More than 350 New York high school students had watched parts of Holocaust survivor Roman Kent’s video testimony about living in Lodz, Poland, when the Germans invaded during World War II. The young Kent, his parents, two older sisters and one younger brother were imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto, where his father died of malnutrition.
When the ghetto was liquidated, Kent and his family were transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where he and his brother were separated from their mother and sisters.
Last month, the high school students met Kent at the United Nations headquarters in New York City during the debut of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s new IWitness online application.
IWitness is an online resource providing secondary school teachers and their students throughout the world with more than 1,000 video testimonies of survivors and other eyewitnesses of the Holocaust to be used in classroom lessons. The program is aligned with the institute’s focus to make educational use of its archive of nearly 52,000 video testimonies of survivors and other eyewitnesses of the Holocaust. Housed at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the archive represents 56 countries in 32 languages and is the largest of its kind in the world.
Participating students from secondary schools throughout the New York metropolitan area were among the first to use the beta version of IWitness. The launch event gave them an opportunity to meet Kent, ask him questions and share how his story affected them. Despite the atrocities inflicted upon his family, including the death of his mother, Sonia Kniker, at Auschwitz, Kent gave the students a message of love and unity.
“I share my story to tell people that hate never gives us anything,” Kent said. “It is a wasted emotion. I share to influence people that the most important word in our dictionary is not I. It is we. If we can achieve something together, that is the important thing.”
Stephen Smith, the insitute’s executive director, also addressed the audience.
“Through IWitness, survivors will continue to teach students about the Holocaust, inspire them to oppose intolerance and empower them to develop the literacies needed for the 21st century,” he said during the event, held on Jan. 23 by the institute and The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme. The gathering also was held in observance of the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.
“We are grateful to the nearly 52,000 witnesses who have entrusted their memories to the institute as a guiding light for all humanity,” Smith said.
Eyewitness accounts create a vivid and authentic image for the listener.
“The coupling of the Internet and the dialogue of living survivors help to bond the past and the future,” Kent said. “It’s truly an extraordinary and most valuable educational tool. The IWitness program unquestionably adds the human touch to the equation and greatly enhances the teaching of the Holocaust. This new project could be instrumental in ensuring that horrendous catastrophes, such as the Holocaust, will never happen again to us or to any other people.”
In his video testimony, Kent illustrated the strong bonds of love during World War II by sharing the story of his family dog, Lala, and her determination to find the family in the ghetto after she was left behind at his father’s factory.
“No barbed wire, no guns stopped this little dog from loving us and coming to us,” he said.
Kent spoke of living in the ghetto, where his father, Emanuel Kniker, was forced to sew leather knapsacks for German soldiers. Life was so harsh that his father became ill and died. Kent described the cries of children and parents when the Nazis separated them at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the last time he saw his mother. He and his younger brother survived the concentration camp and eventually reunited with their older sisters.
“In the videos I watched on IWitness, Roman Kent captures with quietly heartbreaking certitude the very personal experience of one man trapped in a grasp of a waking nightmare,” said Trent Williams of New Rochelle High School. “He has told his story so that we could remember and promise ourselves never again.”
As they watched Kent’s testimony, students collected words that best reflected his account. Each school’s word cloud – a graphical representation of a list of words shaped in a cloud, in which the words used most frequently are given greater prominence – indicated that the words family, perseverance, love, loyalty, determination and resistance helped to define Kent’s personal experience. A giant word cloud that combined responses from all 12 classes – highlighting family, love and death – was presented at the event.
“As students learn more about the Holocaust and the significance of this history, they will soon discover its connection to their own lives and communities,” said Kiyo Akasaka, United Nations under-secretary-general for communications and public information.
Kent’s story resonated with the students.
“The whole thing hit me right here,” said Joel Martinez of New Milford High School, placing his hand over his heart. “Reading a book is one thing. It’s a different experience to listen to a story directly from a primary source.”
Eddie North-Hager contributed to this story.