The incongruity of the moment was inescapable.
Roman Kent, an 89-year-old, Polish-born Auschwitz survivor, stood in the living room here of German Consul General Busso von Alvensleben’s home last month and heard the German official describe him as a man who “went through hell and yet brought the message of tolerance and solidarity to so many.”
As Kent’s wife, Hannah (also an Auschwitz survivor), their two children and three grandchildren watched, von Alvensleben then pinned to Kent’s suit pocket the German government’s Order of Merit that German President Joachim Gauck had ordered bestowed upon Kent for his work on behalf of Holocaust survivors and for “reminding the world of the lessons the Holocaust has taught … [without] bitterness or hatred.”
Obviously moved, Kent replied: “How could I, a Holocaust survivor, even remotely envision such an incredible scenario when enslaved in Auschwitz.”
This is the first time the German consulate has bestowed the award on a Holocaust survivor, a spokesman for the German consulate said. The award reflects achievement in the political, economic, social or intellectual realm and for outstanding service to Germany in the field of social, charitable or philanthropic work.
Kent has served as president of the International Auschwitz Committee, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, and treasurer of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. It is as a Claims Conference negotiator with the German government seeking additional compensation for survivors that Kent is most well known to them and for which he won von Alvensleben’s praise.
“We Germans are grateful to Roman Kent for the gift of his trust, a gift by all means not to be taken for granted from someone who has suffered so much from German hands,” he said.
In his remarks to about 75 guests — including Brooklyn Federal Judge Edward Korman and David Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust — Kent said he does not hold the German government of today responsible for the Nazi atrocities.
“You, the new generation, just like we the survivors, have miraculously rebuilt our past lives,” he said. “The new generation of Germans rose from the ashes, and must be commended for replacing totalitarianism with democracy, accepting responsibility for their wrong-doings, and apologizing for the deeds of an earlier generation. … By having the courage to face the past, by having the decency to assume responsibilities to the victims of the past, Germany is creating a foundation for an impressive future.”