These true-life stories let us escape, alongside the protagonists, from what could be described as “hell on earth.” They are accounts of almost unbelievable horror, relating the worst of what human beings will do to each other. A friendly warning:
These books will affect you.
“Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom” was written by Ilyon Woo. It’s the true tale of spouses William and Ellen Craft, both slaves in Georgia, who in 1848 embarked on a “journey of mutual self-emancipation,” heading for freedom in the North.
To prepare for their escape, the couple planned in as much detail as they could. They would travel in disguise: Ellen, who had very light skin, would dress as a white man, and William would act as her slave. The “white man” would appear to be frail and sickly to avoid conversation and to keep “his” servant nearby. (Look up the photo of Ellen dressed as a man and you’ll see how easy it was to believe.)
Escape was extremely dangerous; the author tells us, “In Georgia, any Black person was legally presumed to be enslaved until proven otherwise. William could be questioned at any time, not only by slave patrols but also by any White person, who was authorized to ‘moderately correct’ him if he did not respond. It would be illegal for William to fight back.”
Soon after the two started out, slave hunters were after them. Through brilliant planning and incredibly good luck, they made it to Philadelphia and then Boston, where they settled for a while. But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made sure that “every Black person in the United States of America — formerly enslaved or freeborn — was in danger, since, with no means of self-defense, any Black person might be kidnapped into slavery.” No longer safe in Boston or anywhere else in the country, they headed for Canada. From there, they eventually made their way to England.
For this book, the author has taken William’s own 1860 account of the escape, “Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom,” and added details and back story along with historical, geographical, and other information. The book also gives us a history lesson as Woo includes anecdotes of other former slaves and activists such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Ona Judge, and Robert Purvis.
I also read William’s account, which is fairly short, with digressions in which he attempted to explain — as if he needed to — why he felt he had the right to escape. It’s so moving to read the words of a former slave, eloquently conveying the desire for freedom and describing the hell of slavery he personally witnessed.
I recommend both books.
“The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke out of Auschwitz to Warn the World” by Jonathan Freedland recounts the ordeals endured by Rudolf Vrba, who was born Walter Rosenberg in 1924 in Slovakia. Vrba escaped from the Nazis several times but kept being caught. Each attempt taught him more. Also, he had miraculously good luck that saved his life several times.
The book opens with his exciting escape, then takes the reader back to his childhood. The Jewish boy had a memory for detail and learned several languages, traits that would later help him survive and tell his story.
By 1939, the Jew-hating Nazis had taken over Slovakia. Writes the author, “The antisemites’ enduring creed held that Jews were not merely unreliable, untrustworthy and irreversibly foreign, but also endowed with almost supernatural powers, allowing them to wield social and economic influence out of all proportion to their numbers.” By 1941 it was harder and harder for Jews, as everything was taken from them.
In early 1942 Walter got orders that he was to be “resettled” to work camps in Slovakia and later Poland, where he began to see “the black-is-white dishonesty” of the Nazis. The author presents Vrba’s description of daily life in the Majdanek concentration camp when he was 17. When authorities asked for volunteers for “farm work,” he jumped at the chance, thinking maybe he could escape from a farm. Ha!
The “farm” turned out to be Auschwitz. Now, he had to work or die; there was never enough food or sleep, yet “staying fit and strong was essential” because any weakness would get inmates killed. They were dehumanized, enduring freezing temperatures, “starvation rations, filth, hard labor and constant casual violence.”
Zrba was appointed to work in the adjoining camp at Birkenau, which turned out to be a death factory, where “he faced things almost impossible to fathom.” At the age of just 18, he was getting a first-hand look at what the Germans were doing.
He was assigned to sort through the personal belongings of the Jews murdered at Birkenau. Transferred to several other jobs, he saw more and more how the system all worked. “The truth was staring him too hard in the face and he could not look away.” As the killing got more and more efficient, he realized “the Nazis were bent on eradicating the Jewish people and they were doing it right here.” Not only that; they wanted to make money at it.
“Slowly at first, he realized that the Nazis were engaged in a great and devastating trick” — deception. They lied — even with a smile and a friendly face — at each step. They disguised the killing rooms and crematoria as a farmhouse, with fruit trees and flower beds. “No one was meant to know.” They needed their victims, who often outnumbered them, to be calm and accept instructions.
He knew the only way to stop what he called an “abattoir” was to escape and tell the world, which he did, in 1944. Yet once out, he found that people wouldn’t believe him. Granted, these are hard truths to accept; many people found the extent of the depravity impossible to comprehend. When Vrba’s written report was sent to political leaders, including in the United States, they turned it away, some scoffing that it was outrageous fiction.
“A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea” isn’t a new book, but it belongs in this company. It’s the first-hand narrative of Masaji Ishikawa. Born in Japan in 1947 to a Japanese mother and a Korean father, he was 13 years old in 1960 when his father moved the family to North Korea, following promises of a better life. The author was confined there 36 years until he finally escaped in 1996.
Ishikawa’s early childhood in Japan was idyllic, but school children taunted and bullied him because he was half-Korean. The ugly history between Korea and Japan caused hate on both sides. Ishikawa’s father had been “commandeered” (kidnapped) from Korea at the age of 14 and brought to Japan to work, so he was eternally bitter against Japan. As part of North Korea’s “mass repatriation campaign” in the late 1950s, Korean nationalists coerced the father into taking his family to North Korea, convincing him it would be a “promised land,” a “paradise on earth,” “a land of milk and honey,” and his children would receive a “first-class education.” All lies.
The family emigrated in January 1960. Upon arriving in North Korea, they were told by officials where and how they would live. The boy’s bad feeling about the move turned into panic when, for their first meal, he tells us, “They served us dog meat.” Uh-oh.
At school, he was bullied by classmates because he was part Japanese. All ages had to attend indoctrination sessions. “I soon learned that thought was not free in North Korea. A free thought could get you killed if it slipped out.” There were mandatory propaganda meetings, secret police, constant surveillance, and feeble food rationing. There was so little food, his mother would forage for weeds: bracken, ferns, wild mushrooms.
After graduation, he discovered that “your path was chosen for you” based on your caste, with “no chance of bettering yourself. No way out.” He writes, “When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you just do what you’re told.”
As an adult, things got even worse. He says, “We were indescribably poor.” It was such a brutal existence, his family members were often sick from eating poisonous weeds. He tells us, “Every day was like living in a nightmare” and even “I heard stories of cannibalism.” One day he suddenly decided he had to escape or die trying, and he just started running.
Because it’s a first-person account, the pain is raw and his bitterness comes through.
Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.