Nagykallo (Hungary), Auschwitz, Wolfsberg, Ebensee
The Reverend Herman (Hershell) Roth was born in 1926 in Nagykallo, Hungary, a town of about 10,000 of which approximately 1,000 were Jewish. He was brought up in a strict Jewish household of nine children, attending Jewish schools, including a Yeshiva. On March 18, 1944, his and other families in his hometown were placed under house arrest by the Hungarian authorities. As the eldest of the children, he buried the family jewels under the kitchen floor. From Nagykallo, Roth and his family were taken by horse-drawn wagons to Nyirecyhaza, 14 kilometers away, where a ghetto was created by the Hungarians. They spent two to three weeks in the ghetto after which they were turned over to German authorities for shipment to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Having received bad treatment by the Hungarians, the Roths were actually pleased to be placed under German control since their father told them they would receive better treatment by the more "civilized" Germans. They soon found out of the fallacy of that belief.
In the selection process following their arrival at Auschwitz, Roth and his father remained together but were separated from the remainder of their family. Except for two sisters with whom he was reunited after the war, all others of his family are believed to have been gassed and cremated at Auschwitz. He remained at Auschwitz for three days after which he and his father were sent on a day-and-a-half-long journey to the Wolfsberg labor camp near the Gross Rosen concentration camp. That camp consisted of about 3000 workers, some from his home town, of which only 240 were assigned to do significant work. Three shifts of 80 people each, including Roth, were required to work eight hours each day to clear the rocks and debris following blasting in the construction of a tunnel. The actual blasting was done by Italian prisoners. This was considered a good job since it only entailed eight hours of work and was in the stable environment of the tunnel, and provided extra rations including 1 kilogram of bacon each week. The others, including his father, were required to work twelve hours each day at mostly "make" work (unproductive) under outdoor conditions. Roth believes the extra rations he received and shared with his father helped them to survive.
When Russian forces were closing in on the camp in February 1945, the camp was evacuated by the Germans, and the inmates sent in open railroad cars to the Ebensee labor camp via Mauthausen. Ebensee was a satellite camp of the Mauthausen concentration camp. At some point during this trip civilians actually threw food items, i.e., sandwiches, etc., into the open cars for the prisoners, but due to the ensuing fights for these items relatively few benefitted from them. Many persons died during the trip and the dead bodies were used as benches to sit on. Upon their arrival in Ebensee on February 18, 1945, most prisoners were very anxious to get inside the camp due to the bad weather and in the ensuing stampede to get inside many fell and were trampled to death, froze and were used as stepping stones by others. At Ebensee, Roth was placed in the hospital due to a frozen toe. About four to five weeks later his father was also admitted to the hospital only to die one week before the liberation by American forces on May 7 and 8, 1945. From about 3000 inmates at Wolfsberg only about 300 remained alive. Some died from excessive food intake following liberation.
Following liberation Roth returned to his hometown and found two sisters who also had returned. In the ashes of his former home he dug up the hidden jewelry and now wears the two gold rings recovered. He returned to a displaced persons camp in Germany, attended a Yeshiva in Germany, then came to the U. S. on a student visa to finish his Yeshiva studies in Detroit.
Of specific interest are his remembrance of a rabbinical court being held in the camp to decide the ownership of a prayer book, the killing of Kapos following liberation, his experience with a Kapo whose knowledge of Hebrew prayers exceeded his own, and of being "captured" by wounded Russian soldiers upon his return to Hungary since he was wearing a German uniform. His observations are that the experiences of the Holocaust caused religious Jews to become more religious, and non-religious Jews even less religious. He believes firmly that we must be on guard as to what is happening around us since it can also happen here if we are not vigilant.
Date: December 26, 1988
Interviewer: Hans R. Weinmann
Format: Video recording