Holocaust survivor Roman Kent speaks out on the dangerous power of words

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© UNESCO

“Cursed Jew” were the first hate-filled words thrown (along with stones) at Roman Kent by children his own age as he made his way to school in Lodz, Poland.

“It was a very common expression used by many people at the time, nothing out of the ordinary for me, but in using it those children were telling me: ‘You are not a human being’. With those words they were taking the first step to dehumanizing me.

“In the context of the Holocaust, once that is achieved and you have reduced the person to something that is less than human you can do to them things you would not do to an animal,” said Mr Kent who at 86 years of age will be giving testimony to the horrors he lived through as part of UNESCO’s Holocaust Remembrance Day event on January 27.

He will visit UNESCO to take part in a round table event entitled Can Words Kill? which examines the role of hate speech in the Holocaust and how to counter contemporary antisemitism and other extremist forms of expression.

Mr Kent, who was born Roman Kniker in 1929, grew up in Lodz where his family life was shattered with the German invasion of Poland in 1939. He and his family were imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto where his father succumbed to the harsh conditions and died of malnutrition in 1943.

When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, the family was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Mr Kent and his brother Leon were separated from their mother and sisters. The brothers passed through two further camps and in April 1945, on a death march to Dachau, they were liberated by the US Army. They later learned that their mother had died at Auschwitz-Birkenau but that their sisters had survived and were living in Sweden where one of them passed away a few months later.

After the war Roman and Leon immigrated to the United States where they were fostered by  families in Atlanta. Mr Kent went on to marry another survivor, found his own family and become a successful international trader, but his experiences marked his life to such an extent that he devoted the latter part of it to bearing witness and playing an active role in Holocaust education and philanthropy.

He is passionate about the power of words and their use for evil or for good.      

“Most conflicts start with words and in the context of the Holocaust words used by a master propagandist like Goebbels could not have been more powerful. During the war the Nazis made it clear they did not consider the Poles or the Slavs to be human and they were one level up from the Jews.

“Of course a word is not a gun. Words don’t kill you at once but they can create conditions where people lose their inhibitions about doing dreadful things. People are gullible. They want to believe in something that seems to be to their advantage like victimizing others. In the end words can do far greater damage than a bullet.”

Mr Kent, who serves as President of The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous and is Chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, is also concerned about a more insidious but equally treacherous use of words.

“I have noticed over the years that in relation to the Holocaust in the media there is a tendency to sanitize the past. People say that six million people were ‘lost’ or ‘perished’. They were not lost. They were not misplaced. They were imprisoned, starved, tortured, murdered and burned. It is hard to hear but that is the truth that we must preserve to prevent the Holocaust happening again

“In 50 or 100 years from now people will read that six million people died. No, they were murdered. I understand that people want to live in a fairytale world because the real facts are too brutal. They just cannot absorb them. I know that if you tell people what actually happened they can’t sleep at night but we must."

As one of a rapidly dwindling group of survivors Mr Kent understands the critical importance of passing on what he witnessed to another generation.

“Survivors are like rare jewels,” he said. “There are very few of us left to say these painful words. My father said to me so many times ‘Remember’ and remembrance is important. But it must be linked to actions, to deeds otherwise it serves no real purpose.”

He believes strongly in the power of education. “Education is a solution but what kind of education? Prejudice and intolerance are acquired. No one is born with them so education must start with very young children at school and at home. We must teach children not to hate and give them strong examples of how to be a proper human being. We live on a small planet and we are all one people.”

He acknowledges the power of the internet to spread hate speech faster and further. “The danger of it is that it is invisible. Children can be indoctrinated at home in secret.”

Mr Kent said he spent years rebuilding his life when he didn’t want to think about what had happened to him.

“But in the end I knew that I had to leave a trace. Now if I had the power I would issue an Eleventh Commandment to the world which would be ‘Do not be a bystander.’ It was indifference and the silence of people which led to the Holocaust. I would tell people not to turn away, to say something. Words can be used for good too.”