Reading Group Roundup: The Escape Artist

The report this month comes from HMP Wormwood Scrubs where Jonathan Freedland came to the PRG reading group to discuss his recent book, The Escape Artist (2022, updated 2023)

Have some of you visited Auschwitz?’ – not a question I’ve heard from a guest-author before. What a privilege and a pleasure it was to welcome Jonathan Freedland to our bookclub at HMP Wormwood Scrubs this month. Jonathan is a journalist and novelist (he writes thrillers under the name of Sam Bourne), and he was here to discuss The Escape Artist, his best-selling non-fiction book about Rudolf Vrba, one of the very few to escape from the death camp. ‘An immediate classic’, ‘Extraordinary’, ‘A must-read’: blurbs on the backs of books can overdo it, but in this case they are all spot-on. This is indeed an extraordinary book, and we had a full house for a careful and thoughtful session.

Quite a few had visited Auschwitz and there was a lot of interest in the issues raised in Jonathan’s book. Some surprised us. The economic side of the camp for instance: how big business was involved, and how confiscated possessions were methodically monetised. Freedland describes Rudi’s realisation about the programme of elaborate and detailed deception which enabled the camp to operate.

But Auschwitz and Rudolf’s exciting escape from it are only one half of the book. The second half is about the fate of the report which Rudolf wrote with his escape partner Alfred Wetzler, and his own post-war life. Rudi believed that once the meticulously factual report was made known (his recall was phenomenal, Freedland calls him Memory Man), action would be taken immediately and lives would be saved. But as Jonathan says in the book,

‘A horror is especially hard to comprehend if no one has ever witnessed anything like it before.’

This was the problem Rudolf Vrba faced. How could this first shocking and appalling report to come out of Auschwitz be true? And if it was, what could or should the Allies do? The mind-sets, strategies and tactics of the Allies – should they have bombed the railway lines leading to Auschwitz; how much was anti-semitism a restraining factor; do facts and figures make a stronger case than the powerful story of an individual case: there was so much to talk about. It’s estimated that Vrba and Wetzler’s report did save more than 200,00 lives but Rudolf always regretted it wasn’t more; we learned that this is something rescuers often feel.

Jenny Hartley (PRG) & Jonathan Freedland

Jonathan first came across Rudolf Vrba in Claude Lanzman’s acclaimed film about the Holocaust, Shoah, forty years ago. He said he came back to him in 2016, when the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year was ‘post-truth’. Belief and knowledge are at the heart of Rudi’s story. He hoped the facts would speak for themselves. Jonathan quotes the French-Jewish philosopher Raymond Aron when he was asked about the Holocaust:

‘I knew, but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.’

Rudi lived to a good age but could be a difficult person, awkward and aggressive. He had yet more  sorrow with the death of his daughter. But he didn’t, Jonathan pointed out, go into either denial or depression. ‘Instead,’ Jonathan writes in his book, ‘he was doing something much harder and more admirable. He was carrying the losses he had endured, and living all the same.’

What a fascinating session. ‘Intense,’ someone commented, ‘but in a good way’.

Yes, absolutely. Thank you, Jonathan, for joining us, and for giving us so much to think and talk about.

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