cover image The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World

The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World

Jonathan Freedland. Harper, $28.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-06-311233-9

Guardian columnist Freedland debuts with a harrowing account of Rudolf Vrba’s escape from Auschwitz and his quest to hold Jewish leaders accountable for failing to prevent more people from dying in the Holocaust. Born Walter Rosenberg in Czechoslovakia (present-day Slovakia) in 1924, Vrba was sent to Auschwitz at age 17. Hoping to escape and prevent more Jews from passively boarding trains to their death, he kept a mental tally of arriving transports and how many people were selected for forced labor or sent directly to the crematorium. In April 1944, Vrba and another prisoner escaped by hiding in a wood pile for three days and nights (using gasoline-soaked tobacco to mask their scent from guard dogs), then crawling underneath a wire fence. After a harrowing journey to Žilina, they met with leaders of the Slovak Jewish Council and compiled a report including transport numbers, estimated deaths, maps, and the names of S.S. officers. Unfortunately, delays in translating and distributing the report resulted in the failure to save hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz in May 1944. Vrba, who blamed Hungarian Jewish leader Rezső Kasztner and other Jewish officials for the delays, became a controversial figure, often ignored in histories of the Holocaust. Drawing on interviews with family members and former colleagues, Freedland presents a warts-and-all portrait of Vrba, and vividly captures the horrors of Auschwitz. The result is a noteworthy contribution to the history of the Holocaust. (Oct.)