This piece was written by B.A. Van Sise before Mr. Roth’s death. Irving Roth died on February 16, 2021.
Irving Roth’s mind is on the future. After all, it’s where he lives, or plans to: the past is an uglier place, a more deafening place; Auschwitz was a long time ago, and not, and far away, and not. The future feels closer. In fact, the future is right here, on his knee.
Three year old Addie, his great-granddaughter, was born in a different century—this one; and in a different country—this one; and in a different future: this one.
Irving was not much older than she, in the grand scheme of things—only fourteen—when he made the three day cattle-car ride from his boyhood home in Czechoslovakia, to Auschwitz, with four thousand other people, of whom 3,700, including his grandparents, were killed immediately upon arrival. He endured starvation, beatings, a death march. He was separated from his brother. His brother disappeared. He was put to work as a slave: draining swamps, ploughing fields. Most of his remaining family eventually disappeared, too, periodically and abruptly; by the time he was liberated by American soldiers, he weighed only 75 pounds, and was largely alone in the world to carry the perfume of his perished.
He immigrated to the United States, where an uncle gave him advice: “Whatever happened over there, let it sink into the ocean.” And so Irving did. He went to school, and school again, and got a degree in electrical engineering, a life of designing things, building things, making them work. He married.
Today, he lives in a warm, cozy home, the paterfamilias of a clan that is large and growing; he is a deeply, palpably cerebral man enjoying, at 91, a satisfyingly long retirement.
Today, he gives talks all over the world, to classes and conventions, talking about his experience, offering a bit of the past and telling them to take a hard look at the present. “Look at the signposts on the road to Auschwitz,” he tells them.
And still, even at 91, almost all of Irving Roth’s life is in the future. “Part of who I am—emotionally, psychologically, and even physically—is based on my experiences. All of us, we would like to live forever. We don’t.” He kisses Addie, and bounces her on his knee.
“I hope she’ll be able to say that she had a great-grandfather, on his lap she sat, and he talked to her, and I’m hoping I live a few more years so I can give her a bit more. I want to give her a sense of who she is from a…genealogical perspective. What my values are. Not necessarily her values, but these are my values. I hope she tells her grandson,” he stops himself, “her granddaughter some of the thoughts I had.”
His name in America is, of course, Irving, but his Hebrew name, in the Europe that stood midwife to his birth, was Shmuel Meir—the name of a landowning great-grandfather. “I look at genealogy in a more profound way. It’s an inheritance of ideas and thoughts and philosophies and people.
“My grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz, but my grandfather lives within me, and within Addie, and I think that’s extremely important. Because if you don’t, then they never existed.”
Every time Addie hears her name, she perks up.
“In a hundred years from now, my little Addie will be 103 years old, and she’ll be probably alive the way things are going. She will have grandchildren and great-grandchildren by then. If she remembers any part of me, she’ll be able to tell that to them. That’s saying that I existed, in minds and in hearts and in souls.”