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Saving Survivors MAG
For many years, it was too difficult for him to talk about – the ghetto, the gas chambers, the smell of burning flesh, his childhood completely shattered in a matter of days. Irving Roth, a survivor of the genocide during World War II, was understandably reluctant to speak of his experiences as a child living through the Holocaust. Beginning in 1939, he was robbed of his childhood, forced to learn of the venomous side of mankind. It was only six years ago that Irving finally recounted the details of his experience during the Nazi reign.
Irving Roth has devoted his life to educating youth about anti-Semitism. Traveling across the U.S., he speaks at universities, informing students about the horrors of the past and what mankind must do to prevent future genocide. He has created Adopt a Survivor – a program connecting teens with survivors of the genocide of World War II. “The kids of today must know about the Holocaust. They must understand that it was not just ‘masses of people’ murdered but individual human beings,” he says.
As we approach a time when Holocaust survivors will no longer be alive to tell their stories, the Adopt a Survivor program seeks to preserve these histories for future generations. When teens “adopt” a Holocaust survivor they gain eyewitness testimony and a genuine understanding of what that individual endured. History comes alive for the student, who carefully records the stories. In this way, each history is preserved through a “surrogate survivor.” Once the interviewing process is complete, the student then interprets the story, and expresses it through artwork, poetry, or prose. Some of these are on display at a Holocaust museum to educate others.
I first met Irving Roth three years ago when he came to my school to share his story. As a child, Irving enjoyed playing soccer with his friends. When he was ten, the Nuremberg laws, which were established to define a “Jew,” came into place in his village of Udavske, Czechoslovakia, and his world turned upside down. His gentile friends no longer played soccer with him, and he was turned away from his school. Irving fled with his family to Hungary. While his parents remained in Holland, hidden by a Christian woman, Irving was taken with the rest of his extended family to Birkenau. At this death camp, his grandfather was murdered in a gas chamber the first night.
Irving’s pride, dignity, and identity were taken from him the day he was forced to shave his head, lose his name, and become a prisoner. A10491 was tattooed on his arm, and that was who he became for the next year. He was sent to Auschwitz and then forced on a death march to Buchenwald, another concentration camp where he was tormented and beaten. Irving’s only source of strength, his brother Bondi, was snatched from him after Bondi became weak from a death march. He was not seen or heard from again. Irving lost faith that there was anything left besides death. He became indifferent to the world. He said, “Every night people were dying” and “it was only a matter of time” until his death. Fortunately, Irving was reunited with his parents after the war when Buchenwald was liberated.
Irving Roth’s story was so compelling that I wanted to learn more. When he told me about his Adopt a Survivor program, I was inspired to become involved. Today I have interviewed and recorded the stories of two Holocaust survivors: Irving Roth and Ruth Meador.
Ruth is a 78-year-old woman who lives in my community. I met with her for a number of hours over the course of a few weeks, and she recounted her experience as a child during the Holocaust. She spoke of Kristallnacht, the night that tore her family apart, the night her father was taken away. “I remember few things from my early childhood,” states Ruth. “However, this night I remember like it was yesterday.” Kristallnacht, or “the Night of Broken Glass,” started on Nov. 9, 1938. That night, Ruth remembers her mother running into her room, turning off the lights, and whispering, “Don’t make a sound.” Ruth, her mother, and her sister, Marion, hid in a bathroom until the next morning. “I didn’t know what was going on. All I could hear was awful sounds around me, and I was scared,” she recalls. That night, hundreds of synagogues were burned, businesses and shops owned by Jews were looted and destroyed, and over 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Martin, Ruth’s father, was among them and ended up at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
Ruth’s mother knew it was no longer safe for her children to live in Germany, and was forced to make the most difficult decision of her life: to send Ruth and Marion away. For the next five years, Ruth’s life was a blur of different families and homes. As a child of nine, being separated from her parents was difficult. “I had nobody to discuss anything with, to play with; I felt very alone. I had no idea I was loved. I just I knew I didn’t belong,” she says.
Ruth was smuggled into England on a cargo ship and lived with families there, while Marion ended up in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. Ruth was one of thousands of children who were saved through the Kindertransport, the lifeline that rescued children from Nazi-occupied Europe and brought them to safety in Great Britain.
Although Ruth’s father and sister survived the war, the hardships her family endured tore them apart. After living in a concentration camp and losing his wife and much of his family, Martin had become a “broken man.” It was also difficult for Ruth to reconnect with Marion. After spending so much time apart, and having such different experiences during the war, the sisters were never as close as they once were. Marion was in a death camp, while Ruth remained safe in England. Ruth and her father discovered that her mother had been in four concentration camps, but they never determined the date of her death. “My dream was for my family to be together again, but we never were again, ever,” stated Ruth in a shaky voice with tears in her eyes.
The stories of Ruth’s suffering during the war and her broken family truly moved me. I have gained a sense of pride knowing that I now have the responsibility to preserve and communicate Ruth’s story to others. I will speak for Ruth and recount the events of her life so that she will be remembered, and her story will be part of the collective efforts to ensure that genocide is stopped.
Many teens have participated in the Adopt a Survivor program, and have even created mini projects of their own to relay the messages of their survivors. For example, one boy wrote a self-published book that chronicles Irving Roth’s life. Many high schools on Long Island have invited survivors to speak to the student body. I have devoted much of my time and effort to finding ways to expand the program. I am in the process of developing his program at my high school and beginning an informal club to urge other students to get involved in the efforts to preserve history.
I hope to motivate teens across the U.S. to become involved in preserving history. It is not necessary for a student to personally know a Holocaust survivor in order to become involved. The interviewing process of “adopting” a survivor can be done over the phone, and information packets can be sent through the mail. If you are interested in this inspiring and life-changing community service program, go to http://eev.liu.edu/holocaustrectr/ to get in touch with Irving Roth. He can connect you with a Holocaust survivor, perhaps in your community. There are fewer than 900,000 Holocaust survivors worldwide, and soon there will be none left alive to tell their stories. Teens have a chance to stop hatred and genocide by preserving history and carrying its messages into the future.