By Andy Katz
The Queens County Brandeis Association hosted its 12th annual Holocaust Remembrance Program inside the Queens Division of Jurors room Wednesday.
The memorial event took place a few days after Yom Hashoah, the international day of Holocaust remembrance day, and highlighted survivor testimony and the need to educate people about the systematic persecution of European Jews and the horrors of the Holocaust.
“A recent survey from 2018 revealed that many adults in the US lack a basic knowledge of the Holocaust,” said Hon. Jodi Orlow, chair of the Brandeis Association. “Just six months after the worst attack ever on Jewish people in the United States in Philadelphia, another horrific attack takes place at the Chabad synagogue in San Diego. More than in recent years, there has been a resurgence of Nazi symbolism.”
Casual anti-Semitism also remains commonplace, even here in New York City, Orlow said.
“Someone close to me recently turned to me and said, ‘You have a Jew wad,’: Orlow said, explaining that the person was referring to a roll of bills with least valuable on the outside. “I just lost it. And this is someone close to me.”
Brandeis Association President Hon. Mojgan Lancman introduced the evening’s speaker, Irving Roth, the director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea in Manhasset, New York.
Roth, 90, is a survivor of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and spoke with skill and eloquence, describing truly horrific events that seem impossible to imagine.
“It was a balmy evening in May of 1944,” Roth said. “I was 14 years old. The last three days I’d spent in a cattle car. When the door finally opened, it was pure bliss.”
That quickly changed. Roth recalled disembarking in Poland, along with most of the rest of his family, including his grandparents, aunts and cousins.
“We had no time to think,” he said. “We were told to form lines. Some of us went to the right, others to the left. My grandmother, my grandfather, my 10-year-old cousin all went left.”
Roth grew up in Czechoslovakia, which he described as a multicultural democracy.
“It didn’t matter if you were Jewish, Catholic or Protestant or Gypsy,” he said. “We got along. Not always perfectly. But we managed.”
Roth skillfully recounted the timeline of catastrophes as Jews in Germany were stripped of their basic rights. In late 1938 the Munich Crisis enabled Germany to seize most of Czechoslovakia, and the Kristallnacht riots on November 9 demonstrated that Jews were persecuted anywhere in the Reich.
Roth said he and his family experienced the gradual degradation of their rights.
“After my father put his lumber business in the name of a close gentile friend in order to circumvent laws preventing Jews from owning businesses, the man came to him and said, ‘You see the name on the marquee and on the letterheads is mine. So too then are the profits.’ He proved that even the best people are transformed by circumstances,” Roth said.
Roth’s father sensed the danger in his native country and moved the family to Hungary, a place of relative safety until mid 1944, when roughly 500,000 Jews were deported. Most, along with Roth and his family, were forced to Auschwitz.
After the SS evacuated Auschwitz, Roth and his younger brother were among those force-marched back into German territory. Eventually they were liberated by US Army troops and nursed back to health.
“They [US troops] were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen,” Roth said.
After Roth’s accounts, survivors and relatives of survivors were invited to light candles in memory of those that perished.
Though she is not a Brandeis member, Hon. Carmen Velasquez attended the event to provide support.
“Our legacy from the past is vital,” Velasquez said. “And now people forget. We must not let that happen under any circumstances.”