‘It started with words’: Holocaust survivors recount how hate speech led to mass killings

Alarmed by a rise in anti-Semitism online during the pandemic, along with studies indicating that younger generations lack even basic knowledge of the Nazi genocide, Holocaust survivors are taking to social media to share their experience of how the speech of hatred paved the way for mass murder.

With short video messages recounting their stories, #ItStartedWithWords campaign participants hope to educate people on how the Nazis embarked on an insidious campaign to dehumanize and marginalize Jews, years before death camps were established to carry out assassinations on an industrial scale.

The plan is to release six individual videos and a compilation on Wednesday on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, followed by one video per week. The posts will include a link to a web page with more resources, including more testimonials and teaching materials.

“There aren’t many of us coming out and talking anymore, we are few in number, but our voices are heard,” Sidney Zoltak, a survivor from Poland who will turn 90 later this year, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. from Montreal.

“We are not there to tell you stories that we read or hear, we are telling facts, telling what happened to us, our neighbors and our communities, and I think this is the strongest possible way. “

Once the Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933, the leaders immediately set out to fulfill their promises to “Aryanize” the country, segregating and marginalizing the Jewish population.

The Nazi government encouraged a boycott of Jewish companies, which were painted with the Star of David or the word “Judas”, Jewish. Propaganda posters and films suggested that Jews were “vermin”, likening them to rats and insects, while new laws were passed to restrict all aspects of Jewish life.

Charlotte Knobloch, who was born in Munich in 1932, recalls in her video message that her neighbors suddenly forbade their children to play with her or with other Jews.

“I was 4 years old,” Knobloch recalled. “He didn’t even know what Jews were.”

The campaign, launched to coincide with Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, was organized by the New York-based Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which negotiates compensation for victims. It is backed by many organizations, including the United Nations.

It comes as a study published this week by Israeli researchers found that coronavirus lockdowns last year changed some anti-Semitic hatred online, where conspiracy theories abounded blaming Jews for the medical and economic devastation of the pandemic.

Although the Tel Aviv University researchers’ annual report on anti-Semitism showed that the social isolation of the pandemic resulted in fewer acts of violence against Jews in some 40 countries, Jewish leaders expressed concern that online vitriol It could lead to physical attacks when the confinements are over.

In a statement supporting the new online campaign, the Auschwitz International Committee noted that one of the men who stormed the United States Capitol in January was wearing a sweatshirt with the slogan “Camp Auschwitz: Work Brings Freedom.”

“Auschwitz survivors experienced first-hand what it is like when words become deeds,” the organization wrote. “His message to us: don’t be indifferent!”

Recent polls conducted by the Claims Conference in various countries have also revealed a lack of awareness about the Holocaust among young people, which the organization hopes the campaign will help address.

In a 50-state study of Millennials and Gen Z people in the US last year, for example, researchers found that 63% of respondents were unaware that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust and 48% could not name a single one. extermination camp or concentration camp.

Claims Conference Chairman Gideon Taylor told the AP in a telephone interview from New York that the polls highlighted that “messages, concepts and ideas that were common and understood 20 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago.” they are no longer.

The Holocaust ‘didn’t come out of nowhere’

After the success of a social media campaign last year that used messages from survivors to pressure Facebook to ban posts that deny or distort the Holocaust, Taylor said it made sense to seek their help again.

“The Holocaust did not come out of nowhere,” he said. “Before Jews were expelled from their schools, their jobs, their homes, before synagogues, shops and businesses were destroyed and before there were ghettos, camps and cattle cars. , the words were used to fan the fire of hatred. “

“And who can draw that line from dangerous words to horrible deeds better than those who lived through the depths of human depravity?”

For Zoltak, the escalation from word to deed came quickly after the invading Nazi army occupied his city east of Warsaw in mid-1941.

The Nazis quickly implemented anti-Semitic laws they had already instituted in the western part of Poland that they occupied two years earlier, and forced Zoltak’s parents to work as slaves, he said.

A year later, the Germans forced all of the city’s Jews – roughly half of the population of 15,000 – into a ghetto segregated from the rest of the city, subject to strict regulations and kept on restricted food rations.

Three months later, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto, transporting its residents to the Treblinka death camp or killing them on the way.

Zoltak was one of the lucky few who managed to escape with his parents to a nearby forest, hiding in and around the area until the following spring, when they were taken in by a Catholic family on a nearby farm and sheltered for the duration of the war.

After the war, he returned to his city and learned that all but 70 of his 7,000 Jews had been killed, including all of his classmates and his father’s entire family.

“Sometimes it is difficult to understand,” he said. “Actually, we are not dealing with numbers, they were humans who had a name, who had families.”

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