Ethel Fried Roth was born on August 8, 1924 in Bodzasujlak (Ujlak) known today as Novosad, in the former Czechoslovakia, the second of five children of Sholom Fried, a Torah scholar and grain merchant and his wife, Chana.
The family led a life centered around Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim, with two sets of grandparents as well as numerous aunts, uncles and cousins all living nearby. This simple yet satisfying way of life began to deteriorate with the advance of Hitler’s troops toward Eastern Europe. By April, 1944, the Frieds were deported with thousands of other Jews to the ghetto at Satoraljaujhely, Hungary where they remained for four weeks, the last month they would spend together as a family.
In May, 1944, the family was transported by cattle car to Auschwitz, the last time Ethel ever saw her parents, younger sister, and younger brothers. As able-bodied teenagers who were considered to be “useful” for Nazi slave labor, Ethel and her older sister Bertha were the only family members spared the gas chambers when they arrived in Auschwitz. The two sisters survived the horrors of that death camp for three months, after which they were transported to the slave labor camp of Fallersleben, Germany and eventually to a camp in Salzwedel, Germany near Bergen-Belsen.
Liberated by the American Army in May, 1945, the sisters’ health was slowly restored during their stay at a home for orphaned Jewish refugees in Kosice, now Slovakia. In addition to their parents and siblings, 45 relatives who had lived in and around their town were killed by the Nazis. Only Ethel and her sister, and just two teenaged first cousins, remained of the large extended family they once had.
After two years in Kosice, the sisters moved to Paris, where they supported themselves as seamstresses while waiting to secure visas to either Israel or the United States. They remained in Paris from 1948 until 1950, when they were granted American visas.
After arriving in the US in July, 1950, Ethel and her sister began their new life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Ethel eventually met and married her beloved husband Eugene Roth, a watchmaker. He too was a Holocaust survivor and orphan. Ethel and Eugene initially settled in Boro Park, Brooklyn, where their three daughters were born. After ten years in Brooklyn, the Roths bought a home in Forest Hills, Queens, where they raised their girls, and where Ethel trained to become a bookkeeper.
After only 27 years of marriage, her beloved husband, Eugene, succumbed to mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by the asbestos he had been exposed to in Buchenwald’s Rehmsdorf satellite slave labor camp. He was only 55 when he died in June, 1981, six weeks after his daughter’s wedding.
Sixteen years later Ethel moved to Highland Park, NJ to live near her middle daughter. As a person always eager to help and never one to sit still, she became a volunteer librarian at the local Jewish day school and was active in the community’s Bikur Cholim of Raritan Valley for many years.
In her later years, she was often approached by members of the community for a “Bracha” – a blessing for good health, for a shidduch, or a refuah – and she simply couldn’t fathom why people would come to her for such a holy, almost rabbinical request. She was not a public speaker and these requests initially intimidated her. Her family explained to her that with the Holocaust years receding behind, a person such as herself who never lost faith in G-d was regarded as special, and that she should simply wish them what was in her heart. She eased into that role and came to understand that her voice was important and needed.
Lovingly called “Babbi” by her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she became a surrogate Babbi to scores of children who knew her from her volunteer work and from her ubiquitous presence in the Edison-Highland Park, NJ community over the 24 years she lived there.
When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020, she made the fortuitous decision to move in with her middle daughter, who lived minutes away from her. She passed away on October 23, 2020 at the age of 96 after receiving a diagnosis of advanced colon cancer only ten days prior. Her daughter and son-in-law were blessed to have her living with them during her final days, where she was surrounded by love and comfort until her passing.
She’ll be remembered as a vibrant, energetic, unstoppable force who cared deeply about her family, her friends, her community and her religion and gave generously of her time, friendship and love. She was adored by her 9 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren and inspired everyone she met, most of all her three daughters and three sons-in-law.