Auschwitz to Israel: Holocaust survivor speaks on persecution of Jewish people
Becky Evans | 10/18/16 7:28am
| Updated 10/18/16 7:28am
Kate Zaidova / Unsplash
They say those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is for that reason that Holocaust survivor Irving Roth travels the country to discuss his experiences. In 2004, Roth earned the Spirit of Anne Frank award for his work in Holocaust education and awareness. Roth’s work includes the Holocaust Resource Center, participation in the Adopt a Survivor program which allows young people to “adopt” and learn from the experiences of a Holocaust survivor, as well as programs with other organizations. Now he works as the Director of the Holocaust Resource Center of Temple Judea in Manhasset, New York. In an event sponsored by Christians United for Israel, Roth visited American University’s campus in September to share his story.
Roth was born in 1929 in Czechoslovakia. Ten years later, in 1939, a Nazi party controlled by Germany came to power in Czechoslovakia; young Irving Roth faced anti-semitism for the first time when he was banned from public spaces for being Jewish. The following year, Roth’s school expelled all Jewish students and fired Jewish teachers. Roth explained candidly how in the subsequent years, the Jewish population of Czechoslovakia lost the majority of their rights, including the right to luxuries such as fur clothing and the right to own a business, like Roth’s father did. Many Jewish businesses were simply taken by their Christian neighbors due to the mentality that “it’s not [stealing] because the government says it’s not,” according to Roth.
In the summer of 1942, the Jews of Czechoslovakia began to lose more than just their rights. More than 1,800 Jews from Irving Roth’s village were taken to death camps; Roth’s family was exempt because of his father’s job. Though it seems impossible that these atrocities could be committed without the public knowing, Roth explained that the victims often never realized what the death camps were until it was too late. The people brought to the death camps would be forced to write postcards to their loved ones simply stating that they had been relocated and were safe. Shortly after writing the postcards, the victims would die in the gas chambers.
The Roth family fled to Hungary and were forced to split up; his parents to Budapest in order to find work, leaving Irving and his brother to stay with their aunt. Hungary passed anti-semitic legislation in 1920, but instead of locking away its Jewish population in death camps, it drafted them into the military. However, in the spring of 1944, the Hungarian Nazi party gained control of the country, and Irving Roth and his brother were sent to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp.
There, Roth remembers, he was “tattooed so to understand that I am not a person; I am property.” In Auschwitz, if one was not selected for the gas chambers, they typically survived seven months of work before their bodies gave out. Irving Roth survived eight months at Auschwitz. In January 1945, as the Russian army neared Auschwitz, Roth, his brother and the other Jews began their three day “death march” to Buchenwald. Though Buchenwald was just a work camp, meaning there were no gas chambers, it was severely understocked. People imprisoned there starved to death. Roth and his brother were separated when his brother was taken out of Buchenwald. Roth survived at the work camp for four months before, on April 11, American soldiers arrived. “They looked almost ominous, but to me the messiah had arrived,” Roth recalls. The American soldiers were symbols of liberation after a year of suffering. In contrast to the healthy American soldiers, Roth said that the children at Buchenwald were like “300 skeletons shuffling along.”
In the end, Roth’s brother did not survive, though both of his parents did. Before the Jews of Hungary were sent to death camps, Roth’s father was struck down with a sudden and mysterious coma. While in the hospital, Roth’s mother met a night nurse who nursed his father back to health. They were able to hide in Budapest thanks to the help of that nurse. Remembering the woman who helped his parents survive, Roth expresses, “even under the worst of conditions, it’s possible to help.”
Roth believes, however, that the demonization of Jewish people is still alive and present in society today. He cites a United Nations-voted sanction against Israel for refusing proper healthcare to Muslim women as one of the most bold instances of anti-semitism perpetrated by the UN and called it, “pure, unadulterated humbug.” Roth wishes the Arab world would realize, “[Jewish people are not] here to destroy anything; they’re here to build.”
Elysia Martin, President of Christians United for Israel at AU, stated, “We believe in the power of personal testimony as bearing witness to the truth, and that one of the best ways to do this is by hosting speakers who have experiences that are worth sharing…We hope that by making personal testimonies of the horrors of the Holocaust available to students, that we will also spread the hope that the State of Israel has given to so many people.”
Shannon Riggins, student in the Washington College of Law and member of Christians United for Israel at AU, after hearing Roth’s testimony expressed, “It’s kind of like reliving [the tragedy] every single time you tell the story, and he still does it to help others become aware of it and spread awareness of the importance and the need to stand with Israel.”
For many, it seems that issues between the Jewish community and others stem from misunderstanding. First year student Emelie Shany remarked that if she could explain one thing about the Jewish community, it would be that, “Jews are usually by nature very loving and averting people and that all the negative stereotypes surrounding the Jewish people aren’t true… I’m very open to all religions and if anyone has a question about Judaism, I’d be more than willing to discuss it. Jews aren’t closed off people; we aren’t a cult.”