David Remnick: In 1986, I went to see Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's film about the Holocaust. To this day, I'm pretty certain that it's not only a masterwork but the greatest achievement in documentary film. Lanzmann got remarkable interviews. An SS officer who was at Treblinka, a barber at the same camp, a Polish railway worker who, under duress, helped drive the locomotive pulling box cars filled with Jews to the death camps. Then there was Rudolf Vrba. Vrba was sent to Auschwitz when he was just 17 years old. When he appears in the documentary Shoah, Vrba is still in middle age. He's immensely alive, he's handsome, oddly cheerful, and absolutely unwilling to talk in cliche.
He told a story with startling clarity, how despite the odds he had decided to escape and tell the world of the horrors of Auschwitz. This astonishing story is told in a new biography by the British journalist, Jonathan Freedland. Its title is The Escape Artist, and I spoke with Freedland at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. I'd like to know, to begin, how you found your story and why you found it to be so essential that you were going to give all your time to it for a while.
Jonathan Freedland: The answer comes almost in two parts about when did it come to me as a subject. On one level, it came to me at age 19, which is relevant because the man we're talking about is Rudolf Vrba and he escaped from Auschwitz when he was 19. I was 19, and I was in a room like this one, a darkened auditorium, a movie theater in London to see the film Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's epic nine-and-a-half-hour film about the Shoah. Then suddenly, onto the screen explodes this figure who is utterly unlike all the others. He's charismatic, he's handsome, he's wearing this tan leather coat. He could be Al Pacino in Scarface. He exudes charisma.
Immediately in the cinema, I looked up and, "Who's that? I want to know more about him." Almost as an aside, Lanzmann just mentions that this man escaped from Auschwitz. Even though I was 19, I was old enough to know then that Jews just didn't escape from Auschwitz.
Rudolf Vrba: It was my intention to escape from the first moment when I have seen where I am, but at that time it was particularly urgent because I knew that all was prepared for the murder of 1 million Jews from Hungary. Because it was close to Slovakia, I thought that it would be possible to give the warning. Naturally, I was interested in surviving myself.
Jonathan Freedland: I then left the cinema age 19 transfixed by this figure and never forgot him. Never forgot his name, never forgot the story, and then around 2016, I would say, and then certainly afterwards, new words started entering the language. People were talking about post-truth, and they were talking about fake news. I found myself going back to the story of Rudolf Vrba because he was somebody who had taken the biggest risk imaginable to take in escaping from Auschwitz very deliberately to tell the world. In other words, to get the truth out from under a mountain of lies.
David Remnick: This is the essence of the story, that somebody 19 years old conceives the idea that if only people would know, if only the Jews of this country, particular, we'll get to it in a second, but Hungary, and specifically would've known they would have done what? They would've escaped. They might have rebelled, they something, he can't quite articulate it, but something would've happened if Jews were to know, if the world were to know.
Jonathan Freedland: Well, this is what is so extraordinary about the story because he was only a teenager. He arrives there age 17. He's there working on this railway platform, the late Jude ramp, the old Jew ramp. His job, he's bounced around different jobs as a slave, as a prisoner, but he has this job unloading the transports. He's come to this huge and important realization, which is, it seems so simple, but none of them know. He realizes that every person getting off that train has no idea of the meaning of the place they've been brought to. Many of them are relieved to be in Auschwitz because they believe these elaborate lies that Jews are told at every stage of the journey, including the big lies that they are being deported to the East to be resettled and to have new lives.
David Remnick: Tell me a little bit about Rudolf as a person as he comes to Auschwitz. Is he a worker? Is he an intellectual? Is he a pre-professional? What was his life going to be? What did it seem to be headed toward?
Jonathan Freedland: Well, he arrives as a 17-year-old, as I say, from provincial Slovakia. He'd been at school actually in the capital. He'd been at one of the elite schools in Bratislava until the day where he turned up for the academic year 1938-39 and was told, "There's no place for you here because you are a Jew." Very movingly, there are classroom photos of him. You can see for the year '35-'36, he's there, '36-'37, he's there.
David Remnick: Then he's not.
Jonathan Freedland: He's not there. He had been exceptionally bright. He had a gift, particularly for languages. By the time age 17, he gets to Auschwitz, he speaks obviously Czech and Slovak, but also German, Russian, Hungarian, teaching himself some English.
David Remnick: This was interesting to me. Why does he get such a privileged position because that's what he had by the--
Jonathan Freedland: Inside the camp.
David Remnick: Yes. He was given an opportunity not only survive and have a life, however unbelievably constricted, but a life with these other, I hate to use the word privilege, but privileged by survival.
Jonathan Freedland: One of the revelations of the whole process of researching this for me, and I consider myself somebody quite well read in the story of the Holocaust story in Auschwitz, I think there are things about it that people think they know, but they don't know. One of them is, well, for example, that there was a permanent Jewish bureaucracy inside Auschwitz. I didn't know that. There was two or 300 people who were used as registrars and bureaucrats and pen pushers and so on. There was also a resistance, an underground in Auschwitz after a fashion. Well, the two are linked because it was because he had been spotted as a talent by the Auschwitz underground. that they arranged for him-
David Remnick: Explain the map of that. In other words, who are the Kapos, what is the underground, what is going on there that we're not normally hearing about or normally seeing?
Jonathan Freedland: Well, so obviously the people who police the camp at the highest level are the SS. It's their camp. They are the ones who are in total charge. Then they have as henchmen these prisoners, green triangle prisoners very often, who were petty or not so petty, hardened criminals often, German or Austrian, who would be used as their enforcers. They would, although Nazis had semi-automatic weapons, they would've clubs and sticks and they were brutal people. They would impose order at a day-to-day level. Slowly over time, the green triangle brutish Kapos are sidelined and the jobs of pen pushers and registrars are taken by the resistance and the underground.
David Remnick: What were the ambitions of the underground?
Jonathan Freedland: Well, they're mainly in the business, he concludes, of improving their own life and conditions in the camp. Their concern is not to halt the death machine, but to get life to be a less brutal in the camp. That penny drops for Rudolf Vrba and he begins to think the underground, good people though they are, are actually enabling what we would come to call the Holocaust.
Rudolf Vrba: It was quite clear to me then that resistance in the camp is not geared for an uprising but for survival for the survivors of the members of the resistance movement. I then decided to act what was called by the members of resistance as anarchic and individualistic activity like an escape and leaving the community for which I'm co-responsible by that time.
Jonathan Freedland: He begins, he comes to that crucial realization, which is the only way this machine is going to be stopped, this death machine, is if somebody gets the word out because the thing that is enabling it above all is the ignorance of the victims. They're arriving here with no clue and therefore they are getting on those trains in the first place and they are lining up in orderly fashion. I should say, because I think you asked this earlier, what does he think they're going to do? He has no illusions. He doesn't think the Jews are going to stage an armed revolt.
They have no weapons, they often include children, the sick, the elderly. He doesn't have some mad fantasy about a kind of armed resistance. All he thinks is if they know, they might at the very least panic. Even that would be something. If there is chaos on the platform, if there's a stampede, if some run off that direction, some run off the other direction.
Rudolf Vrba: The Germans were so sure that no resistance is possible that they became cocky. It wasn't so difficult to hit back. They would've been probably very surprised if there would be a resistance, but even if there wouldn't be a resistance, but only a panic, you see, it is a big difference to slaughter pigs or to hunt deer if you have to hunt each one separately, hunt him down. It never goes so fast.
Jonathan Freedland: His view was that the Nazis wanted the Jews effectively to be sheep that you could organize in a column, whereas if they knew they might run off in different directions and then it would be like hunting deer where you'd have to pick off one after another with a gun and that would be-- They would do it but it'd be chaotic. Then who knows? I that transport was chaos, then the one behind would be delayed. You would throw sand in the gears of the Nazi machine.
David Remnick: Jonathan, he finds a friend. He finds a comrade in this incredibly improbable plan. Tell me about the friend and how they conceive this plan to escape Auschwitz. How did they think they're going to do this because the map of Auschwitz, as we've seen in countless books, just seems impossible to penetrate?
Jonathan Freedland: You're right. He always knew he would have to have an escape partner, you couldn't possibly do it alone.
David Remnick: Why is that?
Jonathan Freedland: That's interesting. Why is that? The physical business of escaping, you would need two pairs of hands often just to get through if you were going under a fence. I think the other thing is that, if you were due to escape Auschwitz, you would be aware that you would have nobody on the outside to help you. There were escapes from Auschwitz before the Soviet prisoners of war escaped. The biggest group was Polish political prisoners. They escaped in scores of them in the Soviet prisoners of war, dozens. Jews, basically none.
David Remnick: The difference being what?
Jonathan Freedland: Well, the others had support on the outside that if you were a pole and you escaped, there was a polish resistance that was set up. The Jews were basically cut off from the rest of the world. It was harder. I think it's not a coincidence, his escape partner was someone from the same Slovak town that he was from. Alfred Wetzler was his escape partner. They had both been in turnover and therefore, this was somebody who you knew before you'd been in the inverted universe of Auschwitz where you never knew is somebody, if good was bad, that black was white, day was night.
They trusted each other. The key insight that they came to was that there was a gap in the Nazi defenses. The Nazi defenses, by the way, again, we should make clear of how severe this was. We are talking about a 12-15 foot high electrified fence. If you cleared that one, then there was another one. There were 2-3,000 SS men. At any time there were 200 trained hunting dogs that would sniff you out. There were watch towers every 80 yards.
Rudolf Vrba: Nazis developed a very ingenious system for checking, say, among 30,000 prisoners if somebody's missing or not. Within one hour they would know if somebody is missing and who is missing, and who are his friends, et cetera. It was very organized.
Jonathan Freedland: The key Nazi floor in a way was the SS's own predictability. They stuck to their routines and they did everything to the same timing. One thing they did was if they noticed a prisoner was missing, which they would at roll call when prisoners would come at the start of the day and at the end of the day, if the same number of prisoners, by the way dead or alive, did not come back from work at the end of the day, they would then sound a siren and think somebody may have escaped. They would search for that person for three days and three nights, scouring every inch of the camp. During that time, they would maintain the outer perimeter which was normally taken down at night. They would keep it up so that they could continue the search, the outer ring.
If after three days and three nights there was no sign of those prisoners, they would assume that they'd got away and handed over to the Gestapo and that outer ring would come down at night, and then they would only be guarding the inner camp where prisoners were kept.
David Remnick: Where they hid out.
Jonathan Freedland: Their key thought was if somebody could hide in that outer camp, not found for three days and three nights, then when that outer ring came down and you then came out of your hiding place, you would come out into an area that was unguarded and you could effectively walk out of the camp. That was the theory. Again, I think it took an extraordinary mind to see that. That was their theory and they acted on it. The sheer degree of physical resilience required to hide essentially in a hole in the ground for three days, and three nights.
David Remnick: Under some planks.
Jonathan Freedland: There was a part of the camp that was a construction site. There were piles of timbers, door frames. They realized if you were to dig a hole, really no bigger than a grave, a double grave, under some timbers and hid in there, you could theoretically not be found and you'd have to somehow elude detection from those sniffer dogs. They had this ingenious thing that they'd been told by a Soviet prisoner, Ukrainian actually, that a certain type of cheap Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline and then dried generated a smell that was repellent to the dogs. If you sprinkled some of this tobacco around, the dogs would come near and then recoil. They had heard that, and they did it. That was their first move in the escape.
David Remnick: I've been speaking today with the British journalist, Jonathan Freedland. He writes a column for the Guardian Newspaper, and he presents a history program on the BBC. He's just written a book called The Escape Artist. I was surprised to learn that it's the only major book written about Rudolf Vrba who escaped from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, one of the very few people ever to do so. He fled not just to save himself, he'd formed a singular goal of letting the world know what was happening in the death camps. The Nazis did everything they could to prevent knowledge of the mass killings from ever reaching the outside world. Rudolf Vrba had memorized an enormous wealth of information that he wanted to convey to the right people.
Rudolf Vrba: Well, obviously, to give it a meaning to the two years which I spend in Auschwitz, and to escape only for my own sake would be ridiculous.
David Remnick: Before the break, author Jonathan Freedland was explaining how Vrba and a fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler hid in a hole in an outside portion of the camp for three long days until the search was finally called off, and then they were able to escape.
Jonathan Freedland: Getting out was the easy part in a way. Of course, it wasn't. It was impossible. After then there are in Nazi-occupied Poland, as Rudi wrote in a letter later on in his life, said, with no map, no compass, no friends, they would have to cross marshlands and forests and mountains and rivers.
David Remnick: The date now is what? We're now in 1944.
Jonathan Freedland: It's April 1944. The night of their escape incidentally, not that they had any idea, was the night of the sader. It was the festival of freedom when they were beginning their escape, something Rudi himself didn't know until 50 years later. They get out, they make contact with the remnant tiny Jewish community of Slovakia, the people who are clinging on. They're in a basement in hiding in the Slovak town of Žilina, outpours this data that they'd been accumulating. I should say something about this that Rudi had when he worked on that railway platform, seeing in these transports every night. Once he was determined to escape, he then engaged in this extraordinary feat of memory. He memorized every transport that came in.
He would count the number of cattle cars, estimate the number of Jews per car, memorize the point of origin, link it up with the numbers that would of course then be tattooed on the arms of the prisoners who were selected to survive.
David Remnick: To such a degree that much, much later, he is at a restaurant and a waiter exposes the tattoo on his own arm. He knows exactly where he is from because he remembers when that group of Jews was brought. That knocked me flat.
Jonathan Freedland: It has the same effect on me, that story. In the mid-'70s, it was a sweltering hot day in New York City. A waiter comes up with his sleeve rolled up and he looks at him and goes, "Benzin, May 1943." The waiter looks at him and says, how did you know? He said, "Because you've got the number there." He had memorized every number.
Rudolf Vrba: It seems to be difficult today to believe that I could memorize all this, but it was by no means so difficult. They know by now that some people while they were in prison memorized whole books and could reproduce them after that. It was nothing special to memorize statistics which was not figures for me. Behind each transport, there was a picture in my mind, a particular circumstance. I can say that I saw practically every transport.
David Remnick: They do this report and they dictate a report essentially, 30 odd pages.
Jonathan Freedland: 32 pages, single space that a lawyer, a Slovak lawyer, takes it down in very bald, factual, unstylish writing. Just fact, fact, fact, dates, numbers, names. By the end of it, it is the fullest account ever written at that point of Auschwitz.
David Remnick: Maybe, Jonathan, it's hard to say what's the most out part of this book. Auschwitz, of course, itself is that, but after that this report gets into the hands of a stunning number of very important people high up in the Catholic church and in Hungary and elsewhere. It essentially reaches Franklin Roosevelt and Allen Dulles. It reaches Winston Churchill. It reaches the Pope. We should say, the biggest goal that Vrba has at this point, the greatest goal in his heart is that the Hungarian Jews is the last group of Jews to not have been scooped up in mass and killed in Auschwitz and other camps. His hope is that first the Jews of Hungarian countryside and later the Jews of Budapest will be saved.
Jonathan Freedland: His driving animating purpose was warn the Jews of Hungary, let them, the last Jewish community not yet dragged into the Nazi inferno, let them have what we and everyone else didn't have, which is knowledge.
Rudolf Vrba: Don't forget compassion. Display of compassion was dangerous and we were not interested at all in compassion. We were interested in what can be done for those people and not for pitying them.
Jonathan Freedland: The report does reach one London and Washington. There it runs into these obstacles attached to it by now, the Jewish leadership, the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, other Jewish leaders have attached a note to it effectively pleading for the allies to bomb the railway tracks. If this is a factory, then take out the conveyor belt that is bringing Jews in. Bomb the railway tracks.
David Remnick: The hero of all liberal community, myself included, Franklin Roosevelt. What did he do about this?
Jonathan Freedland: It goes all the way up through the bureaucracy. There's evidence that Roosevelt himself discussed it. He was reacting to the proposal to bomb the railways. This was a bad business. He thought and he thought that if American bombs bombed the railway tracks and therefore killed some Jews then we will be caught up in, meaning associated with, blamed, this whole horrid business. This time in the summer of 1944, 12 to 15,000 Jews were being brought to the camp every day to be murdered. The Jews of Hungary were murdered at a rate that had never been matched at any other stage of war. Even as D-Day has already happened and the war is being won, it is the worst hour for the Jews of Europe.
David Remnick: In a sense do you think that Roosevelt and Churchill are culpable?
Jonathan Freedland: That's a hard question to ask. In a way, I'm going to hide behind Vrba himself and his view when he was asked about this kind of thing. The crucial thing about him, I think, as a witness was that he would resist the narrative I think a lot of people want for the Second World War and for the Holocaust, which is there are villains, the Nazis, and everyone else is on the side of good. Heroic, noble. The argument that Roosevelt and Churchill made was we cannot do anything that diverts from the war effort. The best thing we can do for the Jews is to defeat Nazism. Look, as a Jew, you've got to say, thank God they defeated Nazism.
That had to be the paramount goal. I see that. We should get onto the Hungarian Jews because I think it's the morally most vexed part of the story which is the report did reach, as Rudi wanted desperately, it reached the Hungarian Jewish community. The de facto leader, Reju Kastner, was handed a copy. For a whole variety of reasons, which I chart in the book, Kastner did not pass on that warning.
David Remnick: What was Kastner's thinking and how do we know?
Jonathan Freedland: Kastner's main thinking was he was in a dialogue and negotiation with Adolf Eichmann and the Nazis himself. Now, the question that historians will debate is was he doing that to save the Jews of Hungary or realistically by the time he was having that negotiation did he know he was only going to be allowed to save the number he did eventually save which is 1,684 Jews who were put on the train that became known as the Kastner train which included notables and friends and family of Reju Kastner, people from his hometown?
Was he just looking out for himself because by then he knew there was no hope for the Jews of Hungary? Was his price, or the price that the Nazis executed from him, his silence and very specifically that he would agree to not distribute the Vrba–Wetzler report and not warn the Jews of Hungary? The evidence, I'm afraid, is pretty compelling against Kastner.
David Remnick: When we say and when you say in the book that Rudolf Vrba is responsible for the saving of 200,000 Jews, who are they? Who was saved and how did the report do that?
Jonathan Freedland: Funnily enough, this part of the story, the saving of 200,000 lives, Vrba himself hardly talked about that. He was obsessed, I think, with the ones he hadn't saved when he talked because of other people's reaction.
David Remnick: He maintained a fury against Kastner to the end of his life.
Jonathan Freedland: Fury. Unbridled. Despite that, once it was out there in the press, those government leaders who had been able to be inactive without anyone knowing they weren't doing much were now shamed into action because it was now public. The Pope writes to the leader of Hungary, who by the way he has not written to before.
David Remnick: I will say the [unintelligible 00:26:02] statement on this that was supposedly so brave doesn't even mention the word Jew or Jewish.
Jonathan Freedland: "These unfortunate souls," is what he says.
David Remnick: I'll say.
Jonathan Freedland: He doesn't say Jew and he doesn't let the note that he writes to Miklós Horthy the regent of Hungary. He doesn't let that note become public which would've also made a difference.
David Remnick: The horrible irony of all of this, it's all the dramas happening too late for the most part.
Jonathan Freedland: It's too late.
David Remnick: Auschwitz runs out of-
Jonathan Freedland: Of Jews to kill.
David Remnick: -of Jews to kill. The war is over fairly soon thereafter.
Jonathan Freedland: This is where we have to say this. 437,000 Jews have been killed from the Hungarian provinces. The last ones left are the 200,000 Jews, Budapest, when because of Vrba–Wetzler report, the Pope and Roosevelt intervene. One train is on its way to Auschwitz. It literally turns around. Those are lives saved because of the Vrba–Wetzler report. The 200,000 Jews of Budapest are spared deportation on the 6th of July, 1944 through a series of diplomatic moves that started with Vrba–Wetzler report which is why I believe Rudolf Vrba, together with Fred Wetzler is responsible for the saving of 200,000 lives, which makes him a towering figure of the Second World War and the Holocaust.
Not to make a comparison, this is not a numbers game, but everyone knows the name of Oskar Schindler who is credited with 3,000 Jewish lives being saved. If it wasn't for Rudolf Vrba and Fred Wetzler, there are 200,000 Jewish people who would never have lived.
David Remnick: And their children and their grandchildren.
Jonathan Freedland: And their great-grandchildren. There are millions, perhaps, of people alive in the world today because of him.
David Remnick: It's so moving to me to read about the, as it were, the afterlife of Rudolf Vrba in this book. He does not live easily in this world. He is tortured by his experience as you would expect and in very specific ways. His family life is not easy, particularly his first marriage. His relations with his kids is very difficult. He is unable in any way to be what you and I would call diplomatic or polite. When he has asked about this subject he doesn't go to a moral Black and white, "Germans over here, Jews--' He's very critical of certain Jews. This is particularly what got Hannah Arendt in trouble. Speak to that, until the end of his days his critique of certain people in the Jewish community and the way they behaved. It's very painful.
Jonathan Freedland: It's very relevant. It's relevant to why he isn't as well known. I say in the book that I think his story should be as well known as Anne Frank, Primo Levy, Oskar Schindler. It's in that rank of story.
David Remnick: In all due respects, [unintelligible 00:29:01], he does not comport himself like that.
Jonathan Freedland: No, that's the explanation. First, to your point about his life afterwards. It's quite true that the first marriage he makes is not a good one. He makes a very good second marriage and lives very happily with her. I'm not just saying that now because she is actually in the room with us tonight. Robin Vrba is here. Everywhere I've spoken about this book, I've made that point. That he and was able to be, Robin has told me that he was able to be playful, enjoy practical jokes. He could enjoy sitting in a restaurant, in a cafe. He wasn't somebody who couldn't live. Yes, he had had all those difficulties, including those escapes that I talked about.
Why wasn't he more famous is related to this point about him being an awkward, difficult witness. I found a document, a letter he wrote to a BBC TV producer who wanted him to come on a documentary. He said, "I must warn you, I am not the clichéd Holocaust survivor."
David Remnick: Meaning?
Jonathan Freedland: Meaning, "I'm not going to give you--" and I now think this is what a lot of us want from Holocaust survivors, "I'm not going to give you this healing, consoling wisdom that says ultimately everyone is good, and that we all did everything we could. We are on the side of good. I'm not going to serve up this comforting and pleasing narrative, in which all evil resided in Hitler and the Nazis and everyone else was blameless. Instead, I'm going to tell you as I saw it." That's not what people want to hear.
David Remnick: A final question. We are having this conversation in 2022. Very few Holocaust survivors are still alive. It will no longer be a matter of living memory very soon. At the same time, we are having a historical reckoning on any number of other catastrophes of history, the slave trade among them, and yet we still refer to the Holocaust as unique. How is it unique, or is it not unique in your sense of history? Why were you so driven, in a sense, to write this particular story?
Jonathan Freedland: The singularity of it, I think, remains even with all the horrors that we've witnessed since. Yet the two things that, to me, make the Holocaust unique are the ambition to eradicate an entire people coupled with purpose-built industrialized method. That, to me, is still the singular aspect of it. The reason why I think it's of value and why Jews are right to insist on its singularity is because it is of use as a moral terminus case. This is the ultimate case and that has tremendous warning, cautionary power, that we forego at our peril, I think.
We need its presence, and urgency, and applicability to guide us even now. He understood the reason why these people were vulnerable to murder was because they didn't have knowledge. They'd been fed lies. This realization that truth is all we have, and it stands between us and tyranny. He understood that as a teenage boy and was ready to risk absolutely everything for it.
David Remnick: Jonathan Freedland. His book about Rudolf Vrba is called The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World. We spoke at a public event at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Rudolf Vrba died in 2006. You heard excerpts from an interview with him recorded by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of his documentary Shoah. Those excerpts were used by permission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
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