THE STORY OF IRVING ROTH
by Adam Israel
Herricks High School
Marching nervously on the cold, gray gravel of the train yard of Auschwitz, a young man’s mind was forever branded by an image; legions of uniformed guards walking with dogs and monstrous chimneys in the background belching fire into the night air. The young man was Irving Roth, then 14 years old. More than half a century later Mr. Roth still remembers the ghastly vision of his family and friends who perished in those very flames. Although Auschwitz and later Buchenwald were hellish ordeals it was the cancerous growth of hate in his hometown and elsewhere that sealed the doom of more than six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
Irving Roth was born in 1929 in Kosice, Czechoslovakia and grew up in Humenne, a beautiful city of approximately 7,000 inhabitants. Irving father, Joseph, owned a lucrative lumber business, which produced railroad ties. His mother Helen with the help of a nanny took care of Irving and his brother Andre.
In 1935, Irving was entering first grade. He enjoyed school but his real love was playing soccer. From 1935 to 1939 life was normal for Irving. In 1939 Germany occupied Western Czechoslovakia and Irving’s life changed drastically. An immediate effect of the change was that Jews had a curfew. Jews were no longer allowed to wear fur garments. Irving owned a sheepskin jacket, which he had to turn over to the police department. That same winter, Jews were required to wear yellow stars displaying their Jewish identity.
September 2, 1940 was a significant day for Mr. Roth. It was his birthday and the first day of sixth grade. On his way to school, Irving saw a sign in front of the park, which said: “Jews and dogs are forbidden to enter”. As he drew closer to school, he saw the principal standing outside with a small group of children around him. All the children had yellow stars on their shirts. The principal said: “ Roth, you cannot go to this school because you are Jewish”. That afternoon he decided to play soccer with his friends. When he got there, he was confronted by his teammates who refused to let him play on their team. Dumbfounded, Roth asked why they did not want to play with him? The answer sent him home in tears; he was a Jew.
The pace of anti-Semitism increased severely from 1940 to 1942. Roth’s extended family was imploding under the stress of governmental, societal and interpersonal discrimination. A law was passed that no Jew could work for the government and Irving’s mother’s cousin was fired from his prominent position as Director of the Social Security Office. He purchased a gun and shot himself. Another law was passed that no Jew can own his business and Irving’s father Joseph was forced to figure out a way not to lose his business. Joseph made a deal with a gentile friend named Albert to take over his business in name only. Joseph would still own the business as far as management and profits and would give Albert a thousand dollars a month. After a few months, Albert demanded half of the profits. After a few more months, Albert took over the business and fired Joseph.
In 1942 six death camps were constructed in Poland. These were factories where Jews were killed with Zyklon B or Carbon Monoxide and shoveled into the ovens where their bodies were cremated. That same year the Jews of Humenne were liquidated. Two thousand of Humenne’s 7,000 inhabitants were Jewish. Of those 2,000, 1,800 heard a knock on their doors one Friday night and were given 10 minutes to pack. After 36 hours, stuffed into the synagogue they were loaded into cattle cars bound for Auschwitz. The Slovak government paid the Germans $125 for every Jew they exterminated. Although Roth was not taken that night, life became precarious.
There was no hope left in Humenne, so Roth’s family moved to Hungary in 1943 where Jews were still safe. The tide of the war was turning against the Nazis. “Operation Overlord” brought powerful American troops to the shores of Normandy to launch offensives against the exhausted German Wermacht. The Red Army was destroying Hitler’s forces. The Roths believed that the war would soon be over and they would survive.
In the spring of 1944 Irving Roth celebrated Passover, the festival of the historical oppression and liberation of the Jews from under the reign of the Pharaohs, hoping that his own deliverance was on the way. In April of 1944 the Hungarian government decided to liquidate the Jewish population of Hungary.
Irving became separated from his parents when his father was taken to a hospital in a coma. When Joseph recovered, Jews were no longer safe on the streets. Mrs. Farkash, a Seven-Day Adventist night nurse at the hospital hid Joseph and Helen in her one bedroom apartment where she lived with her daughter and grand daughter. Her son-in-law was a Hungarian Nazi soldier. One day the son-in-law came home for a three-day pass. The soldier’s wife told him that if he reported the Roths to the authorities, she would never sleep with him again. The Roths were never reported.
While Joseph and Helen were hiding in Mrs. Farkash’s apartment, Irving was far from safe. He and his brother Andre and uncle Moritz’s family escaped into the forest. Against all odds, they found a farmhouse but the farmer refused to shelter them. Irving and his cousin hid in a ditch while all the others were captured. Confused and frightened, Irving and his cousin returned to his housekeeper’s barn. Irving got word to his uncle and asked for advice. He was advised to surrender and join his family in the ghetto. For days the Jews wondered why they were confined to areas around the brick factory. The mystery evaporated as the first cattle cars rolled in on the tracks once intended to carry trainloads of bricks. Irving and his family were packed into boxcars, which were without bathrooms, windows or seats. At the end of a gruesome three day transport, they stepped out of the cars and were surrounded by dark buildings, Nazi guards with dogs and chimneys belching flames.
Out of the four thousand Jews that disembarked that day only 300 survived. 3,700 Jews that included Irving’s grandparents and his aunt’s family were led to a “group shower”. They were gassed to death and later incinerated in the crematoria of Auschwitz.
Irving’s Auschwitz diet consisted of black coffee in the morning a cup of soup in the afternoon and a piece of bread in the evening. His days became a blur of hunger, depression and the constant fear that the man in uniform would pick him out as too emaciated to work and send him to the gas chamber.
The Russian Army was getting closer and closer to the camp which brought hope for survival to the prisoners. But that was not to be.
On January 18, 1945 Irving and his brother were on a “death march” to Buchenwald. Many prisoners died from exhaustion and were shot on the way. Irving and his brother were among the minority that survived. One day, Irving’s brother was sent to Bergen Belsen where he later died. Now Irving was with other teenagers in the “Kleinlager” the children’s camp but without his brother. He was fifteen years old.
He may have been alone, but the spirit of resilience was burning in his chest.
Climbing into sewers, toilets and under buildings, he managed to avoid a series of death marches that took place in March.
Survival seemed impossible on the 10th of April. Guard dogs and equally ferocious Nazis sniffed out all the Jews and lined them up for a final death march. Roth knew that a death march would surely end his life because he was weak and hungry and afflicted with lice and starvation. Finally, the long awaited deliverance came to the Jews of Buchenwald on April 11th when the US Army entered the camp.
At 3:00 PM on April 11th 1945 Irving was liberated from Nazi bondage that he had endured for more then a year.
To vist the Holuoaust Resource Center founded by Irving Roth, CLICK HERE