A review of The Escape Artist: the Man Who Broke out of Auschwitz to Warn the World,
by Jonathan Freedland, (HarperCollins, 400 pages, $28.99).

Auschwitz Studies

The murder of Jews began on December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The German National Socialists herded victims into vans, locked the doors, then fed in the deadly exhaust fumes. In four months, the Nazis killed 50,000 Jews that way, but as author Jonathan Freedland explains, the killers didn’t want gas chambers on wheels.

They built “fixed purpose-built camps,” such as Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz, a former Polish army barracks near the village of Oswiecim in Upper Silesia. The remote location and proximity to railway lines made it ideal for “the method of murder by gas.” Walter Rosenberg, also known as Rudi Vrba, was the first Jew to break out of the place. The Escape Artist: the Man Who Broke out of Auschwitz to Warn the World is based on his account.

Walter hailed from Slovakia, where “the state religion of the infant republic was Nazism, albeit in a Slovak denomination.” Since Walter met the legal definition of a Jew, his high-school education was terminated. To prevent Jews from studying at home, they were ordered to hand in all textbooks.

The regime of Father Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest, also banned Jews from government jobs, restricted them from the professions and later banned Jews from owning cars, radios, and even sports equipment. Walter landed on a list for deportation and “resettlement” which took him to Majdanek and then Auschwitz, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

There he became “a witness to and target of a program of industrialized continent-wide murder” that “aimed both to eradicate an entire people and turn a profit for the murderers.” 

Among the camp’s living dead, known as Muselmanner, Walter spots engineers and managers of the site’s proprietor, the German industrial conglomerate I.G. Farben. 

At Auschwitz, a “duty doctor,” sometimes Josef Mengele, would point arrivals one way or the other. Those capable of work, such as Walter, went to the right. If women had children in tow, the SS finger would point toward the left. 

“The Nazis did not want the disruption of mothers making a scene on the ramp as they were torn from their young,” Freedland notes. “It was simpler, cleaner, to keep them together and murder them both,” and infanticide was commonplace. 

Childbirth was forbidden in Auschwitz, 

yet there were women who had passed through selection despite being in the early stages of pregnancy. Some would induce miscarriage but others carried their babies to term. That spelled death for both of them because according to the Nazi principles of selection mothers of young children were a condemned category. Both mother and baby would be sent to the gas chamber within a week of birth. The prisoner medics concluded they had only one option: in order to preserve the life of the mother, they had to take the life of the child. In Auschwitz, a newborn baby would know only a few moments of life before being poisoned. No records would ever be kept, the child’s existence erased so that the bereaved mother could appear at roll call, apparently fit and ready for slave labor.

The arrivals brought along cash, jewels, watches, pictures, family heirlooms, toys and so forth. Walter was assigned to sort this out, so the SS could steal or repackage the goods for resale in Germany. Walter’s tasks also gave knowledge of the arrivals’ country of origin, and their numbers. He memorized this data and determined to alert the world, before the Jews of Hungary could be shipped in. 

Freedland, a columnist for the Guardian, also writes thrillers but Walter’s escape surpasses anything a writer could make up. A break into Nazi-occupied territory where basic human kindness had been made “a fatal risk” is truly miraculous. Walter becomes Rudi Vrba but his report, compiled with fellow escapee Alfred “Fred” Wetzler, is met with disbelief. That makes sense, given the Nazis’ careful preparations. 

In Auschwitz, “Rudi had understood, perhaps more swiftly than others, that an essential part of the Nazis’ method, one that made mass murder possible, was their denial that they were engaged in any such activity. Deception was essential to the operation: the lie that Jews were not being killed at all but resettled helped the killing proceed. At the heart of the crime, from the start, was a confidence trick.” 

Fake postcards, messages of forced cheer written at gunpoint, “read out on the train to Majdanek were designed to seal the lie.” The Thierenstadt camp was a showpiece, “a macabre Potemkin Village that could be displayed before the inspectors of the International Red Cross, should they ever demand to come, as proof that rumors of the Nazi slaughter of Jews were untrue.” The “family camp” at Auschwitz, Freedland explains, “was an elaborate extension of the same pattern of deception that characterized the Nazi endeavor to rid the world of Jews.” After the Allied victory, the denial continued. 

In Communist Czechoslovakia, Rudi discovers, “it was taboo to mention that the Nazis had singled out Jews for elimination or even that Czech Jewish children had been murdered in gas chambers.” Rudi earns a doctorate but finds that some jobs are off-limits, and in 1952 the escapee gets a “queasy feeling of deja-vu.” 

Rudolf Slansky and 13 other senior officials of the Czechoslovak Communist Party were arrested and charged with “ideological deviation.” Ten of them were Jews, including Slansky and “eleven, including Slansky, were hanged.” This staged atrocity invites some historical context. 

In August of 1939, Stalin signed a pact with Hitler and the next month Nazi Germany and the USSR both invaded Poland. While the pact was in operation, until June 1941, Stalin handed over German Jewish Communists to the Gestapo. After the war, Stalin branded the Jews “rootless cosmopolitans” so the Czech show-trial came as no surprise. 

In his testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), director Robert Rossen (“All the King’s Men”) said the victims were “all hung, in my opinion, for being Jews and nothing else. The Soviet Union knew that by raising the word ‘Jew’ and raising the word ‘traitor’ it was specifically inciting the people of these various countries, which had been hotbeds of anti-Semitism for hundreds of years.” 

Freedland does note that in 1954, nearly a decade after the war, “food was still heavily rationed in Czechoslovakia.” The socialist paradise was a bust and Rudi was living under a regime “whose anti-Semitism was now naked and undeniable.” Once again “his mind turned to escape.” Though perhaps not as exciting as the first, this escape is every bit as significant. 

Rudi was now free to testify at trials, consult with scholars and journalists, and take his case to court. In 1961, Rudi joined with fellow survivors to sue I.G. Farben for exploiting slave labor. They each got 2500 Deutschmarks but no compensation for families of those who lost their lives. Freedland is right to call it a great bargain for Farben. 

The author takes a candid approach to Rudi’s troubled personal life. That is to be expected from someone who survived the horrors of Auschwitz. The escape artist is perhaps the greatest whistleblower of all time, though the term seems somehow inadequate. Not so the book, which delivers much more than it promises. 

With its maps, diagrams, photo section, and index, The Escape Artist deserves a place on every bookshelf. Companion volumes could include Auschwitz and the Allies by Martin Gilbert, who consulted with the escape artist. Going back farther, Unto Caesar, by F.A. Voigt, expands on the idea of National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism as religions with a common demonology. 

In Chronicles of Wasted Time, former Guardian correspondent Malcolm Muggeridge breaks the story of Stalin’s planned famine in Ukraine in 1932-33. Millions perished from hunger, an evil so great that it met with disbelief, just like the Auschwitz report. The Hitler-Stalin Pact, and the aftermath of World War II also gets a thorough treatment from the former intelligence agent.  

The Burning Tigris, by Peter Balakian, chronicles the Armenian genocide, which also had a mechanized aspect. This was long before the Nazis began their program of industrialized continent-wide murder, which took place not so long ago. Readers of The Escape Artist might wonder if such a thing could happen again. 

Tyrannical governments are the most secretive, the most deceptive, and they abound in the modern world. Governments of all kinds can collaborate with private industry against the interests of the people. Recent revelations from a Pfizer boss are troubling to say the least. If anybody saw a Fauci-Pfizer-Farben progression it would be hard to blame them. 

Though free in the West, Rudi Vrba didn’t always take advantage of medical care. Given where he’d been, as Freedland notes, he had “good reason to view medical personnel with suspicion.” Where Rudi had been was Auschwitz, a death camp managed by I.G. Farben, where the “duty doctor” marked people for death. The escapee would surely have understood the brand of white coat supremacy that now menaces the people. And he would know how to respond. 

Escape artist Rudi Vrba had “drawn a conclusion that would become an article of faith, an unshakeable creed that would drive every decision he took next. He now understood that the difference between knowledge and ignorance, between truth and lies, was the difference between life and death.” 

As Czech novelist Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) put it, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Those are creeds and articles of faith for everybody moving forward. 

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto