"TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF," HIS mother said as he got into the taxi. "And don't forget to change your socks."
The car pulled from the curb. In the back seat, Rudi tore the yellow Star of David from the sleeve of his jacket. Jewish citizens of Slovakia were required to wear the star in public.
This was the first law he would break that night.
He ducked below the window, his heart pounding into his ribs, as the driver sped out of town and across the flat farmland to the south. Rudi had a little cash in his pocket. He had a box of matches, a compass, and some clothes in a small travel bag. Not much for the epic trek he planned.
But he was seventeen. He felt invincible.
After thirty minutes on dark roads, Rudi saw the glow of streetlights up ahead, and snow falling through the light. He sat up, grabbing his bag, as the car stopped in the small city of Sered.
The fare, said the driver, was 400 crowns.
Rudi had 200 crowns, total. And that was supposed to last him all the way to Great Britain.
He held out his cash, all of it.
The driver studied the money, pulling at the tip of his mustache.
"You'd better keep half," the man said, looking at his young passenger. "You're going to need it."
Rudi pocketed the money. As the taxi drove away, he stood in the falling snow, looking around.
Warm lights in café windows.
Groups of people at tables. Drinking, talking, laughing.
A policeman on patrol, coming his way.
Rudi turned and strode to the edge of town, toward the fields and woods along the border of Hungary. That was step one: slip across the border to Hungary. From there, his plan was to continue south, cross into German- occupied Yugoslavia, make his way down to the sea, find some way to board a boat to Britain, and join up to fight against Adolf Hitler.
Rudi's mother had tried to talk sense to him. This was March 1942, two and a half years into World War II. Germany had conquered most of Europe. Hitler's forces were rounding up young Jewish men, shipping them to unknown destinations. How could Rudi hope to stay hidden? How could he cross all those borders?
But Rudi was seventeen. Invincible.
His mother had stopped arguing. She'd gathered every cent she could spare from her dressmaking business and handed it all to her son. She'd even suggested the taxi. It was the quickest way to get near the border, and probably safe, if the driver kept his mouth shut.
Well, so far so good. Rudi made it out of town. When he was sure he was alone, he stopped and struck a match and held the flame to the face of his compass. He was headed in the right direction.
It was a smooth start to what would prove to be a journey into hell.
RUDI WOULD FIND A WAY to fight Adolf Hitler. It can be said, without risk of exaggeration, that he would go on to be—while still a teenager—one of the great heroes of the entire Second World War.
But not in a way he ever could have imagined.
Growing up in the Central European country of Czechoslovakia, Rudolf Vrba's life was pretty good. Pretty normal. He liked school, especially science. He and his friends—some Jewish, some Christian—went to movies and soccer matches.
Sure, Rudi was aware of Europe's long history of prejudice against Jews. He'd hear the occasional antisemitic joke in the market— someone would be bargaining with a merchant, and they'd say, "What are you? A Jew or a human?"
It was ignorant and cruel. But this too was normal. All part of life for a Jewish kid.