‘Auschwitz escapee is a hero but also a prophet whose
When Rudolf Vrba was planning his escape from Auschwitz, he was convinced that if only people knew what was happening there – the industrialised murder, the experiments, the brutality – someone would do something.
It was why he kept numbers in his brilliant head; the transports, the numbers killed, the countries from where they came. He was determined to ensure his story of the genocide of a people would be so full of fact that he would be believed. And it would be stopped.
By the time he managed his incredible vanishing act – along with fellow inmate Fred Wetzler, he was the first Jew to make it out of Auschwitz to safety – the death camp was gearing up for its most intense activity of the Holocaust: the murder of the Hungarian Jews, the last community in occupied Europe.
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Rudolf Vrba pictured soon after the war
But for two long months, as the report he and Wetzler made whizzed around the world – appearing in newspapers, in front of Churchill and Eisenhower, the Pope and kings – another 10,000 to 15,000 Jews were being murdered a day in Auschwitz alone.
Eventually, it could be said, the report made enough of an impact that the final transports of Jews from Budapest – around 200,000 people – were stopped. But Rudolf only ever thought of the nearly half a million who could have been saved.
Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, who has written a brilliant book about Rudolf called The Escape Artist, believes the Slovakian Jew’s name should be as well known as those of Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler and Primo Levi.
Eventually, it could be said, the report made enough of an impact that the final transports of Jews from Budapest – around 200,000 people – were stopped.
His book is as compelling as a thriller; first is the excitement of the escape and then comes the desperation to make sure the world knew. But this is the darkest thriller you’ll ever read.
“He was a hero who was willing to take the most extreme action in order for truth and fact to be known,” explains Freedland.
“What he did was the most extraordinary achievement – he saved 200,000 lives. But he was eaten up by the 437,000 who were killed.
“To me he is a hero of Jewish history, but he is also sadly in that tradition of the Jewish prophet who issues a warning but that warning is not heeded.”
Freedland first became intrigued by Rudolf’s story when he saw the seminal nine-hour epic documentary Shoah when he was aged 19. The charisma of the cocky, dark-haired man stood out – that and the fact that, as was almost mentioned in passing, he had escaped Auschwitz.
“I think I was partly intrigued by what he’d done at the age of 19, partly because he spoke to the viewer in English, and also, he seemed like a generation younger than the rest,” he says. “He felt like of the present while the others felt like ghost-like figures of the past.
“When he said he’d escaped from Auschwitz it was a shock. I thought nobody could get out of that place. His idea of getting out to tell the truth was something that never left me.”
Johnathan Freedland signing copies of his new book
Freedland was inspired to start researching Rudolf as he became concerned about the new ‘post-truth’ world. “I have been very spooked by the issue of truth twice,” he says.
“The first was when I covered the David Irving trial in 2000. I remember feeling physically unnerved by the idea of someone denying all the evidence.
“And then that strange anxiety came back in 2016 with Trump and Brexit. People in the public conversation were saying things that weren’t true. I had the same sort of shaky feeling.”
He was amazed to find that the only book that had been written about Rudolf was a memoir; and that the hero’s first wife, Gerta, was still alive and had a treasure chest of material for him.
The book isn’t just the story of one man, but it is the story of Auschwitz told in unflinching and painful detail from Rudolf’s own words. It is also the story of a world that – at best – was willing to turn a blind eye to what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people.
The book could not be more important at a time when Holocaust denial is growing across the political spectrum and after a bruising few years for the British Jewish community.
“I think we are collectively a post-traumatic people; the Holocaust is present for us, it is part of our inherited memory and so it is not surprised we are hyper-vigilant,” he says.
Freedland is aware of the criticism held by parts of the community for his newspaper, but stands by the decision to publish both pro- and anti-Corbyn articles.
“We were having the same debates in the paper that were happening within the Labour party,” he says. “My memories of that period are bruising, but that was more about wider society than my place of work.”
As we talk at his publisher’s office, he is preparing to head back into that bruising world, writing his first play, which will be performed in perhaps the lion’s den of theatrical antisemitism, The Royal Court. Jews. In Their Own Words, conceived by actress Tracy-Ann Oberman, comes after the Hershel Fink scandal in which a megalomaniac billionaire was given a Jewish name owing to – at best – ‘unconscious bias’.
The play will feature the words of luminaries including Howard Jacobson, Simon Schama and Luciana Berger, as well as ordinary Jewish people, talking about antisemitism.
Freedland will be directly targeting and challenging the left wing ‘anti-racists’ who
go to the Royal Court and for whom, it often seems, Jews don’t count. Freedland insists that, like his hero Rudolf, he will be presenting the unvarnished truth.
“Given the history of the Royal Court; the plays Perdition and Seven Jewish Children as well as the Hershel Fink [issue], I think anyone in our community will always be wary of the Royal Court,” he says. “But I also think when an institution says: ‘We got something badly wrong, we want you – the Jewish community – now to have the floor, to say it in your own words’, I think that is very hard to resist.
“I am excited to be doing this project and it’s a good opportunity to set out what we – and the Jewish News reader – are familiar with, but is not well understood by part of British society, including those who would pride themselves on being very sensitive to questions of prejudice and bigotry.”
The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland is published by John Murray Press (RRP £20). Available now