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Anne Frank. Primo Levi. Oskar Schindler . . . Rudolf Vrba.
In April 1944 nineteen-year-old Rudolf Vrba and fellow inmate Fred Wetzler became the first Jews ever known 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: to reveal to the world the truth of the Holocaust.
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 the 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.
Now, at last, Rudolf Vrba's heroism can be known - and he can take his place alongside those whose stories define history's darkest chapter.
Guardian columnist Freedland debuts with a harrowing account of Rudolf Vrba's escape from Auschwitz and his quest to hold Jewish leaders accountable for failing to prevent more people from dying in the Holocaust. Born Walter Rosenberg in Czechoslovakia (present-day Slovakia) in 1924, Vrba was sent to Auschwitz at age 17. Hoping to escape and prevent more Jews from passively boarding trains to their death, he kept a mental tally of arriving transports and how many people were selected for forced labor or sent directly to the crematorium. In April 1944, Vrba and another prisoner escaped by hiding in a wood pile for three days and nights (using gasoline-soaked tobacco to mask their scent from guard dogs), then crawling underneath a wire fence. After a harrowing journey to Žilina, they met with leaders of the Slovak Jewish Council and compiled a report including transport numbers, estimated deaths, maps, and the names of S.S. officers. Unfortunately, delays in translating and distributing the report resulted in the failure to save hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz in May 1944. Vrba, who blamed Hungarian Jewish leader Rezső Kasztner and other Jewish officials for the delays, became a controversial figure, often ignored in histories of the Holocaust. Drawing on interviews with family members and former colleagues, Freedland presents a warts-and-all portrait of Vrba, and vividly captures the horrors of Auschwitz. The result is a noteworthy contribution to the history of the Holocaust.