In New Holocaust Survivor Testimony, Hate Speech Is a Dangerous Seed

Sitting in a living room in Canada, Sidney Zoltak recalled the early run-up to the Holocaust.

“The diabolic plan to annihilate the Jews in Europe was established in small increments,” Mr. Zoltak, who survived the Holocaust as a child, says in a video. “Way before the establishment of the concentration camps, the ghettos, the death camps, the mobile killing units, it started with words.”

The video is one of several in a new digital campaign featuring testimony from Holocaust survivors called #ItStartedWithWords. Amid the recent spate of attacks on Asian-Americans, organizers said, the campaign offers a timely reminder of how hateful words used every day can become part of history.

“The Holocaust didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Gideon Taylor, president of the Claims Conference, the nonprofit dedicated to securing compensation for Holocaust survivors worldwide that created the campaign. “It literally started with words.”

The announcement by the campaign on Thursday coincides with a week that President Biden recently designated as Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust.

“We are seeing racism rearing its head, against the Asian community most recently,” Mr. Taylor said on Thursday. “This is the moment in time to get this message across.”

Mr. Taylor noted that Holocaust survivors wanted their stories heard while they were still able to share them. “Holocaust survivors understand that in society today, social media is how young people learn and get information and form opinions,” he said.

The group said the campaign was created in collaboration with 50 institutions and government organizations, including the United Nations and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and had the support of the U.S. and German governments.

In an email, Cherrie Daniels, special envoy for Holocaust issues at the State Department, said the campaign was “especially meaningful during the nation’s observance of the Days of Remembrance, which honors the six million Jews and millions of others murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, and at a time of rising anti-Semitism around the world.”

According to organizers, the campaign is not about the Holocaust itself but about the rhetoric and hateful words used against the Jewish community leading up to the start of World War II.

So far, more than 30 videos, each a little over a minute long, have been submitted by Holocaust survivors. The videos will be posted each week on the Claims Conference’s social media platforms.

One of the first is from Abraham H. Foxman, who was born in Eastern Europe in 1940 and was saved from the Holocaust by a Catholic nanny. He immigrated to the United States in 1950, and joined the Anti-Defamation League the day after he passed the bar exam. He retired from the organization in 2015.

In his video for the campaign, he talks about the beginnings of the Holocaust.

“The crematoria, gas chambers in Auschwitz and elsewhere did not begin with bricks, it began with words — evil words, hateful words, anti-Semitic words, words of prejudice,” Mr. Foxman, 81, says. “And they were permitted to proceed to violence because of the absence of words, because of silence.”

In his testimonial, Mr. Zoltak, 89, described visiting his grandparents in 1935, when he was 4, in the Polish village where they operated a general store. He remembered young Polish people standing in front of the store, “not allowing people to enter, with signs that said ‘Don’t Buy From a Jew.’”

Mr. Zoltak said he didn’t yet know what anti-Semitism was, but that was his first encounter with it.

About seven years later, he and his parents escaped from a “ghetto that was being liquidated.” He recalled how his mother, who sought help from friends and former classmates, would knock on their doors, only to be called “dirty” and turned away.

He said that anti-Semitism at the time “was not only tolerated, it was encouraged.”

On Thursday, Mr. Zoltak described sharing those experiences and others, including his years spent as a refugee in Italy, in his 2013 memoir, “My Silent Pledge: A Journey of Struggle, Survival and Remembrance.”

By taking part in the new campaign, Mr. Zoltak, a retired insurance broker, said he hoped that others would learn about hateful speech through his experience as a child survivor.

“People should be aware that when they hear words that are hate, we should stop,” Mr. Zoltak said, “before it gets out of hand.”

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