Steve Sheinkin is the author of numer­ous award-win­ning books for young read­ers. His lat­est book, Impos­si­ble Escape: A True Sto­ry of Sur­vival and Hero­ism in Nazi Europe, was a 2024 Syd­ney Tay­lor Sil­ver Medal win­ner in the Young Adult cat­e­go­ry. Emi­ly Schnei­der speaks with Sheinkin about how he came to Rudolf Vrba’s incred­i­ble sto­ry of escap­ing Auschwitz and the author’s imper­a­tive to bring the sto­ry to as many young read­ers as pos­si­ble. This inter­view is part of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Blog Award Tour. Find the full STBA blog tour sched­ule here.

Emi­ly Schnei­der: Giv­en the range of his­tor­i­cal sub­jects you’ve writ­ten about in your many books, why, at this point in your career, did you decide to tell the sto­ry of Rudolf Vrba’s escape from Auschwitz?

Steve Sheinkin: I nev­er thought specif­i­cal­ly about doing a Holo­caust book as one of my non-fic­tion books, but there was some­thing about this sto­ry that always intrigued me. As a Jew­ish kid in Hebrew school and learn­ing Jew­ish his­to­ry, or from my dad, I nev­er real­ly knew this sto­ry; it would’ve intrigued and inspired me.

Lat­er, when I start­ed to read more in-depth about that time, it was maybe men­tioned in a para­graph here and there. There was a teenag­er who escaped from Auschwitz. I thought, Wait a minute, how do you not stop every­thing and tell me all about that?” But big books on a sur­vey of the Holo­caust can’t do that. They don’t have room.

The last time I was going through my notes look­ing for ideas, that one real­ly jumped out at me. That was pre-pan­dem­ic, four or five years ago. I said, Yeah, I real­ly want to do that sto­ry.” I still did­n’t know more than that there was a young Jew­ish guy who escaped and made this first eye­wit­ness report. That was enough to start with. I said, Yes, that’s the sto­ry I want to tell next.”

ES: So it was­n’t that you approached this by decid­ing to write about the Holo­caust, but about a spe­cif­ic per­son­’s sto­ry and why that was mean­ing­ful to you. 

SS: That’s exact­ly right. 

ES: Near the begin­ning of the book, I was struck right away by the scene where Rudolf is try­ing to cross the bor­der from Czecho­slo­va­kia into Hun­gary. You write about Rudolf, This was the first law he would break that night.” There was an inver­sion of val­ues dur­ing that time, between the law and what was moral­ly right. You must have felt it was impor­tant to estab­lish how this Jew­ish teen has to go from being a rule fol­low­er to being a rule breaker. 

SS: Yes, estab­lish­ing the posi­tion that, in order to get to free­dom, he needs to break the law. Even remov­ing this despi­ca­ble patch (the star of David) from his jack­et is break­ing the law, but he’s will­ing, and that is a hint that he’s will­ing to go much fur­ther. And in fact, he will. I’m also inspired by thrillers and the way peo­ple put togeth­er sto­ries. Some­times in non-fic­tion, you just can’t find out enough to cre­ate those kinds of high ten­sion, high stakes scenes.

But in Rudi’s sto­ry, it’s all there. It has every­thing any sto­ry­teller would ever want. He’s leav­ing home. He’s going to do this. We don’t even know quite yet what he’s try­ing to do, but some­thing very dangerous. 

ES: You’ve men­tioned being a sto­ry­teller. I want­ed to ask about your lit­er­ary style, which is one of the most out­stand­ing rea­sons for the book’s impact. Some read­ers might see that as sec­ondary to accu­ra­cy in a book about this sub­ject. But your tone is impor­tant: dra­mat­ic, but nev­er exag­ger­at­ed. Did you con­scious­ly think about the type of lan­guage you would use?

SS: Def­i­nite­ly. I always think a lot about that. That comes entire­ly from my back­ground and what I try to do. I grew up with my broth­er Ari mak­ing movies. That was our dream, to be a broth­er film­mak­ing team, and we pur­sued that through our twen­ties. It was one chap­ter of my life. Then I got a job writ­ing his­to­ry text­books, which could­n’t be less cin­e­mat­ic: pure accu­ra­cy, every­thing backed up ten times; that’s the priority.

I real­ized even­tu­al­ly that I did­n’t enjoy text­book writ­ing because I could­n’t tell the sto­ries. There’s just not room. Those text­books are meant to be names, dates, facts, a ref­er­ence. I want­ed to get away from that. I still want­ed accu­ra­cy, but I want­ed to get back to the cin­e­mat­ic sto­ry­telling that made me want to be a writer. I’ve tried to com­bine those two things with Impos­si­ble Escape. I have tons of source notes in the back. I haven’t met a sin­gle kid yet who’s read them. They’re not very inter­est­ed, but librar­i­ans are. 

If you present his­to­ry as names and dates, you’re going to lose just about every­body. It’s not just the con­tent, but the way you present it that will impact whether or not it’s effec­tive, whether or not peo­ple will pick it up and stay with it, and learn the sto­ries that we’re try­ing to tell.

ES: You also weave in so much con­tex­tu­al mate­r­i­al: restric­tive Amer­i­can immi­gra­tion laws, the ambiva­lent response of the press as evi­dence of the Holo­caust start­ed to emerge, the fact that Great Britain was reluc­tant to wel­come Jew­ish refugees. You didn’t see these as digres­sions from the story.

SS: The book is for young adults. I need­ed to start with no assump­tions. You should­n’t have to know any­thing to read one of my books. The biggest chal­lenge for writ­ers, espe­cial­ly when writ­ing for kids and young adults, is how to get in enough back­ground infor­ma­tion, but to do it seam­less­ly. Some­times there’ll be a side­bar in a book, a shad­ed box, giv­ing back­ground infor­ma­tion. I don’t like that as a read­er; I want that seam­less sto­ry­telling. I always write too much and then pare it down. You need to get the read­er hooked on the sto­ry first, and then choose your spots to weave in that infor­ma­tion – because it is inter­est­ing – just enough so that it does­n’t slow the sto­ry down. 

ES: Chance was a key part of sur­vival in the Holo­caust. Maybe that seems obvi­ous, but some read­ers are look­ing for a more redemp­tive mes­sage. That doesn’t dimin­ish the val­ue of indi­vid­ual qual­i­ties, like courage. There is a scene where Rudolf is work­ing in the sec­tion of Auschwitz where items that were con­fis­cat­ed from mur­dered Jews and deemed use­less are destroyed. He comes across an old atlas for chil­dren that includes a map of Poland, and that turns out to play a key role in his escape. 

SS: Even as a very strong young man or woman, you need­ed luck. Rudolf was always deter­mined to escape. He had already escaped from anoth­er camp, but he did­n’t know exact­ly where he was. I find that detail real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. He knew he was in Poland, but he was kind of a sci­ence kid, into chem­istry, not geog­ra­phy. Kids today can relate to that. Maybe he was­n’t pay­ing atten­tion when they stud­ied Cen­tral Europe in geog­ra­phy class.

The ques­tions going through his head were, If I ever get out of here, what do I look for? What land­marks? What are the cities and rivers I might see? What moun­tains? How far am I from the bor­der?” It was just pure luck that he found the atlas, and this to me is the most cin­e­mat­ic of all the scenes in the whole book. When I read about it in the sources, it just leapt off the page ful­ly formed. 

There was luck, but also courage because he could have been killed for any­thing, or for noth­ing. He picked up the book, ripped out the page, and lat­er – in the latrine– he took a quick look. He could­n’t keep it on him, so he mem­o­rized it. This was a bril­liant young guy. He could do any­thing that he put his mind to. And in this moment, he real­ized, Life or death, I have to mem­o­rize every­thing on this page.” 

ES: Going from the peak of courage to the most bru­tal of human behav­ior, the Nazis in the book are not arche­types. They are indi­vid­u­als. They all sub­scribe to the same evil ide­ol­o­gy, but you depict their indi­vid­ual personalities. 

SS: It’s prob­a­bly the hard­est part of the whole sto­ry to under­stand. They all claimed to be human beings, although obvi­ous­ly they weren’t in some impor­tant way. This is what hap­pens when peo­ple are taught hatred, when we start to sep­a­rate peo­ple by reli­gion or race and to rank them accord­ing to who deserves which lev­el of rights. I did think that it was impor­tant not to show peo­ple as stereo­types, but as indi­vid­u­als who have a choice in what they do.

It was just pure luck that [Rudolf Vrba] found the atlas, and this to me is the most cin­e­mat­ic of all the scenes in the whole book. When I read about it in the sources, it just leapt off the page ful­ly formed. 

ES: The ques­tion of choice brings up per­haps the most painful top­ic of the Holo­caust, the role of the Son­derkom­man­dos–the Jew­ish inmates who were forced to par­tic­i­pate in the mur­der of their fel­low Jews. What did that mean for you in writ­ing about that part of Rudolf’s story?

SS: I thought it was impor­tant. I knew there was a line, and I want my books to be acces­si­ble. I talked to Holo­caust edu­ca­tors about what they tell stu­dents at what age. When a sev­enth grad­er or a tenth grad­er comes into your class, what do you say about the gas cham­bers?” I took that advice to heart. We nev­er would have heard from Rudolf and his friend, Alfred, who he escaped with, if they had ever been inside a gas cham­ber. But I want­ed one of the fig­ures in the sto­ry to be able to give an eye­wit­ness account of what was seen there.

A few did sur­vive being Son­derkom­man­dos. Oth­ers wrote doc­u­ments and eye­wit­ness accounts that were found lat­er, of what it was like to work in the most hor­ri­ble of places. How did you get cho­sen, forced into doing this? How did you face that impos­si­ble deci­sion of what to do? Some descrip­tion of that was essen­tial to the tes­ti­mo­ny that Vrba want­ed to give lat­er. At first I wrote too much, a scene that was just too graph­ic. The only way to find that line was to write, talk to experts, and then pull back to, hope­ful­ly, just the right line.

ES: In spite of the unre­lieved hor­ror in the book, hero­ism does keep sur­fac­ing. How did you try to achieve a bal­ance between despair and some degree of hope, or just bear­ing witness?

SS: There are a lot of sto­ries of peo­ple show­ing great courage, ones that kids don’t typ­i­cal­ly learn in the big pic­ture of mil­lions being killed. There were so many rebel­lions and actions, small and large. Rudi was always deter­mined to escape. I also think that his moti­va­tion evolved, which I find fas­ci­nat­ing, espe­cial­ly giv­en how young he was.

I have a sev­en­teen-year-old now, and it high­lights just how young Rudi was when he got thrown into this sit­u­a­tion. At first, he wants to live and escape, but the moti­va­tion quick­ly evolved from that into col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion that he knew was not reach­ing the out­side world. He had no way of know­ing what the world knew, but he thought, I want to be the one if no one else does it. I will tell the world what I’ve seen.” Then the big­ger goal became, Maybe if I do it in time, it can save some peo­ple who haven’t arrived yet. Because once they’re here, there’s noth­ing I can do to help them.” Rudi is, quite lit­er­al­ly, dri­ven by that hope. He is a hero­ic fig­ure for that alone. 

ES: Can you talk about the par­al­lel sto­ry of the young woman who was Rudolf’s friend, lat­er his first wife, Ger­ta Sidonová? Her expe­ri­ence was dif­fer­ent from his dur­ing the war. 

SS: Yes, Ger­ta’s sto­ry is also fas­ci­nat­ing. It’s not the Auschwitz sto­ry. Cer­tain­ly, most peo­ple did­n’t sur­vive that. Some peo­ple went into hid­ing. Every­one who did sur­vive had a dif­fer­ent story. 

I thought the fact that Rudolf and Ger­ta were friends as kids, from a sto­ry­telling stand­point, was just too good not to use. She had a crush on him. He was a lit­tle bit old­er and did­n’t see her in that way. They got sep­a­rat­ed by the war very ear­ly on. That invites the par­al­lel sto­ry, a glimpse of anoth­er young Jew­ish person’s expe­ri­ence. The scenes at Auschwitz are so tense, fright­en­ing and dark. It’s effec­tive for a sto­ry­teller to be able to cut – the way a movie would – to a dif­fer­ent set­ting, a dif­fer­ent sto­ry­line. Rudi had no way of know­ing what was going on in World War II. Some­times he would get glimpses from a news­pa­per or a bit of some­thing that he would over­hear from oth­er pris­on­ers who were just arriv­ing. But Ger­ta was liv­ing most of this time under false names. She was able to lis­ten to the radio, even to the BBC. It was very effec­tive as a sto­ry­telling tech­nique to be able to give updates through her point of view. They met again in 1944, in Slo­va­kia. She was incred­i­bly brave, work­ing for the under­ground, help­ing oth­er Jews get false doc­u­ments, and he’s just escaped and is in hid­ing. Their reunion scene would seem too much if you made it up, but it’s not made up. It’s true. It’s what real­ly happened.

Ger­ta lived right up until the start of the pan­dem­ic. I just missed talk­ing to her. I got to know her daugh­ter in Lon­don, and she doc­u­ment­ed her mother’s sto­ry real­ly well.

ES: You’ve used cin­e­mat­ic terms again in describ­ing the nar­ra­tive. Anoth­er cin­e­mat­ic moment is in the epi­logue, where you relate how Rudolf, in 1985, tes­ti­fied against a Holo­caust denier in a Cana­di­an courtroom. 

SS: In my book, Rudolf’s sto­ry essen­tial­ly ends when he’s twen­ty. He then joined the resis­tance. But he had an incred­i­bly long and dra­mat­ic life. He became a sci­en­tist. He lived and worked all over the world as a chemist, but also always as a Holo­caust edu­ca­tor and a wit­ness. I want­ed to point out that he nev­er let any­one get away with telling lies. He saw it through­out his life. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s still hap­pen­ing. It may become more preva­lent now that these wit­ness­es aren’t going to be with us. I want­ed to high­light that again, through some­thing that real­ly hap­pened. A Holo­caust denier in Cana­da was pub­lish­ing ridicu­lous pam­phlets about Hitler and deny­ing the gas cham­bers. Some peo­ple said, No, he’s just try­ing to get us to pay atten­tion.” But oth­ers said, The only way to counter this is with the truth, the light.” When the denier went on tri­al in Cana­da, Vrba want­ed to testify.

Thank­ful­ly, for a writer of non­fic­tion, you can get the whole tran­script, 3000 pages of tes­ti­mo­ny. And it was very cin­e­mat­ic; court­room dra­ma that you would expect in film. The Holo­caust denier’s lawyer loved bait­ing sur­vivors and ques­tion­ing their sto­ries, under­min­ing them. Rudi would have none of that. They went back and forth in a very heat­ed way. He had many, many parts to his expe­ri­ence in life, but one part of him was the fight­er that would always tell this sto­ry, to fight the lies any way he could. I want­ed to hon­or that in the epilogue.

ES: That epi­logue leads me to my last ques­tion today. Some argue that books about the Holo­caust dis­pro­por­tion­al­ly empha­size Jew­ish vic­tim­hood, at the expense of oth­er parts of our his­to­ry. Anoth­er per­spec­tive would be that now, as few sur­vivors are left, the Holo­caust is reced­ing into the past, mak­ing it more plau­si­ble to deny or to down­grade in sig­nif­i­cance. What are your feel­ings about this issue?

SS: I thought a lot about it, too. I want to see a great diver­si­ty of books on the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. The very first books I did that got pub­lished were comics of Jew­ish folk tales, The Adven­tures of Rab­bi Har­vey. They’re meant to be fun­ny, joy­ful, full of wis­dom and wit. But the sto­ry of Impos­si­ble Escape was also essen­tial. It con­tains the con­text of the Holo­caust and World War II, but it is real­ly the sto­ry of young Jew­ish peo­ple, who I would say were heroes. (They would deny that, as they did in their life­time.) I go to schools all the time. When I say, This is a book about a Jew­ish teenag­er who escaped from a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp,” not every­body knows what I’m talk­ing about. I hoped to tell it in a way that would be com­pelling, that would be a page turn­er, that would make peo­ple want to read it, even if they don’t think they are inter­est­ed. That’s why I worked so hard to try and make the sto­ry fast paced and have ele­ments of good sto­ry­telling, of a thriller, because I want to win over those peo­ple who sim­ply might not have oth­er­wise been inter­est­ed. As a life­time col­lec­tor of escape sto­ries, I think it is the great­est escape sto­ry that I’ve ever found, not because I wrote it, but because it’s true. I felt that it was absolute­ly essen­tial for me to tell.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.