In November of 2011, I decided to go to visit the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. I’d never been there before. I didn’t really even want to go. But I knew I had to. So I invited several friends — a pastor from the U.S. and his wife, and a pastor from Germany and his wife. Unfortunately, my wife, Lynn, wasn’t able to join me. But the trip had a profound effect on me.
It was a surreal and sobering experience to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. It’s hard to describe the emotions of standing in an actual gas chamber where people were murdered, seeing the ovens where bodies were burned, walking through the cell blocks, seeing the guard towers and barbed wire and train tracks. It was haunting to realize that more than one million people were systematically murdered there, and most of them were Jews.
While I was there, I purchased a book that explained that there had been many escape attempts from Auschwitz, but only a handful of successful escapes. I was stunned. We had hired a special guide to take us through the camp. He was a really bright, educated man. He had been an excellent guide, and we had learned so much. But he hadn’t mentioned anything about escapes. I had never heard about any escapes. But this book gave a brief description of several of them.
Intrigued, as soon as I got home, I started tracking down any resource I could about these men who had risked everything to get out. How had they succeeded? What was their plan? Who helped them? What did they do when they got out? Did they tell anyone in the Jewish community, or among the Allies, what they had seen, what the Nazis were doing at Auschwitz? The more I learned, the more intrigued I became. It turned out there were several non-fiction books written by several of the men who escaped, and several about them. There were even several novels on the subject. But they were old. Some were out of print. If they once had been discussed – I’m sure they were – but they seemed long forgotten.
As I continued to do my research, I realized that April 7th, 2014 would be the 70th anniversary of the greatest escape in human history – the day Rudolf Vrba and Fred Wetzler escaped from the worst of the Nazi death camps. That’s when I began thinking about writing a novel inspired by these true stories that might draw attention back to the greatest escape in human history by men determined to tell the world the truth about what Adolf Hitler was really doing to the Jews. If I could finish it and release it by the spring of 2014, I thought I might be able help people remember these incredible stories of courage and heroism and faith.
Without question, The Auschwitz Escape was by far the most emotionally exhausting book I’ve ever written. By that I mean I had to immerse myself in the history of the Holocaust – books, documentary films, web sites, museums, research centers, conversations with survivors, conversations with experts, and so forth. And the history is more horrific that you can possibly imagine. Even when you think you understand what happened back then, you uncover more darkness, more evil. My wife and kids could see the effect it was having on me. I could see it, as well.
I knew the story needed hope. Yes, the fact that men escape from this unimaginably cruel extermination camp provides hope. They live. They survive. They tell others. Absolutely. But it wasn’t enough. For me, as an evangelical Christian with Jewish roots on my father’s side, I wanted to find out if any Christians did the right thing to help the Jews. Intellectually, I knew the answer was yes, there were Christians who had done the right thing. But I also knew that far too many people who said they loved Jesus refused to obey Him, refused to love their neighbors during the darkest period in the history of the Jewish people. Some were too scared. Some lost their faith. Some never had any faith at all, they were just giving lip service to the Gospel. It breaks my heart, but tragically it is true. Far too many so-called “Christians” failed the Jewish people when they needed us most.
That’s when I stumbled upon the story of Le Chambon and the pastors of this little Protestant village in France who risked their lives to save thousands of Jews fleeing from Hitler and the Nazis. The more I read, the more I knew this was the story of hope I needed to weave into the novel. And I think it’s the combination of the two stories – the story of a German Jewish teenage boy whose family is nearly wiped out and is sent to Auschwitz, and that a young Frenchman who is a husband and a father and an assistant pastor in Le Chambon, both fictional, but both inspired by true stories – it’s the fusion, the combination of these two story lines, that makes The Auschwitz Escape storyline work for me.
Soon, I got fascinated in who these young men were, how they get sent to Auschwitz, how they met, how different they are, and how they get involved in these escapes. This is what gave me hope, even excitement, if I can use that term, to write every day – trying to understand them and going on this hero’s journey with them both not entirely knowing how the story would wind up when I began.
In addition to going to Auschwitz, and reading everything I could get my hands on, I also traveled to Israel and visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum and research center. They were very gracious and allowed me to come twice, meet with several of their scholars, ask them many questions, tour their facilities, and try to make sure my work of historical fiction was as accurate as I could possibly make it. Several of the scholars actually knew some of the men who had escaped, had interviewed them, had long discussions with them, and their insights were so helpful.
They also took me down into their vaults and showed me copies of “The Auschwitz Protocol,” the document that was compiled by eyewitness accounts from Rudolf Vrba, Alfred (Fred) Wetzler, Arnost Rosin, and Czeslaw Mordowicz, the four Jewish heroes who risked their lives to tell the world the truth about what the Nazis were really up to. Too few people know these four men’s names, but I hope that will change. The Yad Vashem scholars helped me better understand who they were, and what they wrote, and I hope you take time to understand them, too. It was absolutely fascinating, and I’m deeply grateful for their help.
The novel releases nationwide today. I look forward to your comments — which you can post on our “Epicenter Team” page on Facebook — and your questions!
Joel C. Rosenberg’s Blog