Winner of the National Jewish Book Award · New York Times Bestseller
"A brilliant and heart-wrenching book, with universal and timely lessons about the power of information—and misinformation. Is it possible to stop mass murder by telling the truth?" — Yuval Noah Harari, bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
A complex hero. A forgotten story. The first witness to reveal the full truth of the Holocaust . . .
Award-winning journalist and bestselling novelist Jonathan Freedland tells the astonishing true story of Rudolf Vrba, the man who broke out of Auschwitz to warn the world of a truth too few were willing to hear.
In April 1944, Rudolf Vrba became one of the very first Jews to escape from Auschwitz and make his way to freedom—among only a tiny handful who ever pulled off that near-impossible feat. He did it to reveal the truth of the death camp to the world—and to warn the last Jews of Europe what fate awaited them. Against all odds, Vrba and his fellow escapee, Fred Wetzler, climbed mountains, crossed rivers, and narrowly missed German bullets until they had smuggled out the first full account of Auschwitz the world had ever seen—a forensically detailed report that eventually reached Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and the Pope.
And yet too few heeded the warning that Vrba had risked everything to deliver. Though Vrba helped save two hundred thousand Jewish lives, he never stopped believing it could have been so many more.
This is the story of a brilliant yet troubled man—a gifted “escape artist” who, even as a teenager, understood that the difference between truth and lies can be the difference between life and death. Rudolf Vrba deserves to take his place alongside Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler, and Primo Levi as one of the handful of individuals whose stories define our understanding of the Holocaust.
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.