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Keeping the story alive: Holocaust survivor expands programs begun on Long Island

With the rise in anti-Semitism and racist rhetoric, Holocaust education is more relevant than ever, said Irving Roth, director of The Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea of Manhasset. On Aug.8, he spoke about the importance of remembering the Holocaust. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Walking through the Holocaust Resource Center of Temple Judea in Manhasset, director Irving Roth, 89, of Williston Park, points out the exhibition highlights. A student’s papier-mâché sculpture of Janusz Korczak commemorates the Polish pediatrician and author who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto; rather than be rescued himself, Korczak accompanied the children to the Treblinka death camp, where they were all killed. A painting by Patricia Brintle, a Haitian-born artist in Whitestone, Queens, represents 50 people who helped rescue Jews; next to it is a papier-mâché sculpture of a giraffe, made by retired art teacher Steve Pagiavlas of Farmingdale, “Dedicated to those who stick their necks out for others.” A new installation of anti-Semitic posters past and present reminds visitors that bigotry is a contemporary evil.

Roth pauses at a wall of photographs of murdered children, including his beloved older brother, Bondi, and cousins Andras and Gabi. “We speak of the 1.5 million children murdered during the Holocaust. But when you see the faces you realize they were real people,” explained Roth, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.

Born in Kosice, in present-day Slovakia, in 1929, Roth grew up in Humenne, where his father owned a successful lumber business. After the German occupation in 1938, life became precarious for the Jews. In 1942, after deportations of Jews to concentration camps began, Roth’s family fled to Hungary, where his parents survived the war in Budapest by being hidden by a Christian woman. The rest of the family was deported to Birkenau by cattle car in 1944; his grandfather Shimon and other relatives were sent to the gas chambers. Irving and Bondi endured starvation, beatings, forced labor and a death march to Buchenwald, where they were separated — he never saw Bondi again. When the camp was liberated on April 11, 1945, by U.S. forces, Irving Roth weighed only 75 pounds.

Keeping memory alive

After Roth and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1951, his Uncle Harry advised him: “Whatever happened over there, let it sink into the ocean.” Yet Roth found it impossible to forget or stay silent about the atrocities he had witnessed during World War II. Roth went back to school, got a degree in electrical engineering, then married and settled with his wife and two sons in Williston Park.

“For many years, I didn’t speak about what happened — nobody wanted to hear. I started speaking when my kids were 8. I would tell them bits and pieces. My son’s teacher called me up and asked me to speak to his class in the Herricks school district — that was over 50 years ago,” Roth recalled.

Years later, Roth’s son Edward Roth, who is both a rabbi and a dentist, would help him co-write his 2004 memoir, “Bondi’s Brother.”

Today Roth is a prolific speaker, Holocaust educator and author who has expanded his original Adopt A Survivor program — implemented as a pilot program in 1999 on Long Island and now in schools nationwide to connect survivors with students to tell their stories — to include the children of survivors. Through both programs, the “adoptees” of Holocaust survivors pledge to tell their stories to others after the survivor is gone. And Roth has increased his educational trips to inspire others to keep telling the Holocaust story.

Roth developed Adopt A Survivor after attending The International March of the Living’s annual trip to Poland and Israel in 1998. Roth estimated that since the program’s inception, several thousand students have “adopted” survivors. Though their numbers have dwindled, Roth said he works with about half a dozen survivors. There are currently several Adopt A Survivor programs at Island high schools and synagogues: Farmingdale High School; The Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Plandome; Temple Beth-El in Great Neck; and Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights; there are also programs at yeshivas in Queens and Brooklyn.

Roth has received many awards for his humanitarian work, including the 2004 Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award from The Anne Frank Center USA in New York. Roth travels throughout the United States and Canada to teach about the Holocaust and the dangers of complacency to racism and intolerance. Over the past 20 years, Roth estimates he has reached half a million people nationwide. He meets with about 2,000 students a year at the Manhasset center; for the 2019-20 school year, more than 40 school groups are scheduled to visit.

Asked what motivates him to keep speaking, Roth answered: “I don’t know — a desire and need and responsibility. I mean I witnessed this. If no one knows, they never existed, and that is like killing them a second time, spiritually and emotionally.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Bondi.”

With the rise in anti-Semitism and racist rhetoric — the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2018, the third-highest year on record — Holocaust education is more relevant than ever, Roth said. “Look at the signposts along the road to Auschwitz,” Roth said. “It started with words, propaganda, lies — the demonization of the other.”

Roth has sometimes faced opposition in his work to prevent atrocities like the Holocaust from happening again: “Posters of my lectures are ripped from the walls. There are times I speak and somebody interrupts, screams or yells. I wait till they calm down, ask if the person is feeling better, then confront them with evidence to the contrary. I stay with the facts.”

Making Holocaust personal

Rabbi Jodie Siff runs the Adopt A Survivor program for eighth-grade students at the Reconstructionist Synagogue in Plandome, where about 20 students and five to six survivors participate each year. “The Adopt A Survivor Program gives students a reinforcement of history through the lens of personal perspective,” she said.

After students meet with survivors for a six-month period, their written biographies are presented at a synagogue program for Holocaust Remembrance Day in April. “Participation is a sense of kavod — Hebrew for ‘honor,’ ” Siff said.

“There has been a victimization of Holocaust survivors,” Siff said, explaining Roth’s holistic approach. “What Roth teaches is the whole story of each individual survivor, and not the mass numbers of victims.”

Added Dinah Kramer, 61, of Manhasset, who works with Roth at the Holocaust Resource Center and helps Siff run the Plandome program: “These students get to know the whole person; the survivor speaks about life before the war.”

Rene Zuroff of Melville, a retired teacher who was born in Poland and hidden as a child to survive the Holocaust, is part of Roth’s network of survivors. After coming to the United States in 1950 at 16, Zuroff did not speak about her wartime experiences for many years. “I didn’t want to be identified as a Holocaust survivor,” she said.

But after meeting with other child survivors in the 1990s, Zuroff opened up. Zuroff became active in Adopt A Survivor after she retiring. “Kids give me their entire attention — they’re compassionate. I don’t mind revealing my pain or past,” she said. 

With fewer Holocaust survivors, Roth founded the 2G Second Generation Children of Survivors Group at the Holocaust Resource Center and the Plandome synagogue to mentor the children of survivors. “We’ve been trying by participating with the child of a survivor and getting them to know the story of their parents in a coherent fashion. Some know it, others just bits and pieces — we help them to put the story together,” he said.

Roth estimated he has worked with up to 30 second-generation children of survivors.

The retired art teach Steve Pagiavlas, whose papier-mâché giraffe illuminates the role of those who “stick their necks out,” speaks of how art facilitates communication between survivors and their relatives.

“The kids have had the privilege of hearing the last generation of Holocaust survivors in person. I’ve had kids who had grandparents who had been in concentration camps. After they saw the art their child had done, they started to talk about what happened,” said Pagiavlas, 65, who has worked with students to create Holocaust artwork through the Adopt A Survivor program.

Kramer, whose father was an Auschwitz survivor, facilitates the 2G group in Plandome, which has had 20 to 30 participants and is looking for more second-generation survivors to tell their parents’ stories.

“Irving has this analogy: when there is a relay race, before the first runner passes the baton, the second runner runs alongside them,” Kramer said. She said that when she was a child and asked her father about the tattoo on his arm, he told her it was to help him remember his phone number. Sensing his pain, Kramer did not question him. When he died, so did his story.

Along with speaking engagements, Roth has gone on International March of the Living trip to Poland and Israel six times since 1998. In April he accompanied two delegations, one an adult group and the other, 20 deans from U.S. universities. Many adult attendees have pledged to speak to others about what they have learned after returning home.

The purpose of the trip for deans of education and law schools, said organizer David Machlis, who teaches economics at Adelphi University, is to expand awareness to university educators so they can develop Holocaust curricula in their institutions.

Said Machlis, who went on this year’s trip and is co-founder and vice chair of MOTL: "There is nobody better in the universe to convey information to deans than Irving Roth, and to motivate them to build studies on the Holocaust into their curricula.”

Roth has also twice accompanied Christians United for Israel to Poland as the guest eyewitness survivor, most recently in March for its “Living Eyewitness tour to Poland with Holocaust Survivor Irving Roth.”

Randy Neal, Western coordinator of CUFI, and his wife, Linda, were part of that 74-person trip. One of the trip’s most compelling moments was in Auschwitz, Neal said: “There was a lone cattle car on the track, where the tracks ended. The chimneys of the crematoria were still standing. It was an unbelievable realization of how massive the camp was.”

Others can tell story

Traveling with Roth has been a transformative experience for many.

“There were so many highlights being there with a survivor so knowledgeable. Roth let the story unfold, and was open to any questions you had,” said Saundra Dubin, 58, an American Sign Language teacher at Southampton High School who along with her husband traveled on the March of the Living trip with Roth in 2018 as part of an adult delegation.

“At times Roth would go into himself and become emotional. He would get quiet, but quickly came out of it,” recalled Felicia Bloom, 57, of Marion, Pennsylvania, who was among about 30 from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania on the trip with Roth and Dubin. At Auschwitz, they became part of about 13,000 people from around the world.

Bloom described one photo in the album she made of the trip. In it, Roth stands outside Block 13 in Birkenau where he was a prisoner. “When I look at that picture it gives me chills,” Bloom said. “That he could go back there to talk about it took my breath away — a 14-year-old boy in a place like that.”

Likewise, Roth’s efforts have inspired many to carry on Holocaust education.

On April 11 — the anniversary of his liberation from Buchenwald — Roth spoke at Southampton High School. Roth’s appearance at the assembly, which included Southampton Middle School eighth-graders, was inspired by Dubin, who met Roth several years ago as a chaperon at the Holocaust Resource Center. During the 2018-19 school year, Dubin used her experiences from the 2018 MOTL trip to visit classrooms, giving presentations about the trip to complement the students’ social studies Holocaust curriculum.

This year’s April assembly, she said, “Was a way to bring all of this together — a way to appreciate a presentation from a Holocaust survivor.”

The Southampton teacher said Roth’s appearance has likely had a lasting impact.

“Every student there was so taken with him and what he had to share,” Dubin said. “In the days after, students asked their teachers to talk about the Holocaust in greater depth. He told his story with such passion and heart.

“One student had around three years prior come from El Salvador. He told me that in his country, being Jewish is thought of in a negative way. He was transformed and moved by what he heard. … The student realized that Jews are people and anti-Semitism is wrong.”

Reflecting on what his grandfather and brother would think of him now, Roth said: “I hope they’d be satisfied that though their physical bodies turned into ashes, their spiritual life continues.

“In a sense, the fires of Auschwitz did not annihilate their souls, or their legacy.”

Auschwitz exhibit in Manhattan

“Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away.,” an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, is part of the global effort to keep alive memories of the Holocaust. It examines the historical significance of the camp as the largest mass-murder site in history. On display through January 2020, the 18,000-square-foot exhibit traces the roots of anti-Semitism and the political, economic and social forces that led to the rise of National Socialism and Hitler’s “Final Solution” to exterminate European Jewry. The exhibit puts more than 700 original artifacts and 400 photographs from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on view in North America for the first time, among them: suitcases, eyeglasses and shoes that belonged to victims; a section of an original prisoners’ barracks from the Auschwitz III Monowitz Camp; and a Model 2 freight wagon used for the deportation of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps in occupied Poland. Visit https://mjhnyc.org/ or call 646-437-4202.

— Lisa Schiffman

Holocaust education programs

Adopt A Survivor Program brings together students and survivors; contact Meryl Menashe at 516-395-9341 or email holocaustcenter@temple-judea.com.

2G Program for Second Generation Children of Survivors mentors children of survivors; group meets monthly at The Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Plandome; email Rabbi Jodie Siff at rabbijodie@rsns.org.

The International Walk of the Living, since 1988, has hosted about 260,000 people from around the world to walk the almost 2-mile path from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day; visit motl.org/.

Temple Judea Holocaust Resource Center has ongoing exhibits and programming; visit temple-judea.com/holocaust-center/ or call 516-395-9341.

— Lisa Schiffman

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