Unlike the previous post, which was about a narrative of heroism within a bureaucracy, this post deals with a narrative of heroism thwarted by bureaucracy. This narrative is in British author and journalist Jonathan Freedland’s recent book The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke out of Auschwitz to Warn the World. The book is a biography of Rudolf Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg), one of the only four Jews who ever escaped from Auschwitz.
Four Narrative Strands
The book has four narrative strands: holocaust, heroism, bureaucracy, and biography. The holocaust strand is an eye-witness account of the deportation; execution by gas and cremation of the vast majority of Jews who were deported; and intimidation, torture, and frequent execution of the small number of able-bodied Jewish men who were selected by the Nazis to assist in their genocidal project. This story is well known, but still moves me to nausea, tears, and rage.
The heroism strand looks closely at Rosenberg’s tenacity, cleverness, and physical and moral courage in developing and executing a plan to break out of Auschwitz and then walk undetected through Poland to his native Slovakia. This is a story that evokes amazement and admiration for Rosenberg and his partner Alfred Wetzler.
Rosenberg was a teenager in Auschwitz, so he lived most of his life after the Holocaust. The biography shows that, despite the trauma he suffered, he was able to have a successful scientific career and a conflicted but rewarding family life. He also made major contributions to Holocaust education and research and gave critical evidence at trials of some of Hitler’s accomplices.
“I knew, but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”
The bureaucracy strand of the book is the most complicated and thought-provoking. Gifted with a scientific mind, Rosenberg made sense of the horrors he was witnessing, realizing that the operation of the death factories depended on two deceptions, one of the outside world regarding what was actually happening in the camps, and the other of the victims themselves. To operate the death factories “efficiently,” the Nazis required compliance from their victims. Therefore, the Nazis lied about the purpose of the deportation and what would happen to the victims when they arrived at their destination. The Nazis did not want ghetto uprisings like Warsaw or Jews fighting back when they were being herded into the showers, for which, in a last deception, they were given soap and towels.
The belief that motivated Rosenberg and Wetzler’s desperate effort to escape is that knowledge would matter. If they provided a detailed and irrefutable account of what was happening in the concentration camps, Jewish communities would resist deportation and the Americans and British would bomb the camps and railroad lines leading into them.
Freedland documents Vrba (who chose a non-Jewish name after his escape) and Wetzler’s disillusionment as some leaders of European Jewish communities didn’t believe what was happening and others were unwilling to sound a general alarm because they were trying to negotiate with the Nazis to save a small number of lives. Churchill read the Vrba-Wetzler Report and asked for action, but the Royal Air Force advised against bombing the camps and rail lines. The report, however, had one significant impact. The Jews of Hungary were the last the Nazis intended to deport; President Roosevelt pressured the Hungarian regime to resist, and the 200,000 Jews in the Budapest ghetto were not deported.
This section begins by quoting the French sociologist Raymond Aron, himself a Jew, who fought in the resistance. Aron, like many European Jews, had heard rumours of what was happening at the concentration camps but found them incredible. And because he and others found the rumours incredible, they did not act.
I strongly recommend Freedland’s book because it sheds new light on an immensely important story and because it probes the perplexing and often paradoxical relationships among knowledge, belief, disbelief, action, and inaction.
Remembering the Holocaust
I consider myself personally fortunate that my family left Eastern Europe at the start of the twentieth century, so I know of no close relatives who perished in the Holocaust. But the Holocaust is such an important part of Jewish experience and identity that we can’t escape it. We must remember and confront it. And remembering is so much more important now because of the recent increase in antisemitism. Genocide is the ultimate expression of racism of any kind.
I visited Auschwitz in 1997 and wrote about it in The Globe and Mail (reprinted below). Five years ago, I posted about the Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibit entitled The Evidence Room that dealt with the gathering of evidence about the Holocaust, in particular the concentration camp at Auschwitz, to refute the Holocaust deniers. Reading Freedland’s important book is my latest act of remembrance. There will be more in the future.