The One Man
By Andrew Gross
In The One Man, best-selling author Andrew Gross has devised one of the most improbable plot-lines imaginable: Smuggle a person into the dreaded Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp on a critical mission to extract someone out. Not just anyone, mind you, but the “one man” who single-handedly can turn the tide of the Second World War.
It is the spring of 1944. While the Germans are in full retreat in southern Europe and on the Eastern Front, two monumental efforts are underway to help the Allies crush the Nazis and end their putative Thousand-Year Reich.
It is widely speculated that a massive invasion of France to open up the so-called second front is in the planning stages, likely to be launched before summer. The other project, conversely, is being carried out under an enormous blanket of secrecy, primarily in the desert of New Mexico, where physicists, mathematicians, and numerous other specialized scientists are madly scrambling to beat the Nazis to the finish line of atomic weaponry.
Despite the presence in Los Alamos of Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Neils Bohr, the organizers of the atomic bomb project determine that they will fail to develop this game-changing weapon first if they do not have access to the brilliant mind of Polish-Jewish nuclear scientist Alfred Mendl. Mendl’s life-long specialized research, it seems, holds the key to solving a critical problem that will finally lead to the weaponization of atomic energy. Intense diplomatic efforts to rescue Mendl from Nazi-occupied Europe have failed and the scientist and his family are deported to Auschwitz.
American military and intelligence leaders then make the fateful decision to put in motion a dangerous and likely impossible mission to dispatch a single agent to penetrate the death camp. He will have 72 hours to find Mendl, smuggle him out of the camp, and get to the predetermined rendezvous point to board the rescue plane to safety.
Enter Nathan Blum, a Polish Jew who escaped the Krakow ghetto and made his way to America. Blum has been serving his adopted country by translating Polish documents for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, but he desperately wants to do more to assist the war effort and to assuage his terrible guilt over abandoning his family. Offered the rescue mission, Blum must decide if he can balance this urgent need to help end the war and avenge his family’s certain death with the horror of returning to occupied Poland and passing through the Gates of Hell to somehow find Mendl and, against all odds, get him out.
No spoiler alert is necessary to acknowledge that Blum manages to insert himself into the camp to begin his rescue mission. Over the next three days his own life is in constant danger as he searches for Mendl and attempts to implement the rescue plan. Along the way, we meet three other key figures who will each have a profound impact on the unfolding mission: a brilliant teenager who has become the camp chess champion; a ruthless German intelligence officer who has uncovered evidence of the plot; and the wife of the Nazi second-in-command. Like any good thriller, there are hold-your-breath twists and turns as the 72 hours count down, and a gripping ending to the narrative.
In an interview, Andrew Gross acknowledged that, “There’s been a canon of literature based on life in such camps, much of it written by people who experienced it firsthand, and it surely wasn’t my goal to write the definitive Auschwitz book.”
What Gross does in The One Man, though, is deftly meet the primary challenge of Holocaust fiction to evoke the horrors of the genocidal depravity in a compelling creative account without treading on or trivializing the sacred memory of the Shoah.
Given the extraordinarily tight timeline of Blum’s mission, there are a couple of plot devices that, while necessary to move the narrative along, stretch credulity a little. Overall, though, The One Man is a fascinating read that will capture your attention to the very last page.