Martin Kent is a man on a mission – to spread what he calls a “universal message of tolerance.”
The 65-year-old Encinitas resident, a retired documentary filmmaker and journalist, said he seriously considered moving to Canada after the election of Donald Trump as president in November. The son of Holocaust survivors, Kent said he was disturbed by the polarization that arose during the election campaign.
But conversations with his two grown sons changed his mind about leaving – one asked him, “What will that accomplish?” Kent recalled.
Instead, said Kent, he wants to revive a talk that he has given in the past to high school students in Los Angeles, where he lived before moving to San Diego County four years ago. The hour-long program, he said, will encourage students to speak out when they witness acts of intolerance.
“Do the right thing. Don’t be silent because your life ends when you remain silent. It’s over,” Kent said, paraphrasing a favorite quotation from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Kent said he hopes to reach out to local school districts with his offer to provide the presentation, which includes a segment of a documentary video he made about his parents’ story.
His father, Jack, a young Catholic man, and his mother, Roza, a Jewish woman, met during the Nazi occupation of Poland in the 1940s. The two went on the run from the Nazis, narrowly escaping imprisonment and death at the hands of the occupiers, Kent said.
“He could have easily walked away,” said Kent, rather than helping the young Jewish woman. Instead, “He put his life on the line and saved her.”
In 2003, the government of Israel recognized his father’s actions with its highest honor, the “Righteous Among the Nations” award, the same award given to Oskar Schindler, the businessman memorialized in the film “Schindler’s List” for saving the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, said Kent.
Kent said that since the election, he has been dismayed to read of the rise of intolerant acts aimed at minorities, including Muslims, Jews, Hispanics and others. The problem, he said, seems particularly acute in the nation’s schools. He pointed to a survey of K-12 educators conducted after the election by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-discrimination group.
According to a report on the group’s web site, 80 percent of teachers, administrators and school staff surveyed indicated heightened anxiety among students, worried about impacts of the election on themselves and their families.
“Also on the upswing: verbal harassment, the use of slurs and derogatory language, and disturbing incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags,” said the report.
Kent said he was personally exposed to intolerance at an early age. He was just 5 years old when, soon after his family moved to a new neighborhood in New York City, a neighboring child accosted him with an anti-Semitic slur.
His mother, said Kent, taught him to reach out to everyone, even those who had demonstrated intolerance.
“She just had love for everybody,” he said.
During his career as a documentarian, Kent said, he made some 50 films on a variety of topics, including art, science and history, and they were broadcast on such networks as Discovery Channel, A&E, ABC, NBC and PBS.
A guitarist and singer, Kent fronts a band, “Blues Skies,” that performs locally, and he is a member of Del Mar Toastmasters, through which he recently won a speakers’ competition and is advancing to a regional contest.
Although he was deeply moved by his parents’ personal Holocaust story, they didn’t share it for more than 50 years, preferring to bury their painful memories. It was only after he made a documentary about Oskar Schindler, in the wake of the popular film, that they decided to open up and share their story.
Kent said he spent a year interviewing his parents and even traveled to Poland with his father, to visit and film some of the places where the couple had been during the war years.
By sharing his family’s story, Kent said he hopes to turn the tide against the divisive impulses that have surfaced recently across the country.
Referring to a line from the Leonard Cohen song “Anthem” (the singer and poet died just before the election), Kent said, the election “revealed a huge crack in America and we need to fill it with a lot of light.”