Book review: The Holocaust
Warning from hell
The Escape Artist. By Jonathan Freedland.
One day in 1978 Rudolf Vrba was in a restaurant in New York when he spotted a number tattooed on a waiter’s arm.
Vrba told him that he must be a Jew from Bedzin, Poland, who had arrived in Auschwitz in the summer of 1943.
The waiter, amazed, confirmed this deduction.
Vrba’s extraordinary memory was his curse and a salvation.
His curse, because he could never forget the columns of terrified Jews on the ramp at Birkenau, the corpses he had to carry or the smoke spiralling out of the crematoria.
A salvation, because the details he memorised eventually helped stop the deportation trains.
Born Walter Rosenberg in Slovakia in 1924, he arrived in Auschwitz in June 1942.
Daringly and desperately he escaped with Alfred Wetzler, a compatriot, in early April 1944.
They made their way back to Slovakia, finding shelter with the remnants of the Jewish community.
The two men’s account of the camp was typed up and edited into a 32-page forensic report on the inner workings of the Nazi death machine.
Jonathan Freedland is both a columnist at the Guardian and a thriller writer, and he tells this harrowing and astonishing story with pace and verve.
Vrba (as he became after the escape) wound up as a clerk in Auschwitz, so was fairly free to roam the camp.
He had also been posted to the section known as Kanada, where inmates unpacked the suitcases of those recently gassed, quickly forcing down any food they might find: “The lemons, the tins of sardines, the bars of chocolate...They had all been packed by anxious mothers and worried grandfathers.”
By the spring of 1944, the SS guards were joking about the “Hungarian salami” that would arrive with the Jews of Hungary, the last surviving community in Nazi-occupied Europe.