Harsimran Kaur ON  Mar 01, 2024, IN BOOK REVIEW, The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland – Non Fiction

Rating: 5/5

‘The thought of escape never escaped him.’ Was it an urgency to defy the degradations of the Jews or a desideratum to seek approval of the world to denunciate the horrific man-slaughter at the Nazi Camps?

His idea of escape was not the archetype adventure aflutter and neither had it meant to ride on a self-justifying exculpation. He wanted to escape for the spirit of humanity and survival because he believed in the belief to ‘live’; to live to bring the holocaust at Auschwitz at the forefront—the debilitating walking skeletons, influx of disease, the German chicanery and their illusionist mindset that grew over the years like mushroom in a damp dark wood. 

Who was to blame? Walter Rosenberg often asked himself! He never wanted to be the laggard incarcerated in the suffocative bars of Auschwitz forever. He wanted to escape and he did!

‘Intellect’ is often underestimated, isn’t it? Because not all our visionaries. ‘Intellect’ is sometimes regarded as delusional because ‘ignorance’ is an easy acceptance of the unfamiliar. Intellect questions; why subservience has become the raison d’etre? Walter probed why breaking norms would not be morally acceptable if it’s for the greater good of humanity. He did just the improbable and broke out of Auschwitz in April 1944.

Undeniably impressive and unapologetically poignant, ‘The Escape Artist’ by Jonathan Freedland captures the imprecated lives of Jews under the Nazi regime, and the despotic ‘Special Squad’ at the camps leering Jews in promiscuous heaps of dying & the dead. Walter Rosenberg from Slovakia became the first Jew along with his inmate companion Fred Wetzler to escape the deplorable sights of Auschwitz.

One is predisposed to think was it easy to escape the invertebrate solipsism of the Nazis?

The soporific seethe in the heart of the Jews was an in absentia for the SS who left no stone unturned to incriminate and impugn them. In the midst of mayhem, what was it that Walter wanted? He in fact wanted to be in certitude of the cataclysm and probably then act for the cessation of it. It would have been living on a dead terrain and dream of freedom.

The author discreetly emphasizes,

“He applied that precious brain of his—the brain of a boy who had taught himself chemistry from a single forbidden textbook.”

Auschwitz was a slaughter house where humans were treated in the most deplorable way. They were reduced to bended-back diminutive creatures, capitulating to the impertinence of the German soldiers. They became cack-handed in their belief to be restored to normalcy; what transpired was a caterwaul of dried emotions lurking in the forbidden testimony of life. Walter transformed the chimera into a ‘successful escape’ journeying through perilous roads, thorny bushes and casuistry against the impressionistic Nazis. 

The escape had a plan!—learnings from past failures, vandalizing ‘trust’ if offered as a gift and his short tenure at Majdarek where the number game gave a sense of familiarity and went a long way to help him count the dead. The stench nauseated Walter, and he knew a decision had to be made. His transfer to Kananda opened a real can of worms, perspicacious for Walter to understand the Nazis economic activity. At the Ramp in Auschwitz he was a witness to the selection process, and Birkenau gave him a protected status.

He now wanted to protect the Jews of Hungry;

“He had learned in Auschwitz that escape was a science whose discipline could not be rushed”. Through this discipline and a desirous urgency to stop further mayhem, he escaped and travelled to spread the word. He finally became Rudolf Vrba.

  • His mind was intact, not a rudderless boat ready to be capsized by a twirl of tumultuous waves. Was he correct in assessing the situation of the outside world that seemed to be ignorant to Nazis subterfuge and rabble-rousing?
  • Was there a hidden agenda? Why the allies and Jews in the safe harbor could not smell the purulent air of conflagration of humanity? Had the fight for power become too rigid to be bereft of the tenebrous survival?
  • What was Walter’s intention? His report collaborated through his prodigious memory warned the world of the perils of aggrandizement where a man becomes the dust of one’s feet. Nazis took pleasure in the power game and grimed the blood of the Jews till the last drop screamed to be tonsured off the body.

‘The Escape Artist’ sometimes carries scary spells of unbelievability of how insidious a characteristic can be. On the flip side, it gives an impetus to stand for the ‘right to live’ and crush the sclerotic system of abrasive power.

Walter Rosenberg/ Rudolf Vrba is a man to be remembered for his courage and stoicism. His life after the escape had its own trials and tribulations but he came out of the woods fine; a person who was destined to save the world from further destruction and keep the paradigms of humanity alive.


The book encapsulated his mind rather discretely,

“He now understood that the difference between knowledge and ignorance, between truth & lies, was the difference between life & death.”

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