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The book corner: The Escape Artist

  • 11 October 2022
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by Jonathan Freedland  Hachette, 2022   We read for all sorts of reasons: for enjoyment and relaxation, for mental stimulation, in order to expand our knowledge and vocabulary, among other things. But sometimes, I think, it is our duty to read certain books, even if we have to steel ourselves to do it. This is my view of Jonathan Freedland’s book, which is an extremely harrowing tour de force: at one stage I could read only a chapter at a time. But by the end I had been reminded of the power of the human spirit, and of the way in which some people, those with a sense of mission, can endure almost any trial. Resilience is a great gift.

I think Jonathan Freedland himself must have a great deal of resilience. Writing, in whatever form, is not an easy practice, and the writing of biography can be peculiarly demanding. Research needs to be painstaking and precise, and there is always the possibility of gaps in vital information, gaps that can go unfilled. Often the biographer doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and finding a thread of fact can be very difficult. Freedland first came across Slovakian Holocaust survivor Rudolf Vrba, who started life with the name Walter Rosenberg, when he, Freedland, at the age of 19, sat through the 9-hour documentary Shoah. Thirty years later, he started to research Rudolf/Walter’s life in the threatening, plague-ridden atmosphere of 2020, when the notion of truth was very much under attack. For the young Rudolf/Walter was driven by the desire to make a particularly horrifying truth known to a largely ignorant world. The sub-title of The Escape Artist is The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World. In the Author’s Note, Freedland indicates the sheer hard work of research that is necessary before the equally hard work of writing starts.

Jonathan Freedland is Jewish, and was brought up in North London, home to many British Jews prominent in the arts and sciences. He has worked on a kibbutz in Israel, and is an Oxford graduate. Now in his mid-50s, he has had a distinguished career in writing, having written both thrillers and non-fiction works, and has recently scripted a play that is currently showing at the Royal Court theatre in London. He writes for the Guardian: for a deeply touching