Written by Eric Holden Friday, 23 December 2011 00:00
Over 100 students, parents and faculty members from all levels of the Mineola School District convened Dec. 15 in the high school auditorium to listen to the chilling details of Holocaust survivor Irving Roth’s life.
Roth, now in his early 80s, was invited to speak at the school as part of Danielle Cohen’s “Adopt-A-Survivor” project. Cohen, a senior at Mineola High School, met with Roth several times over the course of the past few months to find out more about his time spent as a teenager growing up in Western Czechoslovakia.
Using the knowledge she learned from interview sessions with Roth, Cohen then went to various Mineola fifth grade classrooms and talked about the Holocaust to the students. She also read to the middle schoolers Roberto Innocenti’s Rose Blanche, a story about a young German girl discovering a concentration camp in the woods and then secretly bringing food to the prisoners.
After Cohen read the book to the students, she had them write an essay about a time when they helped to “right a wrong” in someone else’s life and stand up for something they felt was right.
Cohen said she picked the “Adopt-A-Survivor” project because the Holocaust is a huge part of her family history. “My grandfather is a Holocaust survivor,” Cohen noted. “I thought it was crucial to just bring tolerance and awareness out, as well as teaching people about acceptance.”
As the final component of her project, she invited Roth to come speak last Thursday to her classmates and dozens of other students in the district. The 82-year-old Holocaust survivor said he’s hopeful that students will learn from history to not let prejudice become prevalent in modern times.
“It’s very important that people see how [the Holocaust] happened,” Roth said. “It’s a very slow process. You get used to this evil. If you don’t learn from history, you’re going to do it again. Let’s learn something from our mistakes.”
Roth was referring to the slow, but steady growth of anti-Semitism he experienced in Europe in the late 1930s and early ’40s. He said that at age 10, he was forced to wear a yellow star to identify himself as a Jew whenever he left his home in German-occupied Western Czechoslovakia. Approximately one year later, Roth was prohibited from entering his favorite park and was no longer permitted onto school grounds simply because he was Jewish.
By 1941, he started to see laws pass that prevented Jews from working at schools or in government offices. Shortly after, several death camps were constructed and Roth ultimately found himself in Buchenwald, a German Nazi concentration camp. He managed to avoid a seemingly inevitable march to his death by hiding in sewers, crawl spaces and anywhere else he felt like he wouldn’t be noticed by Nazi guards.
Roth said that his mother and father managed to survive the Holocaust, while many of his other family members did not. His aunt’s family and his grandparents were gassed to death in an Auschwitz “group shower,” and later incinerated in the camp’s crematoria.
His parents managed to find shelter in the house of a nurse who had cared for Roth’s father, Joseph, during a previous hospital stay. The nurse took the risk of hiding Roth’s parents in her one-room apartment, despite her son-in-law being a Hungarian Nazi soldier.
“My parents survived because someone was willing to help,” Roth added. “That’s the moral of the story. Somebody was willing to stick their neck out and say this was wrong. When you see evil, you must do something. If you stand by and do nothing, you help the bad guy. We can stop it. If you don’t, genocide and prejudice will continue.”