The author of One Mile Under (2015) changes genres with a heart-pounding thriller set in the bowels of Auschwitz.
In Washington, D.C., in early 1944, Capt. Peter Strauss learns that Polish Dr. Alfred Mendl has been sent with his family to Auschwitz and confirms he’s still there and possibly still alive. Mendl is an electromagnetic physicist believed to have knowledge key to America’s secret efforts to build an atom bomb. Strauss proposes the impossible: have someone sneak in, get Mendl out, and bring him to America. So OSS translator Nathan Blum is carefully trained for “one of the most vital undercover missions of the war.” FDR himself commands Blum, Do not fail. Meanwhile, the Nazis don’t kill Mendl because his fluent German comes in handy to them. They also don’t kill 16-year-old Leo Wolciek, the camp’s chess champion, because he’s so entertaining to watch. Mendl learns that Leo has an astonishing memory and secretly convinces him to memorize a vast amount of scientific information—Mendl fears he will die and hopes that somehow Leo may get his critical knowledge into Allied hands. It’s the thinnest of hopes. (It’s unclear how Mendl knows he has precisely what the Allies sorely need, but no matter.) Either man could be clubbed to death by a guard or a kapo at any time. The camp is run by the Lagerkommandant, whose wife is amused to watch Leo play chess. Meanwhile, the stench of human waste and wasted humans pervades the camp. Yet in the midst of all the tension and horror, there are faint flickers of hope—and humanity from a most unexpected source. But the escape will probably fail, and evil will probably exact its toll yet again. So don’t bet on the outcome of this one, and do keep your tissues handy.
This is Gross' best work yet, with his heart and soul imprinted on every page.