On Yom HaShoah, words really matter

On Yom HaShoah, words really matter

For the JC April 2021

Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, born in Austria in 1929, now lives in Britain. When she was nine, she remembers: “My best friend was a Catholic girl, and on my way home I always went to her and played. One day, when I went there, the mother stood at the door and looked at me with such hatred and said, ‘We never want to see you here again!’ And, she slammed the door in my face.” And I went home and I cried to my mother, and I said, we didn’t have a quarrel. And my mother said, things are going to be very, very difficult for Jewish people from now on”.

Eva Schloss’s painful memory is just one of several testimonies at the forefront of a new campaign launched to mark Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, by the New York-based Claims Conference.

The campaign, #ItStartedWithWords, features weekly videos from survivors from across the world, remembering “the words used to stoke the fires of hate”, even before anti-Jewish legislation, Kristallnacht, and the subsequent horrors of the ghettoes and concentration camps.

Gideon Taylor, the Irish-born president of the Claims Conference, said: “The Holocaust started with words, hateful words that were yelled in the park, spat on the street, and roared in the classroom. These words alienated, belittled, and shocked; but worse, these words gave birth to the horrific massacre of six million Jews. The #ItStartedWithWords campaign will show through first-hand survivor testimony that the horrific outcomes of the Holocaust didn’t come out of nowhere. It literally started with words.”

The new campaign has been launched as a result of the 2020 survey that the Claims Conference conducted among US young people. In shocking findings, 63 per cent of those polled did not know that six million Jews had been murdered during the Holocaust.

Claims Conference leaders decided to prioritise Holocaust education and use, where possible, survivor testimony to get the message across.

Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said: “You don’t wake up one morning deciding to participate in mass murder. Hate speech, propaganda, antisemitism, and racism were the roots that culminated in genocide”. He said it was vital to provide context for how such a horrific outcome like the Holocaust started.

Holocaust survivors from around the world have recorded videos to be posted for the campaign. Among them is the former director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, born in Poland and a child survivor. In his video, he says: “The crematoria, gas chambers in Auschwitz and elsewhere did not begin with bricks, it began with words…evil words, hateful words, antisemitic words, words of prejudice. And they were permitted to proceed to violence because of the absence of words.”

The former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Law, has also recorded his testimony. He was born in Poland in 1937: his hometown of Piotrkow Trybunalski had more than 10,000 Jews before the war, but most were deported to Treblinka in 1942 and killed. “They thought they could eliminate a people with words,” he says in his video post. “And then it turned out that it indeed happened.”

#ItStartedWithWords illustrates how racist and antisemitic speech led to actions that nearly saw the mass extermination of an entire people. To provide educational resources from partner museums and institutions, as well as the collection of the survivor videos from the campaign, the Claims Conference has also launched ItStartedWithWords.org, a website that will serve as a resource for educators around the world. The campaign is supported by more than 20 international institutions and museums, including the Holocaust Educational Trust in Britain and Yad Vashem in Israel.

  • 7 April, 2021