Irving Roth was only 14 when he was taken from his family and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in May 1944.
"It was a balmy evening in Auschwitz,” Roth recalled. “The train stopped, and I had no idea where I was. The guard was yelling at us — ‘Move quickly, take nothing with you.’ ”
Roth, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor, told stories about his early life growing up during the Holocaust to a full classroom Thursday night in Rackley Building as part of a presentation organized by Penn State Hillel and Christians United for Israel.
Roth lived a relatively normal childhood in the small village of Humenne, Czechoslovakia, with his parents, brother and grandparents.
“I was a very lucky kid. Life was beautiful, just like the movie. That’s the way I (began) my life,” Roth said. “But soon, my life would change.”
Roth’s presentation centered on the buildup in Europe leading to his eventual imprisonment at Auschwitz. Roth said that his family and other Jewish families gradually began to lose their rights. First, Roth was kicked off his soccer team and not allowed to go to the same school. Soon, he wasn’t even allowed to walk down the street with someone who wasn’t also Jewish.
“There came a time when Jews weren’t allowed to own any luxury items, including fur coats or earrings,” Roth said. “I owned a sheepskin jacket. Here I am, a 10-year-old, and I had to take my sheepskin jacket and turn it in to the police department.”
Roth said soon after arriving at Auschwitz, his brother Boni was led away by soldiers. They two never saw each other again.
Eventually, Roth was transferred to another concentration camp — Buchenwald, until it was liberated by American forces in 1945.
“I arrived on a transfer from Hungary with 4,000 people,” Roth said. “Twenty-four hours later and only 300 of us were still alive.”
When Roth returned home after his liberation, he asked the first person he saw if anyone from his family had survived. He was startled to hear that both his parents were still alive.
“I ran up to the house, opened the door, and there my mom is standing at the door,” Roth said. “She fainted when she saw me. They couldn’t believe I survived.”
Roth related his experience in the Holocaust to the dangers the world faces today with nuclear weapons. Calling the stakes “monumental,” Roth said college students needed to the ones advocating for caution.
“It took 15 million human beings to stop the evil of the Nazis,” Roth said. “How many human beings is it going to take to stop nuclear weapons and the enrichment of uranium?”
“As long as people threaten other people with death, it will continue. We must stop using murder as a political tool.”
Assaf Levinton, the director of Israeli engagement for Penn State Hillel, said Roth’s story was particularly inspiring to him because his grandmother was in the Holocaust.
“I think the fact that he didn’t lose faith was what sticks with me the most,” Levinton said. “He decided to stay alive and continue against all odds. That was just amazing to hear.”
Penn State freshman Ben Fowler said Roth’s presentation met his expectations.
“I was struck by how inspiring he was — how he was able to keep hope during even the most desperate times,” Fowler said. “You just need to find that good in everything that you do.”