How Irving Roth’s story carries into modern day
We cannot watch the past repeat itself
By Hammad Ali
On the evening of Sept.18, anyone around the entrance to the Conexus Arts Centre would have noticed a queue of people all the way out the doors and to the sidewalk. One would be excused for thinking that people were waiting for some major performance, for they were; however, this was not a musical or a concert. The nearly 1500 strong audience was here to listen to Irving Roth.
Before hearing him speak, most of us would know Mr. Roth as a survivor of the Holocaust. And to be honest, that would have been enough. However, later that evening, as we made our way out of the venue, that aspect of his life had been balanced out by the other sides of the man.
Mr. Irving Roth is a gifted speaker, a professor, and researcher, a loving grandfather (and great grandfather). As Rabbi Avrohom Simmonds from Chabad of Regina mentioned in his introduction, he is also a veteran of the United States Army, where he chose to serve as his way of thanking the nation and army that had proven instrumental in his and his family’s surviving one of the darkest episodes of human history.
Having sat through my fair share of seminars and lectures, I have to concede, with a tinge of discomfort, that living an eventful life does not always make one a good speaker, and that there is little more difficult than to sit through a monotonous speech about what should otherwise have been a gripping account. As already mentioned though, Mr. Roth is a wonderful speaker who held us all captive for nearly ninety minutes. We laughed at his jokes about his own childhood in Czechoslovakia and his first childhood crush.
We sat there in stunned silence as he spoke about being turned away from school one morning for the “horrid crime” of being a Jew, of friends who would no longer play with him, of a family friend betraying his father and taking away his business because, after all, Jews were not supposed to own any. We sighed once again in relief when he told of neighbours who helped him and his brother survive even in the concentration camp, because their human decency overcame any propaganda about who they were supposed to hate and oppress. We fought back tears when told of how a young Irving, after the war, met his parents once again.
That is where the story could have ended. After all, the Roths seem to have gotten their happy ending, despite the horror they lived through. But that would be unfair to the many families who never got their reunion, the many children who never came back from the camps, to those who never saw their loved ones again and never will. More importantly though, it would be a form of escapism.
As Mr. Roth pointed out, the Nazis wanted to solve the Jewish problem through ethnic cleansing. But hundreds of thousands of people first had to be convinced that that was the solution. Many of these people had to be enlisted to carry out the holocaust. And many more took the opportunity to oppress their very neighbours and former friends, knowing that they would never be held accountable for these acts. How was one to live in the very city, the very neighbourhoods, were they had been the victims of prejudice, persecution, and betrayal? And if the Jewish people could no longer live in the very towns that evoked for them nothing but memories of shame and fear, where were they to go?
These are tough questions, and while some answers were proposed, it is not really about the answers. Irving Roth said as much himself. He mentioned how, at 90 years old, he notices with grave misgivings some of the very same things he saw in the world in the 1920s and 1930s. While overt expressions of anti-Semitism are less welcome, it has arguably re-branded as anti-Zionism, the BDS movement, and other such more “acceptable” movements that seem to be growing popular.
As surveys by the B’nai Brith Canada show, the number of anti-Semitic hate crimes in Canada has been steadily on the rise. Nor is anti-Semitism the only problem. Baseless hatred and prejudice of the other, of anyone who does not fit our mould, is rearing its ugly head. Recently, Dale Dewar, a Green Party candidate from Regina, has been criticized for suggesting that the Jewish people need to seek therapy to get over the Holocaust, hardly something commendable in an individual running for public office in a country that prides itself in its diversity.
But this is not about one person, or one community. The world is becoming less tolerant, and we need to notice the signs and take actions before it is too late. To borrow a phrase from the Jewish people, we cannot forget the horrors of prejudice this world has seen already, and we cannot let such darkness return. Never again.