It is 1944 and the United States is working hard to develop a weapon to end World War II. One man, an electromagnetic physicist from Poland named Alfred Mendl, has the expertise to separate the uranium isotopes necessary for creating the weapon. Unfortunately, he is a prisoner in Auschwitz. His wife and daughter are already dead and he is getting weaker. He takes a young chess champion with a prodigious memory under his wing and teaches him the important formulas so that the knowledge will live on if he does not survive.
Meanwhile, an American OSS officer who has knowledge of the camp — thanks to a map drawn by the only prisoners who managed to escape — devises a plan to rescue Mendl. Lieutenant Nathan Blum, the only member of his family to escape from Poland, is fluent in Polish and German. Blum plans to infiltrate the camp, find Mendl, and escape with him with some help from the Polish resistance. From there, the story exciting story moves between Mendl’s efforts to pass on his knowledge and Blum’s attempt to rescue him.
The One Man is based on the experience of Andrew Gross’s Polish father-in-law, a survivor. Gross immediately brings his readers into the story with very realistic descriptions of life in a concentration camp. The terror of not knowing whether one will live another day, the brutality of the guards, and the visceral imagery of the crematorium are front and center. The characters are well developed, too: Strauss, another OSS officer, is the son of a cantor, and although he is not observant himself, he feels obligated to help fellow Jews; Nathan Blum has a strong sense of survivor guilt and feels that he must atone by rescuing Mendl; the Polish partisans who help Nathan risk their lives to fight the Nazi tyranny. Ultimately, assistance comes from a most unlikely source.
This is an exciting book that will keep readers turning the pages as they follow the events and contemplate the many ethical issues raised. In addition to genocide, the development of weapons of mass destruction, and efforts to combat these evils, there are some surprises in store for readers. Book clubs will have much to discuss and all readers who pick up The One Man are in for a treat.