Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World is perhaps the single most effective chronicle of the Holocaust I have read.
Freedland does not attempt to convey the full scope of the Holocaust or of Auschwitz; that is an impossibility in any literature. He tells the story of one man, Rudolf Vrba — born Walter Rosenberg — who as a teenager memorized every detail of death in the camp and became one of only four Jewish prisoners ever to escape, so he could tell the world and hope to save lives.
There are, of course, countless excellent studies and stories of Auschwitz. What impresses me so about Freedland’s is his discipline in staying close to his subject, seeing through his eyes alone — and his subject’s discipline, in turn, gathering facts.
Freedland is a journalist, an incisive thinker who, in my experience, commanded any conversation I witnessed at The Guardian, where he was head of opinion and is still a columnist. The Escape Artist is a work of journalism that I cannot help but see as a work about journalism, as it brought me to reflect on my field.
Freedland begins with the escape, then tells of Vrba’s capture, subjugation, and survival and of all he witnessed and recorded in his memory. When he manages to leave and find refuge, he and another escapee pour every fact, every number — even the sequences of numbers registered to and tattooed on prisoners and their relationship to their place of origin and date of arrival — to a committee of Jewish leaders in their home country. Their report is typed up in spare, sparse language recounting only the facts. At first, as Freedland relates, Vrba is upset that it does not include a warning to the Jews of Hungary, for based on what these two men saw and heard, they are next on the trains. The leaders refused to include anything that is not based on verifiable fact — no speculation, no prediction — to assure the credibility of the report. There is a lesson for journalism.
The report, in various versions and translations, makes its way to London and Washington and also into the hands of journalists, who finally begin to get word out about the horrors, though far too little is done. What strikes me here is the value of witness. Vrba committed a profound act of journalism; without his observation and memory and courage, there would have been no reports.
I won’t go on, only will recommend that you read or listen to the book yourself. I am going to try — and likely fail — to post more about books I am reading to share recommendations with you (and hope to read more recommendations from from).