Concentration camp survivor tells of 'signposts' on the road to holocaust

Irving Roth has many stories to tell. 

As long as the 88-year-old Holocaust survivor can tell his stories, he'll keep speaking to groups throughout the country, and keep taking young visitors to Auschwitz, the death camp that imprisoned him. 

Roth will speak on "Signposts Along The Way," Monday, Feb. 5 at Western Michigan University.

There were the "signposts along the road to Auschwitz. Because it did not happen overnight," Roth says from his Manhasset, N.Y., home. 

Roth warns that similar transformations of societies could happen again. We must make sure "that if there's any inkling of going in the direction of evil, we pick it up early and do something about it," he says.

Talking about the largest mass-murder in history, one that took much of his family, is a task he's happy to take on. "I'm not down-trodden. I don't feel as a victim," Roth says.

He often travels with students to Poland, to see Auschwitz for themselves. "They are stepping on the ashes of millions of people. Mixed with the ground. They see the railroad track, they see the railroad cars, they see the cattle cars. They actually see the crematorium, the way it was." 

He's been asked how he feels when he returns to Auschwitz, to walk the grounds where genocide was industrialized.

His answer is, "Uplifted in a way. Because I'm able to pass by the place where the commander would stand to see us march downtrodden and all this other stuff." If he could speak to the now-gone commander, he says, "I feel uplifted in that your philosophy has not prevailed. Yes, pain you did cause, a tremendous amount of pain, and it's still there. But your philosophy and ideology has not prevailed." 

Ordinary People

A message that Roth hopes gets through to people in this century is, that the Germans who became dutiful Nazis weren't monsters, they weren't psychotic. They were "ordinary people."

"Ordinary people became members of the Einsatzgruppen, which is the death squads. Ordinary people in the death squads. There were doctors and lawyers, pharmacists and farmers....."
 
Irving Roth: 'Signposts Along The Way' 
Room 2000, Schneider Hall, Western Michigan University
Monday, Feb. 5, 7 p.m.
Free to the public.

The talk is sponsored by Portage West Middle School, Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, ATYP, and Lee Honors College.
The Einsatzgruppen committed the first systematic mass murder of Jews and others, during Hitler's invasion of the U.S.S.R. They slaughtered civilians, adults to infants, with bullets. Roth points out that "bullets are expensive," so the concentration camp method of mass killings with gas, followed by cremation, was created as a more-efficient method.

Ordinary people became Einsatzgruppen. "How were they convinced? They were convinced by the government, by the newspaper, by the rhetoric that what they were doing was for the greater glory of the country. Being a very upstanding citizen, who believes in the country, he goes and does it."

"How can one conceive of thousands upon thousands of people going day after day, gathering people together in cities all over what was then the Soviet Union, gather the Jews together, march them out into the forest or the ravine and murder them, machine gun them? How is it possible that ordinary people would do that? Babies! It's possible because of propaganda." 

Roth says that Germans were constantly fed the message, "Yes, this is a very difficult task, but it's necessary in order to preserve our way of life, and our superiority." 
 
'You Actually Believe That?'

One of many stories Roth has to tell: It was late 1944. Roth had turned 15, a captive in Auschwitz. 

He'd been separated from his parents in their home country of Czechoslovakia when Jews of the area were put on cattle cars and shipped to the various death camps in Europe. Roth had no idea if they were still alive. 

The teen managed to avoid the gas chamber and ovens of Auschwitz by being able to work. He plowed fields, tended to the horses. He didn't starve as so many others did because he ate from the horses' feed and drank mare's milk.

Sometimes he was allowed outside of the camp, to go to the nearest town for supplies. 

"Therefore, I needed a guard. And this guard with a rifle sits down beside me in the wagon, and we're talking. And we pass the crematoria and gas chambers of Auschwitz, and he says to me, 'What are they doing with these factories?'" Roth says.

"I say, 'You're pulling my leg! Don't you know?'"

The guard told the boy he'd just arrived at the camp. He was a German soldier, wounded at the front, and was assigned guard duties as he recuperated. 

"I say, 'This is where human beings are murdered and converted to ashes.'"

"He says, 'Nah! That's ridiculous! You actually believe that?'"

"I say, 'Yes, I know that.'"

The soldier thought it was just a prison camp for criminals and other undesirables, their slave labor helping the Reich's war effort. 

"He says, 'It can't be! Because we need manpower. Why would we do this?'"

"I say 'Ask your friends tonight when you get back to your lodging.'"
A couple days later, Roth had to make another trip outside of camp. The same guard accompanied him.

"He's much more subdued. He's different. And we're chugging along, and at one point he reaches into his pocket and gives me some candy. Obviously, he knows I'm not some hardened criminal, but I'm a kid, who is a Jew," Roth says. "There was a sense of, almost, compassion." 

Roth adds, "I saw him a couple months later, directing some people, and he was screaming and yelling at them, cursing them."

The guard, likely an ordinary draftee sent to fight a war that his country was losing, was turned by a system where, "because everybody's evil, you become evil, too. It's very hard to be nice in a place of evil, where everybody else is mean and evil and miserable."

In 2018 there are people, like the guard, who are ignorant of the Holocaust, he says. They have a hard time believing that it happened, that Nazi Germany created a system to methodically exterminate an estimated 6 million people. 

It's now in the distant past for the generation growing up in this century. Roth recently talked to a group of high school students, "and would you believe half the students didn't know what the word 'Holocaust' meant? And they looked at me as if I was from the Moon." He told them of his life in the camp, "and they couldn't relate to it."

"It's there. It happened," he says, again. "The ashes...." 

"And this was not done by some demons. This was done by ordinary people. And that's why we need to make sure to understand that if you don't do something, if you don't step up to the plate and say 'no, we will not allow this to happen, to us, to my friends, to anybody in the world' -- it's a responsibility that mankind has."

Roth is, of course, troubled by the "white nationalist" movement of recent years. That movement has lead to events like the "Unite the Right" rally last August in Charlottesville, Va., where torch-carrying marchers chanted "blood and soil," a 1930s slogan of the Nazi Party.

Could something like what happened in 1930s Germany happen in 2010's America?

"Of course," Roth immediately replies. 

"You know, we speak of ourselves as an exceptional people, but we are like everybody else. And if the wrong people begin to fill the newspaper and the media with evil, with hatred -- look, this business in Charlottesville, terrible. It's pure hatred. Based on absolutely no fact. And that's what hatred is." 

But it's not just those who may be sympathetic to the ideology of the Third Reich that Roth points to. He also sees in the nuclear threats of North Korea and the actions of Middle East terrorists a desire of one people to commit mass murder on another. 

"All of us come on this Earth the same way, more or less. And none of us leave this Earth alive. Let's remember those two facts, and in between let's behave in such a way that we help each other, not hurt each other." 

'Stick Your Neck Out'

What can we do when we see creeping bigotry growing into something larger?

"Individually, in our own communities and our own environment, speak about the issue, and explain the issues. Say that no one group of people is no better than another group of people," Roth says. 

"Yes, we do have disagreements, and that is why we can talk. We can even scream at each other! But as child psychology says.... hands are not for hitting. They're for creating, not for destruction." 

One story he likes to end his talks with is of what happened when "someone cared, someone decided not to be a bystander."

Because of the advancing Soviet army, Roth had been marched to the Buchenwald concentration camp. In April, 1945, he knew he was finally freed when U.S. soldiers came through the gates -- of the first two, he remembers, "one was black, and one was white."

After recovering, the teen went back to his home. He was overjoyed to find that his parents had also survived. They had fled to nearby Hungary, thinking their chances to avoid the camps would be better there. In Budapest, his father came down with typhus and had to be hospitalized. 

Eventually the Jews began to be rounded up there, too. The nurse who took care of Roth's father offered to hide the couple in her apartment. 

Years later Roth tracked the nurse down to thank her. She told him she wasn't a hero, she simply "did what was necessary."

Roth implores his audiences to follow the nurse's example. "Do not be a bystander! Stick your neck out. When you see evil, do something!”

Since 1992, Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist based in Southwest Michigan. He's covered a bewildering variety of subjects, from diversity in law to invasive species control, thrash metal bands to Broadway musicals. For more information, see http://www.markswedel.com
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