Oświęcim, Auschwitz-Birke­nau

When I was nine­teen years old, I went to the Cur­zon cin­e­ma in May­fair in Lon­don to see the nine-hour epic doc­u­men­tary Shoah. It was not a nor­mal movie-going expe­ri­ence. Part­ly it was the length of the film; part­ly it was the audi­ence. In the room were sur­vivors of the Holo­caust. My friend made the mis­take of bring­ing pop­corn, but he did not get very far with it. He had bare­ly begun chomp­ing when a woman from a near­by row leaned over and slapped him, hard, on the thigh. In an accent thick with the sound and mem­o­ries of pre-war Europe, she said: Have you no respect?’

The film left a deep mark, but one of the inter­vie­wees stayed with me more than any oth­er. His name was Rudolf Vrba. In the film, he is shown tes­ti­fy­ing to the great­est hor­rors in human his­to­ry, hor­rors he had wit­nessed first hand, hor­rors he had sur­vived. Very briefly he men­tions some­thing extra­or­di­nary, a fact which made him all but unique among Holo­caust sur­vivors. Aged nine­teen, no old­er than I was as I watched the film, he had escaped from Auschwitz.

I nev­er for­got his name or his face, even though, over the decades, I would be struck how few oth­ers had ever heard of him. And then, some thir­ty years after that night in the cin­e­ma in 1986, I found myself return­ing to Rudolf Vrba. We were liv­ing in the age of post- truth and fake news, when the truth itself was under assault – and I thought once more of the man who had been ready to risk every- thing so that the world might know of a ter­ri­ble truth hid­den under a moun­tain of lies.

I nev­er for­got his name or his face, even though, over the decades, I would be struck how few oth­ers had ever heard of him.

I began to look into the life of Rudolf Vrba, find­ing the hand­ful of peo­ple still alive who had known him or worked with him or loved him. It turned out that his teenage sweet­heart and first wife, Ger­ta, was liv­ing alone, aged nine­ty-three, in Muswell Hill in north Lon­don. Over half a dozen sum­mer after­noons in the plague year of 2020, she and I sat in her gar­den and talked of a young man, then called Wal­ter Rosen­berg, and the world they had both known. She hand­ed me a red suit­case packed with Rudi’s let­ters, some telling of almost unbear­able per­son­al pain. A mat­ter of days after our last con­ver­sa­tion, once Ger­ta had told me the sto­ry in full, I got a phone call from her fam­i­ly, let­ting me know that she had passed away.

Rudi’s sec­ond wife and wid­ow, Robin, was in New York. She and I talked for hour after hour too, as she filled in the sto­ry of the man Rudolf Vrba became, the mem­o­ries he had entrust­ed to her, the love they had shared. What soon became clear as I lis­tened, and as I immersed myself in the offi­cial doc­u­ments, tes­ti­monies, mem­oirs, let­ters, con­tem­po­rary reports and his­tor­i­cal accounts on which this book is based, was that this was more than the true sto­ry of an unprece­dent­ed escape. It was also the sto­ry of how his­to­ry can change a life, even down the gen­er­a­tions; how the dif­fer­ence between truth and lies can be the dif­fer­ence between life and death; and how peo­ple can refuse to believe in the pos­si­bil­i­ty of their own immi­nent destruc­tion, even, per­haps espe­cial­ly, when that destruc­tion is cer­tain. Those notions were stark and vivid in the Europe of the 1940s. But they seemed to have a new, fear­ful res­o­nance in our own time.

I also came to realise that this is a sto­ry of how human beings can be pushed to the out­er lim­its, and yet still some­how endure; how those who have wit­nessed so much death can nev­er­the­less retain their capac­i­ty, their lust, for life; and how the actions of one indi­vid­ual, even a teenage boy, can bend the arc of his­to­ry, if not towards jus­tice then towards some­thing like hope.

I left the cin­e­ma that night con­vinced that the name of Rudolf Vrba deserved to stand along­side Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler and Pri­mo Levi, in the first rank of sto­ries that define the Shoah. That day may nev­er come. But maybe, through this book, Rudolf Vrba might per­form one last act of escape: per­haps he might escape our for­get­ful­ness, and be remembered.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST. Copy­right © 2022 by Jonathan Freed­land Reprint­ed here with per­mis­sion from Harp­er, an imprint of Harper­Collins Publishers

Jonathan Freed­land is a colum­nist for The Guardian in Lon­don. He presents BBC Radio 4’s con­tem­po­rary his­to­ry series, The Long View, as well as two pod­casts, Pol­i­tics Week­ly Amer­i­ca for The Guardian and Unholy, along­side the Israeli jour­nal­ist Yonit Levi. He is a past win­ner of an Orwell Prize for jour­nal­ism and has writ­ten 12 books includ­ing nine thrillers, most­ly as Sam Bourne. The Escape Artist is a 2023 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award Win­ner for Biog­ra­phy and Holocaust.