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

By – November 14, 2022

What is the role of truth in today’s soci­ety? What part does denial play in our com­pre­hen­sion of the world around us? How is our frag­ile mem­o­ry to be under­stood and preserved?

Jonathan Freedland’s superb writ­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly explores these ques­tions and fills the read­er with rage, despair, and admi­ra­tion for the stub­born resis­tance of the human spir­it. It is heart-wrench­ing to read the sto­ry of Rudolf Vrba, who is a mere nine­teen years of age, and his fel­low con­cen­tra­tion camp inmate Fred Wet­zler, who is twen­ty-six. It is the spring of 1944, and the two young men are endur­ing a har­row­ing incar­cer­a­tion in Auschwitz when the extra­or­di­nary hap­pens. Meld­ing their minds and spir­its, they hatch an out­ra­geous plan: They will be the first Jews ever to escape from this most high­ly guard­ed prison. Once the world knows, they are cer­tain that steps will be tak­en to save the Jews in Europe.

Rich in detail, Freed­land gen­er­ates sus­pense as ear­ly as the first para­graph. He begins with the two young men crouched in escape mode, prepar­ing to leap, then flash­es back to the prepa­ra­tion that made it pos­si­ble. Dri­ven by their mis­sion to reveal the truth of the Final Solu­tion, they main­tain an iron will that far sur­pass­es even their own expectations.

Our cheers at their suc­cess can­not be over­stat­ed. We will watch as they trek across marsh­lands, climb moun­tains, ford rivers, and face Nazi bul­lets — with the ulti­mate result that they will reach Churchill and Roo­sevelt and save close to 200,000 Jew­ish lives.

In addi­tion to host­ing a con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry series for BBC Radio, Jonathan Freed­land con­tributes a beloved week­ly col­umn to the Guardian and presents a pop­u­lar week­ly pod­cast on Israeli tele­vi­sion news. He is both an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and a best­selling nov­el­ist, which allows him to blend style and sub­stance into acces­si­ble, breath­tak­ing prose.

Holo­caust his­to­ry has long hon­ored its heroes. Now, with this new sto­ry of a com­plex, for­mer­ly hid­den hero, Rudolf Vrba can take his well-deserved place in pub­lic memory.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions


In The Escape Artist, British jour­nal­ist Jonathan Freed­land shares the incred­i­ble, lit­tle-known sto­ry of Rudolph Vrba, born Wal­ter Rosen­berg, who was the first per­son (and one of only four in total) to escape from Auschwitz. In April 1944, the Czech teenag­er, with fel­low pris­on­er Alfred Wet­zler, did the impos­si­ble and secret­ly maneu­vered out of the hell­ish camp and into the treach­er­ous coun­try­side. In the days that fol­lowed, they pro­vid­ed a first-hand account of the Nazi killing machine, includ­ing detailed draw­ings and descrip­tions of the gas cham­bers, chem­i­cals, and cre­ma­to­ria. The report formed the Auschwitz Pro­to­cols, which Vrba hoped would sound an alarm world­wide and spur those with pow­er to halt the depor­ta­tions of Jews. He was often met with road­blocks, reveal­ing the per­va­sive­ness of anti­semitism across the globe.

If this premise were pitched in Hol­ly­wood, it would almost cer­tain­ly get the green light. Stranger, and more haunt­ing, than fic­tion, Vrba’s life is ele­vat­ed to the heights of nar­ra­tive sto­ry­telling by Freed­land, who is (not sur­pris­ing­ly) also an accom­plished sus­pense nov­el­ist. Through clear, digestible prose, the read­er feels the inten­si­ty, anx­i­ety, and brav­ery Vrba har­nessed to reach the oth­er side of the barbed wire and then rebuild his life in a bro­ken world.


This riv­et­ing true sto­ry of Rudolf Vrba’s escape from Auschwitz is hard to put down. Vrba, born Wal­ter Rosen­berg, was sev­en­teen when he arrived in Auschwitz. He soon real­ized it was a fac­to­ry for mur­der and became deter­mined to escape to tell the world.”

Jonathan Freed­land’s bril­liant writ­ing keeps us on edge as Vrba and his com­pan­ion, Alfred Wet­zler, plot their escape. They first cre­at­ed a hide­out to evade the hun­dreds of SS men and their dogs who were look­ing for them and then crawled under elec­tri­fied fences to become the first Jews to escape from Auschwitz.

But their dar­ing escape was only the first part of their auda­cious plan. Blessed with a pho­to­graph­ic mem­o­ry, Vrba was deter­mined to cre­ate the defin­i­tive report on the struc­ture and process of the killings at Auschwitz. He not only want­ed to warn the Jews of Europe, he also want­ed to reach Roo­sevelt and Churchill, who, he assumed, would act to save Jew­ish lives.

Freed­land keeps us in sus­pense with a grip­ping account of Vrba and Wetzler’s trek over moun­tains and rivers. Con­stant­ly fear­ful, they sur­vived sev­er­al har­row­ing close calls to reach the Jew­ish lead­er­ship in Slo­va­kia, their home coun­try. At first, those lead­ers were skep­ti­cal. But Vrba’s detailed draw­ings of the camp and the sta­tis­ti­cal data he mem­o­rized con­vinced them that Auschwitz was a death camp and they com­piled a fact-filled report, The Auschwitz Pro­to­cols, that was smug­gled out of Slo­va­kia and even­tu­al­ly reached the high­est ech­e­lons of the Allies.

But Vrba’s hope that the report would encour­age resis­tance was not real­ized, and he became embit­tered by the allied gov­ern­ments’ fail­ure to pre­vent the depor­ta­tion of about 600,000 Hun­gar­i­an Jews. But many his­to­ri­ans now believe that the Auschwitz Pro­to­cols were instru­men­tal in sav­ing the last 200,000 Jews in Budapest, the cap­i­tal of Hun­gary and that Vrba deserves to be rec­og­nized and hon­ored as the per­son who saved them. Jonathan Freedland’s com­pelling book is the ide­al vehi­cle for ensur­ing that recognition.