Most people know what happened to the 6 million European Jews whose lives were snuffed out by Hitler’s reign of fathomless cruelty, but few truly comprehend the evil that awaited on the other side of the platform.
A highly sought Holocaust educator, he understands the importance of eyewitness testimony, especially now as evening descends on the generation that witnessed and endured some of mankind’s darkest deeds.
Roth will speak on “Signposts along the Road to Auschwitz” at Temple Beth El in Anniston at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The event is open to the public.
On Wednesday, he will lead a seminar for educators on how to teach the Holocaust and other genocides in the 21st-century classroom, sponsored by the Jacksonville State University Writing Project and the Regional In-Service Center.
Roth is the author of Bondi’s Brother, director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea of Manhasset in New York, and a recipient of the Spirit of Anne Frank award.
He spoke with the Star this week by phone from his home in New York.
Why is it important to share your testimony with the world?
The whole aspect of life, of an individual life, is very important to Holocaust education. It is an eyewitness testimony of what really happened, from a perfectly reasonable life with democracy, freedom and equality to facing certain death. And it is a way to somehow give emotional life to this event so that it does not become simply historical fact.
That is a very important aspect that I speak about, and I do that because I am a Holocaust survivor. I was a young man, 14 years old, when I arrived in Auschwitz.
All of the events leading up to that point, from my early childhood to the point I was on a death march from Poland to Germany in the middle of the winter, are necessary to be able to really understand what it felt like to an individual person.
Your lecture is titled “Signposts on the Road to Auschwitz.” What are those signposts?
One thing I speak about is propaganda. How do you take a person who has lived side by side with his Jewish neighbors for centuries, and convince him the person he has been living next to is evil and needs to be destroyed? How do you get him to participate in it, because hundreds of thousands of people participated in the murder of Jews.
How do you do that? You make them cockroaches. You blast propaganda until you instill the idea that they’re not like you. They may walk like you and talk like you, but they really are different. They really are destructive in nature, just like cockroaches. And what do we do with cockroaches? We step on them.
Where does the hate-fueling propaganda begin?
In different places there are different issues. Anti-Semitism evolved over many centuries. When the Crusaders encountered infidels going through Europe to the Holy Lands, they said, why not do one of two things, either convert them or kill them?
In the United States, we had the persecution of black people, the persecution of red people. How did they do that? Well, they called them uncivilized, and the objective was to civilize them. The slaves were chattel, just property. Since obviously they didn’t have the brains or skills or culture or theology or any aspect of us, they certainly could not be equal to us. So they had to be controlled.
How do you remember your life before the atrocities of Nazi Germany?
I was born in 1929 in Czechoslovakia. I lived with my parents, my brother and grandparents in a lovely house. I went to school and played soccer with my friends, Jews and non-Jews alike. I remember playing and doing homework and going to the cinema and to soccer games and getting new clothes.
In September of 1940, I got up one morning and my brother and I, off to school we go. I got as far as the school gate. The principal was standing there and he looked at me and said, “Roth, you can’t go in.” I asked why not. He said, “Because you are a Jew. We no longer allow Jews.” Being all of 11 years old and having gone to that school since the first grade, I remember that moment so clearly.
What was your experience returning home after being liberated from Buchenwald?
When I got back to the village from where I was taken, one of the things you hope for is that people have changed. That my neighbors are now changed and they love me being back and my old friends who would not talk to me would now say, “We’re sorry, we were wrong.” But no. There was no band playing. There was no red carpet. Even after the war, they didn’t want me there.
Once you infect someone with prejudice and hatred, the antidote takes a long time to take effect. When I returned home from the concentration camp, the response was, “Oh my God, there are too many Jews still alive.”
Have you noticed interest in the testimony of Holocaust survivors decreasing as time goes by?
Interestingly enough it has increased. Suddenly we realize that the people who lived through it, the eyewitness population, are disappearing. I’m almost 83 years old, and I’m one of the younger survivors who were actually old enough to experience and remember all of it. There is a very small window, so it becomes very crucial at this point to try to meet these survivors and heed their story.
People in education, particularly history and Holocaust education, are trying to increase the amount of speaking we do and the number of people that we interact with. There is also a growing sense of denial of this ever happening. The demonization of Jews has increased over the last few years, so the reaction to deniers is fairly strong.
Have you ever encountered a Holocaust denier?
They come to my lectures and ask questions, very benignly usually. I was talking to a group of high school students in Hungary, and one of them asked, “How do you know that this actually happened? You’re not an eyewitness. After all, if you had been inside the gas chamber when they squeezed the gas, you wouldn’t be here speaking.”
I explained to him how I know in detail what happened. Because I arrived in Auschwitz with my grandparents, my aunt and uncle and my cousins on a May evening, they were separated from me and they disappeared. I saw these chimneys and I saw out of the chimneys coming flames. They were herded into these buildings. They went in and no one came out. What happened? The earth didn’t swallow them.
Well, we know that hundreds of thousands of kilograms of poisonous gases were shipped to Auschwitz. What was it used for? There were people who worked inside the gas chamber who took the bodies to the crematorium, usually prisoners, and a number of them survived so we have eyewitnesses. He was not satisfied with the answer but he accepted it.
Has it gotten easier to share your testimony as time goes on?
It is easier. Yet I find on occasion as I’m giving testimony, when someone raises their hand and I see a tear drop, suddenly I get choked up. So while it’s much easier because I speak about it very often, there are times I suddenly can’t answer. Every time I speak, I relive the experience. I see it. I see the flames, I see the trains, I see the march, I see the snow, I see the dogs, I see the fence which is electrified to 5,000 volts. I see all of it, and there is still a certain amount of difficulty in that.
If you could pass on only one piece of advice to future generations, what would it be?
Look at the world, at its actions, and compare that to the road signs on the way to Auschwitz. It didn’t happen all at once. They did not build Auschwitz on Jan. 20, 1933, when Adolf Hitler took power. It was a step-by-step process. Look at each one of the moments which drastically changed the life of people. Know them fully, and compare actions and attitudes that look similar. Compare the propaganda. It teaches you, so that there will not be another Holocaust against someone else.
If you go
What: Irving Roth, Holocaust survivor and educator, will speak on “Signposts Along the Road to Auschwitz.”
When: 7-8 p.m. Tuesday. Light refreshments will be served afterward, and Roth will be available to sign copies of his book Bondi’s Brother.
Where: Temple Beth El, 1301 Quintard Ave., Anniston.