Impos­si­ble Escape: A True Sto­ry of Sur­vival and Hero­ism in Nazi Europe

  • Review
By – January 22, 2024

In his new book about Jew­ish hero­ism dur­ing the Holo­caust, Steve Sheinkin describes the har­row­ing events of Rudolf Vrba’s life. Vrba, a Slo­va­kian Jew who escaped from Auschwitz and pub­li­cized its hor­rors, not only sur­vived but focused on sav­ing oth­er Jews from a worse fate. Sheinkin presents this sto­ry with his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy, com­pelling lan­guage, and care­ful fram­ing of Vrba’s motives and deci­sions. The result is both an essen­tial retelling of Vrba’s life and a cogent analy­sis of how Europe’s Jews were near­ly annihilated.

Using under­state­ment and brief, tele­graph­ic sen­tences, Sheinkin con­veys how Vrba’s nor­mal life was shat­tered and replaced by ter­ror. When the book begins, Vrba is a sev­en­teen-year-old who is attempt­ing to cross the bor­der from his home­land into Hun­gary. As he removes the com­pul­so­ry yel­low star from his cloth­ing, the nar­ra­tor notes that this was the first law he would break that night.”

To explain the con­di­tions that gave rise to Nazism, Sheinkin grounds Rudolf Vrba’s sto­ry in its his­tor­i­cal con­text. Between the wide­spread dis­tri­b­u­tion of the infa­mous The Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion and restric­tive immi­gra­tion laws in both the Unit­ed States and Great Britain, an atmos­phere of hatred — or, at least, a dan­ger­ous lev­el of indif­fer­ence — pre­vailed. When deal­ing with the most dif­fi­cult mate­r­i­al, includ­ing the mech­a­nisms of killing Jews in the death camps, Sheinkin doesn’t hold back. He describes the impos­si­ble moral dilem­ma of the Son­derkom­man­dos, Jew­ish inmates who were forced to lead pris­on­ers to the gas cham­bers and dis­pose of their bod­ies. Yet his descrip­tions are nev­er gratuitous.

The escape itself is cin­e­mat­ic. Vrba used a children’s atlas he’d found among the per­son­al effects of pris­on­ers, which would be burned along with their own­ers. There are sev­er­al close calls and improb­a­ble moments when his cause seems lost. The par­al­lel nar­ra­tive of Vrba’s child­hood friend, Ger­ta Sidonová, who also ded­i­cates her­self to Jew­ish sur­vival, high­lights the role of women in the strug­gle against fascism.

Late in his life, Vrba chose to tes­ti­fy against a shame­less Holo­caust denier in the Cana­di­an court sys­tem. Force­ful­ly con­tra­dict­ing the man’s lies, Vrba gave renewed mean­ing to his per­son­al his­to­ry and to the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple. Impos­si­ble Escape is a focused and thought­ful explo­ration of resis­tance, even under the worst cir­cum­stances, and even when the out­come of that resis­tance is incom­plete. As Sheinkin writes, There are no sto­ry­book end­ings here.”

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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