Auschwitz was a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II and the Holocaust. Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 were murdered.
The victims included 960,000 Jews (865,000 of whom were gassed on arrival), 74,000 ethnic Poles, 21,000 Romanis (an Indo-Aryan ethnic group of traditionally nomadic itinerants), 15,000 Soviet POWs, and up to 15,000 other Europeans.
Those not gassed were murdered via starvation, exhaustion, disease, individual executions, beatings and medical experiments.
Only 789 Schutzstaffel (SS) personnel no more than 15 per cent of the thousands who ran the camps stood trial after the Holocaust ended; several were executed, including the camp commandant, Rudolf Hess.
Soviet troops entered the camp on January 27, 1945, a day commemorated since 2005 as International Holocaust Day. Auschwitz was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
At least 802 prisoners tried to escape, 144 successfully.
In April 1944, nineteen-year-old Rudolf Vrba and fellow inmate Fred Wetzler became the first Jews ever 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 Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution. After his escape, that information would form a priceless thirty-two-page report that would reach US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Pope Pius XII 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, through Jonathan Freedland’s ‘The Escape Artist The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz To Warn The World’ (John Murray Press), and he can take his place alongside those whose stories define history’s darkest chapter.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist and former foreign correspondent. He is the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s contemporary history series, ‘The Long View’, as well as two podcasts, ‘Politics Weekly America’ for the Guardian and ‘Unholy’, alongside Israeli journalist Yonit Levi.
He is a past winner of an Orwell Prize for journalism. He is the author of twelve books, including nine thrillers, mostly as Sam Bourne, including ‘The Righteous Men’, which was a Sunday Times number one bestseller.