The One Man

  • Review
By – June 29, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

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