Irving Roth, Holocaust survivor and educator, dies at 91

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Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor and world-renowned educator, has died at age 91. (Photo courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Tolerance Center)

Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor and educator who told his story of survival across the world, has died at age 91.

A longtime resident of Williston Park, Roth died on Feb. 16, and his death was announced that day by the Holocaust Memorial Tolerance Center in Glen Cove, which he had supported for decades.

Born in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, on Sept. 9, 1929, Roth grew up with his parents and brother Bondi in the city of Humenné in modern-day Slovakia.

In a 2019 interview with Julia Swerdin of the Horizon newspaper at Lynbrook High School, he described his early years as being defined by playing soccer, swimming and ice skating, as well as attending public and Hebrew school.

But in 1938, at age 9, Roth began noticing changes in his city following the Nazi invasion of western Czechoslovakia.

At school, he told Swerdin, his class was told to chant the German national anthem every morning, and in 1939, signs appeared near his local public park stating “no dogs, no Jews.” By the end of that year, Roth wasn’t allowed in public school at all, and his father, an accountant and owner of a lumber business, was forced to hand over his business to a non-Jew.

Roth’s parents moved their family to a small village in Hungary in 1943, and the pair left to pursue work in Budapest and wait out the war, leaving the boys, now teenagers, in the village with some other members of the family.

The next spring, 14-year-old Roth, his brother, his grandparents, aunt and 10-year-old cousin were captured by the Nazis and herded onto a cattle car bound for Auschwitz.

Upon arrival the Roth brothers were separated from the rest of their family. A fellow inmate told them that their family had been murdered and burned.

“That night, 5,000 people arrived and 4,700 of them became ashes,” Roth told Swerdin.

Roth recalled that he and Bondi were made to work in gravel pits, in fields and caring for horses while living on 400 calories a day. He added that he would supplement his food with sugar beets that were meant to feed horses.

“You take two sugar beets, give it to the blacksmith, he keeps one, and roasts both of them,” Roth told Swerdin. “That’s not called stealing. That’s called organizing…The objective was to stay alive.”

Early in 1945, with the Russians closing in, the Roths and thousands of their fellow prisoners were made to march from Auschwitz to the Buchenwald concentration camp in a freezing Polish winter. Not long after arriving at the camp, made to hold 5,000 people but actually holding 50,000, Bondi and Irving were separated, with Bondi shipped to the Bergen-Belsen camp.

“My brother and I were separated there,” Roth told the New York Daily News in 2011. “I never saw him again.”

Months later, as Roth and the other prisoners were lined up, fearing a death march, an air raid by the American forces began nearby, and the Nazi officials ordered them back to their barracks.

The next day, on April 11, 1945, around 3 p.m., a Black G.I. stepped into Roth’s barracks and began handing out chocolate to the former prisoners, later joined by a white soldier, U.S. Army Corporal Rick Carrier.

“I had never seen a Black person before,” Roth said in the Daily News interview. “I tell people you may not know what the Messiah looks like, but I do. One is black and one is white.”

Roth and thousands of prisoners at Buchenwald had been liberated by General George Patton’s Third Army. The 16-year-old was 5’8″ tall, and weighed only 75 pounds when he was found and nursed back to health by the Americans.

Following the liberation, Roth briefly returned to Humenne and reunited with his parents, who had survived the war by hiding in the Budapest apartment of a nurse who had treated them.

In 1947 the three emigrated to Brooklyn. Roth entered high school as an 18-year-old, where he graduated in three semesters and became captain of his school’s soccer team.

In 1950, Roth was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War AND spenT two years in radio communication school, becoming an instructor in the subject at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

Following his service he attended Polytechnic University in Brooklyn on the G.I. Bill, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering and worked in the electrical engineering field for most of his life.

By the time he retired in the early 1990s, Temple Judea of Manhasset, of which he had been a member for many years, was building its Holocaust Resource Center, making it the first synagogue in the world to do so, according to Rabbi Todd Chizner, the congregation’s current leader.

“It had only one thing missing: a person to run it,” Chizner said in a statement to Blank Slate Media on the temple’s behalf. “Soon after, Irving Roth became the center’s director.  In the words of Judit Ungar, one of the two co-founders of the Center along with Nita Lee, of blessed memory, ‘until Irving came on board, the center was nothing more than a box with four walls and ceiling.'”

While serving as director, Roth taught students, trained teachers, and developed educational programs, some of which occurred in the center itself and others that traveled around the world.

One such learning model Roth created, inspired by his attendance of the 1998 March of the Living, an annual walk down the three-kilometer path from Auschwitz to Birkenau, was the Adopt-A-Survivor program.

Students would meet and interview a Holocaust survivor about their life and experiences in order to tell that survivor’s story in a public venue in the year 2045, 100 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. The program has been adopted by Holocaust centers around the world, and thousands have participated.

As part of his educational efforts, Roth published two books, “Bondi’s Brother: A Story of Love, Loss, Betrayal and Liberation” and “Saved by Psalms: The Story of Irving Roth,” and took part in speaking engagements across the world.

Closer to home at Temple Judea, he was lauded as the temple’s in-house expert on current trends in anti-Semitism and was invited to speak at Yom HaShoah and Kristallnacht remembrances, and addressed the congregation any time an anti-Semitic incident made the news.

The 2011 March of the Living, would see Roth, then 82, reuniteD with Carrier, 86, for the first time since the liberation 66 years before.

“It was like the Twilight Zone,” Roth told the Daily News. “I was looking at someone who gave me a new life. He wore his old dress uniform for the meeting. But when I looked at him, I saw him in fatigues holding a gun.”

He reportedly told the retired corporal, “You saved my life,” and would join with Carrier again for a joint speaking event at the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives at Queensborough Community College in Bayside, Queens in 2013.

Five years after their initial reunion in 2016, Carrier died at his home in New York City, also at age 91.

Meryl Menashe of Great Neck, a former teacher and Holocaust scholar, first met Roth in 1998 and worked by his side for decades.

“The light had gone out in our lives, the world has lost an amazing person who had the ability to relate to every single audience that he spoke to,” Menashe said. “He spoke to orthodox Jewish groups, Christian groups, 10-year-olds, middle schools, high schools, college students – he had this gift of connection with people. When he was speaking to you, you felt like the only person in the room.”

Andrea Bolender, president of the Holocaust Memorial Tolerance Center, called Roth her mentor in a post to Facebook.

“This man…a giant among men, my adopted ‘poppa,’ my mentor, my guiding light, a Holocaust survivor, educator, and speaker has passed,” Bolender wrote. “I am heartbroken, not just for myself but for the world he created and left behind.”

Chizner praised Roth and his contributions to the Temple Judea community in a statement to Blank Slate Media.

“Mr. Roth’s passion to ‘open our eyes’ to the dangers facing the Jewish people knew no bounds,” Chizner said. “Yet, while the power of his insights could shake you to the core, to know Irving was to know the kindest, wisest and most gentle person. The entire Temple Judea community mourns his loss.”

Roth summed up his experiences in the final line of his interview with Swerdin.

“I was 15 years old, I wanted to live,” Roth said. “And I thought maybe someday I would be able to tell this story to somebody, about this crazy world that legal governments put together.”

Roth is survived by his partner Myrna, his sons Robert and Edward and their wives, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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