A young Jewish man escapes from Nazi occupied Poland, and he resettles in America. When he discovers that his entire family has been wiped out by Hitler, he is consumed with guilt because he escaped while they did not. When he is asked to volunteer for a very dangerous “top secret” mission, he believes it will be an opportunity to redeem himself, and he agrees. Franklin Delano Roosevelt has personally thanked him for accepting this assignment.
Nathan Blum is tasked with returning to Poland in order to sneak into Oswiecim, better known as the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The Americans want him to extract a scientist, Alfred Mendl. He is a physicist who might be able to help them develop the Atom Bomb ahead of the Germans who are working on a similar research project. A qualified team has already been assembled, and he is the final missing piece. Essentially, it sounds like a suicide mission because no one who enters Auschwitz ever leaves alive, let alone with another prisoner.
Blum is dropped into a forest in Poland and secretly joins a camp work force when it returns to Auschwitz. He has three days to complete the mission. He witnessed, first hand, the terrible suffering of the prisoners and the almost impossibility of surviving in the brutal environment of the camp. Hitler’s minions were sadists who had no compunction about inflicting pain or death.
Into this mix came a romance that was difficult to believe, between the Commandant’s wife and a teenaged boy, Leo. Leo was a fabulous chess player and was gifted with a fantastic memory. He happened to be the camp chess champion. The Commandant’s wife was a lover of chess and soon had him brought to her home for afternoon matches. An unusual friendship developed. When Mendl discovered Leo’s ability to memorize everything, he decided to teach him his formulas. The Nazis had destroyed his work, not realizing its importance. They also developed a deep relationship. He wanted Leo to commit all of his formulas on fusion to memory. This was his only way to preserve them.
When Blum found Mendl, which was difficult to believe in a camp of thousands, among many other reasons, like the inmates did not answer to a name, but instead to a number, he attempted to explain his mission to him. Mendl, of course, had some trepidation about the plan; he did not want to agree, but was convinced it was important that he help in the war effort, and he was as good as dead inside the camp anyway. He had one condition. He would only go if he could take Leo with him. Instead of telling Blum why, he told him Leo was his nephew. This was just one of the many times the author inserted unnecessary reasons to create excessive tension in situations that lacked credibility. The ensuing conversation turned the tide of the escape because when Nathan made a shocking discovery about his family, he was reminded of Mendl’s words. He had asked Blum about what type of person would leave their flesh and blood behind while saving themselves. Blum was faced with a huge predicament.
The book included a bit too much melodrama. The excessive number of twists and turns made it irritating at times. Every time the reader thought a turning point had been reached, something would happen to stall the momentum. An incredible tangent might be created or another near miss would occur that prevented the successful completion of the task. In the end, there were simply too many diversions in the book to hold a steady pace.
After awhile, it did not feel authentic. Even a minor student of history would be aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and its eventual outcome. This story created around that real historic tragedy was implausible and simply didn’t work that well. The reader would know that it could never happen the way it was presented. In addition, the plan seemed to be doomed to fail because no one could realistically have cheated death so many times, especially in that time and place. It was often luck that kept some people alive, but luck eventually runs out. The only thing that really kept me interested in the novel was the question of how the author would create the fantasy of Blum’s success or failure, but it took too long to get there.