The Escape Artist (Review)
On April 10, 1944, Walter Rosenberg along with his fellow prisoner Fred Wetzler were the first two Jews to escape Auschwitz; they did not want to be the last.
In THE ESCAPE ARTIST (Harper Collins 4/25/2023), British journalist Jonathan Freedland, in a meticulously researched book tells the remarkable story of Walter Rosenberg, a Holocaust survivor who later changed his name to Rudolf Vrba. According to Freedland, he “deserved to stand alongside Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler and Primo Levy, in the first rank of stories that define the Shoah.”
When just a teenager, Walter escaped first from his home country, then his adopted country, and finally Auschwitz-Birkenau. At age nineteen, he bore the number 44070 tattooed into his left arm, compliments of his Auschwitz hosts. He, like his Slovak compatriots, never dreamed the inhumane treatment that would follow the step-by-step exclusion of Jews from the daily life of their country. Slovakian President Jozef Tiso and his thuggish cohorts were determined to impoverish and isolate their Jewish citizens by banning them from government jobs, placing quotas on professional jobs, forbidding them from owning cars, radios and even sports equipment. The indignities and restrictions eventually led to forcing Jews to march to loading ramps where cattle cars, and trains, awaited them. Their final destination was a Konzentrationslager, a concentration camp. Walter and millions of others grew to learn that the German term was a euphemism for deathcamp.
Behind barbed wires and beneath glowering search lights, Walter conceived of a mission, one that would give him life sustaining hope. But in order to achieve his self-appointed mission, survival and escape were prerequisite. His goal was to break out of Auschwitz and inform the world of the daily occurrence of atrocities and mechanized murder at the deathcamps. He hoped that exposure of the ongoing slaughter of millions of innocents would trigger corrective measures from the world along with resistance from those targeted for extermination. But his disclosures barely caused a ripple of response; the reasons were varied.
For some, like Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the details of the crimes against the Jews were too horrifyingly unbelievable to take seriously. For others, like the bureaucrats in the US State Department, they merely sloughed off the heinous testimonies, callously characterizing them as just Jewish whining and exaggeration. Admittedly, it was a hard sell to convince people that Germany, the country of Bach, Goethe, and Mozart, home to the most cultured people of Europe, could engage in assembly-line industrialized murder of innocent men, women and children. It was beyond anyone’s reach of reason, and outside the realm of human imagination.
To conceal their murderous intentions and bury their crimes, the Nazis used the art of deception. They were cunning enough to convince their victims that ‘resettlement’ was the goal of the Third Reich and that the deportees’ future would afford them the opportunity to take on new lives in different climes. The ruse was employed in order to keep the victims duped into complacency by believing there was no plan to harm them, much less murder them. One of many subterfuges employed by the Nazis was to have a faux Red Cross ambulance follow the column of people marching to the trains and trucks, believing those vehicles would transport them to their new ‘homes.’ During the march, if someone happened to fall, falter or lag behind, the ambulance would come to their assistance, then once out of sight, the doctor riding shotgun, would murder them.
German industrial behemoths like IG Farben, Siemens, and Krupp, powered their factories with free slave labor, thus financially benefitting by knowingly participating in the Nazis’ monstrous schemes. Also, local populations of Poles, Slovaks and others were willing accomplices to the exploitation of Jewish labor and assets, and their ultimate extermination.
In time, documented first-hand evidence, in what is today known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report, reached the desks of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and the Pope. Their lack of action, upon learning about the plot to exterminate the Jewish people, was callous and calculated. Nevertheless, in time the report managed to leak out, thus crediting the authors of the Vrba-Wetzler Report with saving 200,000 Jewish lives.
After the Holocaust, Walter Rosenberg’s wounds healed but the scars remained with his reincarnated self, Rudolf Vrba. While visiting Poland in 1948, an incident occurred which reminded him how the Holocaust happened and why it could happen again. He told the story about the time a student guide was leading his tour group through the Warsaw ghetto and explained that “This was the ghetto where the Warsaw Jews were killed by the Germans during their uprising” He then very casually and comfortably added, “The only good thing Hitler did.”
Years later Rudolf Vrba, embarked upon a lecture tour educating students, and community leaders about the shameful inaction of governments, organizations and individuals who tolerated the Nazi’s theft of everything that belonged to Jews: their money, their property, the hair on their heads, the gold in their teeth, their progeny, their dignity, their very lives, as well as the lives of future generations. Although Rudi came from a religious home, he was not at all religious. Yet, despite the abyss from which he emerged, he never asked where God was during the Shoah. He reserved that question for his neighbors, fellow citizens, and the rest of the world.