In this riveting historical thriller from New York Times bestselling author Andrew Gross, a US intelligence officer is sent into Auschwitz to help one man escape.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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The One Man
By Andrew Gross
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Andrew Gross
All rights reserved.
The barking of the dogs was closing in on them, not far behind now.
The two men clawed through the dense Polish forest at night, clinging to the banks of the Vistula, only miles from Slovakia. Their withered bodies cried out from exhaustion, on the edge of giving out. The clothing they wore was tattered and filthy; their ill-fitting clogs, useless in the thick woods, had long been tossed aside, and they stank, more like hunted animals than men.
But now the chase was finally over.
"Sie sind hier!" they heard the shouts in German behind them. This way!
For three days and nights they had buried themselves in the woodpiles outside the camp's perimeter wire. Camouflaging their scents from the dogs with a mixture of tobacco and kerosene. Hearing the guards' bootsteps go past, only inches away from being discovered and dragged back to the kind of death no man could easily contemplate, even in there.
Then, the third night, they clawed their way out under the cover of darkness. They traveled only at night, stealing whatever scraps of food they could find on the farms they came upon. Turnips. Raw potatoes. Squash. Which they gnawed at like starving animals. Whatever it was, it was better than the rancid swill they'd been kept barely alive on these past two years. They threw up, their bodies unaccustomed to anything solid. Yesterday, Alfred had turned his ankle and now tried to carry on with a disabling limp.
But someone had spotted them. Only a couple of hundred yards behind, they heard the dogs, the shouts in German, growing louder.
"Hier entlang!" Over here!
"Alfred, come on, quick!" the younger one exhorted his friend. "We have to keep going."
"I can't. I can't." Suddenly the limping man tripped and tumbled down the embankment, his feet bloody and raw. He just sat there on the edge of exhaustion. "I'm done." They heard the shouts again, this time even closer. "What's the use? It's over." The resignation in his voice confirmed what they both knew in their hearts: that it was lost. That they were beaten. They had come all this way but now had only minutes before their pursuers would be upon them.
"Alfred, we have to keep moving," his friend urged him on. He ran down the slope and tried to lift his fellow escapee, who even in his weakened condition felt like a dead weight.
"Rudolf, I can't. It's no use." The injured man just sat there, spent. "You go on. Here —" He handed his friend the pouch he'd been carrying. The proof they needed to get out. Columns of names. Dates. Maps. Incontrovertible proof of the unspeakable crimes the world needed to see. "Go! I'll tell them I left you hours ago. You'll have some time."
"No." Rudolf lifted him up. "Did you not vow not to die back there in that hell, just to let yourself die here ...?"
He saw it in his friend's eyes. What he'd seen in hundreds of other sets of eyes back at the camp, when they'd given up for good. A thousand.
Sometimes death is just simpler than continuing to fight.
Alfred lay there, breathing heavily, almost smiling. "Now go."
From the woods, only yards away, they heard a click. The sound of a rifle being cocked.
It's over, they both realized at once. They'd been found. Their hearts leaped up with fear.
Out of the darkness, two men stepped forward. Both dressed in civilian garb, with rifles, their faces gritty and smeared with soot. It was clear they weren't soldiers. Maybe just local farmers. Maybe the very ones who had turned them in.
"Resistance?" Rudolf asked, a last ember of hope flickering in his eyes.
For a second, the two said nothing. One merely cocked his gun. Then the larger one, bearded, in a rumpled hunting cap, nodded.
"Then help us, please!" Rudolf pleaded in Polish. "We're from the camp."
"The camp?" The man looked at their striped uniforms without understanding.
"Look!" Rudolf held out his arms. He showed them the numbers burned into them. "Auschwitz."
The barking of the dogs was almost on them now. Only meters away. The man in the cap glanced toward the sound and nodded. "Take your friend. Follow me."CHAPTER 2
This was the first time he'd been asked to sit in with such esteemed company, and Captain Peter Strauss hoped, after what he had to propose, it wouldn't be the last.
It was a drizzly Monday eve, and the mood around the table inside the Oval Office of the White House was as somber as the leaden skies outside. News of the two escapees, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, had reached President Roosevelt's inner circle within days of them making it across the Polish border to Slovakia.
As one of Bill Donovan's youngest, but chief, OSS operations officers and a Jew himself, Strauss knew that suspicions of Nazi extermination camps — not just forced labor camps — went as far back as 1942, when reports filtered out from European Jewish groups of some 100,000 Jews forced from the ghettos in Warsaw and Lodz and likely killed. But the firsthand accounts from the two Auschwitz escapees, strengthened by actual documents they brought with them from the camp's administrative offices listing names, numbers, and the factory-like process of mass liquidation, gave credence to everyone's worst fears.
Around the oval table, Roosevelt; his secretary of war, Henry Stimson; Treasury Secretary Robert Morgenthau; William Donovan, his chief spymaster and head of the Office of Strategic Services; and Donovan's aide, Captain Peter Strauss, pored over the grim report and pondered just what it meant. Even more troubling were the escapees' claims that the death camp was rapidly expanding and that the pace of the exterminations, by mass gassing, had increased. Thousands upon thousands were being systematically wiped out each week.
"And this is only one of many such places of death," Morgenthau, a Jew as well, and whose prominent New York banking family had seen that the escapees' firsthand accounts got into the president's hands, uttered grimly. "Reports suggest there are dozens more. Entire families are being sent to the gas chambers as soon as they arrive. Towns."
"And our options are what, gentlemen?" A disheartened FDR looked around the table. A third, bloody year at war, worry of the upcoming invasion, the decision to run for a fourth term, and the advance of his crippling disease had all taken their toll on him but did not diminish the fight in his voice. "We can't just sit back and allow these unconscionable acts to continue."
"The Jewish Congress and the World Refugee Board are imploring us to bomb the camp," the treasury secretary advised him. "We cannot simply sit on our hands any longer."
"Which will accomplish what, exactly?" Henry Stimson, who had served in the administrations of two presidents prior to FDR and who had come out of public retirement to run the country's war effort, asked. "Except to kill a lot of innocent prisoners ourselves. Our bombers can barely make it all the way there and back with a full payload. We'd suffer considerable losses. And we all know we need every one of those aircraft for what's coming up."
It was May 1944, and word had leaked even to Strauss's level of the final preparations under way for the forthcoming invasion of Europe.
"Then at least we can disrupt their plans and bomb the railway tracks," Morgenthau pleaded, desperate to convince the president to take action. "The prisoners are brought there on sealed trains. That would at least slow down the pace of the exterminations."
"Bombers flying all over Europe at night ... Making precision strikes on rail tracks? And as you say, there are many such camps?" Stimson registered his skepticism. "I believe the best thing we can do for these poor people, Mr. President, is to get to them and liberate them as swiftly as possible. Not by sponsoring any ill-conceived raids. That's my view."
The president drew in a breath and took off his wire glasses, the deep channels around his eyes reflecting the pallid cast of a conflicted man. Many of his closest friends were Jews and had urged action. His administration had brought more Jews into the government than any before it. And, as a humane and compassionate being, always seeking to give hope and rise to the common man, he was more repelled by the report of the atrocities he'd just read through than by any that had crossed his desk in the war, even more than the tragic losses of American lives on the beaches in the Pacific or the loss of troops at sea on their way to England.
Yet as a realist, Roosevelt knew his secretary of war was right. Too much lay ahead, and all of it far too important. Plus, the anti-Jewish lobby was still a strong one in the country, and reports of soldiers lost predominantly trying to save Jewish lives would not go well as he sought to gain a fourth term. "Bob, I know how hard this is for you." He put his hand on the treasury secretary's shoulder. "It's hard for all of us, to be sure. Which brings us to the reason we are all here tonight, gentlemen. Our special project. What's it called, 'Catfish'?" He turned toward the head of the OSS, Colonel Donovan. "Tell me, Bill, do we have any real hope that this project is still alive?"
"Catfish" was the name known only to a very few for the undercover operation Strauss was in charge of to smuggle a particular individual out of Europe. A Polish Jew, whom FDR's people claimed was vital to the war effort.
As far back as 1942, it had been discovered that bearers of certain Latin American identity papers were awarded special treatment in Warsaw. For several months, hundreds of Polish and Dutch Jews were issued counterfeit papers from Paraguay and El Salvador to gain exit from Europe. Many had made their way to northern France, where they were interned at a detention center in the village of Vittel, while their cases were gone over by skeptical German officials. As doubtful as the Nazis were about the origin of these papers, they could not afford to upset these neutral Latin American countries, whose authoritarian rulers were, in fact, sympathetic to their cause. How these particular refugees were able to acquire these papers, purchased secretly through anti-Nazi emissaries in the Paraguayan and Salvadoran embassies in Bern, as well as their dubious provenance, was always clouded. What also remained unclear was how contacts friendly to the United States had been able to get them into the hands of the very subject and his family (aka "Catfish") they were attempting to smuggle out. For a while, the prospects looked hopeful. Twice, transport out of Europe had been arranged, via Holland and France. Yet each time the Germans blocked their exit. Then, just three months ago, an informer from Warsaw had blown the papers' suspect origins wide open, and now the fates of all the Vittel Jews, including the one they so desperately wanted, were completely up in the air.
"I'm afraid we've hit a snag, Mr. President," Donovan said. "We don't know for certain if he's even there."
"Or if he is, if he's even still alive ..." Secretary of War Stimson added. "Our intelligence on the matter has all gone dark."
The emissaries who had passed along the documents had been arrested and were now in Nazi jails.
"So I'm told we still need this man. At all costs." The president turned to his secretary of war. "Is this still true?"
"Like no other." Stimson nodded. "We were close in Rotterdam. There was even transport booked. Now ..." He shook his head somberly, then took his pen and pointed to a tiny spot on the map of Europe that was on a stand next to the conference table.
A place called Oswiecim. In Poland.
"Oswiecim?" Roosevelt put back on his glasses.
"Oswiecim is the Polish name for Auschwitz, Mr. President," the secretary of war said. "Which, in light of the report we've all just read, is why we're here."
"I see." The president nodded. "So now he's one of five million faceless Jews, forced out of their homes against their will, without papers or identity?"
"And to what fate, we do not know ..." Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau shook his head gravely.
"It's all our fates that are in the balance, gentlemen." Roosevelt pushed his wheelchair back from the table. "So you're here to tell me we've done everything we can to find this man and get him out. And now it's lost. We've lost."
He went around the table. For a moment, no one replied.
"Perhaps not completely lost, Mr. President." The OSS chief leaned forward. "My colleague Captain Strauss has looked at the situation closely. And he believes there might be one last way ..."
"A last way?" The tired president's gaze fell on the young aide.
"Yes, Mr. President."
The captain appeared around thirty, slightly balding already, and a graduate of Columbia Law School. A smart cookie, Roosevelt had been told. "All right, son, you've got my attention," the president said.
Strauss cleared his throat and glanced one more time at his boss. He opened his folder.
"Go on." Donovan nodded to him. "Tell him your plan."CHAPTER 3
JANUARY, FOUR MONTHS EARLIER
THE VITTEL DETENTION CENTER, OCCUPIED FRANCE
"Papa, Papa, wake up! They're here!"
The shrill of whistles knifed through the frigid morning air. Dr. Alfred Mendl awoke in his narrow bunk, his arm wrapped around his wife, Marte, protecting her from the January cold. Their daughter, Lucy, stood over them, both nervous and excited. She'd been at the blanket-covered window of the cramped room that was fit at most for four, but which they now shared with fourteen others. This was no place for a girl to pass her twenty-second birthday, as she had just the night before. Huddled on lice-infested mattresses, sleeping amid their haphazard suitcases and meager belongings, everyone slowly stirred out of their blankets and greatcoats with the anticipation that something clearly was up.
"Papa, look now!"
On the landing outside, the French milice were going room to room, banging on doors with their batons. "Get up! Out of bed, you lazy Jews. All those holding foreign passports, take your things and come down. You're leaving!"
Alfred's heart leaped. After eight hard months, was this finally the time?
He jumped out of bed, still dressed in his rumpled tweed pants and woolen undershirt, all that kept him warm. They had all slept in their warmest clothes most every night for months now, washing them whenever they could. He nearly tripped over the family stretched out on the floor next to them. They rotated the sleeping arrangements a month at a time.
"Everyone holding foreign passports packed and out!" a black-clad policeman threw open the door and instructed them.
"Marte, get up! Throw everything together. Maybe today is the day!" he said to his wife with a feeling of hopefulness. Hope that had been dashed many times over the past year.
Everyone in the room was murmuring, slowly coming to life. Light barely crept through the blanket-covered sills. Vittel was a detention camp in the northeast corner of France, actually four six-story hotels that formed a ring around a large courtyard, not exactly "four stars," so the joke went, as it was all surrounded by three rows of barbed wire manned by German patrols. Thousands were held there — political prisoners, citizens of neutral or enemy countries whom the Germans were hoping to exchange — although the Jews, mostly of Polish and Dutch descent, whose fate was being decided by Berlin, were kept together on the same ward. The French policeman who entered their room stepped between the rustling bodies, prodding people along with his stick. "Didn't you hear me? All of you, up, packed. Quick, quick! Why are you dallying? You're shipping out."
Those who were slow to move, he nudged sharply with his stick and kicked open their suitcases that were strewn on the floor.
"Where are we going?" people questioned in various languages and accents: Polish, Yiddish, and awkward French, everyone scurrying to get their things together.
"You'll see. Just get yourself moving. That's my only job. And take your papers. You'll find out downstairs."
Excerpted from The One Man by Andrew Gross. Copyright © 2016 Andrew Gross. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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