Josef Perl’s story shows how labelling is a form of abuse

In April 1945, aged 14, Josef Perl was liberated from Buchenwald. He had survived unimaginable conditions in ghettos, slave labour camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and a death march. He had witnessed his mother, four sisters and five of their children being shot in a pit and had been separated from the rest of his family.

Post-liberation, with no one left and nowhere to go, Josef did what I imagine most of us would do – he went home.

When he arrived, he was greeted by his neighbour pointing a gun at him, shouting: “Get off my property Jew or I’ll finish Hitler’s job for him.”

The word “Jew,” spat at Josef, was filled with vitriol and hate. In his lifetime he has been forced to wear the same word as an identifier on an armband. He’d seen the sign in ‘Jews forbidden’ at swimming pools, restaurants, parks, beaches and benches. He’d seen ghettos with signs outside telling passers-by not to enter because the area – unsanitary, overcrowded and oppressive – was for “Jews only”.

For Josef being Jewish, being a Jew, wasn’t a label; it was part of who he was. Before the war, seeing the dangers facing them, his father buried their family Torah in the garden. His father knew it was important to protect the holy scrolls and it was part of Josef too, something he held onto.

I think about Josef’s experiences and the way the word “Jew” or “Jewish” was used as a term of abuse. I still see and hear it all too often. I like social media. I tweet and use Instagram. On the whole, they are wonderful platforms to reach more people with HET’s message. Yet sadly labelling as a form of abuse is still all too freely used.

It’s more than 70 years since the Holocaust and many age-old tropes like “Yid” and “Zio” are still in use, spreading more quickly and virulently than ever before through the borderless unchecked world of social media.

We posted a story online about a survivor giving testimony. The responses and comments were, on the whole, heart-warming, but with them came the expected: “Can they teach me what happened to the six million bodies?” and “the Holocaust is fake.” Ironically, through the same thread, we see people claim that not only is the Holocaust fabricated, but simultaneously call for another – “we need a new Holocaust but this time it will be for real and not propaganda.” Many of the same people who claim the Holocaust is a lie also claim “Hitler was right”.

Josef Perl
Credit: Jewish News

We also received another anti-Semitic favourite: “There is no difference between Nazis and Zionists.” Today, the word might be “Zionist” rather than Jew, but the intent remains the same as it was when Josef returned home. It is anti-Semitism, pure and simple – against Jewish people, a Jewish homeland and Jewish self-determination. We need to call it out loudly and clearly, wherever it is found.

Thirty years after the war, Josef discovered his father was alive and he had returned to their old home and dug-up the family’s Torah from the garden, recovering something that truly defined them.

For me, this is the essence of the word “Jew”. It may have held power as a term of abuse for Josef’s neighbour – or so he thought – but really it held power for Josef, and his father.

Not the power of hate, but the power of family, tradition, identity and faith. 

About the Author
Karen Pollock is the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust (H.E.T.)
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