Irving Roth said he didn’t understand why he was at Auschwitz.
“Why was I there? What crime did I commit?” the Holocaust survivor said as the audience sat in silence.
About 500 students came out to hear Roth speak at the Reitz Union Auditorium on Wednesday night. About 350 students were able to watch Roth speak in the auditorium, while the rest were taken to an overflow room to watch the speak from a Facebook Live video.
“My crime was a very simple one,” Roth said. “I was a 14-year-old Jew. My parents were Jewish. My grandparents were Jewish.”
Roth told his story of survival after he was transported to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp, as a teenager. As he spoke, Roth made jokes about his childhood and his experiences with American soldiers after being freed from the concentration camp. As he spoke, the audience laughed with him, or at later parts of his speech, wiped away tears.
He also spoke about how the non-Jewish members of his community alienated him because of his faith.
“That’s what made what was next possible; the support of the people,” Roth said.
Taylor Roth, the president of UF’s Christians United for Israel branch, said the goal of the event was to present students with the increasingly rare opportunity to hear directly from a Holocaust survivor. Taylor Roth is not related to Irving Roth.
“I think they’ll take away from this event the opportunity of a lifetime to actually be able to tell their grandchildren one day that they listened to somebody who’s survived one of the worst events in human history and still had the courage to share his experiences and educate others,” the UF public relations sophomore said.
The 19-year-old said Roth’s speech will allow students to understand the Holocaust and prevent something like it from occurring again.
“I think it relates to the political environment today because there’s a lot anti-Semitic rhetoric in college campuses, especially when we had a speaker like Richard Spencer coming, and this is just a way we can counter-challenge that with our own free speech,” she said.
Jillian Stern, a Jewish UF student, said she didn’t want to miss out on one of her last few chances to hear from a Holocaust survivor.
“I think he was unique because he was able to bring humor to his story,” the UF history junior said. “He was able to not be so sad, but rather talk about it in a lighthearted manner and look back and not see the good in it, but in a way for people to relate and understand easier.”
The 20-year-old said students should share Roth’s story.
“As people, we have an obligation to continue telling these survivors’ stories, even when they’re no longer with us,” she said. “It’s going to be our responsibility to share their stories and tell the truth about the Holocaust.”