Holocaust survivor shares experiences with WMU

“Let me tell you how my life was affected by governments and world leaders,” Holocaust survivor Irving Roth said.

On Tuesday, Feb. 9, Roth came to Western Michigan University to speak about his experience before a full house in the Chemistry Building.

Roth was born in 1929 in Kosice, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). He grew up in Humenne, where his father owned a business that produced railroad ties, which allowed the Roth family to have a comfortable and happy life.

Roth said that he did not understand at that age what was going on in Germany, at the time under the rule of Adolf Hitler for two years.

“September 1938 begins the end of my life as it once was,” Roth said.

Anti-Semitism began spreading into Czechoslovakia. Roth recalled hearing stories about being forced to give up his fur clothing and the restrictive curfews enforced for Jews.

“And so my life begins to change. I suddenly feel restricted, I feel awful, and one day we were told that we could no longer go out at night,” Roth said. “If you were a Jew and the sun had set you stayed inside, you go out, the police are going to beat you up and haul you to jail.”

As anti-Semitism grew, Roth’s life in Czechoslovakia continued to change. Laws were enacted that forbade Roth from going to school and prevented his father from owning a business; all of this occurring as Czechoslovakia morphed into the Slovak Republic.

“And so the country of Slovakia takes on all of the characteristics of a state that prosecutes Jews,” Roth said.

In 1944, Roth was separated from his parents when his father got sick and was taken to the hospital in a coma. In April 1944, all Jews were put into 10 major ghettos.

Roth talked about how Jews were put into cattle cars and shipped to concentration camps.

“Ghetto by ghetto, Jews are put into cattle cars and shipped somewhere,” Roth said. “This time, my luck was no longer with me. My brother and I, my grandparents packed inside this box, which has no bathroom, which has no windows, 90 people with insufficient space to sit anybody even on the floor, half of the people had to stand, there is a bucket in the middle of the car, for waste.”

The train traveled for three days until Roth and his family reached their destination. Roth recalled the imagery of black smoke, soldiers, and dogs, screaming at them to move quickly.
Roth had arrived at Auschwitz.

After arriving at the camp, Roth and his brother became separated from their grandparents and aunt who were being lead to a “group shower.” At the time nobody knew that the shower was actually a gas chamber.

Roth and his brother were soon put to work.

“If you didn’t learn, you didn’t last long,” Roth said.

Roth described the horrors of working at the camp. His name replaced by a number, he slept on shelves, and worked for days with little or nothing to eat. All of this lasted until 1945.

“On the 18th of January, 1945, we get up, get dressed, ready to go to work, we march up to the gate, the guards are there, they’re not marching to work, they’re marching back to Buchenwald, away from the Russian army,” Roth said. “So begins something called the death march: you march or you die.”

According to Roth, the march seemed to last forever and he could not go a couple of feet without seeing a dead body. After three days and nights of marching they arrived at Buchenwald.

The Buchenwald camp gave Roth harsher conditions than Auschwitz. Roth had little to no food, sometimes going days without eating.

“One evening, when they were counting us, my brother was taken away,” Roth said.

Roth never saw his brother again.

In April 1945, German soldiers began taking people from the camp out on another death march, away from the American army. Roth and other Jewish people began hiding to escape having to go on another death march. On April 11, 1945, the camp was finally liberated. Roth had survived.

“Two American soldiers – veteran, hardened soldiers – walked into this place and see hundreds of emaciated children, they broke down, took everything they had in their pockets in terms of food and gave it to the people that were standing around. They realized they need to do something to feed these people; they’ve never seen skeletons shuffling around,” Roth said.

Roth’s experience in the concentration camp was finally over. Roth survived by being resourceful and only through his sheer will to live another day. Even toward the end when he did not feel like he would be able to make it, he still felt like he had to live just another day and hold onto hope.

After the Holocaust, Roth met with his parents, who had survived because of the kindness of a nurse who had taken his parents in at a hospital after Roth’s father awoke from the coma.

“So my parents survived,” Roth said. “Someone cared. Someone decided not to be a bystander. Someone decided that in order for them to be able to live with themselves there was an opportunity to save, there is an opportunity to do something, to save a life.”


For more information about The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights (TOLI), please contact info@tolinstitute.org

TOLI is located at 58 East 79th Street in Manhattan. (get directions)