Story: Roth, Herbert Otto
Roth, Herbert Otto
Socialist, labourer, librarian, historian
This biography was written by Kerry Taylor and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Herbert Otto Roth was born in Vienna, Austria, on 7 December 1917, the son of Therese Pepi Heilpern and her husband, Emil Roth, a railway engineer. He was called Otti during his years in Austria, but was later known as Bert in New Zealand. Although his parents were Jewish, religion played little part in his upbringing. His early education was within Vienna’s progressive municipal system, and he received a classical secondary education. From an early age Bert was a voracious reader, and a somewhat introverted child.
As a young man he was an instinctive leftist, although his family was not particularly political. During 1934, his last year at school, he associated with members of the United Red Students’ League. With the dominance of fascism in Austria in the 1930s left-wing politics was increasingly clandestine. Political activity took up most of his time, energy and imagination. He had enrolled for a chemistry degree at the University of Vienna in 1935 but did not complete his studies. In 1936 he joined the Red Falcons, a socialist youth organisation; by September 1937 he was its national leader. He was also active in the Young Communist League. However, the socialist subculture was not entirely sober and serious, and there was time for cultural activities, debate, hiking and romance.
The German annexation of Austria in March 1938 threatened socialists and Jews alike. Being called up for military service provided the impetus for flight. On 23 March, after passing a medical examination and swearing an oath of allegiance to Hitler, Bert Roth fled Austria, his escape route taking him first into Germany, then across Lake Constance into Switzerland and ultimately to France. Later that year Therese Roth fled to England, where she was to live until her death in 1986.
Roth began studying industrial chemistry at the University of Grenoble, but with the outbreak of war was interned as an enemy alien. Through contacts his mother made in England he acquired a permit to emigrate to New Zealand. He left France in February 1940, arriving in Wellington in April. On arrival he described himself to a reporter as a socialist refugee; the government, however, classed him as an enemy alien.
In Wellington Roth quickly became involved in left-wing politics. Through his mother’s contacts he had a letter of introduction to the influential economist Bill Sutch, who became a mentor. He attended Sutch’s WEA class, which introduced him to New Zealand history, and he also belonged to the Wellington Esperanto Club and the Tararua Tramping Club, both then closely connected with the intellectual left. From 1941 he was an active member of the Society for Closer Relations with Russia. He mixed with old socialists and communists, and a younger bohemian group later associated with the Unity Theatre. He was a founding member of the left-wing Wellington Young People’s Club and was elected its secretary, only to be informed by the Department of Justice that he could not hold office because he was an enemy alien. Roth actively sought to change his status, applying for naturalisation in 1944 and becoming a New Zealand citizen in March 1946.
Roth was six feet one inch tall, of medium build, with blue eyes and fair hair. He worked at a series of jobs during his early years in New Zealand: as a factory hand at a die-casting workshop in Wellington; as a labourer on a dairy farm in Wairarapa; as a timber-yard worker at C. & A. Odlin Timber and Hardware Company in Petone; and as an apprentice carpenter with Fletcher Construction. In 1944 he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force, serving as a meteorologist in New Zealand and on Norfolk Island. In August 1946 he transferred to the civilian Meteorological Branch at Rongotai, Wellington. In Wellington on 29 November that year Roth married Margaret (Margot) Frances Hogben. A reporter on the Southern Cross , she met Bert through his work as national secretary of the New Zealand Federation of Young People’s Clubs. The couple, who were to have two sons and a daughter, lived in Wellington until the end of 1961, when Bert’s career took them to Auckland.
While in the air force Roth enrolled at Victoria University College, completing a BA in 1946. In 1947 he attended the New Zealand Library School and the following year became head of the catalogue section of the National Library Service in Wellington. In 1952 he became head of its reference section. Admitted as an associate of the New Zealand Library Association in 1956, he was elected a fellow in 1964, and later served as national president.
In January 1962 Roth commenced duties as deputy librarian at the University of Auckland, a position he held until retirement in January 1983. He was also made university archivist in 1968 and played a central role in developing an impressive research collection, with a special emphasis on Pacific and labour movement records.
Bert Roth retained a socialist outlook until his death, yet resisted formal affiliation with particular factions. Around 1957 he was a founding member of the Socialist Forum, which for a time served as a bridge between factions of the left during various campaigns, particularly against the Vietnam War. With characteristic mischievousness, he described himself in later years as a champagne socialist.
Although he is best known for writing and collecting in the field of labour history, Roth’s first book was a biography of Margot’s grandfather, educationalist George Hogben, published in 1952. Through the 1950s and 1960s most of his writing appeared in academic journals such as Political Science , union journals, or left-wing magazines such as Here & Now and the New Zealand Monthly Review. An interest in folk music saw the publication of Shanties by the way (1967), in collaboration with Rona Bailey and Neil Colquhoun. He also published several valuable bibliographies, notably on pacifism, labour legislation and trade unions.
Roth’s greatest contribution to New Zealand history writing was Trade unions in New Zealand past and present (1973), which remains the standard introduction to the history of New Zealand unionism. Based on extensive and original research, but also drawing on his own experiences and recollections of labour movement figures, it presented a new view of New Zealand’s past to union activists and students alike. Championing the struggle for a better life and unquestionably on the side of the left, the book is partisan history of the best kind.
A pictorial history of working people and their organisations, Toil and trouble (1981), written with Janny Hammond, cemented Roth’s reputation as a populariser of labour history, while adding new knowledge to the published record. In retirement he produced a series of commissioned histories of trade unions, including the New Zealand Engineering Union ( Advocate, educate, control ); the New Zealand Public Service Association ( Remedy for present evils ); the New Zealand Post Office Union ( Along the line ); and the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union ( Wharfie ).
Most of Roth’s writing was based on unpublished material, drawn largely from his own private collection, which began during the 1951 waterfront dispute with a complete set of the watersiders’ underground bulletins. These were soon supplemented by copies of the New Zealand Transport Worker , and he also visited the widows of recently deceased unionists to save their husbands’ dusty old papers from the incinerator. The collection grew rapidly, and in later years bookshelves, cupboards and even his sock drawers were jammed full of material, all meticulously sorted and organised by subject. A working collection designed for daily use by its creator, it is now a major resource at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
Roth was a frequent speaker at functions and educational gatherings of unions and political groups. A founder member of the Industrial Relations Society of New Zealand in 1974, he served as president in 1976, and wrote for its journal from 1978 until his death. He was a founding patron of the Trade Union History Project in 1987. He was also the first convenor of the labour working party of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. A great enthusiast for the project, he was a wise and supportive voice in the policy process, a valuable source of information on previously obscure New Zealanders, and an eloquent contributor to the project’s first three volumes.
In his later years Roth was bald and had a thin, wiry frame. He retained a distinctive German accent throughout his life, which added to the appeal of the stories and jokes he loved to tell. He and Margot were divorced on 6 June 1984, having lived apart since 1981. His small flat in Mount Eden was a magnet for researchers seeking out the riches of his collection, each greeted with the same boundless generosity and knowledge. During his busy retirement he was a regular visitor to the university and the Auckland Trades Hall, where he played cards, learnt new jokes, caught up on politics and gossip and, at the latter, gathered literature and ephemera to add to his collection.
Bert Roth suffered from poor health in his last years, and a mild stroke took a toll on his remarkable memory. He died at his Mount Eden home on 27 May 1994, survived by Margot and their children. At large memorial functions in Auckland and Wellington, socialists, unionists, librarians, writers and academics celebrated the life, work and spirit of a socialist refugee from Austria who, by seeking to understand his adopted country, helped many New Zealanders gain an insight into their own society and culture.