LONDON – Abe Foxman was one year old when the Nazis ordered his parents to report to the Jewish ghetto in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1941.
Their nanny, a Catholic, told them to leave the child with her, hoping they would return several weeks later.
Foxman’s stay with her went on for years, until her parents returned. He moved to America in 1950 at the age of 10 – but his first life experience never left him.
“I am a survivor, an example of what good words can take,” said Foxman, 80. “My nanny risked her life for four years protecting and hiding me, giving me a fake ID.”
Foxman, a former director of the Anti-Defamation League, is one of several prominent survivors to join a new campaign, #ItStartedWithWords, reflecting on the origins of the Holocaust.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
The campaign is led by the New York City-based nonprofit Claims Association, which works to ensure compensation for survivors of the German government. It is supported by the United Nations and Holocaust museums around the world, and is being launched on the Jewish community’s Holocaust Memorial Day on Thursday.
And the new impetus for awareness comes when research shows an increase in anti-Semitism worldwide, as well as a lack of awareness among adults under 40 about the Holocaust.
The Claims Conference interviewed 1,000 adults in what it said was the first 50 state survey of knowledge of the Holocaust among millennials and Generation Z. It showed that almost half of respondents failed to name a single concentration camp or ghetto established during the Second World War . More than half failed to identify the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and 11 percent believed that the Jews caused the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, the FBI reported that more than 60 percent of religion-based hate crimes were directed at Jews in 2019, and a survey released in March by the Anti-Defamation League and YouGov showed that 63 percent of Jews in America say they he has also experienced or witnessed some form of anti-Semitism in the past five years.
“Across the world, it has become more acceptable to hate, demonize, dehumanize others, and we are seeing this now with Asian Americans,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claim Conference.
“People don’t wake up one day to say that I want to commit mass murder today, but it is a process that over time people are dehumanized. It starts with words and ideas, ”he added.
Research published last month by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, showed that hate crimes against people of Asian descent increased by almost 150 percent in 2020.
In a video produced for the Claims Conference, the former leader of the Jewish community in Germany recalled how, at the age of 4, she was once no longer allowed to play with other children across the street from her Munich home.
“The apartment manager came up and shouted at me, ‘Jewish kids can’t play with our kids,'” said Charlotte Knobloch, 88. “I didn’t even know what Jews were.”
The impetus for the campaign came from survivors, the youngest of whom are now in their 70s and concerned that the lessons of the Holocaust are now being forgotten.
“There is a politicization, there is a lack of truth, the lies diminish, there is no consensus on civility, nobody is heard. All taboos have been broken on respect and tolerance, ”said Foxman. “Unfortunately, 75 years after the Holocaust, this is the time to remind people what words can do.”