Leading Stories

by Ashlyn Adams

The University of West Florida, in conjunction with Christians United For Israel, welcomed Holocaust survivor Irving Roth to speak.

By 5:30 p.m., nearly every seat was taken by people young and old, from college students to Christians to Jewish rabbis. 

Roth, despite being 90 years old, spoke with energy and enthusiasm, highlighting the atrocities to which he was subjected during WWII along with the struggles he sees Jewish people facing today.

Irving Roth speaks with an audience at UWF.

He relived his idyllic childhood growing up in what was then Czechoslovakia, often smiling fondly at his memories. However, by the summer of 1939, everything began to change for Roth.  

“Suddenly, there are rules that I must obey,” Roth said. “I can’t go into the park. I, a 10-year-old, can’t go into the park because I am a Jew.”

The small rules turned into bigger ones, such as Roth being forced to wear a yellow star, until eventually, his family couldn’t even own their business. 

Eventually, Roth and his family were transported to a concentration camp in cattle cars carrying 4,000 people. About 3,700 people, including his beloved grandparents, were taken straight to the gas chambers upon arrival. 

Roth and his brother, deemed young and healthy enough, were both used as farmworkers in extremely harsh conditions, living on what resembled coffee and one piece of bread totaling a daily intake of 350 calories. At one point, Roth weighed less than 80 pounds. 

Through it all, Roth kept survival at the forefront of his mind. During a death march in 1945, Roth’s brother reminded him that survival was not about the physical.

“You march,” Roth said. “Guards on both sides, with guns. If you slow down, you’re dead. But I want to live. I complain to my brother who is marching beside me. I say that I am tired, I am cold, I am hungry. He says, ‘Stop thinking so much of physical existence, and become spiritual.’”

Roth said he did not know any prayers by heart, but his brother did. For three days and three nights, he marched beside his brother as he prayed. 

Roth was separated from his brother.

Eventually, Roth was rescued by American troops who gave him food, a real bed, and—best of all—chocolate.

He even told a comedic anecdote about an American soldier who gave him a carton of Camel cigarettes as a gift.

“I had never smoked, but I was cured very quickly because by the time I tried to smoke the third cigarette, I felt pretty sick.” Roth said. “After the second cigarette, it tastes like hell. I never smoked another cigarette in my life. But I did become a chocoholic.” 

Roth returned to his village, where he found that both of his parents had survived, thanks to a nurse who had taken them into her home while her Nazi son-in-law was away fighting in the war.

At the end of his lecture, Roth was open to questions from the audience, and he spoke of issues he sees with anti-Semitism today, stating that he feels like Jewish people are being demonized in the media, primarily through propaganda. 

The audience itself was diverse, but one member was particularly special. Molly Gross sat on the front row, and she was also a survivor of the Holocaust.

Gross was born in Poland and survived in a concentration camp for over two years. She and her daughter, like Roth, speak publicly about Gross’s experience during the Holocaust.

Roth and Gross took a photo together, and Roth gave Gross a copy of his book.

Molly Gross, left, and Irving Roth, right, pictured together on the UWF campus. Photo credit to Ryan Harrison.

Roth was partnered with Christians United For Israel, or CUFI, which has 8 million members across the globe. Their mission is to combat anti-Semitism everywhere—from college campuses to the nation’s capital.

Pastor Joey Rogers of Pace Assembly in Pace, Florida, spoke about the organization preceding Roth’s lecture.

“CUFI is the largest advocacy group for the nation of Israel,” Rogers said. “Many of the policies you’ve seen recently are a direct result of Christians United For Israel involved and engaged in those policy-making happenings. We’re thankful to represent.” 

Roth and the group plan on taking a trip to Poland, where travelers can visit the concentration camps with Roth as their guide. Roth plans to continue sharing his story and advocating for Israel as long as he is able, and he will do whatever he can to ensure that history does not repeat itself.