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Young heirs carry Holocaust's torch

On the international March of the Living's annual trip to Poland in 1998, Holocaust survivor Irving Roth saw his name among a list of camp inmates inscribed on a wall in one of the museum buildings there. Most of those listed had been killed by the Nazis during World War II.

With sadness, Roth realized that, for the adolescents standing next to him, the names were anonymous statistics of the 6 million Jews who had perished. They had not known the kindness of his grandfather, Shimon, or heard his beloved brother, Bondi, play the violin.

"I thought of how the students would just remember these people as bodies, corpses," Roth recalled. "I realized what these kids had to know about the Holocaust. This was not simply a mass of humanity who perished, but individual human beings."

He turned to the teenagers and told them about his grandfather and brother. "Go home and speak with a Holocaust survivor," he implored them. At that moment, the Adopt a Survivor program was born.

Roth, of Williston Park, had survived the unimaginable. He was born in 1929 and had lived with his family in Humenné, Czechoslovakia, before the war. His family owned a successful lumber business. Roth went to school, played with his friends, enjoyed soccer.

But after the German occupation in 1938, life unraveled. In 1942, Humenné's 1,800 Jews were split up and sent to German concentration camps and death camps in Poland.

After the deportations, Roth's family fled to Hungary. His parents survived the war, hidden by a courageous Christian woman. The rest of the family was deported by cattle car to Birkenau, where Roth's grandfather was sent to the gas chamber. Roth and Bondi endured starvation, hard labor and the death march to Buchenwald before being separated there. Roth never saw his brother again. When the camp was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 11, 1945, the teenage Roth weighed only 75 pounds.

He couldn't forget

"Whatever happened over there, let it sink into the ocean," his uncle advised him after he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1951. "He meant well," Roth recalled. "I suspect it was partially true that forgetting was an easier way out, but the experience was so seared in my brain I couldn't do that."

After returning from the trip, educators at Temple Israel's Hebrew High School in Great Neck and the Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence (both of whose students are Jewish) were receptive to the Adopt a Survivor program. Roth instituted a pilot program at the schools, speaking to students about his own experience. One year later, he implemented the program at Cold Spring Harbor High School.

After being appointed director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea of Manhasset in 1998, Roth fine-tuned the Adopt a Survivor program and its art program. (The center's annual art exhibit showcases professional and student artists' original interpretations of survivors' stories.) He organized a network of Holocaust survivors to serve as adoptees for students. Its mission: to address the issue of Holocaust education when there will be no survivors left to tell their stories.

This mission is vital, he emphasized, for, despite the extensive written material and archival film on the Holocaust, there is no substitute for the testimony of a living eyewitness. Survivors alone remember the hardship of the ghettos and concentration camps, the constant risk of death and the heartbreak of losing loved ones. And they were the last persons to have been part of the vibrant Eastern European Jewish communities that existed before the war.

Few survivors left

The number of survivors is dwindling. According to statistics compiled by Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, there are fewer than 900,000 Holocaust survivors left worldwide, residing primarily in the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union. Of that number, 175,000 survivors ages 65 and older live in the United States. Within 40 years, there will be none left.

Before that happens, Roth is determined to impart their stories to young people who will carry on their legacy.

Roth's own program addresses students age 12 and older; the focus is on educating teenagers in the hope they will carry on the program's message to the next generation.

Students are paired with survivors, and together they take a joint journey of the survivor's life before, during and after the war. Roth explains that the journey begins with a dialogue between survivor and adopter. Adopters are given a 30-page brochure with prepared questions they must answer after extensive discussion with their survivors.

"The questions explore every aspect of the survivor's life, from knowing the person's name and that of their parents, to understanding their family structure, to their relationship to the Jewish world and the outside world," Roth said. "Essentially, the booklet becomes a journal."

The process takes from one semester to a year, although many adopters stay in touch with their survivors afterward. The student becomes a surrogate survivor, committed to telling his or her survivor's story to the next generation.

"Fifty years from now, survivors will be gone, but the adolescent now absorbing their stories has full insight into this one person," Roth explained.

In 2045 -- the 100th anniversary of the camps' liberation -- students have promised to speak about their survivors.

Many students in the United States have been adopters, and, through e-mail and videoconferencing, survivors even have been adopted by international students. Since establishing the program, Roth himself has been adopted several times.

Amy Katz, then 15, adopted Roth after he launched the program at Temple Israel in 1998. She now works at The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

"The experience had a pivotal impact on me at a young age that affected the shaping of my values and, ultimately, my career path," Katz says.

After adopting Roth last year, Zach Senzer of Syosset, who was 13 at the time, self-published a book chronicling Roth's life and the effect the Adopt a Survivor program had on him.

"I will remember Mr. Roth as a gentle, intelligent and inspirational man," Senzer wrote. "I promised him I would always remember him and continue to tell his story. He will always have a place in my heart."

Roth said the program seeks to reach out to students of all ethnicities in the Long Island public schools, but added that many adults have participated in the program.

Long-term friendships

Many students form close bonds with their survivors.

After a five-year friendship with survivor Ray Fishler, 82 -- who is from Rockville Centre and now lives in Wayne, N.J. -- friends Luke Richner, 18, Zach Mandinach, 17, and Mike Heller, also 17, of Rockville Centre, along with their parents, accompanied Fishler to Poland last summer. They visited the Plaszow labor camp and the Auschwitz concentration camp where Fishler had been interned during the war. Traveling by bus, the group retraced the 38-mile death march the Germans forced Fishler and thousands of other prisoners to walk in frigid weather from Plaszow to Auschwitz.

In Fishler's hometown of Kazimierza Wielka -- about an hour from Krakow, Poland -- the group visited a monument in the woods commemorating the spot where hundreds of the town's Jews had been shot and killed by the Nazis. Accompanying them was a 90-year-old man who confessed for the first time how the Nazis had forced him to drive the town's Jews there in his horse and wagon.

Richner, Mandinach and Heller, now high school seniors, plan to speak about Fishler to students at the Rockville Centre Middle School's Holocaust program this spring.

Altogether, Roth estimates he speaks to about 25,000 people each year through group presentations at the Resource Center. As for the Adopt a Survivor program, he says that so far 1,000 students have participated. Through the program, Roth seeks to educate non-Jewish as well as Jewish students about the Holocaust.

He has received numerous awards, including the 2004 Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award, given by The Anne Frank Center USA in New York. In 2006, Roth appeared on the "Oprah" show on a special program about the Holocaust, featuring survivor and author Elie Wiesel. Roth -- who continually receives e-mails about participating in his program but does not keep written records of survivor-adoptee pairings -- estimates he has received more than 700 inquiries about the program.

"I have a 20-year-old man in the Australian bush who is an expert on survivor Ron Unger," Roth said.

Stanley Ronell, 73, also of Port Washington, corresponds with 17-year-old Caroline Wheeler of Tullamore, Ireland, after Roth passed along Ronell's name to Wheeler.

Learning tolerance

Farmingdale High School teacher Robert Primavera, who is adviser of the school's Ambassador Club, says meeting survivors teaches students of all backgrounds tolerance for others by bringing their stories down to a human level.

"Students ... are moved by the survivors' stories and become deeply attached to them," he said.

The club was founded at the school in 1974 with a mission to promote cultural diversity by providing a forum for students of different social, religious and ethnic backgrounds to meet. The experience had a profound effect on club president Laura Shimmons, 17.

"Before meeting the survivors, it [the Holocaust] didn't seem as realistic," she said. "But after meeting these people, I saw the numbers tattooed on their arms, I heard them tell their personal stories. It was so much more realistic than reading about the Holocaust from a textbook. I learned not just the facts but saw the emotions attached to their personal stories, what they went through, and what they lost."

Roth and his program have had that effect on past students as well. In spring 2006, Ambassador Club members presented Roth with a book of writings, poems and photos after participating in the Adopt a Survivor Program. After the ceremony, several students shook Roth's hand and embraced him. An observant Muslim girl -- who had adopted Roth -- wearing the traditional headcovering came up to him with tears in her eyes. "It is not in my culture to do that," she said to him, apologizing for not shaking his hand, "but I love you very much."

Roth uses the Holocaust to teach students in the Adopt a Survivor program about how prejudice can lead to genocide, including in Rwanda and more recently Darfur, and how they must not stand by when they see discrimination. Ultimately, he hopes to impart to them awareness beyond tolerance.

"We need to understand both intellectually and emotionally that we are all the same, whether Jew, Muslim, Christian or any other religion or race," Roth emphasizes. "Future generations will judge our society not on our rhetoric but our actions -- how we have treated our fellow human beings as individuals, as groups and as nations. We're here on this Earth for a limited period of time, and it is essentially how we deal with our fellow human beings that characterize us as a society."

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