Nathan Thrall Longlist Interview
6 October 2023
How does it feel to be longlisted?
It's thrilling to be longlisted for such a prestigious prize, not least because one of the driving aims of this book was to secure recognition for a man whose astonishing achievement has been overlooked for so long. Rudolf Vrba was not garlanded in his lifetime, even though the extraordinary action he took as a 19 year-old Jewish inmate in Auschwitz led to the saving of 200,000 lives. If, in a small way, the recognition of this book helps bring more people to Vrba's story, then that will be a cause for great celebration.
How did you conduct your research?
I was lucky that Vrba left behind so many words: whether court testimonies or interview transcripts; long, handwritten letters or his own memoir written six decades ago. But I was luckier still to spend many hours speaking both to his widow, Robin Vrba, and to his first wife (and former childhood sweetheart) Gerta Vrbova, who I found living alone, aged 93, in Muswell Hill, north London. In what would be the last weeks of her life, Gerta and I sat in her garden during the Covid summer of 2020, as she told me of the boy she knew before Auschwitz - and the man he became.
Why do you think Vrba continued to run, even after the war?
He was a man who could not accept imprisonment in any form, whether his captors be the Nazis of Auschwitz or the rulers of postwar, communist Czechoslovakia. He believed it was obvious that he should be free. It's also true that he was a man who struggled to conform, and who often ended up in conflict with the institution - or even country - where he found himself. He could not get along with the infant state of Israel where he lived for a short while in the late 1950s, just as he clashed with colleagues in the research job he held in 1960s London. And so he moved on. That was Vrba's modus vivendi: if he reached a dead end, he simply found a way out.
Why do so few people know about Vrba today?
The book argues that Vrba was the teller of inconvenient truths. His Holocaust testimony did not paint a simple picture of evil Nazis pitted against a just and noble world. Instead, he pointed an accusing finger at the Nazis, of course, but also at those who had failed fully to act on, or pass on, his warning: that included the Allies, Churchill and FDR, and even specific Jewish leaders, especially in Hungary. That made him an awkward witness, one who could not be relied on to tell a comforting tale - and one prone to descend into "accusations and rage", to quote one colleague. The result is that people kept their distance: he did not become a media star or celebrated writer. Experts would seek him out for his almost unique expertise on the mechanics of the Auschwitz death camp, but he did not become famous. And so his story remained known only to specialist historians and the like. The Escape Artist seeks to correct that oversight, in the hope that Rudolf Vrba might perform one last act of escape - that he might escape our forgetfulness, and be remembered.
What are you working on next?
Ah, I will have to keep that card close to my chest. I have come across a jaw-dropping story - but it's very early days indeed.
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