A crowd of more than 500 people rose to its feet as Holocaust survivor and international speaker Irving Roth walked onto the stage in the Shepherd Union Ballrooms on Thursday evening.
Roth, who immigrated to America with his family when he was 18 years old, told his story of the horrors and hard times he encountered as a teenager living in Europe during the Nazi occupation.
“I had been in a cattle car for three days and nights . . . in the distance I see flames against the black sky,” said Roth, introducing his survival story. “They are marching to the buildings with the flames . . . and 24 hours after we arrived at Auschwitz, 4,000 people in one train, 3,700 were smoke and ashes. Murdered. I was fortunate. I wasn’t selected to die that night in Auschwitz.”
Roth, who began his story on a note that caused audience members to sit on the edge of their seats, then began to tell the story of his childhood, saying the feelings of anti-Semitism were a slow process, and year after year, Jews’ rights were taken away.
Roth was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929. According to him, during that time in Czechoslovakia, about 7,000 people lived in his town, and 2,000 of them were Jews. At age 6, he attended a public school and made friends with children from varied religious backgrounds. It was “totally integrated,” he said.
“I did my homework, I lived in a house, everyone was nice to me,” he said. “But then things began to change, two major strategic issues that Nazi Germany wanted to accomplish. One of them was expand Germany and control all of Europe, and to bring about the final answer to the ‘Jewish question,’ which means no Jews of Europe will be alive.”
Roth endured many hardships during his adolescence. Besides the death of his grandparents and the disappearance of his brother, Roth also endured the Death March of 1945. He shared an anecdote about smoking his first cigarette later that year.
“And 3 o’clock in the afternoon, on April 11, 1945, two American soldiers walked into our barracks. My friends, you may not know what the Messiah looks like — I do! There’s two of them,” said Roth to a giggle from the audience. “We also get a carton of Camel cigarettes. You get the picture: four kids, 14 years old, with no supervision and a carton of Camels . . . I never smoked another cigarette in my life. But I did not throw out the cigarettes; I traded them for chocolate.”
After the end of the war, Roth found his way to Hungary, where his mother and father were staying. His parents were rescued by a Hungarian Seventh-Day Adventist woman who let them stay in her one-bedroom apartment she shared with five other people.
After telling his story, Roth warned the audience about the “propaganda war” waged against the Jews in America and on college campuses. He spoke of the violence occurring against Israel today. He urged the audience members to support Israel and said America is an ally.
The event was presented by Christians United for Israel, which gave a brief presentation before Roth spoke. CUFI began in 2006, and currently has more than 1.25 million members and supporters.
Randy Neal, the Western Regional Coordinator for CUFI, said the audience purchased all of Roth’s books before he even got on stage to speak. Because of this, Neal said, there would be an extended Q-and-A period at the end.
“I cannot overstate how rare this opportunity is, and how every year this opportunity grows rarer,” Neal said. “You’re not going to hear stories of firsthand accounts of what it was like in Auschwitz or what it was like to lose family members, or, worse yet, what it was like to see your neighbors, your friends, your people, your family you had lived with for decades turn on itself and turn on another during some of the most horrific chapters of human history . . .”
Kaylee Connors, a junior studying secondary education, said she loved the way Roth told his story.
“He brought a positive attitude about it, which I really enjoyed. And I liked all the details that he gave,” Connors said. “I never knew that it started off so slowly: ‘Oh, you can’t wear this coat. You can’t play at this park.’ So I just thought his did a really good job storytelling.”
Connors, who is currently a student member of the CUFI chapter on campus, said everyone should be treated equally, and that if there is anything anyone can do to help someone else, they should do it — including America with regards to Israel.
Roth, who himself is an adjunct professor, said sometimes his presentations are met with interruptions and demonstrators. Once, at the University of New Mexico, Roth said, one student gave him a particularly hard time.
“You’re entitled to your narrative and I’m entitled to my narrative, but you are not entitled to your own facts,” he said. “Facts are facts.”
Roth is involved with the Adopt a Survivor project, where anyone who is willing can participate and “transmit not just information, but the total life experiences of the survivors,” Roth said.
Roth said many Holocaust survivors are computer-savvy and can tell their stories to the younger generations through email and Skype.