I usually like reading historical fiction, but it’s hard to read about the awful things done by the Nazis in their death camps. Looking through the fiction choices in Tyndale’s Summer Reading Program, however, I thought it seemed like a better choice than most of the others.
I had heard of Joel Rosenberg and had for some time thought about reading one of his novels, but I never got around to it. (There are always so many other good books to read.) When I saw that he had written this historical novel set in WWII, I decided to give The Auschwitz Escape a try.
My initial impression, from reading the six chapter of Part One, was that I was not particularly impressed. It deals with the character Luc, an assistant pastor in a small town in France, who ends helps Jews who are escaping from Germany and other Nazi-occupied territories. That’s admirable, certainly, but as a character Luc seems rather flat.
He is a good man who is doing what he feels he needs to do in obedience to God, faithful even at the risk of his life. Very admirable – but he just doesn’t seem to come alive as a character, at least to me. (He shows up later in the book, still faithful in even more difficult circumstances, but he never becomes a well-developed character in my view.)
Part Two introduces Jacob, who turns out to be the central character of the book. He is a much more fully developed character, through whose eyes we see the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the danger of opposing them even in small ways, but also the need to do so. We feel his fear and his determination, his horror at the crimes against humanity that he witnesses, and his impatience when he has to bide his time while suffering and watching others suffer.
By the time plans are being made for escape (I don’t think that’s too much of a spoiler considering the title), I found myself torn between wanting to read on and see what happened, whether Jacob would make it to freedom, and not wanting to have to read more details about how cruelly the Nazis treated people. I read on, of course, but this is a book one can appreciate but not really enjoy reading.
Perhaps if it had just been fiction and not historical fiction, I could try to set the atrocities aside as mere inventions of an author trying to write a really dramatic story. But of course this is based on well-documented history. The characters in the novel are fictional, but the description of life – and death – in the Nazi death camps is not. I’m not inclined to read fiction with this sort of content. But this is fiction acting as a vehicle for acquainting people with real history.
It is impressive to realize what real people did in circumstances like those that Jacob and Luc and others found themselves in. My own tendency is not to take risks. I do what I think I need to do, but the risks are very low-stakes in comparison with anything these characters face. I wonder what I would have found the courage to do under similar circumstances.
One thing I appreciate about the book is that it deals with faith, but unlike some Christian fiction it does not feel like a novel-length evangelistic tract. Jacob comes from a Jewish family whose religion is more a matter of a few traditional ceremonies than a living faith. (Perhaps rather like that of my own grandfather Jacob’s family, also Jews from Germany, though they emigrated to this country decades earlier.)
He is deeply distrustful of Christians, especially after witnessing the behavior of camp guards who seem to find no contradiction between their cruelty to the prisoners six days a week and their attendance at church on Sunday. Sometimes he would like to believe in an all-powerful, loving God, and find hope in that faith. But after what he has seen and experienced, how can he believe in such a God?
Another thought-provoking aspect of this book concerns the lack of response by the Allies to the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jews. The Nazis made it very hard to escape from their camps, not just to keep prisoners in the camps, but more importantly, to keep information about what was going on there from reaching the Allies. When rumors did get out, they were seen as too far-fetched to believe.
By the time it became clear what was really happening, the Allied forces were fully deployed fighting the war. Could some forces have been diverted to liberate the camps sooner, enough to succeed in their objective without seriously hurting the Allies’ chances of winning the war? Was the decision not to so a sound strategic decision, or an excuse for treating Jewish lives as more expendable? Pretty hard to say, at this point in history.
I still haven’t decided if I’ll read any more of Rosenberg’s novels. But while I can’t say I enjoyed this one, I’m glad I read it.