In April 1944 nineteen-year-old Rudolf Vrba and fellow inmate Fred Wetzler became the first Jews ever to break out of Auschwitz. Under electrified fences and past armed watchtowers, evading thousands of SS men and slavering dogs, they trekked across marshlands, mountains and rivers to freedom. Vrba’s mission was to reveal to the world the truth of the Holocaust, a truth too few were willing to hear.
Now Jonathan Freedland, journalist, broadcaster and multi-million-copy bestselling author, has told the story of Vrba in his new book The Escape Artist and in July 2022 he came to Intelligence Squared to recount this tale of extraordinary courage and heroism.
As Freedland related, in the death factory of Auschwitz Vrba had become an eyewitness to almost every chilling stage of the Nazis’ process of industrialised murder. The more he saw, the more determined he became to warn the Jews of Europe what fate awaited them. A brilliant student of science and mathematics, he committed each detail to memory, risking everything to collect the first data of the Final Solution. After his escape, that information would form a priceless thirty-two-page report that would reach Roosevelt, Churchill and the pope and eventually save over 200,000 lives.
But Vrba’s escape from Auschwitz was not his last. After the war, he kept running – from his past, from his home country, from his adopted country, even from his own name. Few knew of the truly extraordinary deed he had done.
It’s an extraordinary adventure story – one that also raises profound questions for our own times about truth and lies, and who gets to be believed and who does not.