The Writer's Page: Walking in Their Footsteps: An Impossible Escape Research Trip

Early on the morning of August 1, 2022, I joined a group of hikers at the gates of what was once the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and we set off on a six-day, 140-kilometer trek across southern Poland. Within a couple of hours, it became clear that I was in for the most challenging research trip of my writing life.

I’d come to this part of Europe to explore the sites in my then-upcoming nonfiction book, Impossible Escape: A True Story of Survival and Heroism in Nazi Europe. The main figure, a Slovak Jew named Rudolf Vrba, was locked in ­Auschwitz at seventeen. Against all odds, he managed to survive there for nearly two years — all the while searching for an escape plan.

In the spring of 1944, he and a friend, Alfred Wetzler, pulled off what really was thought to be impossible. They broke out of the camp and, traveling by night, dodging Nazi patrols, weaved their way across occupied Poland to Slovakia. After reaching their home country, they dictated their testimony to local Jewish leaders, who typed up what became known as the Vrba-Wetzler Report, the first detailed eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities in the death camp to reach the outside world. Publication of these facts helped halt the deportation of Hungary’s remaining Jews, saving about two hundred thousand lives.

I somehow missed this story as a Jewish teen. All the more reason to tell it now.

The watchtower at Birkenau.
Photo courtesy of Steve Sheinkin.

And so here I was in Poland, one of about forty people on the Vrba-Wetzler Memorial March, an annual walk in the footsteps of the young heroes. We began by hiking around the massive perimeter of the Birkenau camp, past rows and rows of wooden barracks and the ruins of crematoria. We marched into the woods, continued past farms, through small towns, along roads and train tracks. I was struggling to keep up. Many of the marchers had those fancy hiking poles that helped somehow. Was I supposed to bring those?

Around noon we stopped at a little gas station grocery. My fellow hikers welcomed the break, striding toward the store calling “pivo! pivo!” — beer, that is. I was hot and exhausted. I just wanted to sit down, maybe eat a chocolate bar. The day before, in the pounding rain, I’d done a full-day tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I knew the story from books and movies, but the sheer size of the place, the industrial scale of the hatred, was horrifying. I felt drained before the march even began. And now, hunched over on the gas station curb, I admitted to myself that I was also pretty out of shape. What had I gotten myself into?

After the short break, we gathered to read aloud from Rudi’s and Fred’s accounts of their escape. The passages were in Slovak. I was the only person there not from Slovakia or the Czech Republic, but I followed along in my copy of Rudi’s memoir in English. “The Slovak border is about eighty miles from Auschwitz as the crow flies,” Rudi wrote, recalling his first morning on the run. “Unfortunately, Fred and I were only Jews, which meant we had to walk, and the road which lay ahead ran through dangerous country.”

“Dangerous” was a massive understatement. Rudi and Fred were wanted men traveling through Nazi-occupied territory. They started out with little food and no money. For directions, they had to rely on a map in Rudi’s memory — a page from a children’s atlas he’d briefly glimpsed a year before (one of my favorite scenes in the book). They were severely malnourished from two years in Nazi camps. They had shaved heads, prison numbers tattooed on their forearms, and accents that would give them away as foreigners the moment they opened their mouths. Could they knock on the door of an isolated home and hope for help from a Polish family? Maybe. But the Nazis might shoot anyone they caught helping escaped prisoners.

I thought about all of this as I listened to the readings. Our journey was nothing like theirs, of course. We were walking in the open, stopping at roadside stores. Still, we were following their route. I’d get to see the landscape they traveled through, walk up the same mountains, feel the angle of the slopes. I’d been researching Rudi’s story for two years, but here was something you can’t get from books or primary sources, something that felt like more than research. The opportunity to walk in Rudi’s and Fred’s footsteps was also a chance to honor them. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

My mood improved as we resumed the journey. The other hikers were very friendly and curious about my work. Whenever Peter, who led the march, stopped to consult his map and give directions for the next stage of the walk, someone always took the time to translate the instructions into English for me. Our evening destination was “just five more kilometers” away. Then “only a few more.” This happened several times. We finally made it to a country inn, devoured supper, and slept in shared rooms echoing with snores. Early the next morning, we set out again.

Over the following days we walked across farmland and through fields of wildflowers. We hiked into dark forests and along shallow rivers. The terrain turned mountainous as we journeyed south. Rudi and Fred had counted on this, relying on slipping unseen through the remote wooded hills. I kept a ­notebook handy, adjusting descriptions and details in the latest draft of my book. In some places, based on maps Rudi would later mark up for historians, we were able to identify exact spots in the escape, including a beautiful alpine meadow overlooking forested slopes and a distant lake. This was the place where Rudi and Fred were fired at and chased by a German patrol on one of their many close calls with disaster.

I grew a bit stronger as we went along. I had less trouble keeping up and more time to let my mind wander, to think of my grandmother Anna, who was born in Poland and told stories of being spit on as a child and called various anti-Jewish slurs. Both of my parents’ families were Jewish and from this part of Europe, which changed hands between Poland and Russia and was overrun by the Nazis during World War II. They had the good luck to get out in time. Was I fascinated by this part of the world? Furious with it? Frightened by it? All of that. And it gave this trip, and this book I was trying to write, a different feel from my other travels and projects.

The author with the sculpture marking where Vrba and Wetzler crossed the border into Slovakia. Photo courtesy of Steve Sheinkin.

On the sixth day of our hike, we crossed the border into Slovakia. The spot is marked with a sculpture in honor of Rudi and Fred. This was a major moment in their escape. They were hardly safe, but at least had a chance to blend in, to find old friends if they were still alive. We traveled by train, as they had, to the city of Žilina and gathered in the basement room where they made their lifesaving report. A fitting ending to our trek.

The next day I took a train to Budapest. I spent a couple of days walking around this stunning city, seeking out key sites in Gerta Sidonová’s escape story. Gerta — another central figure in my book — was one of Rudi’s childhood friends. Fifteen when Rudi was swept into the Nazi camps, Gerta endured her own epic fight for survival, living under false identities, slipping across borders, joining anti-Nazi resistance groups. Near the end of the war, Rudi and Gerta’s stories reconnect in a remarkable way that I won’t spoil here. If you’d put it in a novel, people would roll their eyes in disbelief.

This was a tough story to live with for a couple of years. But I’m glad I did it. It’s a story I’m eager to share. With Impossible Escape, I do something that I’ve often tried to do in my books — tell a “big” piece of history through the eyes of a few real people, in this case teenagers. I’m hoping the book will spark conversations about both the past and the future. I know teens will see parallels to the dangers of prejudice and hatred in other times and places, including our own.

I realize this is history some people prefer to leave in the past — or outright deny. The sort of story that some don’t want students to have access to anymore.

All the more reason to tell it now.



Photo courtesy of Ensworth School.

A School Visit

Steve Sheinkin visited Ensworth School in Nashville (where I teach) earlier this year to talk to the assembled ninety-nine eighth graders about Impossible Escape, which they had read in English classes. Steve talked about his writing process, so his presentation became a writing workshop as much as a book talk. He talked for thirty minutes, then allowed fifteen for a question-and-answer session.

The students were an appreciative audience with lots of good questions. They were especially interested in the author’s trip to Poland to participate in the Vrba-Wetzler Memorial March. Many students of this age tend to engage with stories about WWII and the Holocaust, and Impossible Escape, a true story featuring protagonists just a bit older than they are, captured their attention (and eighth graders can be a tough audience!). Not only is it a great book about an important subject featuring real-life heroes, but also, the author’s narrative choices were apparent to students as they read — the alternating third-person points of view, the use of foreshadowing, and the frequent use of exposition to provide historical context for the story. The students write research papers in eighth grade and are accustomed to using and citing a few sources, but they were amazed at the sheer scale of the source notes and bibliography.

This was part of our Holocaust unit, which also included Susan Campbell ­Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow. Steve’s book offers the particular stories of Rudi Vrba, Fred Wetzler, and Gerta Sidonová, while Bartoletti’s offers additional context for those stories. Together, they prepared our students well for the spring trip to Washington, DC, which includes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Dean Schneider

From the May/June 2024 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Our Centennial.

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Steve Sheinkin

Steve Sheinkin is the author of Impossible Escape, Fallout, Born to Fly (all Roaring Brook), and Bomb (Flash Point/Roaring Brook), among others. Accolades include a Newbery Honor, three National Book Award finalists, and he is the winner of a 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Award for Undefeated; the 2016 BGHB Nonfiction Award for Most Dangerous, the 2014 BGHB Nonfiction Award for The Port Chicago 50, and the 2011 BGHB Award for Nonfiction for The Notorious Benedict Arnold (all Roaring Brook).

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