VRBA firstname.lastname@example.org_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2006-04-08 published
Rudolf VRBA, Scientist And Professor (1924-2006)
He was the man who beat Auschwitz, writes Sandra MARTIN. In 1944, he escaped the death camp to warn the world and save the lives of 150,000 Hungarian Jews, but remained bitter that 400,000 were sacrificed
By Sandra MARTIN, Page S11
Yesterday was the 62nd anniversary of Walter ROSENBERG's escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp in Poland, where more than a million people were killed during the Second World War. Auschwitz irrevocably changed Mr. ROSENBERG, who was only 19 when he escaped. For the rest of his life he lived under the name Rudolf VRBA, the nom de guerre, as he called it, that he adopted after his escape.
Independent, prickly and uncompromising, Mr. VRBA, who had a successful academic career as a biochemist at the University of British Columbia and was the author of more than 50 scientific papers, hated being thought of as a victim or a survivor -- and with good reason. Nobody had rescued him -- he had beaten Auschwitz. A tough guy who tended to be a moral absolutist, he was also warm, funny and a generous and loyal friend. "He struck a very fine sartorial note," said his colleague Professor Michael WALKER. "He was always well dressed and he had a presence and a style about him."
Mr. VRBA was not the only person to flee the extermination camp, but he and his friend Alfred WETZLER were the most important of the five escapees from that hellhole of depravity. They bore detailed and accurate witness to the layout and function of the gas chambers and crematoria and they spread the alarm about the diabolical extermination plans in store for Hungarian Jews. And that is another way that the Holocaust changed Mr. VRBA: Instead of rejoicing that the Auschwitz Protocol (as his detailed report was called) saved at least 150,000 Hungarian Jews, he remained bitter that more lives hadn't been saved, believing to the end of his life that the Hungarian Jewish leaders knowingly sacrificed more than 400,000 of their countrymen in order to save themselves and their families.
The past is not a simple place, especially for those who disinter the myths that spread like moss over the moral complexities of horrific events to make them more palatable for the living. Mr. VRBA was a troubling character to many because he threatened the solidarity of the post-Holocaust Jewish community with his accusations of complicity in his memoir I Can't Forgive. (First published in London in 1963, the book was revised and expanded by Mr. VRBA several times during his lifetime.) As a result, it was easier for many to ignore Mr. VRBA's heroism than to honour it.
Ruth Linn, dean of education at Haifa University, and a native-born Israeli, had never heard about anybody escaping from Auschwitz and neither had her students -- until she watched French director Claude Lanzmann's 1985 documentary Shoah. How was it possible, she asked herself, that Mr. VRBA's memoirs had never been translated into Hebrew. Why had he never been recognized by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority)? She was a key player in having Mr. VRBA's book translated, in seeing him awarded an honorary doctorate at Haifa University in 1998, and in accounting for his absence in popular accounts of the Holocaust in her 2004 book, Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting.
By then, Mr. VRBA had lived in Canada for nearly three decades. Over the years, he had made crucial depositions against Nazis trying to escape retribution, whether it was the Final Solution leadership at the Nuremberg Trials, Adolf Eichmann after his capture in Argentina in 1960, or former concentration guards living undercover in Germany. He was also a principal witness in trials of Holocaust deniers such as Ernst ZUNDEL in Canada.
"What drove him forward was his understanding of the extent to which the Nazi apparatus used Jewish wealth and Jewish labour to fuel and maintain the German war effort," said Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert. "He had seen it when he was in Kanada [the warehouses that stored confiscated Jewish goods] in Auschwitz when he'd seen this vast amount of material being recycled, and the use made of slave labour."
Sir Martin was so impressed with Mr. VRBA's heroism that he supported a campaign to nominate Mr. VRBA for the Order of Canada and solicited letters from well known Canadians including then law professor Irwin COTLER (more recently minister of justice.) "I fully concur with you that VRBA is a 'real hero.' Indeed, there are few more deserving of the Order of Canada than VRBA, and few, anywhere, who have exhibited his moral courage," Prof. COTLER wrote in a handwritten letter to Sir Martin on February 18, 1992. "Canada will honour itself -- and redeem itself somewhat -- by awarding him the Order of Canada."
It didn't happen.
Walter ROSENBERG was born between the First and Second World Wars in Topolcany, Czechoslovakia. He was one of five children of Elias ROSENBERG, a steam saw-mill owner and Helena Grunfeldova. He was 15 when the Germans began their murderous march through Europe. After he was expelled from high school in Bratislava under the local version of the Nuremberg anti-Jewish laws, he worked as a labourer until he was arrested in March of 1942. Two months later, he was deported to Maidanek and transferred to Auschwitz on June 30.
He survived as prisoner No. 44070 for almost two years, using his formidable memory and analytical powers to compute the numbers of people arriving on the transports and to calculate how many were used as slave labour or were sent to be gassed at adjacent Birkenau. Early in 1944, after the Germans invaded Hungary, he observed how the camp was ramping up to prepare for the arrival of huge deportations of Hungarian Jews.
On April 7, he and an older schoolmate, Alfred WETZLER, escaped from Auschwitz and made their way to Zilina, Slovakia where, on April 24, they told their harrowing tale to the local Jewish council. Mr. ROSENBERG and Mr. WETZLER were put in separate rooms as they wrote out their reports, which were then compared, checked for accuracy against available records and compiled. The 32-page report testifying to the atrocities at Auschwitz-Birkenau was sent to the Allies, the Vatican, the International Red Cross and the Jewish leadership in Hungary -- the next victims on Hitler's extermination list.
The Jewish council gave Mr. ROSENBERG identity papers and he became Rudolf VRBA, a name he later adopted legally. The Auschwitz Protocol reached the Hungarian Jewish leadership in early May of 1944, but they didn't raise the alarm. Instead, they negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in an effort to exchange Jews for trucks and other goods needed by the depleted Nazi war effort.
"Basically, Eichmann deceived them," says Sir Martin in promising the Hungarian Jewish leadership that the trains would take the Jews to holding camps where they would be transferred to the trucks which would convey them to safety in Spain. That's why they kept silent. Between mid-May and early July 1944, nearly 440,000 Hungarian Jews (including Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel) boarded "resettlement trains" in good faith and ended up in Auschwitz where most were immediately gassed. Mr. VRBA always felt that if the Jewish leaders had announced what Auschwitz was about these people would have rebelled.
By June of 1944, the Allies had received the Auschwitz Protocol. They took it very, very seriously, according to Sir Martin. "It had such a massive impact that the Germans were forced to halt the deportations." Coincidentally there was an American air raid on Budapest on July 2, 1944. Hungarian Regent Admiral Miklos Horthy believed the attack was the beginning of the threatened Allied retribution for the Auschwitz Protocol and insisted the deportations stop -- which they did on July 9, 1944. "About 150,000 Jews were saved as a result of VRBA's efforts. "He was totally and extraordinarily successful."
Mr. VRBA warned his own relatives to flee before they, too, were taken. After that, he joined the Czechoslovak Partisan Units in September 1944 and fought with them until the end of the war. He was decorated for bravery. After Czechoslovakia was liberated, he went back to school and did a series of degrees in chemistry, receiving his doctorate in 1951 and a post-graduate degree from the Academy of Science in 1956. He undertook biochemical research at Charles University in Prague from 1953 to 1958. By then, he had married a childhood friend, a medical doctor in Prague named Gerta VERBOVA. They had two daughters, Helena (who has died) and Zuza. Mr. VRBA and his wife separated in 1958, when she defected to the West and he went to a conference in Israel and never returned.
He worked as a biochemist in Israel for two years and then joined the British Medical Research Council in London in 1960. Seven years later he was appointed to the Canadian Medical Research Council and, from there, began teaching in the pharmacology department in the Faculty of Medicine at University of British Columbia. In the mid-1970s, he went on sabbatical to Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts., where he met his second wife, Robin, who became a successful real-estate dealer in Vancouver.
"As a scientist, he started out very well and was well respected for his work in proteins and chemistry," said colleague Prof. Michael WALKER. "He was very independent and he had his own view of what was important," and that often meant he "butted heads with the granting authorities."
Towards the end of his career Prof. VRBA wasn't getting many grants. "I don't think he was treated appropriately by the Canadian scientific community," said Prof. WALKER. "He was prescient in his understanding of his area, which is proteins, and how their function may be changed if they have glucose attached to them." Instead of complaining about his lack of research money, he "put more effort into teaching," according to Prof. WALKER. " The students loved him, especially in the last few years."
Rudolf VRBA was born Walter ROSENBERG in Topolcany, Czechoslovakia on September 11, 1924. He died of cancer in Vancouver on March 27, 2006. He was 81. He is survived by his second wife Robin, a daughter from his first marriage, two grandchildren and two nephews.
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VRBAN email@example.com_county.toronto.toronto_star 2006-03-30 published
Passed away peacefully after a lengthy illness, on March 29, 2006 at the age of 91. She will be sadly missed by her sister Anna SEBANC, niece Ann MERVAR, great-nephews Greg and Danny and great-niece Lilli. A special thank you to the staff at Dom Lipa for all their care. Friends will be received at the Ridley Funeral Home, 3080 Lakeshore Blvd. W. (between Islington and Kipling Aves., at 14th Street, 416-259-3705), on Friday from 2-4 and 7-9 p.m. A Funeral Mass will be held on Saturday at 10 a.m. from Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Interment Assumption Catholic Cemetery. If desired, donations may be made to Dom Lipa or the Alzheimer Society of Canada. Messages of condolence may be placed at www.RidleyFuneralHome.com
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