By Jonathan Freedland
Reviewed by Ruth Franklin on October 18, 2022.
The Dangers of Willful Ignorance
Jonathan Freedland’s “The Escape Artist” tells the story of Auschwitz’s horrors — and the multitudes who refused to listen.
It’s one of the first things we learn about Auschwitz, and one of the hardest to forget: that the Nazis tricked their victims before gassing them. When transports of Jews arrived for extermination — some 1 million people between 1942 and 1944 — the SS reassured their victims with promises of food and a warm shower while marching them off to the gas chamber. The perverse theater of death included a military van marked with a red cross, in which an SS “medic” ferried canisters of Zyklon B.
The Nazis weren’t playing a cruel joke or even covering their tracks. There was a logic behind this program of deception. Walter Rosenberg, an 18-year-old Slovak Jew enlisted in the commando charged with unloading the trains, figured it out. The prisoners’ obedience kept the machinery of death running smoothly, which the SS required: because the transports arrived in such quick succession, but also because the victims far outnumbered the guards. “If the Jews knew what was coming,” Jonathan Freedland writes in “The Escape Artist,” his riveting chronicle of Rosenberg’s escape from Auschwitz and subsequent effort to rally the world to action, “what sand might they be able to throw in the gears of the machine that was poised to devour them?” Even a small amount of resistance could be enough.
It’s a brilliant insight — one that Rosenberg (later known as Rudolf Vrba, the false identity he took on after his escape) was ideally positioned to reach. Most prisoners at Auschwitz were restricted to certain areas: the barracks, work sites, the square where roll was called. Rosenberg, who arrived at the camp in early 1942 from Majdanek, where he had been sent after resisting an order for Slovak Jewish men to report for “resettlement in the east,” saw it all. He worked first in the SS food store and then in various hard-labor commandos:building a factory at the satellite camp Buna; shoveling gravel in quarries; even painting skis to equip German soldiers on the eastern front.
In a stroke of luck, Rosenberg was recruited to “Kanada,” the vast storehouse of possessions plundered from the transports. His job was to pull suitcases from a gigantic pile and sort the items inside, looking for valuables. The work here was less dangerous, and the prisoners better fed: They could steal food while the guards were busy beating others. And what they were witnessing, Rosenberg came to understand, was privileged information about the camp’s operation.
What had happened to the owners of all this stuff — pots and pans, family photographs, tins of sardines, children’s toys, even diamonds concealed in tubes of toothpaste? The assortment showed they had believed the Nazi resettlement lie: they had come prepared to make a new life. But there was no sign of elderly people or children in the barracks or among the commandos; they had vanished. It is hard to recognize something that has never before existed, but Rosenberg did. He “was not only a prisoner in a concentration camp, a Lager of slave labor, but an inmate of something altogether new: a factory of death,” Freedland writes. And it was crucially important to the Nazis that no one know the truth.
If word got out, Rosenberg reasoned, the Nazis could be stopped. Jews would refuse to report for transports; the Allies would intervene. And so he set himself to the project of escaping, eventually joining the camp resistance. The penalty for failure was certain death: The SS regularly forced prisoners to watch as would-be escapees were hanged. Using the analytical powers that had already served him well, Rosenberg came up with a plan. Over Easter weekend, 1944, he and a fellow resistant, Fred Wetzler, lay in a hollow beneath a woodpile near the perimeter for three days, throwing Nazi dogs off the scent with tobacco soaked in petrol. Then they crept through the fence and trekked the 75 miles south to Slovakia.
Freedland, a columnist for the Guardian and author of thrillers, reveals many of the details of the escape in the book’s prologue. The real suspense begins afterward: not just the journey home, during which the two men relied on the courage of the Polish villagers who sheltered them, but what happened after they arrived. Like a pair of Ancient Mariners, the escapees told their horrifying tale to any official who would listen, desperate to warn the Jews of Hungary, the only major Jewish community yet to be slaughtered, that their transports would be next. With the help of Jewish leaders in a town in northern Slovakia, they composed a report of 32 single-spaced pages, complete with maps of Auschwitz showing the layout of the crematories, and set about translating and distributing it.
Tragically, few of the report’s recipients shared the authors’ sense of urgency. In a particularly appalling scene, Vrba and another escaped prisoner visit a papal envoy who remains largely unmoved by their pleas — until they tell him that the Nazis are murdering Catholics as well as Jews. The monsignor cries out in horror and faints. When he comes to, he promises to report the news to the pope. But as the weeks go by, the transports continue to roll in.
The report made its way to Walter Garrett, a British journalist working in Zurich, who broke the news of mass extermination at Auschwitz on June 24, 1944. The news reached the pages of this paper on July 3. Garrett brought the report to Allen Dulles, then a senior U.S. intelligence official, who professed to be shocked by its contents. “We must intervene immediately,” he said.
But, according to Freedland, Dulles had already received the report from a British diplomat and passed it on to Rosewell McClelland, a local representative of the newly formed War Refugee Board, commenting, “Seems more in your line.” McClelland, for his part, took four months to send the report to Washington. The head of the Office of War Information declined to publish it on the grounds that it was not credible. Yank, an official publication of the U.S. Army, called the report “too Semitic” and asked for a “less Jewish account.”
“The Escape Artist” includes harrowing details about Auschwitz that still have the power to shock. But the reactions to Vrba’s testimony by those in power — ranging from lack of interest to outright antisemitism — are nearly as horrifying. Freedland allows that Vrba’s expectations were naïve, citing the Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, who argues that by early 1944, the Jews of Hungary already had enough information to piece together their fate. The problem, in Bauer’s view, wasn’t “inadequate publication of information so much as inadequate absorption of it”— they may have been aware of the facts, but didn’t truly understand their implications. That may well be true. Still, Vrba’s story teaches us to be aware of the human mind’s propensity to allow itself to be deceived, when confronted by facts that seem too horrible to believe.
In one particularly haunting episode, a group of deportees is lining up for selection when a truck piled with corpses crosses the railway tracks in front of them. A shudder runs through the crowd; people scream. Then the truck drives on, and the Jews on the platform compose themselves. “They concluded that it was their eyes, not their captors, that were telling lies,” Freedland writes. The next time an abyss yawns before us — whether it be in Kyiv or in Washington, D.C. — we owe it to them to stare into it.