Auschwitz escapee to help mark Yom HaShoah here

Despite his unique position in Holocaust history, however, Vrba, a native of Slovakia, prefers to steer away from details of his personal story.

"It is not my job to talk about myself. My job is to talk about the Holocaust," says the 73-year-old survivor, who will speak at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 4 at a community Yom HaShoah commemoration at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El. "My inclination is to be less personal and view the whole process with sober eyes, not to indulge in self-pity but to analyze the past and be prepared for the future."

While in the Bay Area, Vrba will also speak at several additional events sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and Holocaust Center of Northern California.

In the talks, he plans to focus largely on what he sees as an aspect of the Holocaust not sufficiently discussed — how stolen Jewish property was used to bolster both the German war machine and the perception of Jews as a subhuman species deserving extinction.

"I am of the opinion that [the Holocaust] happened with the intention not only to murder, but to rob, to steal," says Vrba, a professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia who is best known for his work in the field of brain chemistry.

Vrba points out that while bodies of murdered Jews were burned in furnaces, "their furniture was not burned, their carpets were not burned, their money was not burned.

"By killing the Jews, [Germans] got ahold of a tremendous amount of property," Vrba continues. "You can imagine what sort of property there was from 6 million and how systematically this was used to bolster the German military machine."

Historians generally argue that Nazis diverted precious resources from their war effort in order to kill Jews.

But Vrba argues that Jewish property may have helped balance that deficit in at least one way. Jewish homes, cars, furniture and other items were used to reward such local Nazi collaborator regimes as the Ustasha in Croatia and the Hlinka Guard in Slovakia, which added significant muscle to Nazi efforts.

From a psychological perspective, Vrba believes receiving goods that formerly belonged to deported Jews reinforced collaborators' view of Jews as nonentities.

"The acceptance of Jewish inferiority was closely connected with the acceptance of their property," says the Holocaust survivor, who has advanced his theories in several published studies on the Holocaust in relation to German economy, military strategy and medicine.

Vrba has participated in the production of six films on the Holocaust, including Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary "Shoah." He published "44070: The Conspiracy of the Twentieth Century," a book of personal recollections on Auschwitz. The figure 44070 refers to the prisoner number tattoed on Vrba's arm.

In his book, Vrba elaborates on his dramatic story with details he is reluctant to offer within the context of a telephone interview.

After being deported to Auschwitz in June 1942, he spent two years at the camp before becoming one of only a handful of prisoners to successfully escape the stringently guarded compound.

In April 1944, with the help of the Auschwitz underground, he and fellow prisoner Alfred Wetzler hid in a woodpile beyond the camp's perimeter. To confuse the dogs that would inevitably be sent to search for the missing prisoners, the underground doused the area with potent Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline.

For three days and two nights, they waited for the search to end. Vrba and Wetzler then fled toward Slovakia, where they dictated the Vrba-Wetzler Report, or Auschwitz Protocols, through the Bratislava Jewish Council.

In the report, considered by some to be one of the key documents of the 20th century, the former prisoners estimated that 1.75 million Jews had already been killed. They warned that preparations were being made for the murder of the nearly 800,000 Jews of Hungary and the 3,000 Czech Jews who had been brought from Theresienstadt six months earlier.

Several months after his escape, Vrba joined the Czechoslovak Partisan movement and fought until the end of the war. He received the Czechoslovak Medal for Bravery and the Order of Slovak National Insurrection.

But ultimately, Vrba's place in history "is for historians to say, not for me," he says. "I don't like to talk about myself. It's for others to appreciate what I've done."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.