John L. Rosove

2 Recommendations this Summer – a Netflix Series and a Book

The first time I encountered the Holocaust as a child I was 5 years-old. In my father’s home study I found a Life Magazine with photographs of what the allied armies discovered when they entered the death camps and liberated what remained of abused and emaciated survivors. Over the years I read multiple histories, novels and theologies focused on the Shoah. I saw many films and documentaries about WWII, Nazi antisemitism, and how an entire nation and continent succumbed to its inhumane policies towards Jews.

As a congregational rabbi, I taught about the Holocaust to high school students and I debated with my fellow educators how best to teach the Shoah to young students without traumatizing them as I was traumatized as a 5 year-old so long ago. In recent days, I encountered the Shoah anew in watching a powerful documentary series meant to introduce the criminality and evil of the Nazis to a new generation of teens and young adults; and I read an account (publ. 2022), both of which I recommend for viewing and reading this summer.

The first is the 6-part Netflix documentary called Hitler and the Nazis: Evil on Trial. The series is framed by the 1945-1946 Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. It uses Nazi film footage, original audio recordings and massive amounts of forensic evidence to chart the progression of Adolph Hitler from his childhood to power and the Nazi extermination of European Jewry and the devastation of Europe during WWII.

I believe that it is important especially for young people from high school age to young adults to watch this Netflix series. The 6-episodes is a tutorial about how a democratic society can devolve into autocracy. The series describes sweepingly how the Nazis systematically subjugated the German masses, destroyed enlightened European culture through propaganda, marketing, lies, violence, cruelty, bigotry, injustice, theft, deportation, and murder. It presents how the Nazis responded to high inflation and unemployment in the Germany of the 1920s and how the Nazi circle of evil created a movement that addressed the German people’s baked-in fears and resentments. It made clear how the Nazis took historic religious anti-Jew hatred and cast it as pseudo-scientific racial antisemitism, and then blamed Jews, communists, socialists, liberals and foreigners for their own real and imagined misfortune, and brutally dehumanized non-ethnic Germans and characterized them all as vermin. It discussed how extreme right-wing nationalism and the belief in German-Aryan racial supremacy and superiority were used to attack the dignity of anyone not included within the Nazis’ exalted Aryan self-image. It described step-by-step how the Nazi Party destroyed individual freedoms of speech, religion, press, the criminal justice system, and democratically elected political parties. Through propaganda and deliberate myth-making the series conveyed well how the Nazis created a heroic cult of personality around Hitler, and emphasized his super-human characteristics of will, power, self-righteousness, and hard-heartedness thereby infusing and permeating every aspect of German Aryan society with Hitler’s exalted omniscience and omnipotence.

My second recommendation is the book “The Escape Artist – The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World” written by the British journalist Jonathan Reedland. The volume tells the true story of the escape by two young Jews, Rudolf Vrba (née Walter Rosenberg) and Fred Wetzler – both originally from Slovakia – who in April 1944 became the first Jews to successfully escape from the most heinous of the death camps. The book cover describes their intent and journey:

“In April 1944, Rudolf Vrba became one of the very first Jews to escape from Auschwitz and make his way to freedom – among only a tiny handful 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. Against all odds, Vrba 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 eventually reached Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and the Pope. And yet too few heeded the warning that Vrba had risked everything to deliver. Though Vrba helped save two hundred thousand Jewish lives, 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, understood that the difference between truth and lies can be the difference between life and death. Rudolf Vrba 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.”  

I have read many Holocaust histories, but nothing compares to “The Escape Artist.” I appreciate that many of us prefer not to spend our time immersed in the darkest and most depraved stories ever recorded in human history. But, I recommend reading this book anyway. The reader finds him/herself with Walter (he took another name Rudolf Vrda) in Auschwitz, seeing, hearing, watching, fearing, feeling, doing, and succumbing to everything every Jew was subjugated to. Rudolf (aka Rudi) was only 17 years-old when he arrived in Auschwitz, yet his superior linguistic ability, keen intelligence, iron-clad memory, swift survival instincts, blind courage, clear sense of purpose, and sheer luck enabled him to do what virtually no other inmates were able to do – survive and escape from Auschwitz and then give a detailed account of everything that happened in that death camp in granular detail between June 1942 when he first arrived and April 1944 when he escaped. In his and Fred Wetzler’s “Auschwitz Report,” they told of how many trains and trucks brought Jews from diverse countries daily into the camp, how many Jews were selected to live a few days longer and how many (usually women, children, the elderly and infirm) went directly – without realizing where they were going – to be gassed and burned. Rudi detailed the cruelty of the SS and the Kapos (the Jewish henchman appointed to do the Nazis’ dirty-work), their indiscriminate beatings, torture, shootings, starvation, and cruelty.

Once Rudi and Fred successfully told the story of Auschwitz when they arrived back in Slovakia, it was written in the form of a legal brief, translated into German, Hungarian, and English, and sent to Roosevelt, Churchill, the Pope, and the Jewish leadership of Hungary, but nothing was done to alert Hungarian Jewry about where they were being sent so they could resist boarding the trains. Nor was there a decision taken immediately by the allied powers to bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau or to destroy the death camp itself, though it could have been done easily.

The remaining Jews in the Hungarian countryside in 1944, the last country to be emptied of its Jews by the Nazis, numbered 437,402 souls. They were all shipped at the rate of 12,000 per day, crammed into 147 trains (about 3000 Jews per train) over the course of 5 to 6 weeks, and almost all of them were gassed and burned on arrival in Auschwitz. 200,000 Jews in Budapest were next on the Nazi’s hit list and were, in effect, the last Jewish group to be exterminated in Europe. For a variety of reasons explained in the book, the Jews of Budapest were sparred, mostly as a consequence of Rudi’s and Fred’s “Auschwitz Report.”

The book concludes by telling of Rudi’s post-Holocaust life during which time he earned a doctorate in bio-chemistry, married, had two daughters, divorced, remarried, and lived in Soviet-controlled Prague, London, Vancouver, and Boston.

We can read histories of the Holocaust and after a while come to the conclusion that we’ve engaged enough with those horrid events. Over the years, after I read the classic books, saw the many films and documentaries, many times visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and Holocaust Memorial Museums in the states, I thought that, for me, there was nothing more I needed to read or see because the tragedy is just too overwhelmingly soul-crushing and heart-breaking.

The Jewish Book Council in America recently recommended as an award winner The Escape Artist. I took the recommendation and read the book. I have asked myself about the timing of the book’s publication 2 years-ago and the appearance of the Netflix series on Hitler and the Nazis last month. Perhaps they were issued now because Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is the most serious assault on any country in Europe since WWII, and the cruelty of Hamas’s massacre and hostage-taking against Israeli civilians is the worst pogrom against the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

Whatever the cause that produced the Netflix series and book, it has become clear to me over the years, and most especially this past year since October 7, that far too many Americans are historically illiterate and that they lack a moral compass when evaluating the significance of history and contemporary events and trends. Naively taking the high road and thinking that current events aren’t that bad, or don’t concern us, or recognizing that their pure and self-righteous ethics in the face of evil is actually self-defeating, or choosing the path of isolationism and dis-engagement such as what the “America First Movement” did in the 1930s in alliance with the Nazis and many in the MAGA Party are doing today in alliance with Putin’s Russia and Orbán’s Hungary, so many Americans don’t appreciate enough that there are brutal actors in the world that think nothing of slitting the throats of their perceived enemies. The only response of the civilized world to such brutality has to be to fight those evil actors while maintaining a humanitarian and ethical vision for a better democratic future. I recall often to myself, in order to maintain my moral compass, Edmund Burke’s warning: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Perhaps, this film and this book can be helpful in addressing those historic and moral deficiencies in what every decent human being ought to know, understand and appreciate about the significance of the Holocaust not only in its own tortured era, but for today’s politics, events and trends in America, the Middle East, Europe and around the world.


About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and a past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of 3 books - "From the West to the East - A Memoir of a Liberal American Rabbi" (2024), "Why Israel Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to the Next Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Revised edition 2023), and “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (2017). All are available at John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren and he lives in Los Angeles.