Roots and early years in the life of Rabbi Dr Emil (Joel Zvi) Róth
By Amir Livnat
Hebrew version below
Rabbi Dr Róth Emil (Joel Zvi), the last Rabbi of Győr’s Neologue community before 1944, is a well-known figure in the city’s Jewish history. His Zionist approach convinced many of the city’s youth, including members of the Orthodox community, to immigrate to Palestine, the Land of Israel, in the years before the outbreak of World War II, and as a result saving their lives. Rabbi Róth stayed with his congregation throughout the war, even though he was given the opportunity to save himself and his family. As a teacher and spiritual leader loyal to his community, Rabbi Róth is often referred to as “Korczak of Győr”. He is also remembered for his joint sermon with the Orthodox Rabbi Benzion Snyders on the last Sabbath of the Jewish community, in the barracks camp in Budai Street before the deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It is not surprising, then, that Rabbi Róth is remembered by Győr’s Jews and their descendants as a leader and a role model, almost a mythic figure. Accordingly, much has been written about his years serving as Rabbi in Győr, from 1935 until the last days of the community in June 1944. On the other hand, the period before Rabbi Róth assumed his position in Győr is less known and documented. In the following paragraphs we will fill in these gaps and trace the roots and early years of Rabbi Róth.
Emil Róth was born on September 21, 1907. Apart from his Hungarian, he was given the Jewish name Joel Zvi (יואל צבי), reasons for that will be discussed later on. His last name, Róth, is written in modern Hebrew as “רוט”, but in Jewish traditional Hebrew it was usually written as “ראָטה”.
Civil records preserved in the Hungarian Archives in Budapest shed light on Emil’s family. His parents are Izsak Róth and Irén Kohn, who married on July 28, 1904. Emil is the third of Izsak and Irén’s five sons. His elder brother Dezső (David) was born on June 10, 1905. Andor (Mordechai) was born second, on August 29, 1906, and after them, as mentioned, followed Emil. Emil’s younger brothers are Sándor, born on October 6, 1909, and László, who was born about a year later, on October 21, 1910.
Emil was born in the town of Kunszentmárton, where his parents Izsak and Irén lived, and where all their children were born. Kunszentmárton is located in the eastern part of today’s Hungary, in the Great Hungarian Plain, about 130 km southeast of the capital Budapest. It lies on the eastern bank of the Körös River: a tributary of the Tisza River, and is considered an important crossroad due to the bridge that crosses the river within its boundaries. Kunszentmárton was recognized as a city as early as 1807.
In 1910, shortly after the birth of Emil Róth, 10,921 inhabitants lived there, of which 222 were Jews. In 1912, a new synagogue was built in the town, which still exists today. Most of Kunszentmárton’s Jews made a living from agriculture, trade and various crafts. Jews in the town also owned a flour mill, a wood factory and a printing house. Emil’s family made a living as grain merchants. They would send grain on cargo ships that sailed across the Tisza River.
Emil’s childhood family life can be visualized based on the memoirs of his brother, Sándor Róth, who in later years took the Hebrew name Israel Goren, a member of Kibbutz Ma’abarot in Israel. A booklet called “From the River Tisza to Hefer Stream” collects stories of Kibbutz members of Hungarian origin, among them Israel Goren. Some of his memories will be shared here:
“The village had a small Jewish community of 25 families. My parents maintained a Kosher kitchen, closed their shop on Shabbat, etc., they also celebrated the Jewish holidays – Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and more. They would often quote the verse “Le’Shana Haba’a Bi’Yerushalim” – “Next year in Jerusalem!”. Our family was very warm and there were good relations between the family members. In my parents’ home, I absorbed the Jewish tradition, which was common for all of us: my parents, grandparents and us, the five sons… On vacations, father would bring a student from the Rabbinic Seminary, who would teach us some Torah. During the school year we had religion studies for only an hour a week, which was a very poor study. Our vacations were wonderful: before noontime we would play in the synagogue yard, then we spent one or two hours learning with the student, and in the afternoons – like all the other children and boys – we would swim until nightfall in the stream near our house. This is how we grew up, and we enjoyed ourselves in the village. My father was in the grain tradesman. We were an affluent family”.
Upon completion of the elementary school in the village of Kunszentmárton, the children of the Róth family, including Emil, were sent to high school in the nearby city of Szeged. In 1920, close to the beginning of Emil Róth’s studies there, the Jewish community in Szeged consisted of 6,958 people, which made about 6% of all the city’s population. Most of them belonged to the Neologue community.
We will now go back several years, to follow Emil’s extended family and their origins. We will start with his parents, and continue to follow the family tree to previous generations. Emil’s father, Izsak Róth, was born on April 3, 1878 in the town of Komádi, which is located about 120 km east of Kunszentmárton, near the present-day Hungary-Ukraine border. Previous generations of the Róth family lived in this town as well.
Izsak Róth’s father, and Emil’s grandfather, is Lajos/Leopold Róth, who bears the Jewish name Yehuda Aryeh. Izsak’s mother is Aranka Porgesz. Apart from Izsak, the couple had 4 daughters: Hermina who married Béla Fisch, Rosa who married Josef Baron, Ethel who married Izsak Schwarz, and another daughter. After the death of his wife Aranka, Lajos married Sara-Szerena Sussman. The two were married on September 15, 1891 and had one son and 3 daughters.
Emil’s mother, Irén Kohn, was born on June 4, 1877. Her parents were János Kohn and Regina Kohn. Apart from Irén, we know of another son named Ödön Kohn. Irén was born in the town of Csongrád, and grew up in the nearby town of Kunszentmárton, the birthplace of Emil Róth. Like the Róth family, János Kohn was also involved in the grain trade business. In a relatively small town, it is likely that the Róth and Kohn families were connected by business ties, which ultimately resulted in a match between Izsak and Irén, Emil’s parents.
Next, we will continue our journey further back in time to trace even more distant origins of the Róth family. Lajos, Emil’s grandfather, is the son of David Róth and his wife Frumet Klein. Apart from Lajos, they had three boys, Ignatz-Yitzchak, Isidore-Israel, Simon and a daughter, Memet (Engel). As mentioned, this generation of the family lived in Komádi already.
One generation before, David Róth is the son of Simon Róth and his wife Roza-Reisel Reich. Apart from David, they had two more children Josua and Sara, the wife of Jakob Feldman. Simon’s father, who is the earliest ancestor known in this family, is Joel Róth. Emil Róth carries, therefore, the Hebrew name of his ancestor from the fifth generation: his great-great-great grandfather. But as it turns out, this is not the person he was named after.
The previously mentioned Simon Róth, Emil’s ancestor, had a first wife before Roza Reich: Zipora, born Gotlib. Their only son was Joel Zvi Róth, who was named after his grandfather, and later became the most famous figure in this dynasty. Emil Róth was, therefore, named after Joel Zvi Róth: his great-grandfather’s half-brother. Joel Zvi Róth was born in Komádi in 1820. He served as a Rabbi in several towns in western Hungary. In 1854 he began serving as Rabbi in the city of Huszt, established a large yeshiva there and gradually became one of the most important Rabbis in Hungary. After his death in 1892, several books containing his legacy were published, the most prominent one is Beit HaYozer (בית היוצ”ר, a name that refers to the acronym of his name in Hebrew).
After reviewing the history of his family, we will now return our focus back to Emil Róth. In June 1926, Emil Róth started studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary and University of Jewish Studies, also known as the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest (Országos Rabbiképző – Zsidó Egyetem). This institution, related to the Neologue community, was established back in 1877, and is still active today. The Seminary’s graduates were leading key figures of the Neologue Judaism in Hungary. At the time of Emil’s studies, Rabbi Lajos (Yehuda Aryeh) Blau was the head of the Rabbinical Seminary.
Emil Róth studied at the Rabbinical Seminary for five years. During their studies, the students at the Seminary completed studies with a Doctor of Philosophy degree at the University of Budapest. As part of his studies, Emil Róth’s work focused on Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro: a 15th-century Rabbi and commentator who was born in Italy, moved to the land of Israel and served as one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. In 1930, Róth published his thesis under the title “Obadjah Bertinoro Palesztinai utazása” (The journey of Obadiah of Bertinoro to Palestine). He presented a copy to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. This copy, which includes a handwritten dedication, is currently held by the National Library of Israel.
During the course of his studies, Emil Róth spent certain time in Jerusalem as a guest student at the Hebrew University. The university was then in its early years, and consisted of a few buildings distant from the rest of the city, on top of Mount Scopus. Emil arrived in the British Mandatory Palestine on October 28, 1930, on the ship “Zelio”. He stayed in Jerusalem for about a year. In addition to his studies at the Hebrew University, Emil studied at the Rabbi Kook Central Yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel. During his studies, the yeshiva was located in Rabbi Kook’s house, in the street that is now named after him, in the center of Jerusalem. During Emil’s stay in Jerusalem, his younger brother Sándor Róth came to visit him, and ended up staying in Israel for about six months.
After his return to Hungary, on February 24, 1932, Róth took the Rabbinical ordination exam at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest. He passed the exam successfully and was ordained as a Rabbi. A notification of this appears in the Seminary yearbook for the Academic Year 1931/2.
Rabbi in the city of Eger
Soon after Emil Róth was ordinated, he was appointed Rabbi in the city of Eger. Reports about his links to this city appear already from the beginning of June 1931, even before his ordination as a Rabbi. Eger is located in the north of Hungary, about 120 km northeast of the capital Budapest.
Among Jews, the city was called Erlau or Erloi, deriving from its German name. Rabbi Róth was appointed as Rabbi of the Status Quo Ante community – an independent portion of Hungarian Jewry, which did not belong either to the Neologue or Orthodox communities. Status Quo Ante was a small portion of the Jewry of Hungary, however in Eger it was the dominant community, which most of the city’s Jews, numbering 2,100 these years, belonged to. At the same period, Rabbi Shimon Sofer, grandson of the famous Chatam Sofer, served as the Rabbi of the small Orthodox community in Eger. Rabbi Sofer served in Eger from 1881 until being murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.
The Great Synagogue, a magnificent building located in the center of the city, served as the center of the Status Quo Ante community in Eger. The building was inaugurated on September 13, 1913, and no longer exists today.
The Erloi Yizkor book (memorial book for the Jews of Eger), which was published in Jerusalem in 1975, sheds light on the work of Rabbi Róth during his time in Eger: “Dr Emil Róth, the young Rabbi, a graduate of the Rabbinic Seminary in Budapest, who spent two years in the Land of Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and in [Rabbi Kook’s] Haro’e Yeshiva, came to the city in 1932. He was invited to the position of Chief Rabbi after Dr Eliezer Schweiger moved to Nitra.
During his short term of office, Dr Emil Róth introduced a revolution in youth education. Among all the Rabbis of Hungary, he was the most active and consistent in preaching for Zionism and the study of the Hebrew language… Dr Emil Róth brought new energy to the Zionist activities in Eger. In the Ohel Shem school classrooms, Rabbi Róth divided the youth into age groups, so that at least 4-5 educational groups, about 100 school students, could be educated in a Zionist Jewish atmosphere after their regular daily studies. They learned Hebrew songs, studied the Hebrew language, obtained knowledge about the Land of Israel and the history of the people of Israel. The many trips and summer camps that were organized and managed by the young and talented Rabbi himself, were particularly successful among the youth”.
Also in this book, we find the memories of Meir Zeira (Tibor Klein), who was born in Eger: “After Rabbi Emil Róth started his function, a significant turning point occurred: the Jewish holidays were celebrated by children as part of a connection with the Land of Israel, while learning about symbols of the holiday, beautiful songs in Hebrew and overwhelming stories told by the Rabbi. All of this happened after school, in the Ohel Shem hall, and there were often discords between the school management and the Rabbi and his young assistants.”
In 1935, Rabbi Róth was appointed Rabbi of the Neologue community in Győr, therefore he left Eger. After his departure, he was replaced by Rabbi Dr Zoltán Récz, also a graduate of the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest. Like Rabbi Róth, he was also taken to Auschwitz together with his congregation, but he remained alive.
During his time in Eger and Győr, Emil started a family. He married Erzsébet (Elisheva Baneth), who was born in Budapest in 1910. Around 1934, their eldest son György (Yehuda Aryeh) was born followed in about 1937 by their daughter Eszter Judit.
Emil Róth continued to serve as the Rabbi of Győr, his divers work in this city until the last days will not be detailed here. In June 1944, the Jews of Győr were sent in two transports to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Among them were Emil Róth, his wife and children. None of them survived. During the years of the Holocaust, Izsak, Emil’s father, also perished. His mother Irén had passed away a short time before that. In addition, his brother Andor (Mordechai) Rot, his wife Ágnes and their daughter Hanna also perished.
Three of Emil’s brothers, Dezső, Sándor and László, were the last survivors of his family. All the three immigrated to Israel, and made their home there. His older brother Dezső married Klára Klein while still in Hungary. The two lived in Kunszentmárton, where their son Pál was born in 1932. Klára and Pál were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in June 1944, and killed there. Dezső survived the years of the Holocaust. After the war he married Sara Parcel Neiman, who also lost her husband in the Holocaust. They immigrated to Israel in 1951, and lived in Kiryat Bialik, a town close to Haifa. László Róth, the youngest of the brothers, also lived in Kiryat Bialik.
One of Emil’s brothers arrived in Israel at an earlier stage: Sándor Róth, who was mentioned above when discussing Emil Róth’s childhood and studies. Sándor studied law in Hungary, and simultaneously agriculture, which he hoped would be useful in the Land of Israel. He joined various Zionist groups, and after several attempts, immigrated to Israel in 1935. In Israel, he adopted the Hebrew name Israel Goren. He joined Kibbutz Ma’abarot, located in the Sharon area, not far from Netanya. He married Klara Kliger, and they had two children, Yitzhak and Igal.
There is no better way to conclude this review about Rabbi Dr Emil Róth, than citing the words of his brother Israel Yanai: “My older brother, who studied at the Rabbinical Seminary, brought home the Zionist idea that ignited in my heart the desire to follow the path of practical Zionism. Under his influence, I joined the Zionist student union ‘Maccabiah’… thanks to him I came to Israel – while his own fate was very bitter… these things will serve as a monument to the memory of my brother, who perished in the Holocaust and was not buried according to the Jewish tradition”.
In case you have any additional information about Rabbi Róth, please reach Amir Livnat, email@example.com