Auschwitz northern survivor murdered at home in Hungary

SATORALJAUJHELY, Hungary — Rozsika Roth survived World War I, the Holocaust and more than four decades of communism, only to be slain in her home one Shabbat evening a month before Rosh Hashanah.

The frail 79-year-old woman, renowned for her piety, was a mainstay of the tiny Jewish community in this northern Hungarian town that borders Slovakia. She was murdered during a robbery the night of Aug. 25, police said.

Thieves apparently broke in through a window, just hours after Roth had lit the candles and served guests a Shabbat meal of cholent, wine and fresh-baked challah.

Her wrists had been bound and her stockings had been stuffed into her mouth behind tape wrapped tightly around her head. Her body appeared to be bruised. Police said she choked or suffocated to death.

Her rambling ground floor apartment, with a mezzuzah on every doorpost, had been ransacked. Clothes, ornaments, food and linens were strewn everywhere; the bed was slashed open; pictures had been torn from their frames.

Some reports said three young men had been seen fleeing from the crime scene. According to one theory, the criminals had come from over the border, from Slovakia or nearby Ukraine or Romania.

Neighbors said they heard nothing.

Weeks after the crime, there have been no arrests and police were not sure whether anything had actually been stolen because valuable ritual items had not been touched. They believe that the thieves had been looking for money.

"Three shofars were found lying on the floor," said Laszlo Tarr, the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery and one of the last people to see Roth alive. "One of them was broken — it had been used to lever open a box."

At the end of September, the fresh mound of earth covering Roth's grave stood out amid the crooked old tombs in Satoraljaujhely's Jewish cemetery. A few memorial pebbles lay on top of the mound, and a wooden stake noted her name and her dates: 1916-1995.

Some 4,000 Jews lived in Satoraljaujhely before World War II. Almost all were deported to Auschwitz in 1944.

Today, there are only half a dozen Jews in the town of 20,000 people.

Roth lost almost all her family at Auschwitz, and she had tattooed Auschwitz numbers on her arm.

After the war, she returned to the house she was born in — and in which her grandfather, too, had been born.

"Her home became her only comfort, her only security, the only familiar thing left to her after Auschwitz," a friend said after her death. "She always talked about leaving, but never did it."

Roth lived a deeply religious life despite her isolation, keeping strictly kosher and buying all her meat from a kosher butcher who made his rounds once every few weeks.

Every Friday, she baked challah for the Shabbat meal. She lit the candles in their tall silver candlesticks and prayed from a well-thumbed prayer book.

But the frail old woman lived dangerously.

Like her father and her grandfather before her, she sold cheap liquor to local men from a makeshift tavern in her kitchen.

She also lent money to local townspeople. Rumor had it that her home was full of cash.

According to local stereotypes, Tarr said, being Jewish meant being rich.

Roth had already been robbed once, several years before, and she kept her door locked and shutters closed.

Although only one or two murders were reported each year in the Satoraljaujhely area, news reports of the crime stressed that more and more elderly people living alone were falling victim to robbers.

In the 19th century, Satoraljaujhely was the seat of Moses Teitelbaum, one of the first Chassidic masters to live in Hungary. His followers constructed a shrine at his tomb, and pilgrims still flock to his grave.

Roth, who grew up as a Chassid, kept the key to the shrine.

She displayed pictures of Teitelbaum and other religious figures on her dresser and repeatedly kissed the large mezzuzah on her front door whenever she went in or out.

"She had a childlike religious feeling," said Tarr. "She could speak about God like a child."

Tarr and his family were Roth's guests for the Shabbat meal before she was killed.

Though not Jewish himself, Tarr has a deep interest in Judaism and has visited Israel several times.

Roth, he said, was something of a spiritual guide for him in his Judaic studies.

"Over the last three or four years, she taught me a lot," he said. "One of these teachings, which she had learned from her parents, was that we should pray to God every hour of the day, as we can't know when he will hear us."

Tarr said that on the night that she died, Roth had told him that she was very happy because God had heard her prayers and had answered them — but she did not say what these prayers were.