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

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In a book that is part thrilling adventure, part exploration of some of the darkest secrets of the Holocaust, award-winning journalist and best-selling novelist Jonathan Freedland uncovers the extraordinary story of the first Jew to break out of Auschwitz, a man who was determined to warn the world—and pass on a truth too few were willing to hear.

In April 1944, Rudolf Vrba became the first Jew to break out of Auschwitz—one of only four who ever pulled off that near-impossible feat. He did it to reveal the truth of the death camp to the world—and to warn the last Jews of Europe what fate awaited them at the end of the railway line. Against all odds, he and his fellow escapee, Fred Wetzler, climbed mountains, crossed rivers and narrowly missed German bullets until they had smuggled out the first full account of Auschwitz the world had ever seen—a forensically detailed report that would eventually reach Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and the Pope.

And yet too few heeded the warning that Vrba—then just nineteen years old—had risked everything to deliver. Some could not believe it. Others thought it easier to keep quiet. Vrba helped save 200,000 Jewish lives—but he never stopped believing it could have been so many more.

This is the story of a brilliant yet troubled man—a gifted “escape artist” who even as a teenager understand that the difference between truth and lies can be the difference between life and death, a man who deserves to take his place alongside Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler and Primo Levi as one of the handful of individuals whose stories define our understanding of the Holocaust.

400 pages, Hardcover

First published October 18, 2022

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About the author

Jonathan Freedland

17 books162 followers
Jonathan Freedland is a British journalist. He also writes thrillers under the pseudonym Sam Bourne.

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Profile Image for Marquise.
1,751 reviews621 followers
April 17, 2023
At the start of this book, Jonathan Freedland tells an anecdote about how he first learnt about Rudolf Vrba: he and a friend had gone to see Claude Lanzmann's documentary Shoah, in which Vrba was featured, and his friend made the mistake of taking popcorn into the theatre. A lady saw him and slapped him in the thigh asking "Do you have no respect?"

That's how I feel about The Escape Artist.

No, I don't believe Freedland was purposefully disrespectful nor that there was ill intentions either. It's evident that Freedland admires Vrba, I don't think anyone can deny that when reading this. But then what's wrong with this book? Simple: Freedland's research and tone leave much to be desired.

He starts with a claim that is the easiest ever to disprove: he asserts that Rudi Vrba was the first Jew to escape from Auschwitz. Wrong, very wrong. There were at least 3 other Jews that escaped from Auschwitz before, historians and experts on the Holocaust can probably tell better than I how many they were. This could've been just a gaffe, an honest mistake, and quickly corrected, it shouldn't have been an issue. Freedland is no historian, and it's easy for laypeople to make this kind of mistake.

But then Freedland doubled down again and again and again, even in the face of his own findings. He repeats all over the book that Vrba is the first, then he says he's the first Jew to escape "alive" (because there were those who escaped but didn't survive), which is again wrong, very wrong. There were other Jews that escaped from Auschwitz before Vrba and lived to tell the tale.

Then, Freedland argues that Vrba was the first Jew to escape from Auschwitz to warn their people of the impending doom awaiting them in the camp. Once more, wrong, very wrong. At least one of the Jews that escaped before did the same. Incredibly, Freedland actually does include this man, Siegfried Lederer, and even mentions that Lederer warned the Jews about the camp . . . but continues to ignore what he's just written and insists for the rest of the book that Vrba is the first Jew to escape from Auschwitz alive to warn the Jews and the world about Auschwitz. At this point, it reads as if Freedland is moving the goalposts, as he adds more and more in his obsession to support his Vrba First thesis.

And the kicker: when two other Jews also escape from Auschwitz and contact the Judenrat to confirm what Vrba and his friend Fred Wetzler bore witness to, Freedland dials up the "first and only" obsession to eleven and says that Vrba, Wetzler, Mordowicz, and Rosin are "the only four Jews on Earth to have escaped from Auschwitz." For goodness' sake! This obsession has reached ridiculous levels here. That's the wrongest of all the wrong assertions Freedland's made. There were other Auschwitz escapees alive and kicking by then! Jewish escapees!

And in any case, why this absurd fixation? It's not like there's a competition to be the first out of the camp, it's not like you'll get a medal for being the first escapee, and Vrba himself (you know, the actual person involved) didn't give a damn about whether he was the first or the last, what he cared about was the outcome. He didn't escape so some British rag's journo and thriller writer would wrongly portray him as some pseudo-James Bond cum Harry Houdini for the credulous masses, he escaped to save the lives of his people in Slovakia and Hungary.

The way Freedland handles Vrba's report also has issues, starting with the tone and continuing with the omissions and deliberately tendentious rendering of facts, not to mention more inaccuracies. When the Jewish leadership react with incredulity and shock at the report, Freedland is quick to find excuses and attenuating circumstances. When non-Jewish leadership react exactly the same way, Freedland is quick to speculate on their motives, disingenuously and underhandedly mocking a prelate for passing out when he learns his clergy are being murdered at the camp too. And on top of that, he clings to the "bomb, bomb, bomb" solution that the Allies didn't implement as what should absolutely been done, without bothering to at the very least lay out the logistical and technical difficulties and the effectiveness or lack thereof of bombing the concentration camp and the railways leading up to it. Freedland is no historian, that much is evident, and if this book is any indication, he has no understanding of bomber logistics either. And didn't bother to investigate anyway. He misrepresents bombing Auschwitz as easy, citing the bombing of Buna as support, but doesn't have any idea of what kind of bomber planes the Allies had or how they operate or anything about strategic costs or logistics of bombing or the actual effectiveness. And moreover, he doesn't bother to mention that Jewish inmates were killed in the bombing of Buna. All he cares to present to the reader is bombing as the real and only solution, screw facts and timelines and logistics, and to present both US and UK commands as antisemitic by implication because their first goal was to win the war first and foremost.

Splendid, just splendid . . .

This kind of bias and omission of important context and information is also seen when he has to address the consequences of the Hungarian Judenrat's decision to sit on Vrba's report and not publicise it, giving the Nazis the much desired quiet and order so they could keep loading Jews onto trains like meek sheep, and negotiated with Eichmann's lot to save a handful of "prominent" Jews. This caused a huge scandal in Israel when Rudolf Kasztner, the leader of the Hungarian Jews at the time, was embroiled in a judicial case for defamation the State of Israel undertook on his behalf against another Hungarian Jew who accused him of collaborationism. Vrba thought the same and also blamed Kasztner. The case was divisive and led to Kasztner being assassinated in revenge and a posthumous Supreme Court ruling. The ruling wasn't as black and white and exonerating as Freedland presents it here, but he didn't bother to add in the complexities of the ruling, which was to be expected given that he does appear to be sympathetic to the Hungarian Jewish leadership's inaction.

Then it all concludes with an unserious and Hollywood-baity epilogue in which Freedland draws a comparison between Rudolf Vrba and Harry Houdini, supposedly because having had to escape for his life from a transit camp and a concentration camp and the Iron Curtain likens him to Houdini's for-money spectacle escapes. Yeah, the only thing both men have in common is being Jewish, but this is what happens when you trust a thriller writer with a serious and grave topic like the Holocaust: they'll write as if they're baiting Steven Spielberg for a film deal and will bring in the figurative popcorn into the Holocaust documentary's screening.

I don't recommend this book to any serious reader. Better read Rudi Vrba's own memoirs: I Escaped from Auschwitz.
Profile Image for Danielle (The Blonde Likes Books).
605 reviews346 followers
December 10, 2022
I read this book slowly so I could soak it all in. I cried tears of sadness and sorrow, but also tears of anger for so many different reasons. Anger that it happened, anger that leaders of several countries knew and did nothing, just anger. I highly recommend reading this book and thinking about how it seems like we’ve come so far but about how we haven’t come as far as we think. Anti-semitism is still alive and thriving and if we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,904 reviews534 followers
December 14, 2022
In 1944, Walter Rosenberg (later known as Rudolf Vrba) and Alfréd Wetzler became the first Jewish prisoners to escape from Auschwitz. This book is primarily about Vrba, who was 19 years old at the time of their escape. The book describes how Vrba, when detailed to sift through the belongings of new prisoners, came to realize that those prisoners would never need those belongings because they had been executed immediately upon reaching Auschwitz. He saw items belonging to children, and knew that whole families were dying. His goal became escape, not just to save himself, but to warn Jews that Nazis were not simply sending them to relocation camps, but that they were sending them to their deaths.

Vrba memorized everything he could about the prisoners, practices and routines of the concentration camp. He used this information to help him escape, but it’s primary use was to create a detailed report that could be shared with the world once he escaped. The Vrba-Wetzler report was shocking (even though the British and American government officials were already aware of some of the details). While it did not lead to direct action by America or Great Britain, it was responsible for saving 200,000 Hungarian Jews. Vrba was always angry that more were not saved.

The book was thrilling and read like a novel. The audiobook was expertly narrated by the author. The last part of the book deals with Vrba’s somewhat troubled post war life as a biochemist and estranged father of 2 daughters. This wasn’t as interesting as the rest of the book, but overall the book was fascinating.
Profile Image for Betsy Robinson.
Author 9 books1,076 followers
January 4, 2023
After 135 pages of brutality, sixteen-year-old Walter Rosenberg (who will become Rudolf Vrba, the first Jew ever known to have broken out of Auschwitz and the subject of this astounding history) witnesses an anomaly: a Familienlager, a section of the camp where Jewish families are kept together, fed, and essentially allowed to have normal lives, as much as you can in a concentration camp. They live on the other side of a wire fence from all the cadaverous Jewish slaves, none of whom can understand what’s going on. The SS treats these people civilly, plays with the little kids (who don’t exist in the rest of the camp because they are immediately murdered), constantly assures the families of their concern, and yet, because of his job in the camp, Walter knows these thousands of people are scheduled for murder in exactly six months. Walter has found purpose by memorizing data—numbers of people who arrive, numbers killed every day, etc. He believes that if he can commit as much data, as much truth as his brain will hold, and escape, if he tells people what is really going on—people who have been convinced by the SS that all of this is benign relocation—they will rise up and do something.

However this belief is rattled when he sees that the Familienlager know about the order to kill them, and yet they don’t rise up.

His [Walter’s] faith had been firm that, once people knew that death awaited them, they would not walk quietly towards it. Now he understood that information alone was not enough. The inmates of the Czech family camp had had the information. They could see the crematoria with their own eyes; the chimneys were just a few hundred yards away. They had known that the Nazis were murdering the Jews they had brought to Auschwitz. The trouble was, they never believed this scheme applied to them.

. . . Only when it was too late did they see that they had been entirely wrong.

. . . And yet life in the family camp went on as it had before. The musicians staged concerts, the amateur actors put on plays. The rival political factions kept debating the ideal future, even though the only certainty was that they had no future. Walter concluded that even incontrovertible knowledge of one’s fate was not enough. If people were to act, there had to be a possibility, even a slim one, of escaping that fate. Otherwise it was easier to deny what was right in front of you than to confront the reality of your own imminent destruction. . . . (136–137)

The quoted material is the message. I will only add to it that the purpose of the Familienlager charade was simple propaganda: a show of normalcy to dupe Red Cross inspectors or anybody who might investigate; photos of normal families were excellent bogus public relations materials used to hide the truth of brutality that was so extreme most normal people would not believe that it could be how humans were treating other humans.

In other words, “Ha, ha, ha—nothing but big lies and witch hunts. The truth is . . .” The Nazi machine had only to repeat their big lies incessantly and people believed them rather than the obvious, unbelievable truth.

Walter and another Auschwitz inmate, Fred Wetzler, do the impossible: they are the first Jews to escape. But lest you believe, as they did, that merely getting the detailed information of what was happening out would change things, there is this: At every juncture, their copious written report (created by resistance forces who grilled them individually for days, fact-checking their reports against each other) met lethargy, procrastination, convenient incredulity allowing inaction, or ineffective action from everyone from Winston Churchill to Franklin Roosevelt to the pope. The critical information, which Walter and Fred had intended to save the soon-to-be murdered Hungarian Jews by warning them to rise up en masse and refuse to get on the “deportation” trains was not only kept from them because of secret, futile negotiations between Hungarian Jewish leadership and the Nazis, but they were delivered willful misinformation—bogus “Everything’s fine” postcards written by their relatives in Auschwitz at the direction of their murderers moments before they were shoved into the gas chambers.

Does any of this resonate with misinformation campaigns today? With the difficulty of battling big lies with truth? With worldwide campaigns to create inaction or self-sabotaging actions among people who accept carefully crafted public relations, or, worse, only care about protecting their own positions?

Walter, now known as Rudi Vrba, Wetzler, and two other Jews who escaped after the first two, were more frustrated than you probably are at this point of my recount, so what did they do? They decided to disseminate their report themselves.

Author Jonathan Freedland wrote this astounding, riveting story because Vrba’s life deserves the same attention as other Holocaust celebrities. Vrba probably had zero interest in this kind of notoriety cum power. And that plus a possibly paranoid personality that made him suspicious of everybody seems to have been the secret of his success. His only interest was his mission to save lives. He rallied his strengths for this mission: a keen ability to observe and will everything he saw to memory. He was not a genius, but by sheer conviction and dedication, he developed a kind of savant memory for details. He believed change was worth any risk.

And change did come—much slower than Vrba and Wetzler wanted—and it came because the Vrba-Wetzler Report finally reached a few people who would act. And pressure began to build against the Hungarian deportations. And a Hungarian government who really didn’t mind the deportations, acceded to the pressure. And gradually more people with none of the ethics and mission of Vrba and Wetzler began to act. They acted as a herd. And two young Slovakian Jews saved 200,000 Hungarians who would never know about them.

We are herd animals and apparently most of us are not directed by an inner compass. Nevertheless, Vrba’s story shows that a few people with relentless will to do the right thing—and the requisite craziness to carry out the mission—can actually change the direction of a world herd.

The above paragraph is a take-away from this story that I need and believe is true. But what I like most about this book and the complex character of Rudi Vrbo is that both refuse to fit pithy boxes—of hope, possibility, or even what a Holocaust survivor is. Vrbo was arrogant, unforgiving, ruthless in his criticism of surviving Jews who refused to disseminate the information they were given. In interviews, he stood tall, laughed and smiled a lot even as he described the atrocities. This is real. This is true. It is the way of people who have lived through violent absurdity; if you survive it, you develop a shell over the hurt and when talking to civilians, you might be sarcastic, because there is no possibility that they can grasp the reality you’ve lived through. This book is a wonderful conveyance of the only thing (besides his two daughters) Vrbo was committed to: truth.
I learned about this book in a New Yorker Radio interview with the author.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews626 followers
January 28, 2023
Audiobook….read by Jonathan Freedland
….11 hours and 47 minutes.

“You have to wait your turn”.

The brilliant young escape artist Walter Rosenbaum (later changed to Rudolf Vrba), risked his life to tell the world about the devastating horrors- nightmares - that were happening in Auschwitz.
Actually two young Jewish men escaped to tell the world the truth….
“The Escape Artist” is an incredible - comprehensive little known story of life in and out of the Nazi concentration camps —
and the story of one very courageous complicated man:
an exceptional — detailed - Holocaust survival true story.

The audiobook narration is excellent.

Yesterday - Jan. 27th- was International Holocaust Remembrance Day …..

Profile Image for Vicki Antipodean Bookclub.
425 reviews33 followers
June 20, 2022
“Those who have a why to live, can bear with almost any how”~ Victor Frankl
For Rudolf Vrba, sent to Auschwitz aged 18, his ‘why’ kept him going through; hard labour, the murder of friends and family, typhoid, watching the offloading of Jewish families at the camp and the systematic looting of their possessions. His ‘why’ was to keep meticulous mental records so that when he escaped, he could raise the alarm to the rest of the world

Having learnt from the failed attempts of others, Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz, walking across Poland to reach Slovakia. Vrba was just 19 and had memorised the entire infrastructure of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Nazi killing machine. What saddened and incensed me, as it did Rudi in his later life, was that if took weeks into months for anyone in power to act on the Vrba-Wetzler report. Rudi saved 200 000 lives, but was haunted by the conviction that it should have been so many more

Jonathan Freedland is a Journalist and also writes thrillers under the name of Sam Bourne. He captures both the best and the very worst of what humans are capable of in this account of Rudi’s life. The details of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the depravity and deceit of the Nazis were hard to read and will remain with me forever I think, but that’s as it should be. We need to remember and we should not be allowed to forget

Thank you to the publisher for sharing The Escape Artist with me
Profile Image for TheBookWarren.
436 reviews103 followers
December 25, 2022
4.75 Stars — A holocaust survivor, whose bone-jarringly harrowing, frightful and truly epic story and brutally compelling story of survival and ingenuity in the face of absolute evil truly rivals that of not only any human I’ve ever encountered or even heard of. The true depths of this — almost ridiculously — powerful true-story just quite simply have to be read to be believed, even with the knowledge that has come before in Anne Frank, Primo Levi, Victor Frankl & the story of Oscar Schindler’s workers — one cannot begin to summarise or abridge the world of Walter Rosenberg and his experiences in the depths of the Nazi, fascist regime.

This will leave you inspired in a way you’ve never before felt as such through discovering the mission of a man brutalised beyond all belief, carried forward only by a will and ambition to share the horrors of Auschwitz to the outside world in the veiled hope of saving the lives of thousands more of his people.

Be warned, this is not for the faint of heart and JF has done a superhuman job of bringing one man’s story to life in a visceral and surreal way.

This book is so good it is one do those very rare novels you quite literally can not bring yourself to put down, but also simultaneously can almost not bear to turn the page!
147 reviews1 follower
June 13, 2022
Despite its sensationalist title, The Escape Artist is a serious addition to Holocaust literature. Growing up in Slovakia, surviving the camps working in many positions, escaping, then informing the world are all covered in good detail. The deception deployed to carry out the mass killings along with the lack of action in the East and West once Vrba spills the beans are key focuses of the book. I finished this long book in two sittings - An “easy read” for the most difficult of subjects.
Profile Image for Steven Z..
598 reviews122 followers
July 1, 2022
Two words dominate Jonathan Freedland’s new book, THE ESCAPE ARTIST: THE MAN WHO BROKE OUT OF AUSCHWITZ; trust and escape. These terms would dominate the life of Walter Rosenberg, a Slovakian Jew who along with three others would escape from Auschwitz in 1944. Only seventeen in February 1942, Rosenberg was rounded up by the Nazis which would begin a horrible journey that would culminate in being deported with his family to Poland. Passing through Novaky, a Slovak transit camp, he would wind up in Majdanek and then on to Auschwitz by June 1942 where he would remain until April 1944 when he and his compatriot, Fred Wetzler would become the first Jews to escape “the crowning achievement of Nazi extermination.”

From that point on Walter Rosenberg, who would change his name to Rudi Vrba would dedicate his existence to gathering evidence of Nazi atrocities in order to warn Jews of what they could expect once they were deported to Auschwitz. It was his hope that once warned, Jews would put up as much resistance as possible apart from marching docilly to their deaths.

Freedland’s gripping book sets out to bring Vrba to prominence as a name to be mentioned in the same category as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Oskar Schindler, and Anne Frank. In telling his story Freedland focuses on Vrba’s prodigious memory as he mentally catalogued what he witnessed each day in the camp. At the outset he may not have realized it but thanks to a series of arbitrary events and lucky breaks Vrba had acquired an unusually comprehensive expertise in the workings of Auschwitz. Freedland writes that “he had lived or worked in the main camp, at Birkenau and at Bu8na; Auschwitz I, II, III. He had worked in the gravel pits, the DAW factory, and in Kanada. He had been an intimate witness of the selection process that preceded the organized murder of thousands….He knew the precise layout of the camp and believed he had a good idea as to how many had entered Auschwitz by train, and how many left via chimney. And he had committed it all to memory.”

Freeland describes Vrba’s experiences with a keen eye and his ability to process what he experienced as preparation for his escape to warn his fellow Jews. Freeland relies on the work of two prominent Holocaust historians, David Cesarini and Nikolaus Wachsmann in his retelling of the Final Solution and integrating those events into Vrba’s story. Freeland’s chapter entitled, “Kanada,” provides insights into Vrba’s methodology as he was assigned to an area where he would separate and quantify the possessions of prisoners upon their arrival at the camp. Later, he would be assigned to greet and assist in separating arrivals as they exited the cattle cars. Freeland’s detail is remarkable as even toothpaste tubes were used to hide diamonds. These experiences helped him master the numbers that Nazi extermination produced.

Freeland’s overriding theme rests on Vrba’s obsessive drive to escape. No matter where he found himself or what condition he was in he was always thinking and plotting. Once Freeland turns to April 1944 and Vrba’s tortuous journey out of the camp we see a young man wise beyond his years realize his dream of warning Jews that deportation to Auschwitz meant death. He had watched the SS decide who was to live and die with a flick of the finger, now after witnessing so much he decided he could sound the warning that obviated the process.

Freeland describes how observant Vrba was and focuses on the idea that no one could be trusted, even the few he felt comfortable with. He partnered with Fred Wetzler, another Slovakian Jew and two others in planning and carrying out their departure and what emerges is an amazing story that provides many insights into the resistance to the Holocaust and how difficult it became to educate Jews as to what their fate would become.

Interestingly, Vrba took a course in “escapology” from Dimitri Volkov, a Russian POW who had escaped from Sachsenhausen, another Nazi concentration camp. The key was to carry no money or food and live off the land. Further, a watch was needed, as was a knife which could be used for suicide because capture meant torture and death. Salt and matches were also needed and most importantly, trust no one.

As Vrba’s journey evolved he develops a deep resentment towards the Jewish Councils that had cooperated with the Nazis and facilitated their methodology in deporting Jews to the death camps. Freeland notes that Vrba would carry these feelings for the rest of his life particularly involving the actions of Rezso Kasztner, the controversial head of the Budapest Jewish Council who blocked the dissemination of Vrba and Wetzler’s report of what transpired in Auschwitz.

Once the escape proved successful Vrba’s mission was to prepare a report that would support newspaper and eyewitness accounts of what transpired in the death camps. This discussion is one of the most important aspects of the book as the report is retyped, translated, and printed and eventually reaches the desks of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and a series of high Vatican officials. Freeland analyzes this process as to why little or nothing was done, concluding that politics, anti-Semitism, and years of denigrating Jews by church officials was responsible.

Freeland’s rendering of Vrba’s life continues after the war as he lived in Israel, London, and eventually settled in Vancouver. He became a successful research scientist, married twice, and had two daughters. Despite professional success following the war he was haunted by bouts of paranoia, anger, lack of trust, and an inability to gain true acceptancefor what he tried to achieve during the war. As the years passed on he never wavered in his belief that the Jews knew nothing of Auschwitz, despite evidence to the contrary. Despite this in the end his report was pivotal in saving 200,000 Budapest Jews from extermination as President Roosevelt warned the Hungarian government in late 1944 as to the consequences if more jews were slaughtered. But this only occurred after a frustrated Vrba and Wetzler decides to print and disseminate their report by themselves when others would not cooperate.

According to Blake Morrison in his The Guardian review of 8 June 2022, “Vrba had three core beliefs about Auschwitz: that the outside world didn’t know about the “final solution”; that once they did know, the allies would intervene; and that once Jews knew, they would refuse to board those fateful trains. Without in the least diminishing Vrba, Freedland disproves all three. Word of the Nazis’ “cold-blooded extermination” had got out at least 18 months before his escape. Allied policy was inhibited by inertia and antisemitism (“In my opinion a disproportionate amount of time of the Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews”, wrote someone in the Foreign Office in London). And whereas younger Jews believed Vrba, the majority were with philosopher Raymond Aron, who said: “I knew but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”

Freedland has written a remarkable account combining the history of the Holocaust with the life experiences of a young man, who will emerge emotionally damaged from the war suffering from PTSD. Despite Vrba’s flaws as a person his commitment to warn Hungary’s Jews stands as a tremendous accomplishment despite the negative opinions of a number of Holocaust historians toward his work. The book is well written, an absorbing read, and an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust.
Profile Image for theliterateleprechaun .
1,394 reviews28 followers
May 15, 2023
“Rudolf Vrba was an escape artist whose achievement ranks among the very greatest of the century. By escaping from Auschwitz, he did what no Jew had ever done before - and then he told the world what he had seen.“

Nineteen-year-old Slovakian teenager, Rudolf Vrba, not only survived Auschwitz, he also escaped from it! In fact, he and his friend, Fred, were the first Jewish escapees.

“Walter understood that the Nazis wanted him and every other prisoner to conclude that escape was futile, that any attempt was doomed. But Walter drew a very different lesson, one that to him was obvious. The danger, he concluded, came not from trying to escape, but from trying and failing. From that day on, he had been determined to try - and to succeed.”

I was glued to the pages reading of prisoner 44070’s escape on the Easter weekend of 1944.

“Vrba escaped from Auschwitz, from his past, even from his own name. He escaped from his home country, his adopted country, and from the country after that. He escaped and escaped and escaped - but he could never fully break free from the horror he had witnessed and which he had laid bare before the world.”

What’s important to note is that freedom was not just something Vrba wanted for himself, but for all who were imprisoned or yet to become imprisoned. Upon arriving ‘home,’ he and Fred composed a report, The Vrba-Wetzler Report, aimed at telling the world of the atrocities and at warning the Hungarian Jews of what was planned.

I think the most thought-provoking part of the book for me was noting that despite being confronted by facts, people still allowed themselves to become deceived. There’s one particular part of the account where prisoners are lining up for deportation and see the horrors, react to it, and then state that “it was their eyes, not their captors, that were telling lies.”

I was reminded of the French-Jewish philosopher Raymond Aron’s words: “I knew, but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”

I was surprised to find out that this hero lived in my hometown. His life may have been defined by what he endured as a teenager, but he went on to save thousands of lives and educate many. He was a distinguished medical researcher and professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. He is buried locally.

Profile Image for Lexi.
514 reviews232 followers
January 9, 2023
We learn about the Holocaust in various forms; school, books, etc. I found this book to be among the most interesting and intimate. The Escape Artist mixes dry facts and biography to sell the story of Rudolf (Walter) Vrba, a Slovak Jew who escaped the hands of the Nazis more than once, including as the first Jewish escapee of Auschwitz. His testimony saved the lives of thousands.

What possibly makes this more stomach-churning is Walter's knowledge. We see The Holocaust, not through the eyes of a typical victim, but through someone who could access multiple places within and around the camps and meticulously recalled every moment from within the camp. He is a really interesting, complex, and flawed person. Its really hard to simply review this book but I will say if you are looking at the events and antisemitism of today and need a reminder of why Jews are an oppressed minority, you need to read this book.
Profile Image for Tracey.
457 reviews29 followers
March 26, 2023
This is a well written, interesting and informative biography of Holocaust survivor, Rudolf Vrba. Mr. Freedland vividly describes the horrors, atrocities, and deprivation of the Holocaust, as well as Mr. Vrba's strength, determination, perseverance and hope. The acknowledgements, notes, and photographs were truly appreciated.
Profile Image for Monica Cabral.
170 reviews20 followers
February 21, 2023
"Se o plano nazi de destruir os judeus era sustentado na manutenção das suas vítimas pretendidas na ignorância do seu destino, então o primeiro passo para destruir essas ambições assassinas era desfazer essa ignorância,  informar os judeus da pena capital que os nazis lhes tinham promulgado.  Era a única maneira de parar a matança.  Alguém tinha que fugir e fazer soar o alarme,  alertando para o facto de Auschwitz significar morte, e ao ver os SS a decidir com um movimento do dedo quem vivia e quem morria, concluiu que essa pessoa seria ele."

Este livro é a história de Rudolf Vrba (nascido Walter Rosenberg) que aos 19 anos foi um dos poucos homens que conseguiram fugir com sucesso do Campo de Concentração de Auschwitz (só 4 homens o conseguiram) e escapou para alertar o mundo para o extermínio do povo judeu e para os horrores que lá se viviam e com a ajuda de várias pessoas conseguiu redigir o Relatório Auschwitz ou também conhecido por Relatório Vrba-Wetzler (companheiro de Rudi na fuga) que chegou às mãos de Churchill,  Franklin Roosevelt e do Papa Pio XII, tendo como resultado a salvação de 200.000 vidas.
Jonathan Freedland,  jornalista do Guardian, apresentador de um programa de História na BBC e também escritor de vários livros (sob o pseudónimo de Sam Bourne) , através de uma pesquisa exaustiva e pormenorizada consegue dar-nos a conhecer a vida deste homem que nunca se viu como um herói mas sim como um simples sobrevivente do que de pior o ser humano consegue fazer.
A tradição judaica diz que salvar uma vida é salvar todo o mundo e Rudolf conseguiu salvar 200.000 judeus da deportação e morte certa o que permitiu que este fantástico livro fosse escrito para sabermos mais um pouco dos horrores do Holocausto, para que não se repita, e para que  possamos ler livros de qualidade e não historinhas de autores que nem sabem onde Auschwitz-Birkenau fica no mapa.
Profile Image for Lucia Nieto Navarro .
812 reviews182 followers
March 28, 2023

Una novela de no ficción en la que Walter Rosenberg (más conocido como Rudolf Vrba, se cambio el nombre por razones obvias), se convierte en el primer prisionero judío que escapo de Auschwitz.
El autor, magníficamente documenado (como puede verse en la bibliografía, en las imágenes…) nos cuenta como el propósito de Vrba fue memorizar datos, todo lo que pudiera, personas que llegaban, las que morían, las prácticas y las rutinas del campo, y usó toda esa información para escapar, pero sobretodo para, una vez fuera crear un informe detallado y compartirlo con el mundo, el informe llamado “Vrbea-Wetzler”, impactante, impensable, ayudó a salvar a mas de 200.000 judíos húngaros.
Walter cuenta lo que se conoció como las Familienlager, que simplemente trataba de SS que trataban a familias con normalidad, una simple propaganda para engañar a los inspectores de la Cruz Roja o a cualquiera que se pusiera a investigar…
El autor escribe esta historia porque la vida de Vrba merece ser contada igual que otras celebridades que sobrevivieron al Holocausto, Vrba desarrollo una memoria alucinante para los detalles, para las descripciones.. y su único pensamiento siempre fue que el riesgo valía la pena si se lograba un cambio.
Aun así, Vrbo fue una persona algo arrogante, implacable y bastante despiadado con las criticas a otros supervivientes que se negaban a difundir lo que habían vivido. Dice el autor que si sobrevives a esto, desarrollas un caparazón al dolor y que te conviertes en una persona sarcástica porque nadie puede sentir la realidad de lo que has vivido.
Una historia que recomiendo para los amantes de estos temas porque aunque creas que sabes mucho sobre Auschwitz te darás cuenta de que siempre se puede saber mucho más.
Profile Image for Jaydan Salzke.
28 reviews1 follower
September 29, 2022
What continues to astound me is that, even as my library of books about WWII and Nazi Germany continues to grow, I find that there is still more to learn.

And though there is plenty to learn within the three-hundred odd pages of Freedland’s The Escape Artist, it’s contents contradict its subtitle. To me, it’s less of a story of the man who warned the world of Auschwitz and more the story of a truth squashed. It is in this perspective that the tale of Rudolf Vrba, previously Walter Rosenberg, stands out, though Freedland would try convince you it’s because of his knack for escape. If you can move past the overbearing attempts to mention the Escape Artist comparison in every single chapter; however, you’ll find interesting commentary on the role of doubt in enforcing conformity. Admittedly, both notions are tied in a bow in the final pages as Freedland includes the six words: ‘denial was the most natural escape.’

Read the rest of the review on my blog.
Profile Image for Matt.
Author 18 books1,052 followers
May 7, 2023
4.5. Great read.
Profile Image for Anne .
455 reviews376 followers
March 22, 2023
This book is a mix of biography, thriller, history, and commentary. I found it extremely compelling and fascinating though the author's over-dramatization pulled me out of the story sometimes. Towards the end there are some important observations about why during WWII almost no one in America, Britain or Europe responded to evidence of Germany's systematic murder of European Jews.

The title is a bit unfortunate. The book is definitely about one man's escape from Auschwitz but it's also very much about what happened afterwards, unlike many holocaust stories. Then the book is about this survivor's life post-Auschwitz, his crusade to discuss the truth about what was happening there and most of the world's inability to hear him.
Profile Image for Jen .
2,663 reviews27 followers
June 22, 2023
My thanks to libro.fm and HarperAudio for an ALC to listen to and review.

Someone I respect very highly on GR and who is MUCH better versed than me in WWII/Holocaust history hated this book and cited numerous historical inaccuracies in it of which I wasn't even aware.

So. I listened to this and the narrator is the author and he has a British accent, so I loved listening. That was positive. I also do feel that I learned quite a bit about human nature and how even when truth is practically being shoved in someone's face, denial is more than just a river in Egypt.

However, the historical inaccuracies of which I am not aware have made me even more desirous of going to Primary sources. I don't think it was mentioned that the Escape Artist of the title of this book wrote more than one book about his experiences, yet he seems to have done so. I will be hunting down his books and will read those. Hopefully it will shed some light for me on this topic.

3 stars, because the author did a good job narrating his book (that happens SO rarely it deserves a star all on its own), I did learn something from this book and I feel that it can inspire others to want to hunt down primary sources and other books on this topic. It is delivered in a very engaging, if not overly accurate, way.

The Holocaust is something we need to never forget and to learn from. To me, the big takeaway of the Holocaust is that the heroes were the average, everyday person who saw injustice and took steps to save lives. The rulers/head honchos? Worse than incompetent, you begin to wonder if they were being paid off by the bad guys. (similar to now, both scary and sad)

So, be that Candle in the darkness. Do what you can to light other Candles and fight the darkness with everything you have. Don't let the darkness win.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Donna.
440 reviews
February 2, 2023
If anyone needs reminding of the absolute evil that was the Nazi’s Final Solution, it can be found within the pages of this book. In 1944, Rudolf Vrba and a fellow prisoner, Fred Wetzler, became the first Jews to escape the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. That escape is the pivotal point of this book, but the bulk of it tells of Rudi’s life before and after that event.

Rudi, a Slovakian, was interned in Auschwitz when he was seventeen and remained for two years. During that time, he was able to see the full process of the camp: thousands of Jews disembarking daily from cattle car trains and capriciously selected for work or the gas chambers - a slow death or a rapid one. When he saw a large new rail system being built for the incoming Jews of Hungary, he determined to escape and warn them.

His and Fred’s accounts were combined into a document known as the Auschwitz Report and was disseminated to very mixed results. Many of those who might have slowed down the Nazi killing machine either did not believe what they were reading or chose for other reasons not to act. Although some lives were saved because of the document, Rudi always believed there could have been many more.

Rudi was a brilliant but complicated person. His paranoia, distrust, and outspoken disdain for those within and outside of the Jewish community whom he felt could have done more, prevented him from becoming as well known and revered as other Holocaust victims and survivors. This book, which tells his story and helps to remedy that oversight, is a harrowing, yet necessary and unforgettable read.

Profile Image for Joseph Jammal.
62 reviews2 followers
December 14, 2022
Well researched and viscerally impactful in its descriptions of Auschwitz. However the final third of the book on Rudy’s life after escaping feels like it goes to great pains to demonstrate the idea that Rudy was an escape artist. He was many things and this focal point feels unnecessary.

This book needed a better framing device to highlight the complexity and depth which the author clearly recognizes within Rudy.
Profile Image for Tracy.
18 reviews
July 3, 2022
This was such a good read from start to finish, written about two courageous men who escaped Auschwits to warn other Jews of there Fate, the story of one man’s Survival later on in his life, of how all that destruction affected him as a person by far the best book I have read so far about the Holocaust, would recommend this book to read to anyone interested in world war 2 history.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,135 reviews52 followers
May 6, 2023
This was truly a remarkable story that everyone should know. Rudolph's life journey is probably rich enough for a two part movie.

In all of my reading on WW2, this is the first book I've read that largely involved Slovakia. Yes the Nazi horrors happened here too but it is a different story from say the Warsaw ghetto or what happened in Prague.

Now at the moment I find myself researching history books and memoirs that involve Slovakia. That is the power of history that explores the edges of the war - they make one even more curious.

The one negative to the book is that I did not find the pacing to be great. There were parts of the book that should have been dramatized more and some parts emphasized less. Despite these editorial decisions I found the book to be quite readable.

4 to 4.5 stars for the story and research alone
Profile Image for Maureen Grigsby.
899 reviews
January 10, 2023
This was another excellent book about the Holocaust with a story that is largely unknown. Two brash young men escaped from Auschwitz to tell the world what was happening there. The escape itself was harrowing, but they eventually got to a safe house. Was there an immediate exposé? No, although the information did make it’s way to the highest people in governments all over the world, and to Jewish leaders of the remaining Jews in Europe, very little was done. I think it is important to read these books and remind ourselves how bad it can get!
Profile Image for Jose.
78 reviews8 followers
March 10, 2023
Tremenda historia, narrada de una forma increíble. Durante todo el libro no paras de sentir impotencia, impotencia de lo que ocurrió allí dentro y luego conforme avanza el libro más impotencia al ver como se quedaron de brazos cruzados sin hacer nada hasta que no pasó bastante tiempo.
Profile Image for Robert Sheard.
Author 5 books302 followers
August 5, 2023
Absolutely riveting. It's hard to be "excited" about such a harrowing topic, but this book is brilliant. The other BookTube finalists have a high bar to shoot for.
478 reviews151 followers
February 19, 2023
An absolutely extraordinary and disturbing book. As a teen Walter Rosenberg, a Slovakian Jew, was detained by the Nazis and sent to a series of concentration camps. In time he ended up at Auschwitz, from which he miraculously escaped. The book recounts Walter’s story. The details of his escape from Auschwitz (which had never been successfully done by a Jew before, though others had tried… and failed) is as riveting as any novel: heavily armed guards on the ground and in towers, vicious dogs and equally vicious men, pre-dawn roll calls where prisoners had to stand for hours and in all weather to be counted by SS guards, electrified wire fences and then another fence beyond that, the utterly pointless cruelty... there are, ultimately, no words equal to the challenge of describing the depravity and inhumanity of the Nazi camps?

“The Escape Artist” recounts details about “life” in the camps, and yes, it is as shattering to read as you’d expect. Rosenberg was an extremely intelligent young man with prodigious analytic skills and an incredible memory. These traits, along with the endurance and strength of his young age, helped him make it through the endless days against all odds. Rosenberg was gifted, true, but he was also lucky. Had any given day had things been even a little different from what he experienced, he would have been shot or hung or sent to the gas chambers.

Freedland recounts how Walter and another prisoner managed to get out through the electrified fences, past the guards and dogs, and then make their way through unfamiliar and generally hostile territory, traveling at night, foraging for food, avoiding all human contact lest they be betrayed or simply killed. For Walter’s Rosenberg, the basic human drive to survive was a powerful motivation, of course. But almost equally motivating him was the pressing need he felt to tell the world about the death camps, to alert European Jews that they were being taken en masse to their deaths. This part of the story is, in its way, almost as striking as what happened in the camps. Freedland shows how complicated the human psyche is -- what leads people to act as they do, to believe (or disbelieve) somethings and not others.

I had to return the book to the library so I can't share any excerpts, which is a shame. I will simply say that the book engages and shocks again and again: The behavior we see in the early years of the Nazi occupation, then in the camps, what people did to survive, how the world reacted (or more accurately, didn't react) while millions of innocents were being slaughtered, how there are some things that the mind refuses to credit, the complicated nature of Israel's response to the Holocaust.

I'll close with this: The book is every bit as good and moving and upsetting and, yes, even occasionally uplifting, as other reviewers have said. "The Escape Artist" is one of those books that you'll be reluctant to put down. It's also one that will stay with you for a long time.

(For a more thoughtful and expansive GR review of "The Escape Artist" I direct you to the one written by Betsy Robinson.)
Profile Image for Joseph Stieb.
Author 1 book149 followers
January 2, 2023
Wow. This is a tremendous, harrowing, and well-composed book that absolutely gripped me. I've probably read 25 books on the HOlocaust btw history, fiction, and memoir, but this felt new and fascinating. It's the story of Rudi Vrba (previously Walter Rosenberg) a tough and resourceful Jewish man from Czechoslovakia who escaped from Auschwitz (by an ingenious manner I won't relay here). Vrba's experience shows all kinds of fascinating and horrifying stuff about camp life, including the life and death nature of different work details and the hierarchy among camp prisoners. Vrba started off with back-breaking labor building the Buna industrial plant and digging in the gravel pit, which was essentially a death sentence. However, he got lucky and was transferred to "Kanada," the part of the camp where prisoners sorted through the personal belongings of the recently murdered. This gave him access to all kinds of goods as well as more freedom within the camp; he could even gain some leverage with capos and guards by helping them personally gain from the stolen goods. He also for a time served as one of the prisoners who escorted new arrivals off the trains and toward the trucks that would take them to the gas chambers, taking their stuff for "cataloguing" before they were killed.

Through luck and guile, Rudi lived for about 2 years in Auschwitz and was one of 2 survivors from his original shipment of deportees (about 600). From these vantage points, he gained a unique perspective on the machinery of genocide, and he formed a theory of how the Nazi extermination system really worked. He noticed that new arrivals seemed desperate to believe that the worst was over, that they would now be put to work but treated reasonably well, but that they had no inkling of the horrific fate that would meet 90+ percent of them immediately upon arrival. He kept mental tallies of the size of these shipments and witnessed many mass graves. In other words, the Nazi system of genocide appeared to run on secrecy and the deference/ignorance of its victims. Mirror-imaging his irascible self onto the world, Vrba concluded that if indisputable news of the death factory at Auschwitz could get out to the world and the Jewish population, its putative victims would resist in ways large and small. The jewish councils of places like Hungary would protest, religious authorities might object, the Allies might threaten the Nazis or bomb the railroads or death camps, and, most importantly, the Jewish people themselves would gum up the machinery of genocide at every level.

This was, at least, the theory that motivated his escape (well, that and survival). Along with a partner, Vrba managed to bring detailed, consistent, and damning information about Auschwitz to the Czech Jewish Council, and from there the "Auschwitz Report" reached the Allied leadership as well as resistance movements and Jewish councils all over Europe. It was probably the clearest testimony about the ongoing genocide to reach the outside world. However, it is less clear that it made that much of a difference. The most plausible difference it made was that Admiral Horthy, the dictator of Hungary, was outraged by the mass murders and decided to stop cooperation with the deportation of the Jews of Hungary (he also feared the threat of post-war prosecution by the Allies). While most of these people were deported and killed after Horthy was toppled by the fascist Arrow Cross, Horthy's action gave some of them a chance to hide or escape. The Allies issued stern threats to the Nazis, promising postwar prosecutions, but a mix of stunned disbelief, anti-Semitism, and the feeling that the best way to stop the genocide was to win the war prevented the Allies from doing much to stop the final phase of the HOlocaust. Some of the Jewish councils actually suppressed this information for fear that it would mess up their deals with the SS to save some Jews while letting others be deported (this became a major source of controversy in Israel after the war). Still, it is plausible to say that thousands of lives were saved by Vrba's actions.

However, was Vrba right that information would have induced mass resistance among the Jews of Europe? Freedland, and many historians, seem to think no. After all, knowledge that Auschwitz and other camps were a virtual death sentence was available to many Jews and others, albeit in vague forms. The Czech Jews of the so-called family camps in Auschwitz knew they would be murdered at a certain date but did not organize any resistance (this shook Vrba's thinking as well). There was significant Jewish resistance in places like Warsaw, but the fact that the Nazis so systematically removed the Jews from normal society, legal protection, resources, and an adequate standard of health undercut much of the potential. An even bigger factor was just the basic human tendency to deny one's death, to search for a reason to believe things will be ok, that you will be exempted somehow, that the worst of the rumors just can't be true. Freedland relays one story of a man who was re-deported to Auschwitz who tried to warn everyone on the train what would happen to them when they got there. INstead of listening, the passengers berated and beat the man to a pulp. The Nazi killing machine may have relied less on pure secrecy that this tendency in human nature.

I also found Vrba to be a compelling character in and of himself. Breaking with the mold of the traumatized survivor, Vrba lived a bold and adventurous life after the war, living in several countries and even escaping (again!) from Communist Czechoslovakia to the West. He cut a dashing but controversial figure who blasted the Jewish leadership of Europe for their inaction, or even their partial complicity, during the war. He was featured in documentaries and testified in war crimes trials. While he was a complicated and flawed man in many ways, he was without question a hero. So anyway, this is one of the best books I have read in a while and a great read even for those who already know a good deal about the Holocaust.
Profile Image for Michaela Buccola.
180 reviews4 followers
March 10, 2023
Wow. I am never desensitized from the atrocities of the Holocaust despite how much of this history I have read over the years - both non fiction and historical fiction. And this one has shocked me more than most because I am blown away these four inmates names (the only four to ever break out of Auschwitz) weren’t as well known as the likes of Anne Frank, Eli Wiesel, and others that have left their mark on our hearts. This story is remarkable and utterly heartbreaking that people still could not believe what they were hearing from these first hand accounts of what will happen if they board those trains. I find this so timely as we once again struggle with anti-semitism and such hatred in the world. None of these people thought the Nazi’s could possible be killing people that they deemed inferior in their minds…yet they got away with exactly that and on an insanely devastating scale. And I pray we never see these same horrors repeat themselves. We can not choose to ignore what is not impacting us directly. This will haunt me for some time. I listened to this, which I though was a good way to digest this story, and small doses is also necessary.
Profile Image for Gerbrand.
325 reviews12 followers
March 9, 2023
Dit boek niet beoordelen op de titel...

In de jaren zestig was er al het autobiografische I cannot forgive van Rudolf Vrba (Nederlandse vertaling: Ik ontsnapte uit Auschwitz). Dat unieke verhaal werd destijds opgetekend door de Engelse journalist Alan Bestic. Ik kwam daar pas achter toen ik dit boek las. Maar ik zie hier op GR dat lezers die dat boek hebben gelezen hier toch ook enthousiast over zijn. Ik ga het zeker nog eens inkijken in de bieb.

Jonathan Freedland beschrijft de weg naar, het verblijf in (van midden ’42 tot begin ’44) en de ontsnapping uit Auschwitz-Birkenau van de 19-jarige Slowaakse Jood Walter Rosenberg (samen met Fred Wetzler). Dit beslaat 2/3 van het boek. Het geeft een erg goed overzicht van deze industriële massamoord. Toen hij terug was in Slowakije werd er een andere naam voor hem geregeld met bijbehorende papieren. Walter heeft die naam, Rudi Vrba, ook na de oorlog behouden. Zijn oude naam was hem te Duits.

Het laatste deel van het boek is gewijd aan het rapport dat na zijn ontsnapping is gemaakt en zijn leven na de oorlog. De bedoeling van Vrba en Wetzler was om te voorkomen dat honderdduizenden Joden uit Hongarije op transport zouden worden gezet in 1944. Dat is maar zeer ten dele gelukt. Na lezing van dit boek is wel duidelijk dat niet alleen het Vrba-Wetzler rapport maar ook andere berichten gewoon niet of maar ten dele werden geloofd:

“[…} in totaal bereikten zo’n vijfendertig van deze verslagen het Westen voor de getuigenissen van Fred (Wetlzer) en Rudi (Vrba) bekend werden. Sommige van deze waarnemingen haalden ook daadwerkelijk de krant. En toch verbonden functionarissen en anderen geen acties aan de kennis die ze over Auschwitz hadden. Hun beweegredenen waren vaak dezelfde als die door Gilbert* genoemd: de focus op andere oorlogsdoelen, een vaak door antisemitische vooroordelen ingegeven ongeduld met de Joden en ook scepsis over de mogelijkheid dat zulke verschrikkingen inderdaad plaatsvonden.”

*Martin Gilbert. Hij publiceerde in 1981 het boek Auschwitz and the Allies.
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