Alfred Wetzler’s “Escape from Hell”: Book review

Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba escaped together from Auschwitz in April 1942 and brought a damning and detailed report (their written text of which came to be known as the “Auschwitz Protocols”) to the world about what was happening in secrecy in the killing machine. I wrote about Rudolph’s book previously (…/rudolph-vrbas-i-cannot…/).
Wetzler’s recounting of events is placed in a semi-fictional framework, in which he refers to himself and Rudolph as “Karol and Val,” and imagines scenes in which we was not present such as meetings of SS men behind closed doors or the thoughts and discussions of prisoners in Auschwitz after he had already left the camp. These imaginings of situations he may not have been present for do not take away from the authenticity of the narrative, however, and Wetzler’s “Escape from Hell” is an important addition to the body of work on the Holocaust. Wetzler does not shy away from courageously facing and recounting the horrors:
“His gaze stops in the right-hand corner of the camp: a little way away, maybe two hundred metres further to the right, is a huge, deep trench. Ceaselessly, thick, heavy smoke and hissing steam are rising from it, gas and fire and the stench of burning flesh, mixed with the smell of burning alcohol, oil, fat and benzene. Almost continually the sound of firing comes from the trench, screams, imploring, shrieks and prayers – and the crack of wood.”
“Two SS men, one from each side, hold out their cudgels horizontally, about forty centimeters from the ground. No one manages to jump over them. They try to duck under them and the blows continue to hail down on them. And even above that terrible shouting you can clearly hear the cracking of ribs, shoulder blades, arms, legs, spines and skulls.”
“Lausmann has sent many to hell already. Not so long ago he had thirty inmates buried up their chests and then, along with a few other SS men, rode their horses over them until their heads were a shapeless mess.”
He writes detailed accounts of day-to-day life in the camp:
“Life is not life, nor is death what it normally is. The huts are not accommodation and the clothes aren’t clothes. The food has a taste of washing-up water. The water that does not assuage thirst or fertilise the soil, but is infected with typhus and kills. Day doesn’t begin with morning nor end with evening and night provides no rest. Work is a nonsensical, torturing progress, it doesn’t make life easier, but it serves the death of others and brings one’s own closer.”
He powerfully evokes tension and terror as he narrates the intricate planning of the escape, the excruciating days in hiding before leaving the camp, and the grueling trek south to Slovakia.


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