had tried to get out.

It was murder on an industrial scale and nobody in the rest of the world seemed to know.

Freedland writes poignantly about the deadly daily routine of life in the prison camp for the Jewish slave laborers: the exhausting labor, starvation rations, permanent exhaustion, the ever-present threat of a violent beating or a bullet from the gun of an SS guard.

At night, prisoners were forced to choose between soiling themselves in their cages, their feces infecting the sores on their skin, or defecating in the same bowls they would eat from.

The charismatic and engaging Rudi became a trusted registrar and recorded the changing numbers in the camp. For example, he saw how many people were herded daily to the ‘shower blocks’.

Vrba reported that as they were marched to their deaths, the SS guards would chat about the jobs they were going to, telling them they were just taking a shower and would soon be resting

Vrba reported that as they were marched to their deaths, the SS guards would chat about the jobs they were going to, telling them they were just taking a shower and would soon be resting

Crucially, he also came to understand that this massive crime was based on deception. The exhausted people who fell from the cattle trucks had been told that they would be “resettled,” that they would build new homes and new lives.

As they were marched to their deaths, the SS guards talked about the jobs they were going to do, saying that they had just taken a shower and would soon be resting. The signs to the gas chambers say ‘to the baths’.

The only way to stop the slaughter, Walter realized, was to escape and raise the alarm. If everyone knew that Auschwitz meant death, few would get on those trains so unconditionally, and at least the killing would be delayed.

The signs to the gas chambers read ‘to the baths’

When he discovered that the next transport would be the last remaining large Jewish community in Europe – Hungary – he knew they had to be warned.

The moment came in April 1944. Aided by members of the camp resistance, Vrba and his friend Alfred Wetzler sneaked their way into the less-guarded Auschwitz sub-camp and fell into a small hollow at the bottom of a pile of wood used for the endless construction on the camp. Then they sealed their shelter with cheap gasoline soaked tobacco because the smell was repellent to guard dogs.

They knew the search for escaped refugees lasted only three days, so they sat down to wait—it was the longest three days and nights of their lives, knowing that if they were discovered, certain death awaited. When the alarm finally went off, they broke through. They walked for 11 days, chased by the SS, until they finally reached their native Slovakia.

But their troubles were far from over. What became the Vrba Wetzler report was polled by leaders of Slovakia’s remaining Jewish community and spanned 32 pages. It was a devastating testimony to the magnitude of the Auschwitz killing machine. This would surely end the carnage.

Ultimately, under pressure from the Vatican on Hungary's Catholic rulers, the trains were halted and, thanks to Vrba's report, up to 200,000 Hungarian Jews were said to have been rescued

Ultimately, under pressure from the Vatican on Hungary’s Catholic rulers, the trains were halted and, thanks to Vrba’s report, up to 200,000 Hungarian Jews were said to have been rescued

But no: And one of the most shocking aspects of Vrba’s story is how little happened after that, although the report would eventually end up in the hands of Winston Churchill, President Roosevelt and the Pope.

Churchill feared that public support would be jeopardized if the war was believed to be waged to save Jewish lives.

Skepticism and lethargy reigned in America: the report took four months to reach the president. Even the de facto leader of the Hungarian Jews, Rezso Kasztner, failed to spread it, fearing it would undermine his own secret talks with the Nazis in order to save a number of Jewish lives, including his own.

Eventually, under pressure from the Vatican on Hungary’s Catholic rulers, the trains were halted and, thanks to Vrba’s report, up to 200,000 Hungarian Jews were said to have been rescued.

In America there was skepticism

The ominous words at the entrance to Auschwitz translate as ‘work sets you free’, but Vrba knew that only the truth set you free. It was a source of much of his later bitterness that the Free World leadership had not shared that view.

In later life, Vrba became a distinguished biochemist; at the Medical Research Council in Carshalton, Surrey, the overwhelming scale of his memory astounded colleagues. He ended up as a senior academic at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Freedland wants Rudolf Vrba to be seen in the same way as Anne Frank, Primo Levi or Oskar Schindler. This book deserves to achieve that. Lest we forget.

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