Growing up in Cherry Hill, N.J., where public schools close for Yom Kippur, Bar Mitzvah t-shirts make up the seventh-grade wardrobe, and every grocery store boasts a substantial kosher section, it took years for me to understand that anti-Semitism exists. When I was little, I saw religious differences in terms of holidays: Some people celebrate Hanukkah, and some people don’t.
It wasn’t until I entered middle school and the “Jew jokes” started that I became more aware of the stigma that comes with being Jewish. Then, when I began to travel, I saw it written in monuments around the world: The chains that hang on the exterior walls of the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo, symbolizing Spain’s Inquisition-driven elimination of Muslims and Jews; the Roman Colosseum, funded by plunder from the Siege of Jerusalem; the Tower of London, where hundreds of Jews were imprisoned under Edward I, shortly before he issued the 1290 Edict of Expulsion that forced Jews out of England.
Unfortunately, not much has changed. A few weeks ago, the hashtag #HitlerWasRight was trending on Twitter. These tweets called Jews scum and Hitler a “good man,” applauded the death camps, and shared memes with anti-Semitic quotes (many of which were made up), such as, “The Jews are definitely a race, but they are not human.”
We can’t dismiss this instance as a silly, meaningless hashtag. Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are akin to the posters, pamphlets and radio broadcasts that disseminated the Third Reich’s anti-Jewish propaganda. Ultimately, it was the propaganda that seemed to validate anti-Semitism, allowing the Holocaust to happen.
Even as a child, Jakab Farkas saw the anti-Semitism grow. It greatly disturbed his father, Martin, a World War I veteran who was wounded three times fighting with the Austria-Hungarian army. He didn’t believe the Germans would target Jews who had stood by their side during the war.
However, in their town of Slinskydoly, things continued to get worse as the propaganda increased. In school, Jakab and his siblings were beaten, simply for being Jewish. If they were caught alone, gangs of non-Jews would target them. During Bar Mitzvahs, anti-Semites would release pigs into the crowd, hoping to ruin the celebration. After a while, Jakab and his siblings began to look forward to going elsewhere.
Eventually, they did. A few of his sisters went to Prague with a Zionist organization, while others fled to Budapest. As the youngest, Jakab was the last to leave. His parents sent him to live with his brother near Budapest; they hoped he would be safer in a big city, where he could lose himself in a crowd to avoid the anti-Semitism.
In the summer of 1942, they took him to the train station. His mother was crying. “Don’t worry about me,” she said. “Just take care of yourself.”
That was the last time he saw his parents.
On the train, Jakab sat down next to a non-Jew who was eating bread with pig fat. The man noticed Jakab’s traditional clothes, and immediately he insisted that he take some of the pig fat. Jakab politely declined, but the man kept pestering him, and pestering him, and pestering him, trying to get him to eat something that wasn’t kosher.
In Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, there is a room full of propaganda that was meant to spread hatred toward Jews. Sadly, much of it felt familiar. In school cafeterias, I’ve seen people try to tempt their Jewish friends into eating food that wasn’t kosher. I’ve heard nasty comments about traditional Jewish clothing. I’ve had half a dozen people — including close friends — tell me they’re going to pray that I find Jesus before I’m damned for all eternity.
We say “never again,” and I believe it. But the promise of “never again” isn’t achieved with those two words alone. Instead, it is achieved with actions that work to eliminate hatred toward Jews — and everyone else who is deemed somehow different. Only then can we feel confident in our promise of “never again.”