Two intrepid librarians

Two intrepid librarians review the best nonfiction books for children

Monday, September 11, 2023

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

 Impossible Escape: a True Story of Survival and Heroism in Nazi Europe
Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook Press. 2023

Sheinkin continues to pen dramatic nonfiction narratives of little known chapters in history. In 2013, Sheinkin won the Robert F. Sibert award and a Newbery Honor for his book, Bomb: The Race to Build - and Steal - the World's Most Dangerous Weapon. 

In Impossible Escape, Sheinkin tells the story of Rudolf (Rudi) Vrba, a Jewish teen who, after being imprisoned in Auschwitz, does the impossible and escapes.  Rudi's decision to do the impossible was to tell the world the truth of what was happening to millions of Jews during World War II. 

Rudolf (Rudi) Vrba grew up in Czechoslovakia. He was Jewish. Used to the occasional antisemitic comments, but as Hitler rose to power and his assault on Jews grew more violent, Rudi was determined to find a way to Britain so he could join up and fight against Adolf Hitler. In March, 1942, while attempting his plan, Rudi was capture and eventually was sent to Auschwitz. He was seventeen. 

After surviving in Auschwitz for almost two years, Rudi, along with another prisoner, Alfred (Fred) Wetzler, successfully escaped. Two weeks after their escape, Rudi and Fred made it to Slovakia. Once in Žilina, Rudi and Fred "gave the first detailed, eyewitness accounts of the Auschwitz death factory to reach the outside world."

The narrative shifts between Rudi’s experience in the camp and his commitment to finding a way to escape and sharing the historical backstory on events that led to World War II and the Holocaust. Alternating throughout the book is the story of Gerta Sidonovà. Also from Czechoslovakia, Gerta and Rudi knew each other briefly before Rudi's attempt at escaping to Britain. Also Jewish, but with blonde hair, Gerta's wartime experience was relatively safe until later in the war when Hitler forced other countries to transport their Jewish population to the concentration camps. The book concludes with Rudi and Gerta meeting up again after the war and started a new life. 

Included is an epilogue, source notes, a very detailed bibliography and index. It would have been interesting in an author's note to read what led Sheinkin to share Rudi's story. 

This is a difficult book to read as Sheinkin does not skimp on sharing the details of the hatred and cruelty inflicted on prisoners as seen through Rudi’s eyes. A perfect book for school and public libraries. This would work well to augment a class about World War II or to spark a conversation on why people chose hate over love. A must read for Holocaust deniers!

You can go here to watch an episode of PBS's Secrets of the Dead that covered Rudi and Fred's escape. 

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