(Jerusalem, Israel) — Yesterday, Israelis solemnly marked “Yom HaShoah,” the annual day in which we pause to remember the six million Jews exterminated during the Holocaust. At 10am, all over the country, air raid sirens wail for two straight minutes. All traffic stops. All commerce halts. Everyone stands at attention and remembers what was, and what could be again one day if we do not remain vigilant against the forces of evil.
This morning, I’ve decided to re-post a column I wrote several years ago, explaining how I came to write my only work of historical fiction as my way of helping inspire more people to learn about the Holocaust. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read the column, and share it with your children, and with other family and friends.
With hatred of Jewish people once again spiking around the world — a new report released this week finds that anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. doubled in 2018 — and now with the ghastly shooting inside the synagogue near San Diego, this is precisely the right time to be discussing such matters, and how to counter them, again.
REFLECTIONS ON WRITING THE AUSCHWITZ ESCAPE
One of the most important things for a writer to do is get out of the house and go to someplace you’ve never been before. You’ve got to get out of the office and go visit places where fascinating, important things have happened. Yes, spend some money. You can’t just sit around reading and researching, even though those things are important. You need to go and feel and touch and see and smell history. You need to meet people and ask questions, and, most importantly, listen carefully to their answers.
In November of 2011, I decided to go to visit the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. I’d never been there before. I didn’t really even want to go. But I knew I had to. So I invited several friends – a pastor from the U.S. and his wife, and a pastor from Germany and his wife. Unfortunately, my wife, Lynn, wasn’t able to join me. But the trip had a profound effect on me.
It was a surreal and sobering experience to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. It’s hard to describe the emotions of standing in an actual gas chamber where people were murdered, seeing the ovens where bodies were burned, walking through the cell blocks, seeing the guard towers and barbed wire and train tracks. It was haunting to realize that more than one million people were systematically murdered there, and most of them were Jews.
While I was there, I purchased a book that explained that there had been many escape attempts from Auschwitz, but only a handful of successful escapes. I was stunned. We had hired a special guide to take us through the camp. He was a bright, educated man. He had been an excellent guide, and we had learned so much. But he hadn’t mentioned anything about escapes. I had never heard about any escapes. But this book gave a brief description of several of them.
Intrigued, as soon as I got home, I started tracking down any resource I could about these men who had risked everything to get out. How had they succeeded? What was their plan? Who helped them? What did they do when they got out? Did they tell anyone in the Jewish community, or among the Allies, what they had seen, what the Nazis were doing at Auschwitz? The more I learned, the more intrigued I became. It turned out there were several non-fiction books written by several of the men who escaped, and several about them. There were even several novels on the subject. But they were old. Some were out of print. If they once had been discussed – I’m sure they were – they seemed long forgotten.
As I continued to do my research, I realized that April 7th, 2014 would be the 70th anniversary of the greatest escape in human history – the day Rudolf Vrba and Fred Wetzler escaped from the worst of the Nazi death camps. That’s when I began thinking about writing a novel inspired by these true stories that might draw attention back to the greatest escape in human history by men determined to tell the world the truth about what Adolf Hitler was really doing to the Jews. If I could finish it and release it by the spring of 2014, I thought I might be able help people remember these incredible stories of courage and heroism and faith.
Without question, The Auschwitz Escape was by far the most emotionally exhausting book I’ve ever written. By that I mean I had to immerse myself in the history of the Holocaust – books, documentary films, web sites, museums, research centers, conversations with survivors, conversations with experts, and so forth. And the history is more horrific that you can possibly imagine. Even when you think you understand what happened back then, you uncover more darkness, more evil. My wife and kids could see the effect it was having on me. I could see it, as well.
I knew the story needed hope. Yes, the fact that men escape from this unimaginably cruel extermination camp provides hope. They live. They survive. They tell others. Absolutely. But it wasn’t enough. For me, as an Evangelical with Jewish roots on my father’s side, I wanted to find out if any Christians did the right thing to help the Jews. Intellectually, I knew the answer was yes, there were Christians who had done the right thing. But I also knew that far too many people who said they loved Jesus refused to obey Him, refused to love their neighbors during the darkest period in the history of the Jewish people. Some were too scared. Some lost their faith. Some never had any faith at all, they were just giving lip service to the Gospel. It breaks my heart, but tragically it is true. Far too many so-called “Christians” failed the Jewish people when they needed us most.
That’s when I stumbled upon the story of Le Chambon sur Lignon and the Evangelical pastors of this little Protestant village in France who risked their lives to save thousands of Jews fleeing from Hitler and the Nazis. The more I read, the more I knew this was the story of hope I needed to weave into the novel. And I think it’s the combination of the two stories – the story of a German Jewish teenage boy whose family is nearly wiped out and is sent to Auschwitz, and that a young Frenchman who is a husband and a father and an assistant pastor in Le Chambon, both fictional, but both inspired by true stories – it’s the fusion, the combination of these two story lines, that makes The Auschwitz Escape storyline work for me.
Soon, I got fascinated in who these young men were, how they get sent to Auschwitz, how they met, how different they are, and how they get involved in these escapes. This is what gave me hope, even excitement, if I can use that term, to write every day – trying to understand them and going on this hero’s journey with them both not entirely knowing when I began how the story would wind up exactly.
In addition to going to Auschwitz, and reading everything I could get my hands on, I also traveled to Israel and visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum and research center. The leaders there were very gracious and allowed me to come twice, meet with several of their scholars, ask them many questions, tour their facilities, and try to make sure my work of historical fiction was as accurate as I could possibly make it. Several of the scholars actually knew some of the men who had escaped, had interviewed them, had long discussions with them, and their insights were so helpful.
They also took me down into their vaults and showed me copies of “The Auschwitz Protocol,” the document that was compiled by eyewitness accounts from Rudolf Vrba, Alfred (Fred) Wetzler, Arnost Rosin, and Czeslaw Mordowicz, the four Jewish heroes who risked their lives to tell the world the truth about what the Nazis were really up to. Too few people know these four men’s names, but I hope that will change. The Yad Vashem scholars helped me better understand who they were, and what they wrote, and I hope you take time to understand them, too. It was absolutely fascinating, and I’m deeply grateful for their help.
Now that the book is out, I’ll be curious to see how people react and what kind of questions they ask.
The hardest thing for people to really understand, I think, when it comes to the Holocaust, is that it happened at all, and that it could happen again. How could human beings do such ghastly things to other human beings? How could it have happened in our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes? These are haunting questions, especially when you think of all the evil that is going on in the world today.
One of the central points I make in the book is this: “Evil, unchecked, is the prelude to genocide.” What I mean by that is when people don’t act decisively to stop evil, that evil grows and grows until it robs, kills and destroys everyone in its path.
The problem is that so many in our modern, Western, “sophisticated” world don’t believe in evil. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t believe evil is a real force in our world today. And this is dangerous. As I’ve said in the past, “to misunderstand the nature and threat of evil is to risk being blindsided by it.”
Americans didn’t understand the evil Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime represented for far too long. So we didn’t act decisively until six million Jews were killed, and millions of others were killed as well. We didn’t understand the evil Saddam Hussein represented until he gassed the Kurds and raped and pillaged Kuwait. We didn’t understand the evil Osama bin Laden represented until he killed some 3,000 of us, and had built a global network of Radical Islamic jihadists that we’re still fighting, more than a decade after 9/11.
The Scriptures tell us that evil is real.
The word “evil” is used 510 times in the New American Standard Bible.
The first time is in Genesis 2:9, speaking of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
The next to last time in 3 John 1:11 – “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God.”
The last time is in the Book of Revelation, chapter two, verse two, in the Lord Jesus Christ’s message to the church in Ephesus – “‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false.”
But today, I don’t think many world leaders truly understand the evil that the leaders of Iran represent.
The mullahs in Tehran are telling us they want to “wipe Israel off the map.” They say they want to destroy the United States – whom they call the “Great Satan” — even as they move steadily towards nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. That is evil. The Iranian leadership wants to bring about a Second Holocaust. This is evil. A new poll we just conducted finds that 80% of Americans believe that Iran wants to bring about a “Second Holocaust.”
Americans overwhelmingly understand the danger.
Yet many Western leaderse do not. And I – like many Americans – are deeply concerned that they are not taking decisive action to stop this evil before it’s too late.
Another concern I have is that the longer time passes — it’s been seven decades since the Holocaust happened – and the further away we get from the events, the bigger the danger that people will forget what happened, and stop learning the lessons from the Holocaust.
The good news is that there is more Holocaust education being done today than perhaps at any other time. There are museums and books and novels and plays and movies. But just because more is available doesn’t mean we are really teaching our young people, for example, what happened and how to prevent such evil from triumphing again.
Take Schindler’s List, the Academy Award winning film by Steven Spielberg. That was a work of art, inspired by a true story from the Holocaust. It was so powerful. But that film was released in 1993. That’s more than a quarter of a century ago. Yes, many people have seen it. But the memory of the film fades, and a whole generation of kids are unfamiliar with it.
Perhaps in some small way, The Auschwitz Escape will help draw some attention back to these important stories, and the vital lessons we can and must learn from them.
Maybe the book will inspire people to take their kids to a Holocaust museum.
Maybe it will inspire them to read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, and The Diary of Anne Frank, and Night by Elie Wiesel, and Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, or any of the other books that I used in the research for this novel, all of which are listed in the back.
Maybe it will inspire them to start praying for Israel and the Jewish people, to start investing in organizations like The Joshua Fund that cares for Holocaust survivors, or even take their family to visit Israel.
I hope so. A novel has a way of capturing people’s imagination, of drawing people into a story, of helping them go into a world so foreign to them and feel it, experience it in a very powerful way. But in the end, a novel is just a story. We need to do more than read about history. We need to make history. We need to apply what we learn. We need to go show the love of Jesus to people who need His love, His mercy, His kindness.
Maybe The Auschwitz Escape will inspire people to rediscover the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to love Him more deeply, and to love others in His name.
- To order a copy of THE AUSCHWITZ ESCAPE in hardcover, paperback, ebook or audio formats, please click here.
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