In 1942, the Nazis invaded Stolin and ordered 7,000 Jews from in and around the little city to leave their homes and take only what they could carry into a gated section of the city -- a Jewish ghetto. Every day, the men were driven a couple of miles to a forest to dig an enormous ditch. Then, the day before Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that marks the start of the Jewish New Year, 500 Jews at a time were systematically disrobed and taken to the ditch, where they were shot and tossed in like scrap metal. They had been digging their own graves. Those who weren't fatally wounded by the gunshots were simply buried alive.
To understand what drives Sara Salzman, what compels her to confront the kind of hatred that her ancestors had to face, one must think back to "that pit in Poland" where her great-grandparents are buried. Salzman grew up listening to the tale of Stolin and understood from an early age what most other kids only read about in textbooks. For her, the lesson was more than academic: The only reason she lives in a free country now is because her grandparents had to flee an oppressive one.
Although Mendel and Mindle Glouberman and one of their sons were killed in Stolin, three of their other children and their spouses, including Salzman's grandparents, left before the Holocaust. They emigrated to Canada in the 1920s, when Salzman's mother was four or five years old, and then to the United States. The family ended up in Washington, D.C., where Salzman was born in 1957.
Five years ago, while Salzman was living in Ohio with her first husband, she got a job as a copywriter for a company that allowed people to pay their bills over the Internet. She was excited about working in the fast-growing industry of e-commerce and wanted to learn all she could about the World Wide Web, so she started reading print magazines dedicated to all things Internet. Her interest in the Web shifted from a merely professional pursuit to a personal one when she came across an article about the Nizkor Project, which contains the Web's largest Holocaust archive and is dedicated to debunking Holocaust deniers. The article also mentioned a Usenet group called alt.revisionism, a virtual gathering place for people who believe that the Holocaust never happened. The newsgroup eventually became a place for people like Salzman to challenge deniers' beliefs with evidence that the Holocaust did occur.
Salzman, who moved to Aurora with her second husband in 1997, was intrigued by the Nizkor Project, which contains biographical information about everyone from Anne Frank to Deborah Lipstadt (the author of a book called Denying the Holocaust), as well as transcripts from the Nuremberg trials. Salzman knew she wanted to become involved with the then-fledgling site, so she called Nizkor director Ken McVay and offered her assistance. She's been scanning Holocaust-related documents and uploading them to nizkor.org ever since. ("Nizkor" is Hebrew for "We remember.")
At around the same time, Salzman started posting messages to alt.revisionism. Unlike a chat room, the discussions on Usenet are not live; users log on and read the messages people have posted throughout the day, write a response of their own, then check back later to see if anyone has replied.
Despite the extremely opposing views of alt.revisionism participants, Salzman says, there was mutual respect between the "revisionists," who believe that the record of atrocities during the Holocaust has been overblown or that the Holocaust never happened at all, and the "anti-revisionists," who try to convince them otherwise.
"There was a lot of name-calling," Salzman says. "But it was always good-humored."
Until January, that is, when someone entered alt.revisionism and began posting vitriolic messages about Salzman and other legitimate contributors to the site. Sometimes the messages appeared to be from the other legitimate contributors; other times they were merely juvenile attempts to make it look as though a legitimate contributor had posted the message.
For instance, a message posted on February 2 that appeared to come from Nizkor's McVay read: "A question for Sara Salzman; Are you homosexual?" Another was supposedly posted by the Nizkor Project, from the fictitious e-mail address >[email protected] It read: "I am a lesbian fish licker. I enjoy licking the anus of female fish." Still another came in the name of David Goldman, the founder of a Web site called hatewatch.org, which monitors online hate sites: "Sara Salzman is one ugly bitch and smells like a fish. Are you a lesbian?" Then, on February 3, a message was forged in the name of Jeffrey Brown, a longtime alt.revisionism contributor, from the fake e-mail address [email protected]: "Dogs vs. Sara Salzman: Who would you fuck first?"
The messages have escalated over the last few months to the point where Salzman's address, her neighbors' addresses, and details about her family have been posted along with death threats and encouragement to kill her.
Although Salzman was trusting at first, even naive, about how her views on the Holocaust would be received, she's decided not to back down against whomever is posting the messages; she remains a frequent contributor to alt.revisionism. But her attempts to find out who is harassing her and her requests for police help have been unsuccessful, and she now faces the same kind of hatred and fear that her great-grandparents did.
Inside Salzman's suburban home, her thirteen-year-old son memorizes Torah passages in preparation for his upcoming bar mitzvah. Her nine-year-old daughter wanders around the kitchen, looking at the clock every fifteen minutes in anxious anticipation of 6 p.m., when she'll go to her first slumber party. The family's three birds squawk loudly and often, and their two dogs race around, but the noise is so much a part of the background buzz that Salzman and her husband hardly notice. They light one cigarette after another and continue talking about the dark cloud that has been hanging over this home for the past six months.
Upstairs in Salzman's home office, she has saved printouts of the hundreds of messages that have been posted about her: "Sara Salzman is a dyke"; "Dog fucker Sara Salzman"; "Is dog fucking a Jewish thing?" and on and on. Messages like those were posted not only to alt.revisionism, but to dog news groups and white-power news groups.
Even her autistic son wasn't spared: "[Salzman] believes her retarded child is special because he attends 'special ed,'" reads one message.
Salzman also has a copy of a fake news report about her that was posted to alt.revisionism. The posting, which claimed to be an "Aurora News Staff Report," begins, "A [sic] Aurora woman accused of attacking her estranged husband with a clothing iron was in custody Tuesday facing felony charges of assault with a deadly weapon, police said. Sara Schwartz [the name from her first marriage] allegedly began arguing with her husband Monday night after he came home to the [address deleted] home where she lives with their two children..."
"I work on the Web, so essentially, these people were going into my workplace and saying terrible things about me," says Salzman, who has since taken a break from online copywriting.
Although Salzman couldn't trace, with certainty, the source of the messages, some of them, such as the return e-mail address [email protected], provided clues. At the time, thundernet.org was the address for a Web site called The American Guardian; it was run by Don Ellis, a man from Star City, Arkansas, who is notorious among Internet hate-group watchdogs.
Ellis's site, which is now defunct, reportedly contained photos of men eating each other's feces and engaging in explicit sexual acts, in order to demonstrate how "diseased" homosexuals are. The author of a June 5, 1998, Wired News article described Ellis as "one of the most vociferous opponents of abortion and homosexual rights on IRC [Internet Relay Chat] and the Web." Ellis was quoted in the article as saying that the Internet has been a "huge success" for homosexuals because before they had access to the Web, with its wealth of gay sites, "they didn't know whose leg they could rub on."
Ellis also used to run a Web site called HateWatch of America, which could be found at hatewatch.com or hatewatch.net. But contrary to what the name suggests, Ellis's site was not a legitimate place for people hoping to find information on Web-based hate groups; instead, it was a decoy for Boston-based hatewatch.org, a reputable site founded in 1995 by David Goldman. Hatewatch.org, which monitors approximately 400 Internet hate sites, once featured The American Guardian on its list of anti-gay Web sites; in early 1998, about six weeks after The American Guardian appeared on hatewatch.org, Ellis came out with hatewatch.com and hatewatch.net.
The Web sites looked almost identical, but the contents were vastly different. Instead of finding sites like godhatesfags.com, jewwatch.com and kkk.com, which are featured on Goldman's list of hate groups operating on the Internet, unwitting visitors of Ellis's site found the ACLU and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Network in the same category as a chat room for pedophiles; in addition, HateWatch of America posted Disney on its list of "anti-children" Web sites because a subsidiary of Disney had published a book called Growing up Gay. Ellis also listed the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League as hate groups.
Because of the confusion Ellis's site caused, Goldman considered filing a trademark lawsuit. But in March, after he was finally granted a federal trademark for "HateWatch," Goldman settled with Ellis out of court, and Ellis transferred the domain names to Goldman's nonprofit organization.
Salzman forwarded the juvenile postings from thundernet.org to Ellis's Internet service provider, seark.net, which is based in Monticello, Arkansas, with a note explaining that she would continue to forward the "spam" -- Internet lingo for a barrage of unwanted e-mail or, in this case, unwanted Usenet postings -- until it stopped. Internet etiquette calls for people to report such behavior to the ISP of the person abusing the system.
Ellis must have learned about Salzman's complaint, because he immediately sent her an e-mail with the following message: "You dumb bastard, you just don't get it."
In a letter Ellis sent to Salzman and to seark.net, he denied her accusations and offered the following explanation for her claims: "Over the past few weeks Sara has solicited me for sex many times. I have always refused. I believe this is a ploy of hers to stop me from posting to Usenet, where my friends and I gather to swap information on different topics. If Sara doesn't like my rejections to her stalking me or the topics and information I post under, then she can always find another newsgroup."
Salzman shot back with an e-mail message telling Ellis not to write to her again. She also sent a copy of that letter to seark.net, along with a note to Jim Ellis of seark.net refuting Don Ellis's claims. Instead of helping her, Jim Ellis wrote back asking her not to spam him with her complaints and added that "this sounds like a lover's quarrel." As it turns out, Don Ellis's brother works at seark.net, which would explain how he found out about Salzman's letters. Whether Jim Ellis is Don Ellis's brother could not be determined.
Salzman soon discovered that her e-mail in-box was flooded with mail from pornographic Web sites. Someone had put her name on eighty gay-porn e-mail lists. She received messages like "Thanks for subscribing to Naughty Mail, your free guide to pictures, jokes, stories, movies, sites, special offers and more" and "*Exclusive Hot Teen pictures* Hot & Steamy EROTIC STORIES -- a new one every day!"
Salzman turned to Mike Castro of the FBI's Domestic Terrorism Unit in Colorado, but according to Salzman, he said there wasn't anything he could do to help her because there were no specific threats against her at the time. Castro refused to comment to Westword on Salzman's situation.
On February 28, Salzman filed an incident report with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, but she says the deputy who assisted her said that the Internet hijinks probably aren't in violation of any laws -- and that if they are, they're probably just a misdemeanor, and Arapahoe County doesn't extradite people for misdemeanors. Nobody from the sheriff's office would return phone calls for this story.
That same day, the home telephone numbers and addresses of everyone associated with the Nizkor Project, including Salzman, were posted to alt.revisionism. The Nizkor phone book was posted several times, in fact, under several names that all had the return address of Ellis's thundernet.org. Later, Salzman's phone number and address were also posted to two neo-Nazi news groups -- alt.politics.nationalism.white and alt.politics.white-power. Someone identifying himself as RevWhite also posted a map with directions to Salzman's house, as well as the names, addresses and phone numbers of several of her neighbors, and encouraged people to call them.
Patrick Blakely, the man behind the RevWhite moniker, was notorious a couple of years ago for operating a Web site called the Negroid Research Institute, which awarded "Nigger of the Week" prizes to famous black people and published statistics that made it appear that blacks were responsible for virtually all crimes. Blakely eventually dismantled the site, but he apparently didn't abandon the Internet; instead, he continued on with a crusade to rid the Web of child porn and gay chat rooms. According to a January 15, 1997, Wired News article, he vowed to "lead an '[Internet Relay Chat] Watch' campaign, using the nickname 'RevWhite,' until the network is purged of chat channels like '#gayboysex.'" The article goes on to say that "RevWhite has been joined in his crusade by at least one vocal supporter, Don Ellis, whose Web site, The American Guardian, promotes many of the same values as RevWhite's own Maryland Christian Politics site." (More recently, someone using the moniker "blakely" has posted messages to alt.revisionism questioning Salzman's fitness as a mother, accusing her of being mentally ill and asking, "Did Sara really have relatives killed by Hitler? With her history of being a pathological liar, I seriously doubt it." In addition, the messages said, "Sara started this whole thing. It was Sara who contacted personal members of Don Ellis's family first, both by phone, letter and e-mail. We have every right to do the same.")
In March, Salzman contacted the Eleventh Judicial District in Star City, Arkansas, the town where Ellis lives, and spoke to Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Phillip Green. "It was like talking to someone in Mayberry," Salzman says. Green told her that if she wanted to press charges against Ellis, she would have to fly to Arkansas. Instead of doing that, Salzman convinced Green to send Ellis a cease-and-desist letter. On April 11, Green wrote back, saying, "After a thorough review of various e-mails provided to me by you and by Mr. Ellis, I have determined that there is no basis for involvement by my office. The copies you faxed me today may be libelous, but that is a civil matter, not a criminal one. It may be that you need to hire an attorney to check into the matter further."
Green told Westword that Ellis, an auto mechanic whom everyone in town knows, gave him copies of his Internet correspondence with Salzman. Green said that because Ellis and Salzman had argued back and forth, it would be hard to prove that the communication was unsolicited. "If she's posting things, she's sort of inviting some kind of response," he says. "I didn't think it rose to the level of a criminal matter. I don't want to prosecute people just for saying stuff that other people don't like, and I would have had a hard time making a harassment case out of it."
Salzman, however, says that she and Ellis never debated the Holocaust at alt.revisionism, and that the only words she exchanged with him were when she told him to stop forging her name and when she notified him that she would forward the forgeries to seark.net. She suspects that Ellis may have produced fake e-mails and alt.revisionism postings in her name to try to prove to Green that the two were engaged in an ongoing battle.
Even if he could have made a case, though, Green admits that his judicial district would be ill-equipped to handle it. "We deal with traffic tickets, boyfriends beating girlfriends and DUIs," he says. "We've never dealt with Internet problems."
On July 18, Westword contacted the only Don Ellis in the 2,000-person town of Star City. He said he didn't know of a Sara Salzman and that her situation was "kind of news to me." The following conversation ensued:
Westword: Are you the Don Ellis who used to operate The American Guardian Web site?
Ellis: There is no American Guardian Web site.
Westword: Did you used to operate a Web site called The American Guardian?
Ellis: [no reply]
Westword: Did you used to operate a Web site called HateWatch of America?
Ellis: Ummm...not to my knowledge.
Westword: Have you ever posted negative messages about Sara Salzman or anyone else to alt.revisionism?
Ellis: I haven't posted anything in three or four months.
Westword: Have you ever posted to alt.revisionism?
Ellis: I'm not sure. I'd have to check my files. She should just turn the computer off. She should just back out of the situation. I have had death threats, and I just ignore them. It's probably just someone blowing off steam.
Westword: Sara Salzman claims nasty messages have been posted about her in a news group.
Ellis: What kind of nasty messages?
Westword: Things like "Sara Salzman is a dyke. Sara Salzman is a dog-fucker."
Ellis: Well, is she? [A couple of moments of silence.] So, does she do those things?
Westword: All I can tell you is that someone has been posting messages saying she does, and she's not happy about it.
Ellis: How do you know that she doesn't do those things?
In recent weeks, the situation has escalated. Someone placed links on more than forty Web sites with messages claiming that Salzman's kids were planning to bomb an Aurora high school; placed a link on more than ninety Web sites with messages accusing Salzman of child abuse; posted messages saying that Salzman makes her daughter give men blow jobs to support the Nizkor Project; posted Salzman's father's name, office address, telephone number and e-mail address to alt.revisionism along with a threat to pay him a visit; forged Salzman's name on a threat to Mayor Wellington Webb's life that appeared on more than twenty Web sites; e-mailed a death threat to President Clinton in Salzman's name; and posted a message threatening to skin Salzman alive and use her skin to make a new holster for his gun.
Another message on alt.revisionism announced an upcoming Web site containing even more personal information about Nizkor supporters. "See where the anti-revisionist: lives, works, schools, shops," it claimed. "View the many images of their homes, car, children. Read facts about their: history, lovers, sex lives, medical records, criminal records." No such Web site ever materialized, but the names of Salzman's two children and photos of what someone thought was her house appeared on the Internet (the picture was of the wrong house). Salzman had included the names of her kids in a biography she wrote about herself on the Nizkor Web page, so it was easy for someone to find out.
"I wrote that [biography] at a time when it was inconceivable that anyone would use that information against me," she says. She has since removed her children's names from the site.
Nizkor's Ken McVay says he's been insulted so often because of his work that the messages that have been posted about him to alt.revisionism don't bother him. "Everyone who confronts extremists on the Internet gets this kind of treatment eventually. I've been getting it for eight years, but Sara has not," he says. "What makes Sara's case so unusual is the tenacity with which it's been going on."
McVay guesses that Salzman has been the primary target of the alt.revisionism postings because of her extensive involvement with the Nizkor Project. "The other reason is because she gets in their face and stays there, and they're probably trying to see how far they can go to intimidate her. She's tough, and as smart as they come -- and that really irritates them," he adds.
Salzman has contacted the Jewish Federation, the Anti-Defamation League and an organization called Women Halting On-Line Abuse. None have been of any help. "They all said that what's happening is terrible," Salzman says. But just as law-enforcement officials did, they said they couldn't help because no overt threats had been made. The latter group, she adds, advised her to stop posting to alt.revisionism and to change her name and move. She has also contacted private attorneys in Colorado, but none have committed to helping her.
"At the time she contacted us, I characterized what was happening to her as a nuisance, but it was nothing rising to the level of a crime," says Evan Zuckerman, assistant director of the Denver office of the Anti-Defamation League. "Internet law is in an evolving stage. Now, just about anything can pass as protected speech."
But Salzman counters that her situation is no longer just about free speech. "Believe me, I am 100 percent against censoring on the Internet. I'd rather have these people in the light, because if you turn off the light, they'll crawl right back under the refrigerator with all the other cockroaches, and no one will know what they're up to," Salzman says. "But you can't yell fire in a crowded room, and you can't call me a dog-fucker and get away with it. I am absolutely convinced that going away will not stop this. There have been times when I've stopped contributing to alt.revisionism for a week and [the harassment] hasn't stopped. I'm not the only person out there who has had this happen. Somebody has got to set a precedent and say that this can't happen, and I guess I've sort of decided it's going to be me."
In fact, Salzman has had it pretty easy compared to Bonnie Jouhari, a former housing advocate in Reading, Pennsylvania, who for two years was harassed and threatened by white supremacists.
Jouhari's problems began when she noticed that the Ku Klux Klan, which was very active in suburban Berks County, was intimidating minorities into remaining inside Reading, despite the fact that better and more affordable housing was located outside the city limits. Jouhari formed the Berks County Hate Crimes Task Force and encouraged the police to punish hate crimes. In response, white supremacists embarked on a mission to terrorize Jouhari and her teenage daughter. One uploaded photos of Jouhari onto his Web site and wrote that she should be "hung from the neck" for being a "race traitor." Roy Frankhouser, a former grand dragon of the Pennsylvania KKK, promoted the site on his cable TV show.
The intimidation escalated, and when it became clear that local authorities weren't going to help, Jouhari and her daughter packed what they could fit into her car and fled to Seattle. But her problems followed her. Her terrorizers found her new phone number and started calling her. She moved three times, but they always managed to find her new number. One day in November 1999, Jouhari returned home to find a bullet lodged in her kitchen cabinet; a few weeks later, her daughter came home from school and found that someone had broken into their apartment and rifled their belongings. Finally, Jouhari returned to the East Coast, where she found a sympathetic ear in U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. He told Jouhari that he could investigate a civil charge that she was denied fair housing as a result of the threats. HUD also pressured Frankhouser to issue an apology to Jouhari at a press conference on May 11 and on his cable television show a week later.
Stopping the kind of hate speech Salzman and Jouhari have encountered isn't easy. Congress tried to enact a law called the Communications Decency Act in 1997, which would have punished the transmission of "indecent" materials over the Internet, but the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was overly broad.
In a speech before the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights earlier this year, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center described the situation this way: "In short, the Internet received the court's strongest free speech protections...Under American case law, it is perfectly permissible to denigrate racial minorities or even advocate the violent overthrow of the government some time in the indefinite future or in general terms. Only when advocacy amounts to 'incitement to imminent lawless action' can it be punished. And the definition of incitement is extremely narrow. Under American law, it is perfectly legal to advocate the political idea that 'all police should be killed.' On the other hand, it probably would amount to criminal incitement to tell an excited individual to 'go kill that police officer over there.'"
Legal precedent has been set, however, demonstrating that there are limits, even in a virtual world. One case a couple of years ago got a lot of attention. Twelve abortion opponents were sued by Planned Parenthood after they created a Web site called "The Nuremberg Files"; on it, they posted a list of 225 abortion doctors and included many of their home telephone numbers, addresses, automobile descriptions and license plate numbers. Whenever an abortion doctor was killed (seven have been murdered in the U.S. in the last seven years), his name was crossed off the list. If a doctor was wounded, his name was shaded in gray. The federal court judge who heard the case said that the Web site and some "Wanted" posters printed by the twelve defendants constituted "blatant and illegal communication of true threats to kill." In February 1999, a jury awarded the plaintiffs a $107.9 million judgment.
Cases like these give Salzman hope, especially since the threats against her have intensified to the point where she is finally getting some interest -- although slight -- from law enforcement.
The most recent series of threats began on July 14, when someone calling himself Rabbi Brimstone posted a message titled "The Dead Pool" to alt.revisionism. The message listed seventeen people, including Salzman, McVay and hatewatch.org's Goldman, along with the following note: "The rules are simple, email me your choice of which of the following people are going to die first. If your choice wins, you win!!! You can also write in votes if you like....Please don't do anything illegal in order to win the game." The message gives a Web site where the Nizkor members' addresses can be found and ends with the statement: "Remember there is nothing illegal about wishing someone to die. Remember to cast your vote!!!!!"
On July 24, eight messages were posted to alt.revisionism calling for Salzman's death. One read "Sara Salzman must die." Another read "Someone kill Sara Salzman."
On July 26, someone anonymously sent Salzman an e-mail message with this subject heading: "You deserve what is coming to you." The message contained the words "I hope you die" repeated more than a hundred times.
Since then, Salzman has contacted FBI agent Tom Cramer and Arapahoe County sheriff's investigator James Osborn. This time, she said, both investigators seemed interested in helping her.
FBI Special Agent Jane Quimby says that her agency is reviewing Salzman's case and that it may investigate and eventually hand it over to the U.S. Attorney's Office. According to the federal statute on interstate communication, there must be a specific threat in order for federal prosecutors to get involved, Quimby says. "It's not enough to say, 'I hope [Bob] dies' or 'I hope someone kills [Bob].' It has to be 'I will kill you.'"
Until someone decides to help her, though, Salzman says she will not back down. In her biography on the Nizkor Project Web site, she says she has dedicated her work to the people of Stolin, and she's received e-mails from Holocaust survivors around the world, including a Russian professor who has decided to move back to Stolin (which is now part of Belarus, not Poland) with forty other families. They plan to build a synagogue there and re-establish Stolin's Jewish community, which was wiped out entirely by the Holocaust.
"That's the upside of the Internet," she says.
"But I've learned that there's a downside, too. The Holocaust deniers have as much a right as I do to speak publicly, but they do not have the right to abuse the First Amendment. I'm not going to let some neo-Nazi shut me up. I can show you that pit in Poland where my ancestors reside. I'm not going to let that happen to me."