What do you do when the Holocaust trolls come for you?
I currently find myself in a strange situation.
Every morning when I wake up, I grab my phone, check my email, and then tap a little blue icon with a little white bird on it to open up Twitter and see what’s going on in the world. It’s a conscious choice I make each day, a part of my routine, a presence in my life. It’s here on Twitter that I’ve met friends and lovers; followed role models and discovered invaluable teachers; discussed my triumphs and struggles; shared the work I’m most proud of (and some I’d sooner forget); revealed a big part of myself with a largely faceless world because it feels good to connect. It’s nice to feel part of something larger than you.
But then there are times like last night when I don’t know why I go back. I cannot fathom why I continually return to this place that houses so much hate, and encourages the spread of it. My words, my mere existence, have so often been used against me, and the place where I go for laughs, and news, and sometimes-very-human connection transforms into a cesspool of vitriol, rendering it unrecognizable.
Yesterday, a reporter friend of mine on Twitter shared a photo of a Neo Nazi at a Donald Trump rally in Henderson, Nevada, a city 20 minutes from Las Vegas. My initial thought was this shit again?
At this point, it’s unclear which presidential candidate — Trump or Hillary Clinton — will take Nevada’s electoral votes in November. But it is clear that a group of antisemitic, Holocaust-denying Trump supporters exist in the state. This realization terrifies me, and it should terrify you.
My terror led me to reply that by some estimates, even more than six million Jews were systematically murdered in Europe at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis — a comment made so quickly, it escaped my thoughts mere seconds later. Something I’ve learned, however, is when a person’s heart is filled with hate, they will seek out the target of their misplaced ire at every turn. This includes the motivated and mobilized antisemites of Twitter, some of whom have made a life of finding Jews and Jewish allies and attempting to drag them down.
Being a Jew-troller comes with a playbook of sorts, one written far before social media even existed. It’s rooted in Nazi Germany propaganda: poking fun at hook noses, showing bags of money, depicting people with their heads shoved in ovens. You’ve likely seen some or all of these before. They’re meant to unnerve us. They’re meant to make us feel less than. They’re meant to remind us that not so long ago, a powerful man and his band of fools attempted to erase our existence and our place in the world, and very nearly succeeded.
But he didn’t succeed. Through [eventual] foreign intervention, and extraordinarily brave men and women, like my now 89-year-old grandfather and his sister, the Jewish people fought to live another day. And another day after that. And so on until this day, where we continue our legacy as highly-educated scholars, champions of industry, masters of the written word, humanitarians, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, teachers, friends. We survived — but that doesn’t mean some people are happy about it.
After sharing my passing whim on Wednesday about the devastation caused by the Nazis, I was hit with a barrage of angry replies that included all the hallmarks from the playbook. I was taking it in stride, as a woman on the internet and a Jew on the internet must teach herself to do. That is, until the lampshade.
One very angry Twitter user replied with such vicious hate, that my breath caught in my chest as my eyes scanned her words. I won’t give her the satisfaction of sharing her name (which she proudly displayed) or her avatar (also proudly shared for public consumption), but here is what she said: “Lucky for you, you’re too skinny to make much soap. A standing lampshade though…”
These are callbacks to myths that have pervaded the post-Holocaust consciousness since the liberation of the concentration camps in the mid 1940s. Legend has it that some Nazis used the fat of murdered prisoners in the production of soap just because they could. Similarly, the lampshade refers to another myth that Nazi doctors removed the skin of dead Jews and used it to fashion lamp coverings. Author Mark Jacobson wrote a whole book in 2011 about finding a lamp believed to be made of such skin, appropriately titled The Lampshade. Neither of these myths have ever been reliably substantiated, but putting any act of cruelty past the Nazis would be naive. This myth continues to be hurled at modern Jews as a tactic for making us feel less human. And more like objects.
That’s what these insidious Twitter users seek to do — objectify me. To make me remember a past so deeply painful and personal that in high school European history class I had to leave during a viewing of a Holocaust documentary because I could barely contain my heaving sobs. I couldn’t bear to watch the skeletal forms of my not-so-distant relatives walk the grounds of the camps, naked and freezing and inching toward certain death. And it was difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea that my very own living, breathing grandfather had lived through this atrocity. As a young teenager, he’d seen these walking skeletons with his own eyes. Some of them were his father and mother and brothers and sisters.
The difference is that in high school, I was able to walk out of the room. I allowed myself to walk out of the room. Now on Twitter, however, I remain because it’s an important space for me. Because I find it an integral part of my work as a reporter. But mostly because I won’t allow myself to be driven away by hate. It’s a matter of showing these deplorable people we no longer live in 1930’s Europe. That the Jews and the homosexuals and the disabled people and their allies don’t need their permission to thrive and express themselves and are no longer subjugated by those claiming to be the purest form of human.
But this insistence to stay and fight comes at a price: the risk of being reminded of the horrific past at any moment. While the horrors of the Holocaust are imprinted on my DNA and pump through my veins, I am lucky enough to remain blissfully unaware of it for the most part. Yet every time a random antisemite lurking behind a screen wants to hurt me, they know just where to jab. And suddenly it all floods back — the skeletons, and the chambers, and the numbers permanently inked on my grandfather’s arm, and the idea that our existence is so fragile that in another 70 years from now, we could easily be right back where we started.
History has a way of repeating itself.
In 2016, we’re seeing all-too-familiar trends reemerge. Antisemitism and blind bigotry were not created by Donald Trump and his supporters. They are tools as old as time, and Jews have a long, rich history of being hated. Really, truly hated. While Trump may not have created this mindset, he’s certainly allowed it to flourish and find a home in the mainstream in 2016. Antisemites now feel empowered and free to slink out of the shadows. They feel free to tell me I’d make a neat lampshade.
But last night, I tried a different tack for dealing with the people relentlessly attacking me. I told them the hate and anger in their hearts made me feel sad for them. I wished them peace. I’m not the praying kind, but I even told one I’d pray for him. How else do you combat hate other than with love?
I liberally used my report and block button, and by the end of the night, Twitter alerted me that all of the accounts had been suspended or locked. It was the first time I’d seen swift action taken by the sprawling platform, and it gave me some solace knowing that at least a few people would be spared these harmful users’ thoughts, even just for one night. Small victories. But avoiding abusive accounts is like a game of whack-a-mole, except there are millions of moles that can’t possibly all be whacked. At a certain point you must accept they’re around, and always lying in wait for the perfect moment to pop up and ruin your day.
The point isn’t to eliminate the people who deny Jews’ right to exist freely and deny the atrocities of the Holocaust; it’s to maintain composure in spite of them. It’s to use your voice and platform, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Silence is not the answer. Education is. Because we don’t need anymore myths — only the truth.