“It Started With Words”

Holocaust Survivors Give Stunning Testimonies to Mark Holocaust Remembrance Day

Survivor-Led Digital Campaign Launched by the Claims Conference Shines a Light on Hatred Before the Holocaust

NEW YORK, N.Y.: April 8, 2021— Today, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) announces a new Holocaust survivor-led, digital campaign, #ItStartedWithWords.

Before local anti-Jewish laws were enacted, before neighborhood shops and synagogues were destroyed, and before Jews were forced into ghettos, cattle cars, and camps, words were used to stoke the fires of hate. #ItStartedWithWords is a digital, Holocaust education campaign posting weekly videos of survivors from around the world reflecting on those moments that led up to the Holocaust – a period of time when they could not have predicted the ease with which their long-time neighbors, teachers, classmates, and colleagues would turn on them, transitioning from words of hate to acts of violence.

“The Holocaust started with words,” said Gideon Taylor, President of the Claims Conference. “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 Holocaust didn’t come out of nowhere. It literally started with words.”

Coming on the heels of the successful #NoDenyingIt campaign, the #ItStartedWithWords initiative is part of a broader effort to raise awareness of the importance of Holocaust education. Specifically, this campaign will use survivor testimony to give context to the origins of the Holocaust, the foundation of antisemitism that Hitler and the Nazis used to generate support across Europe before a single act of war was undertaken. The goal of the campaign is to show how words of hate can become actions, and how those actions can have unimaginable outcomes.

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. The shocking results of our 2020 U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, which found that 63 percent of Millennials and Gen Z did not know six million Jews were murdered, clarifies for us how important it is, not just to teach the history of the Holocaust, but to provide context for how such a horrific outcome like the Holocaust started.

Several well-known Holocaust survivors from around the world recorded videos to be posted for the campaign.

Holocaust survivor Abe Foxman, born in Poland in 1940, now lives in the U.S. In his campaign video post he shares his thoughts on the origins of the Holocaust, saying “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.” Watch the video.

Holocaust survivor and Chairman, Yad Vashem Council Yisrael Meir Lau, born in Poland in 1937, now lives in Israel. 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.” Watch the video.

Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch, was born in 1932 in Munich, Germany where she still lives. In her video post she shares her first memory of being treated differently because she was a Jew. “It began with words. They came before the horrific acts, the murders, the crimes…” she says. “I was four years old, when I was in the courtyard of the house across the street, I wanted to play with the neighbor’s children. I did that almost every day. But now the gate was suddenly locked. My friends looked at me silently, before I could understand what was going on, the concierge’s wife came in and started yelling at me, ‘Jewish children are not allowed to play with our children.’ I was four years old. I didn’t even know what Jews were.” Watch the video.

Holocaust survivor Sidney Zoltak, born in Poland in 1931, now lives in Canada. In his video post, he remembers witnessing hate at a particularly young age: “When I was four years old in 1935, I visited my grandparents in a village where they ran the general store. In front of their store there were young Poles with signs ‘Don’t Buy From a Jew.’ I didn’t know what antisemitism was, but that was the first act of antisemitism that I witnessed. Antisemitism in Poland at that time was not only tolerated, but it was encouraged.” Watch the video.

Holocaust survivor Aron Krell, born in 1927 in Lódź, Poland, now lives in the U.S. In his video he explains, “We heard the words… the Jews were cursed, the Jews are traitors and all of the problems in the world starts with the Jews, therefore what we have to do is get rid of the Jews.” Watch the video.

Holocaust survivor Eva Schloss, born in Austria in 1929, now lives in the United Kingdom. She was nine years old during her memory that she shares about her best friend’s mother: “…my best friend was a Catholic girl; and on my way home I always went to her and played. 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.” Watch the video.

Holocaust survivor Colette Avital, born in 1940 in Bucharest, Romania, now lives in Israel. In her video post she remembers the words that were spat at her and her family. “There were usually words, like dirty Jew, as well as threats. ‘We will kill you, we will eliminate you all. You are the scum of the earth.’” She reflects on the outcomes of those words saying, “Those words transformed into acts.”

#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 web site that will serve as a resource for educators around the world.

Nearly 50 museums and institutions from around the world are participating in the campaign including: the United Nations (UN); the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM); Yad Vashem; the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA); Fondation Pour La Memoire De La Shoah; the Anne Frank House, Netherlands; UNESCO; the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin; the Anne Frank Center, Argentina; the Montreal Holocaust Museum; Holocaust Educational Trust of the UK; the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust; Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center; the Museum of Jewish Heritage; POLIN, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw and many more.