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From the Holocaust, a message for students

It is 1935 and life in Kosice, a town of 7,000 in eastern Czechoslovakia, is idyllic for 6-year-old Irving Roth. He lives under one roof with his parents, older brother and grandfather. In his free time, he enjoys playing soccer with his many fri...

Irving Roth
Irving Roth, a holocaust survivor, speaks to the students at Elroy Schroeder Middle School in Grand Forks on Thursday. Herald photo by John Stennes.

It is 1935 and life in Kosice, a town of 7,000 in eastern Czechoslovakia, is idyllic for 6-year-old Irving Roth.

He lives under one roof with his parents, older brother and grandfather. In his free time, he enjoys playing soccer with his many friends.

Little did Roth know that, in a few years, his world would crumble under Nazi oppression that spread hatred, sorrow, loss and unimaginable horror throughout Europe.

"I want to take you on journey, a journey of my life," Roth, a Holocaust survivor, told Grand Forks' Schroeder Middle School students Thursday.

Hundreds of students listened in silence for nearly an hour. They are about the same ages Roth was when Nazi terror reigned, and they are among the last generation able to hear from Holocaust survivors in person.

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Eighth-grader Shane Lavecchia said he'll remember Roth's message. "I'll keep it in memories forever, because you don't get this chance every day."

Roth's talk reinforced the school's anti-bullying efforts, to teach students to not be by-standers, but to step in, speak up and help, said Principal Mary Koopman. "It was a very powerful message."

Oppression seeps in

Starting in 1939, Germany occupied most of Czechoslovakia and created a puppet state in the country's east called the Slovak Republic. Jews were isolated and dehumanized by the Slovak government.

"People began to think of Jews as different," he said. Restrictions dictated where they could go. There were soon segregated sections for Jews in public places, curfews were established and their valuables taken away.

"All of a sudden, I can't go out at night -- like I'm grounded," Roth said.

Jews had to be identifiable on the street, by wearing a big yellow star, he said.

One day, in 1940, police outside his school turned Roth away, he said, "not because I had done something wrong, but because I am a Jew. What shocked and hurt me more was when the coach tells me I can't play soccer."

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Economic oppression began when Jews were fired from positions in government, then law and medicine, he said. The Aryans took over Jewish businesses including his father's lumber company, he said.

Murder follows

By 1941, hundreds of thousands of European Jews had been killed, he said, but not fast enough to suit the Germans. Concentration camps with gas chambers and crematoria were built to speed up the massacre.

Roth and his family fled to his aunt's home in Hungary. But at age 14, he was taken to Auschwitz and later transferred to Buchenwald.

In the spring of 1944, Germans, with the Hungarian government, rounded up Jews, he said.

In 53 days, 437,000 Jews were put on trains and sent to death camps, he said. "In June '44, 24 hours after arriving at Auschwitz, of the 4,000 who were on our train, 300 were still alive."

With others, Roth rolled up his sleeve to be tattooed with a number, he said. "I am no longer a person. I have a brand, like on a horse or cow."

Of the estimated 230,000 prisoners who were brought to Buchenwald between 1938 and 1945, as many as 56,000 are believed to have been killed. Roth lost his only brother in a concentration camp. His grandfather was arrested by Germans and the family never saw him again.

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Only he and his parents, hidden by a sympathetic nurse, survived.

At the end of this talk, Roth asked students to not stand by when they witness bullying and to tell their children and grandchildren about the Holocaust.

Students' response

Sixth-grader Jake Busch asked Roth if he felt the presence of God in his captivity.

Roth told him that God was with him at Auschwitz and that people ignored God's warnings.

Gretchen Schreiner, an eighth-grader, wondered who he felt closest to at the camp.

"My brother," Roth said, "because he was older and I depended on him for psychological and spiritual help. He knew the Psalms by heart."

"How did you maintain your faith in the face of such evil?" she asked.

"God did not build Auschwitz. God did not make the decision that 6 million people would be killed," Roth said. "He said, 'I give you life, good and evil.' Choose life. Choose good."

Lavecchia, the eighth-grader, wondered if Roth felt safe after he left the camp.

Roth said, "I did not feel safe until the day I stepped off the boat in New York City in February 1947."

After the talk, Jon Sailer, a seventh-grade science teacher, shook Roth's hand, saying, "I'll never forget this."

"I've never had someone tell me personally about the Holocaust," Sailer said. "It's going to make an impact on a lot of the students and they're never going to forget it either."

Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to pknudson@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: EDUCATIONHISTORY
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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