Book about Jew who escaped from Auschwitz examines our relationship with monstrosity – 09/03/2023 – Juliana de Albuquerque

I recently finished reading “The Escape Artist”, the award-winning 2022 book by journalist Jonathan Freedland about Rudolf Vrba, the Jewish biochemist of Slovak origin who, as a teenager, escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau and warned the world about what happened in the concentration and extermination camps.

Born in 1924, Vrba was only 15 years old when he had to formally interrupt his studies due to the impositions of the fascist regime of Jozef Tiso, an ally of the Third Reich. At the age of 17, he tried to leave Slovakia across the Hungarian border, but was caught and sent to a transit camp. From there, he planned a new escape, failed and was transported, first to Majdanek and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he stayed from June 1942 to April 1944, when he finally managed to escape.

During the whole time he was in Auschwitz, Vrba was forced to work in various sectors of the camp, accumulating more and more knowledge of what was happening, and he hoped that, if one day he really managed to escape, he would be able to share what he knew, avoiding let the killing run its course.

What motivated their escape plans was the belief that if people knew the truth about Auschwitz, they would be able to find help and protect themselves. Day after day Vrba counted the convoys arriving at the camp from all over Europe and calculated the number of people who would be sent to the gas chambers. The more these numbers grew, the more he became uneasy, as he recognized that his escape was becoming urgent.

In early 1944, Vrba learned that the Nazis were optimizing train access to the camp to accommodate the nearly one million Hungarian Jews who would be dispatched to the gas chambers in the coming weeks.

In April, he finally managed to escape in the company of a friend and countryman, Alfréd Wetzler. With extreme difficulty, the two returned to Slovakia, contacted Jewish resistance leaders and produced a long and detailed report on everything they witnessed at Auschwitz.

In his book, Freedland comments on the process of writing the Vrba-Wetzler report. He explains that the document was carefully written, so as not to raise doubts about the authenticity of its sources, but also draws attention to the fact that, even in the face of Vrba and Wetzler’s reports, there were people who could not immediately believe it. that a nation like Germany, one of the bastions of European culture, would be capable of perpetrating such a crime.

It was as if, being so alarming and monstrous, that information no longer made sense because people couldn’t find a place for the hell of Auschwitz among all the things they knew about the world.

Freedland explains that, in part, such a state of doubt and mental confusion was the result of the dissimulation strategies employed by the Nazis in an attempt to cover up what they were attacking against the Jews of Europe. Vrba himself only became aware of the danger everyone was in when he was already inside the concentration and extermination camp.

By retelling the difficult and extraordinary story of Rudolf Vrba, one of Freedland’s goals was precisely to make us reflect on our relationship with the truth. For, according to him, although the Vrba and Wetzler report helped to save the lives of at least 200,000 Hungarian Jews, Vrba was always convinced that the document could have spared much more people from suffering if everyone had had ample and unrestricted access to information.

Freedland, however, shows that although officials in Washington, London and even the Vatican had been informed about Auschwitz through the Vrba and Wetzler report, there was still a gap between knowledge of the facts and actions to try to save the jews.

On the one hand, this hiatus was created by practical issues, such as the difficulty in organizing an operation to bomb the train lines that served the countryside. On the other hand, it was fueled by the prejudice of bureaucrats, some of whom complained that the Jews could only be exaggerating.

In this sense, Freedland’s book is also a reminder of how old prejudices often blind us to injustice and tragedy, creating obstacles for minorities to make themselves heard, in a painful attempt to prove that they are worthy of our solidarity.

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