After reading this chapter, students will be able to:
- Describe the experiences of Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor.
- Understand some experiences of prejudice, discrimination, antisemitism, and segregation from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor.
- Understand the importance of Holocaust remembrance, appreciating the role of modern efforts to maintain first-person narratives from survivors, like the ‘Adopt-a-survivor’ program.
Irving Roth (1929-2021) was an internationally recognized Holocaust survivor, scholar, and educator. His audiences ranged from school children to adults, and he has taken groups on pilgrimages to Poland. I met Irving in 1998 at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Glen Cove, New York. Twenty years passed and I was asked to join Irving at The Holocaust Resource Center of Temple Judea in Manhasset New York. There we created exhibits, educated student groups, and assisted with school visits. My most important role is to be Irving’s surrogate survivor; to be able to transmit his life history to others now that he is unable since his passing February 16, 2022.
Holocaust education should involve more than teaching about the industrialized murder of six million Jewish souls, it should focus on the personal narratives (testimonies, recounting), including narratives from those murdered and those who survived (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, USHMM 2020). Teaching guidelines from the USHMM remind us to “Translate statistics into people.” Roth has brought humanity and real people to his many national and international audiences. It’s easy to search for many of his talks on the internet. He wanted his listeners to know about his beloved grandfather, his brother, and all his loved ones. If they are remembered, then they live, their souls survive, and their legacy is transmitted. Roth tells us stories not of death but of life.
Irving reminds us to tell the truth, tell what you saw, and be the witness (Roth, 2020). This is possible around the world and will be taught to others at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County of New York (HMTC).
Roth created the ‘Adopt-a-Survivor’ program in support of Holocaust survivors and to witness history. Participant-interviewers pledge to meet with Holocaust survivor between four and six times and conduct a structured interview. Most survivor-interviewer pairs remain in touch throughout the survivor’s life. The intent of interview questions is for the interviewer to get to know their survivors and then to be their surrogate when they are no longer with us. Most questions are about life before the war because it is not enough to only relate their experiences during the Shoah. Interviewers ask about a survivor’s life as a child: did they have a family, friends, go to school, have an occupation? How did it feel when all was stripped away, no longer a name but a number, no longer a son, brother, friend but a number? Irving Roth notes: “If no one knows they ever existed that is like killing them a second time, spiritually and emotionally” (Roth, 2020).
Prejudice, hatred, antisemitism, and propaganda demonized Jews and were used in national policies supporting plunder, persecution, and mass murder. Denial of human rights slowly turned friends and neighbors into “others.” Beginning with words and escalating to slogans followed by actions deemed necessary for the good of the nation. Preventing present and future crimes of genocide, attending to the warning signs, we can hope to avoid a recurrence.
Irving begins each public presentation by making a personal connection with his audience. He sets the stage by depicting his early life. As a young person, he lived in an integrated city and went to public schools. Roth’s early life is detailed in his memoir, Bondi’s Brother (Roth 2004). It clearly shows the step-by-step process of harm and loss inflicted by the Nazis and the impact on a young boy. He lived in a three-generation household, adored his late grandfather, a loss he remembers each day. He liked school because of his love of soccer.
He tells students that his grandpa spoiled him and helped him with school projects. Grandpa becomes alive for people who hear his narrative. As a second-born child, he had a Christian nanny and recalls that he loved her and felt so lucky to not only get presents for Chanukah but for Christmas too. Roth tells another story about his childhood friends, particularly his girlfriend who he walked to and from school with and even helped her with homework. He emphasizes that religious differences did not affect friendships. Irving declares, “Life was beautiful for Irving Roth” (Roth 2020).
Irving’s life was to abruptly change in 1939. Slovakia was created and had a strong Nationalist Political Party, Hlinka’s Slovak Peoples’ Party (Rittner, 2000: 104-107). Their platform aligned with the Nazi party. The summer of 1939, aged 10 years old, Irving was not allowed into parks, denied access to the soccer field, and told “You can’t go in, you’re a Jew.”
During the Holocaust, Jewish people were methodically separated from public places and from society. In 1938, Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party dominated the Slovakian government and adopted anti-Jewish laws, which led to more losses in Irving’s young life. Jews were demonized by propaganda until they became the ‘other’ in places that were formally their family hometowns and cities. Non-Jewish townspeople were often bystanders and some became participants in exclusion and other forms of systemic persecution.
Irving had to wear the yellow star and he was no longer treated as an individual. In September 1940, school began for Irving, but at 11 years old, Irving’s entrance was blocked by the principal. He could no longer carry his girlfriend’s books or play soccer after school, and his Nanny had to leave their home. “All because, I am a Jew,” said Irving (Roth 2020).
“” led to more loss. Lawyers and doctors were fired, and Jewish businesses were taken. His Dad, Joe, produced railroad ties, which were essential for the war effort. A non-Jew could take any business, so before that could happen his Dad made a deal with Albert, a dear friend of the family, to run the business for them. At first, Albert seemed to act as a rescuer during hard times, but after three months he claimed to be a partner. He then demanded half the profits. Three months later, he took the business, and a formerly old friend betrayed his father Joe.
During Irving’s presentations, he reminded his audiences that the Nazis successfully took over the hearts and minds of communities. Neighbors that had lived together for years were separated by law. Jews were segregated from society, no school, business, or social interactions permitted. Once the community accepted the laws, they were transformed and began to betray the Jewish community.
Roth (2020) spoke in ways that made his history real and present. He described the past in the present tense, as if his audiences and listeners are all present during his experiences. In June 1941, Germany invades the USSR and now controls most of Europe and its Jews. Einsatzgrupen are organized, killing squads comprised of soldiers and neighbors to murder the Jews of Europe. The squads round up Jews using a variety of methods. Ordinary people became murderers (Roth 2020).
The demonization was soon complete. But the killing squads were inefficient and at the initial rate it would take 10-11 years to murder all the Jews of Europe. Another solution was needed, so the Nazis gathered their best scientists, engineers, chemists, all educated people, including many PhDs. Nazi leaders met at The Wannsee Conference to formulate a plan. Their task was to create an inexpensive way to murder 11 million Jews. In a 90-minute lunch, the fate of Europe’s Jews was sealed. They agreed to ship Jews using cattle cars to death camps where they built gas chambers, and crematoria, factories of mass-produced death, crimes later recognized as mass atrocities, mass murder.
Slovakia immediately chooses to eliminate 60 of the 70 thousand Jews and keep 10,000 deemed essential. The betrayal continues when 1,800 of 2,000 Jews in Hummene, Irving’s hometown, were put in the synagogue for a day and a half, and then marched to the train and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. His family and its rail-tie business, important to the economy, was exempt for now. Three months later his grandparents were arrested. The family paid for their release and made plans to leave for Hungary, a temporary haven.
In 1943, after an arduous journey, the family makes it to Hungary. Irving is 14 years old, and his parents go to Budapest for work. The boys are left with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Life was still good in Hungary (which had not yet been annexed or occupied by Nazis), but that was soon to change. The Axis powers were losing the war. Most of Europe was devoid of Jews. During the spring of 1944, one day after Passover and for the next 53 days, Nazis go after the 450,000 Jews still alive in Hungary. Eichmann was sent to organize the deportations (Levai, 1987), bringing Irving to Auschwitz-Birkenau along with 437,000 others. After three days and nights in cattle cars, 90% are murdered on arrival. He is separated from his aunt, uncle, grandparents, and cousins, only Irving and Bondi survive. Their crime was being Jewish.
Irving survives ‘selections’ (for immediate death-by-gas) and is assigned to work with horses (forced labor). He would occasionally share their sugar beets! Tattooed, he is now ‘property’ as a laborer. He notes with pride that his tattoo is not a shame but a sign of worthiness (he is strong enough to be useful and thus survives, for the moment). He considers his tattoo a piece of history, physical evidence of the Holocaust. Erasing it would change history even though he was branded like the horses with which he worked.
Days were hard. He cared for two horses. The day began at 3 a.m., after daily roll call, prisoners were marched out to the field. There was a breakfast of black water which was simulated coffee. At 6 a.m. they would plow the fields get soup at noon, mostly made of water and scraps and bread in the evening. Irving was always hungry and tired.
The worst days were during showers when selections (for the gas) were made. Doctors made prisoners undress to determine if they were to live or die. They looked at your number, and if your number was written by the doctors, then the next morning, those people disappeared up the chimneys.
Survival was always uncertain, but Irving and Bondi managed to survive Auschwitz and its routine selections. Liberation could not come too soon, as a remnant of 60,000 of 1.5 million were still alive as of liberation in January 1945. Only 15 years old, Irving, with Bondi and thousands more, were taken on a forced evacuation of the camp that became known as a death march. It was march or die. They were hungry and cold. With little strength left his brother encouraged him to pray, and they both survived the march.
Three days later, they arrive at another concentration camp, Buchenwald, built for 5,000 people but at that time imprisoning 60,000. People die of hunger and disease. One day later his brother is taken to Bergen Belsen where he perished. Irving is alone. Overcome by hunger, he is distracted by an older inmate giving math lessons. He had hope and wanted to live. With the war almost over, each day was one day closer to liberation.
On April 10, 1945, another death march looms. Irving hides and is almost caught but survives another day. The guards flee and the American army liberates Buchenwald. The war is over. The liberators disinfect them and have them pick clothes from discarded German uniforms. They move them into rooms with proper beds. They get a carton of cigarettes and chocolate and start to recuperate. After a long journey he gets home to his village, his parents alive, he runs home and says, “Hi Mom.” She faints.
“In spite of the inhumanity, there was true humanity” said Roth (2020). His parents were saved by a good Christian woman. Once in Budapest, Dad got typhus and went into a coma. He is hospitalized and near death. His night nurse helps to revive him and then hides them in her 1-bedroom home in Budapest. Her Nazi soldier son- in-law comes home and keeps the secret, his parents are saved. “They survived because someone was willing to help” (Roth, 2020).
Prior to the war, some in the Roth family had applied to come to the United States. At war’s end they were able to emigrate to America and begin life anew. After a career as an engineer, Irving retired and devoted his life to .
Prejudice, hatred, and antisemitism transformed some good people into murderers. Audiences pledge to remember, to not only teach the history but remember the person, his life and heart and transmit that life to their students and their communities. Remembering his parents, how we treat others is a measure of civilization, so stand up and do something to help others. Each program ends with a pledge, remember you are now an eyewitness, a surrogate survivor, the keeper to transmit the memory to future generations.
Survivor Irving Roth reminds and encourages audiences: We must fight evil, educating ourselves, our students, and our communities. We are links in a chain of memory. We must remind others that people can become murderers given the right conditions. Know the history and how it took place, and when you hear the words, you fight . Education is essential, recognize evil in the early stages, recognize the signposts on the road to Auschwitz.
To access Irving Roth’s testimony on the USC Shoah Foundation’s website ‘IWitness,’ a viewer must have a (free) account. To create an account: Go to iwitness.usc.edu and register for access through an account. Next, log into an existing account. Search for “Irving Roth.” Click to view his full testimony. Irving Roth testimonies also reside on the TOLI website.
Lévai, J. (Ed.). (1987). Eichmann in Hungary: Documents (Orig. publ. Budapest 1961, 1. American ed). Fertig.
Rittner, C. (Ed.). (2000). The Holocaust and the Christian world: Reflections on the past, challenges for the future. Continuum.
Roth, I., & Roth, E. (2004). Bondi’s brother: a story of love, loss, betrayal and liberation.
Roth, Irving. Personal communications with Meryl Menache, 2010-2020.
Shoah Resource Center, Yad Vashem, International School for Holocaust Studies, Slovakia
Anti-Jewish measures: Irving Roth interview, Clip 16-17. Roundups: Clip 23. USC Shoah foundation.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM): Teacher Guidelines. Accessed 12 2020. USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia
“Aryanization” (in German, Arisierung) refers to the transfer of Jewish-owned property to non-Jews in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. It aimed to transfer Jewish-owned economic enterprises to “Aryan,” (meaning non-Jewish) ownership. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Efforts, in formal and non-formal settings, to teach about the Holocaust. Holocaust education provides an opportunity to teach about the nature and dynamics of mass atrocity crimes, i.e. genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Wikipedia