Irving Roth: On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Auschwitz survivor says persecution of Jews begins with words

“It began with words…”

This is the statement that I spoke into the microphone while on a tour bus in Poland last month to a group of travelers. These people were taking a different kind of pilgrimage. This was not a group of Jewish students on a “march of the living,” beholding the tragedies of Poland prior to experiencing the triumph of Israel. No, this was a group of Christian men and women, ranging from young teens to retirees that were taking what they called a “Living Witness Journey.”

Hosted by Christians United for Israel, this group of people was doing their part to “never forget,” and I was pleased to serve as their guide.

As the bus trudged along the road, on its way from the museums of Warsaw to the remnants of the Treblinka death camp, the Polish tour guide shared many facts about Poland today. How much cattle they grew, the amount of potatoes they consumed, the fact that the Jewish population in the places we were visiting ranged from very small to non-existent.

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While well-intentioned, his presentation was lacking. But he is not to blame; he was not alive seven decades ago. He was not there; I was. He did not see people being pulled from their homes in the middle of the night and shipped off to death camps; I saw. He did not wear a yellow star on his arm, and later on his striped uniform; I did. He does not remember the suffocating heat of the cattle car that rolled endlessly along the tracks as it shipped me and my family to Auschwitz; I do. His forearm is not numbered; I am 10491.

So, as he handed me the microphone, I wanted to start my presentation at the beginning.  And the beginning was not at Auschwitz. Nor was it in the cattle cars or the ghettos. The beginning was not when our store fronts were emblazoned with the words “Jude” or when the yellow stars were wrapped around our arms. It began long before all of that, and it began with words.

The persecution of Jews always begins with words. Over 100 years ago, Wilhelm Marr established the written basis upon which German anti-Semitism was built. In coining the term “anti-Semitism” in his pamphlet “Victory of Judaism over Germansim,” Marr sanitized the act of Jew-hatred and provided an innocuous label for his politically-rooted racism; a new repackaged form of Jew-hatred was born.

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Over time, these words were morphed into slogans. These slogans transformed society. This transformation legitimized murder. And thus the murder of Jews became patriotic.

Fast forward 70 years, and things are different now. Right?

Consider Poland. Last year its Senate passed a law that bans any accusations that some “Poles were complicit in the Nazi crimes committed on Polish soil where Germans built six death camps and were ultimately responsible for the murder of over six million Jews.”

After backlash from the U.S. and Israel, the Polish president signed an amendment to decriminalize such accusations, and instead only civil liability remains as opposed to jail time. Perhaps this is why our tour guide felt compelled to wax poetic about Poland’s love of potatoes in lieu of wading into potentially libelous waters. Last week, in order to commemorate the Easter celebration, the townspeople of Pruchnik, Poland beat and burned a “stereotypical Jew” in effigy said to symbolize Judas Iscariot.

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This began with words.

Consider America. We don’t have anti-Semites here, do we? No sir. We merely have anti-Zionists. That sounds better, right? Sanitized. Clean. Because Zionism is the real problem, isn’t it? Zionism is just a euphemism for apartheid, right?

The enemies of Israel have categorically refused to accept the existence of the Jewish state since well before 1948. They have not managed to destroy it through wars and terrorism so they’ve now turned to propaganda and total fabrications to discredit, delegitimize and destroy the Jewish state and its people.

Anti-Zionism is not an outlier; we have many slogans to draw from today. Anti-Israel, Apartheid state, Pro-BDS, the list goes on.

Unfortunately, these accusations, presented in the most appalling ways, pass as facts for millions of people in the Middle East, to a great number of Europeans, on American college campuses, and even by our nation’s one-time paper of record and some members of the U.S. Congress. These words lead to slogans. Slogans like, “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free.” And history has shown us the power these slogans – these words – can transform society at large to horrendous effect.

Now, just days after a neo-Nazi killed one and wounded three others at a synagogue near San Diego, and with Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday, let all freedom-loving people fight against the power of these words not just today, but every day thereafter.  Let us fight not with the power of our fists, but with the power generated through education and action.

It’s not enough that we remember history, we must act on its lessons. We must stand up to the anti-Semitism in our midst, at every turn, without apology, come what may.