"The Escape Artist," Jonathan Freedland's compelling work of narrative nonfiction, tells the story of Walter Rosenberg, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz. The book is divided, roughly, between what happens in Auschwitz and what happens afterward.
Rosenberg was a Slovakian Jew, arrested by the Nazis not once but twice (he escaped the first time), packed onto a train with thousands of other Jewish people and hauled off to the concentration camp Majdanek in Poland. He was there long enough to catch a last, poignant glimpse of his brother Sammy before being transferred to Auschwitz.
We know about Auschwitz. We know what happened there. But Freedland, with his strong, clear prose and vivid details, makes us feel it, and the first half of this book is not an easy read. The chillingly efficient mass murder of thousands of people is harrowing enough, but Freedland tells us stories of individual evils as well that are almost harder to take.
His matter-of-fact tone makes it bearable for us to continue to read. Here are the almost casual brutalities of the SS men — playing football with the head of a dead prisoner, shoveling the dying onto trucks along with the dead and hauling them away to be burned, punishing a rabbi by dunking his face into raw sewage and then shooting him, opening a porthole in a gas chamber filled with screaming people in order to spit on them and then closing it again.
And here is mass murder, growing more and more efficient, with chuckling SS guards handing a line of docile prisoners towels and soap as though they are going to be bathed and not killed.
It was that docility that tormented Rosenberg. If the Jews only knew what they were lining up for, he believed, they would not go quietly. If the world knew what was happening here, leaders would rise up to stop it. It is excruciating to read that he was mostly wrong on both counts.
During his two years in Auschwitz, from age 17 to 19, Rosenberg vowed to escape and alert the world, and so he paid close attention, committing everything he could to memory — not just the layout of the camps and its railroads, but the number of Jews on each train car, the number of trains, the number of people herded into the gas chambers and incinerated, the tattooed numbers on prisoners' arms and what they meant.
When the Nazis began working on a new, more efficient railroad that would shuttle prisoners directly to the gas chambers, he and fellow prisoner Fred Wetzler made a plan. They hid for three days under a woodpile — three being the magic number of days the Nazis searched the camp for missing prisoners — and then they crawled out and staggered miles through the snow to freedom.
Certainly Freedland could have ended the book here, on this note of triumph. But the triumph of escape becomes complicated almost immediately. As Rosenberg (who later went by the Gentile name of Rudi Vrba) and Wetzler tell their story, they hit resistance: disbelief, red tape, government inaction and bickering, influential people using the information for themselves but doing nothing to help others.
"Every path the report had taken had seemed to end in a hard stone wall, Rudi and Fred's testimony either suppressed or leading to no firm action," Freedland writes. "One man, a lawyer, seemed incredulous that 'civilised Germany' was, in effect, executing people without due legal process."
All, however, was not entirely for naught. The report produced by the pair eventually made its way to people who were able to stop the Nazis from wiping out the Jews of Budapest. "Their word had been doubted, it had been ignored and it had been suppressed," Freedland writes. "But now, at least, it had made the breakthrough they had longed for. Rudolf Vrba and Fred Wetzler had saved 200,000 lives."
"The Escape Artist" is riveting history, eloquently written and scrupulously researched. Rosenberg's brilliance, courage and fortitude are nothing short of amazing.
He understood that two things — an unwavering stream of reassuring lies, and absolute secrecy — are what allowed the Nazis to continue their crimes undeterred. Freedland sees parallels today.
"The difference between truth and lies," he writes, "can be the difference between life and death." This book can be read, like Rosenberg and Wetzler's report, as a warning to the world.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.
The Escape Artist
By: Jonathan Freedland.
Publisher: Harper, 376 pages, $28.99