Dr. Olitsa Roth is a firecracker. At 65, she has the energy of a woman half her age, and a wit that could give you whiplash. She is one of Boro Park’s most well-known pediatricians, an occupation she came to with her signature chutzpah—and a healthy dose of anarchy. Olitsa Roth was born in the Munkacs area of Hungary, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. The majority of her family had left Europe after the war, but her parents stayed to direct a successful agricultural firm in a country that had been absorbed by the Russians.
Young Olitsa grew up in a kosher home, facing the many challenges typical of a Jewish family trying to live a frum life in a communist country. In 1967, during the Six Day War, Olitsa and her family were discriminated against terribly as the result of vicious propaganda from the Russians. “[Hungary] is not Boro Park,” she jokes in a deep, throaty voice. She always loved children, and for many years dreamed of being a chemistry teacher. But when she found out that the Uzhgorod State University’s medical school didn’t accept Jews, she was determined to become a doctor.With the help of some of her father’s connections, Olitsa was admitted, the only Jewish student in a class of 250.
At one point, the school intended to fail her because of her religion, but her mother marched into the KGB and threatened to tell all of Europe what they were up to if they didn’t let her daughter pass. In 1972, the same year Olitsa had her first child, she officially became “Dr. Roth.” After completing her residency in 1976, Olitsa, her husband and their 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter left Hungary forever, “because I want to practice my religion.” She arrived in America, where her husband had family, speaking only Hungarian and Russian.
Building up a practice from the ground up is a daunting challenge for anyone, but doubly so for someone who doesn’t speak the language. Yet, Olitsa charged forward. Within six months, she had her medical certificate and was speaking fluent English. She completed her residency at Maimonides Hospital, then opened her own practice. She has been there ever since. Dr. Roth never expected to be a doctor for chasidishe families. In Europe, her expo sure to chasidim went no further than the shochet, the mohel and the “boys with pei’os who used to come get milk from our cow.” (Olitsa’s grandparents were Satmar chasidim, but they died before she was born.) But now she would have it no other way. “I love it,” she says, her English spiced with a Hungarian accent. “I just love it. I know every kid by name, their sisters, their brothers. I have a lot of grandmothers who used to be my patients.” “You will meet no one more dedicated,” gushes her assistant, Rosaline Shnitzler. And if you take a look at the families visiting Dr. Roth’s office each day, you can see how right Mrs. Shnitzler is. Dr. Roth takes my hand and weaves me through her wildly busy practice, which has a running soundtrack of wailing babies and ringing phones. She shows me pictures of her grandchildren and introduces me to some of her patients, embracing all of them with the warmth of a loving bubbie. “Better you be here than with your rebbe, eh? You get a day off!” she says, teasing one of her school-aged visitors.
In every way, Dr. Roth’s practice is a family affair; her son, also a pediatrician, is on staff, and her husband runs things on the administrative end. As for her daughter, an obstetrician, she often delivers the babies of women who were once her mother’s patients. Along the walls in the office are different pieces of art, of which Dr. Roth is especially proud. One is an oil painting of Israeli soldiers in the Golan, a gift to Dr. Roth and her husband from a yeshivah in Gush Katif for the donation of Torah scrolls. She also shows me a painting of an elderly couple from the shtetl carrying a single canvas bag of groceries home for Yom Tov. “This is how it was then,” she explains. “Now you need a station wagon!” The one thing you won’t find adorning Dr. Roth’s walls are her certificates of honor and achievement—of which there are many.
Those are crammed into a cardboard box on the floor of a storage closet. “Chief resident, best resident…I never put one [up]. All that matters is if you’re with Him,” says Dr. Roth, as she points upwards. Through the years of treating children, Dr. Roth testifies that she has seen miracles from Hashem. Like the preemie baby with RSV virus (a respiratory infection) and bronchitis, whose breathing was so labored that doctors would not transport her. She was, they maintained, as close to dead as she could get. But Dr. Roth was convinced she could save her, and paid out of her own pocket to have the baby transferred to Columbia Presbyterian. That baby was married last week. So, after 40 years in the business, does Dr. Roth have plans to slow down? Hardly, she says. “People ask me if I will ever retire, and I say, ‘Never. As long as Hashem gives me brains and motion…I will be here. Because if you love something, it keeps you alive.”