Israeli Holocaust survivors give voice to the murdered mute at UN ceremony

Marta Wise and Haim Roet to share personal testimony at Wednesday’s New York observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Auschwitz survivor Marta Wise wearing a pendant with a 'chai' -- life in Hebrew. (courtesy)
Auschwitz survivor Marta Wise wearing a pendant with a 'chai' -- life in Hebrew. (courtesy)

In 1927, Dutch Jewish businessman Isaac Roet implemented a vision of using his impressive financial legacy toward fostering world peace. To encourage economists to generate plans for better distribution of world resources, Roet earmarked in his will one-fifth of his assets for the endowment of a contest based out of his alma mater, the University of Amsterdam. A 5,000 euro prize is still awarded in his name today.

Roet’s philanthropic idealism, however, did not save him from being murdered by the Nazis. He died in Auschwitz in 1944, alongside his wife and countless other family members.

Now, 70 years after the fall of Hitler, this week his nephew Haim Roet will speak in front of the United Nations in New York. In his brief speech, Roet will focus on his own gripping survival story and his personal iterations of Uncle Isaac’s altruistic legacy.

At Wednesday’s United Nations ceremony observing the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, two Jewish Holocaust survivors from Israel, Roet and Marta Wise, will deliver their testimonies alongside Zoni Weisz, a Sinto survivor.

Dutch Holocaust survivor Haim Roet (courtesy)
Dutch Holocaust survivor Haim Roet (courtesy)

To open the session, Barbara Winton will screen a video tribute to her father, Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from the Holocaust on the Czech Kindertransport. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, and other dignitaries are also scheduled to speak.

Ahead of the ceremony, Israelis Roet and Wise told The Times of Israel this week that they see their limited time slots at the UN ceremony as a way of speaking for those Nazi victims who cannot speak for themselves.

Both have made public awareness of Nazi atrocities a lifelong mission: Slovak-born Wise has traveled broadly, recounting in front of thousands her harrowing experiences in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. And Dutch Jew Roet has generated efforts to memorialize Nazi victims that have spread all over the globe.

Ahead of her flight to New York this week, Wise, 81, spoke with The Times of Israel from her Jerusalem home.

“When we were in Auschwitz and somebody was about to be murdered or about to die, she would tell us, ‘If you survive, tell the world what happened here,'” Wise said. “The Nazis used to taunt us, that none of us would survive, and if we did, no one would believe what had happened.”

Marta Wise (center with red arrow) stands with a group of children behind the Auschwitz barbed wire. (courtesy)
Marta Wise (center with red arrow) stands with a group of children behind the Auschwitz barbed wire. (courtesy)

Life certainly happened for Wise, who although only 10 years old and 17 kilos at the end of World War II, is now the matriarch of a large family. While speaking with The Times of Israel, in the background Wise admonished her daughters and grandchildren in her exasperated Australian-accented English for making a laughing ruckus.

Amsterdam-born Roet, 84, was hidden by the Dutch resistance during WWII. Roet was helped by several Dutch families who endangered their own lives, but also by a 21-year-old Jew, Max Leons, who today is 95 years old.

“A year and a half after being torn apart from my family thinking I was all alone in the world, I was reunited, in the middle of the night, with my parents and surviving brothers,” wrote Roet in a draft of his UN speech.

Having lost two siblings and countless other family in the Shoah, Roet is the instigator of the widespread “Unto Every Person There Is A Name” memorial project in which the names of Nazi victims, and their ages, birth places and place of death are read in public Holocaust memorial services all over the world. The project attempts to make each victim a person, so that the much repeated “six million” is not just a number but a calamity.

The Roet family, pre-World War II. (courtesy)
The Roet family, pre-World War II. (courtesy)

Roet is also the driving force behind a push for the recognition of Jews who saved Jews during the Shoah. “Their deeds have not been recognized and are mostly unknown,” said Roet, ensconced with family in a snowy New York.

Enjoying his time in the blizzard-bound city with his son David, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Roet described a snowy walk in Central Park in which both his arms were supported by family members to prevent him from slipping.

“For me, this is like the closing of a circle, for me as a Holocaust survivor to speak at the UN, where my son is the deputy head of the Israeli delegation,” said Roet.

‘We didn’t know we’d survive, let alone move to Israel and build a family, with children, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren’

Wise also spoke to the miraculousness of her situation.

“We didn’t know we’d survive, let alone move to Israel and build a family, with children, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It’s a great honor and a privilege to speak at the UN and I’m honored to do it, especially speaking as an Israeli,” she said.

Both Wise and Roet are active, seemingly optimistic octogenarians.

“It’s more important for me to concentrate on the positive,” said Roet from New York.

And like his Uncle Isaac, for the past several decades, he too has been working to make the world a better place.

“In the last 25 years, I have concentrated my efforts to assist in making society more empathic to the sorrows of others, and to encourage positive actions and good deeds,” said Roet, who clearly has no intention of stopping any time soon.

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