The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World
“Freedland enthusiastically makes his informal retelling of this story of a daring escape from a horror on an unimaginable scale a particular tale of high adventure.”
Jonathan Freedland in The Escape Artist tells the known story of Walter Rosenberg/Rudolf Vrba, one of only four Jews to escape the infamous Nazi death camp Auschwitz. He uses a very personal, even intimate view. Freedland enthusiastically makes his informal retelling of this story of a daring escape from a horror on an unimaginable scale a particular tale of high adventure.
The history of any prison is only partially about incarcerating the inmates, the rest consists of the very different story of the pursuit and recapture of the escaped. Prisoners of Auschwitz, from their many failures, learned and shared their experiences but also benefitted from how “the Nazis had a security protocol from which they never deviated.”
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1924, Walter Rosenberg was a rebel from his childhood. An only child raised by his mother, he typically resisted authority including even his Jewish heritage. A student at an elite high school “the other boys did as they were told.” “But not Walter.” Such people are said to spend a life escaping, and so he unknowingly prepared for his exit from Auschwitz.
The Rosenbergs, mother and son, lived in the Nazi partition of Czechoslovakia and in the essentially Nazi new nation of Slovakia as part of the persecuted tiny Jewish population. Captured and imprisoned as a Jew for trying to escape to England, he ultimately proved clever, resourceful, and a survivor.
Walter Rosenberg’s luck held, and he only received severe beatings before his transfer first to the filthy concentration camp Majdanek and then to Auschwitz, along the way beaten and starved as just one Jew among millions of doomed Jews. They became “the living dead, walking skeletons with bowed heads and sunken, hollow eyes.” Escape could result in immediate execution.
Surviving meant that an inmate had to “take what was not officially yours, either by stealing it yourself or trading with someone who had.” Rosenberg survived by his experience in science in identifying “patterns,” even those that he did not yet understand. He had to live from day to day, starved and beaten. “It filled him with a new determination, urgent and fervent, to break out” but “escape was lunacy, escape was death.”
Freedland describes in detail the experiences that Rosenberg would have had and combines them with what his subject learned in order to survive. The reader sees the horrors of this “factory of death” as Rosenberg does, “day after day,” and that makes for engrossing reading. Acceptance of his new situation proved slow as Auschwitz “because it was too enormous, too at odds with everything Walter had learned, and wanted to believe, about science and progress and civilization.”
Auschwitz “was not built to be a byword for murder and death.” It began as a derelict Polish barracks that the Germans initially converted into a camp for the incarceration of Polish political prisoners. Rudolf Höss, the commandant, steadily converted it into a mortuary for camps that formed “an outer circle of hell” such as Rosenberg’s Majdanek.
Nazis SS Commander Heinrich Himmler greatly expanded this system by millions of incarcerated slave laborers but particularly Jews. Auschwitz grew proportionally not only as a mortuary but as a center for extermination. Instead of shooting prisoners on site, they could be worked to death or executed at convenient centers with “death by gas” and industrial scale murder. Auschwitz-Birkenau became infamous ”because it doubled as a death camp” with its furnaces disposing of the bodies.
When Rosenberg determined to escape, he began compiling a record of what he observed at Auschwitz, “the data of industrialized murder.” “His language was numbers and hard facts.” He had to examine these statistics to prove a level of murder that the world would not otherwise accept, numbers even many of the inmates at Auschwitz could not have believed. An impossible escape had become a mission to warn the world.
Well-educated, the hero of this story gathered information for his escape in a scientific manner and learned from the failures made by others trying to escape. The “masters of Auschwitz made the most of these failures.” Guards displayed the corpses of the men killed trying to escape. They would publicly execute the men captured.
Rosenberg learned the rules of escape from Russian expert Dimri Volkov. He determined that the one chance of escape came from hiding and, only after the guards and dogs had finished searching, to leave. He witnessed that plan as it was tried and it failed. The camp’s organized resistance refused to sanction the escape, citing Rosenberg’s inexperience, impatience, and volatility.
Boyhood friends Walter Rosenberg and his friend Alfred “Fred” Wetzler, the last survivors of a group of 600 Jews, finally made their escape and barely avoided discovery several times, in April 1944. They were saved by a couple they accidently encountered who fed them and helped them to safety in Slovakia where they first provided detailed information for a report on the “the mechanics of murder” at Auschwitz. They counted 1,715,000 people murdered during their time in the camps.
Walter changed his name to Rudolf Vrba. The Vrba-Wetzler report, in the weeks that followed, reached the newspapers and the governments of the world. American and British military leaders considered bombing the railroads connecting to Auschwitz to stop the trains going to the death camp. The decision to instead rescue the inmates of the concentration camps by ending the war as quickly as possible remains controversial.
The Escape Artist includes annotation and a bibliography.