Surviving Auschwitz: Irving Roth’s crusade against anti-semitism, genocide

Written by: Samantha Burgess, editor in chief

Imagine at the age of 15 that you and your family are taken from your home by strangers. In the sticky heat of summer, you and your family are jammed into a cattle car with hundreds of people. Three days pass before you arrive at your destination. 

The doors swing open and you squint at the sudden invasion of sunlight. A soldier looms in front of you, yelling for you to get out and leave your belongings behind. You stumble along with everyone else and join a large group. In the distance, you see smoke plumes. You’re overcome by a rancid smell that permeates the air. 

Suddenly, you and your family members are at the front. Your grandparents, aunt and 10 year old cousin are all sent to the right. You are sent to the left. Later you find out that your family was brutally murdered in a crematorium. 

This is a memory of Irving Roth, who spoke in chapel September 9 about the horrors of surviving Auschwitz, a former concentration camp in Poland. 

Roth was born on September 2, 1929 in Kosice, Czechoslovakia. His early childhood was peaceful. His father, Joseph, ran a successful lumber and railroad tie business, and his family lived comfortably. 

Roth loved his grade school because it was where he met his first childhood crush. She was Roman Orthodox and he was Jewish, but that didn’t matter, at least not then. Roth was completely smitten, carrying her books and talking to her every day.

However, in 1932, things began to change. The Nazi party formed and Hitler began to speak out against the Jews. 

“They said that the Jews were a blight on Europe,” said Roth. “We were suddenly responsible for the war, for inflation, for everything.” The 1% of the population that was Jewish now carried the sins of Europe on their shoulders.

In 1933, the Jewish enterprise was boycotted and in 1935 Jews owning a business was outlawed. 

By 1939, Roth’s hometown of Kosice in Czechoslovakia became a part of Germany. The girl he was smitten with no longer wanted to talk to him or have him carry her books. She wouldn’t risk associating with a Jew. 

Joseph Roth, Irving’s father, was in danger of losing his business, so he reached out to his Christian friend Albert for help. Mr. Roth thought that if they changed the marquee and stationary to a Christian name then no one would ever know that it was run by a Jew. The plan worked and the business quickly grew. 

But, a few months later Albert came to visit. He emphasized that the company was under his name and so he should get half the earnings. A few more months passed and Albert told Mr. Roth he could either work as a simple manager or get out. 

“Us Jews were the hated group and yet we were the ones being stolen from and wronged,” said Roth.

By 1941, Germany had complete control of Europe. In June of 1942, Operation Barbarossa began. Germany invaded the Soviet Union and began marching into the towns and cities, murdering Jews by the hundreds. In just six months half a million Jews were annihilated. 

Yet, this was not fast enough for the Nazi regime. So they gathered a committee of doctors and physicians who invented the death camps. The Nazi’s had already invaded much of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and continued taking more and more Jews each month. Roth and his family ran away to Hungary in hopes of escape. But, the Nazi’s found them. 

Roth was separated from his parents and sent to Auschwitz, Poland’s biggest concentration camp. At 15, he was forced to learn how to work with horses and have them plow the fields. The captives lived on a diet of black mush, soup and bread. 

They lived in constant fear of death, either by malnutrition or at the hands of the Nazi’s. “I wondered everyday: why us? Why the Jews? We did nothing wrong,” said Roth.

In June of 1944, news spread of the invasion of Normandy. “Operation Overlord” brought American troops, known as the Allied Army, to the shores of Normandy to launch offensives against Hitler’s exhausted forces. When Roth heard this, he began to have a sliver of hope. 

In January of the following year, Roth and the other captives were sent out on a three day death march. He recalls his steps becoming sluggish. He was barely able to push on. 

His friend Anton, a Christian, came alongside him and said, “You are too physical my friend, you need to be more spiritual. Pray.” And so Roth prayed, fervently.

During a second death march in April, Roth managed to escape from the group and hide under a building. He was seconds from being caught when a bomb went off, destroying most of the city. Two days later American soldiers found Roth, shaken and dirty, but alive. 

“Seeing those two men who came to save me was the closest thing I can equate to heaven,” said Roth. “I was finally free.”

Although the Jewish people were free, they were still displaced. Nazi soldiers were replaced with British soldiers, this time for protection. The Jewish people were cared for, but they longed for home. 

Months passed before Roth was able to return to his hometown in hopes of finding survivors. He walked into his childhood home to find his mother, who fainted in disbelief at the sight of him. Roth’s parents had survived because his father had been in a coma in a hospital in Budapest.

The doctors told Mrs. Roth that her husband wouldn’t survive. But Mrs. Farkash, his nurse and a professing Christian, had other ideas. Every night she ministered to him and cared for his needs until, to everyone’s surprise, he woke up. She kept the Roths safely hidden in her one bedroom apartment.

Months later, Roth and his parents were reunited.

In 1947, the United Nations partitioned to allow the Jews to return to Israel. However, those in the Middle East rebelled, persecuting the Jews again. This spurred several more years of persecution. 

“These lies, this hatred still continues today. You even see it in America: in your politics, in your schools, in your churches,” said Roth. “My hope is that Christians will help end the hate so that Israel and the Jewish people can live on.”

Roth is partnered with Christians United for Israel (CUFI), whose goal is to “curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, hinder Hezbollah and Hamas’ war of terror against Israel, strengthen the Jewish state’s ability to defend itself and defend Israel against the anti-Semitic BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.” 

Roth hopes to overcome anti-semitism against the Jewish people and spread the love of God in the midst of hatred.

Samantha Burgess is a senior communication major with an emphasis in digital media. She is editor in chief for the Triangle. Her interests in writing include profiles and feature articles. Burgess can often be found curled up with a good book, writing, listening to music or watching Netflix.