Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated who initiated the contact between Tanya Gersh and Sherry Spencer.
Editor’s Note: This story addresses hate speech and contains offensive language that may be disturbing to readers.
Once the calls began, they did not stop. Swiping to decline a call just led to the phone ringing again. Blocked number after blocked number filled up the voice mail.
Deleting one message just created space for another to take its place.
Then came the tweets and the email messages.
The volume was overwhelming. The content: vile and terrifying.
Gunshots rang out from voice mails. Emails and texts read: “I hope you die,” “Kill yourself,” “We will take pleasure in your pain.”
Tanya Gersh found herself buried in an avalanche of hate, one she had not seen coming and one that focused on one fact: She’s Jewish.
Gersh was called a “bitch,” “a worthless c**t,” and told countless times she was nothing more than a filthy “k**e.” The vile and ugly words were spelled out in full when sent to Gersh.
The messages began late at night and continued into the early hours, keeping her family awake. Or there was a night of silence, broken by an onslaught at 4 a.m., jolting the family from sleep.
One voice mail – “You are surprisingly easy to find on the Internet. And in real life” – ended Gersh’s lifelong practice of leaving her home and car unlocked in her little Montana town, nestled by a lake in the Rocky Mountains.
It became unbearable, Gersh said. She described panic attacks, vomiting, shaking and sweating. And then the times she could not even catch her breath.
Now, she was in fear of almost anyone she met. Her old way of life had been washed away. She was now in an America full of hate. It was an America where racism and bigotry have powerful online platforms.
Gersh learned that one blog post could lead to an anonymous online assault by a group of hateful people hell bent on destroying her life. All it took was a few keystrokes, amplified by a social media megaphone, to send the deluge of repulsive messages her way and heighten tensions in this quaint ski resort town.
All because of what started, Gersh says, as a “mother-to-mother” chat.
Gersh appears to have become a target for hate after contacting tenants of a local building. Gersh says she was then called by the building’s owner, Sherry Spencer, the mother of white supremacist Richard Spencer.
Gersh says she warned Sherry Spencer about looming protests at the building in Whitefish, a Montana town of 7,300 where both women live.
Gersh says she advised Spencer to disavow the views of her son, including that the United States is a country for white people. She says she offered to sell Spencer’s property as a way of defusing tensions in town. Gersh suggested Spencer donate money to a human rights group.
Sherry Spencer refused to speak to CNN when we reached her on the phone. Earlier, she wrote in a blog post that Gersh, a Realtor, had threatened her, saying protesters and media would turn up and drive down the building’s value if she didn’t sell.
Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial said Sherry Spencer did not file a complaint with police, though her son Richard Spencer accused Gersh of extortion in interviews and a video diary. No law enforcement agency has filed any charges relating to the dispute.
There was comment aplenty, though, on DailyStormer.com, which spews neo-Nazi propaganda.
Andrew Anglin, the site’s founder, accused Gersh of extortion in a blog post. And he exhorted readers to send Gersh – whom he also identified as Jewish – enough messages to make a point.
“Let’s hit ‘em up,” he posted. “Are y’all ready for an old-fashioned Troll Storm?”
He then told them: “(I)t’s that time.”
‘These are not trolls. They are terrorists’
For three months, packed luggage sat on the floor of Gersh’s home.
She debated fleeing, to escape what felt like an army of online hate coming after her.
“We were scared that they were going to show up,” Gersh says. “It got worse and worse and worse and worse. They just kept perpetuating it.”
Anyone who read Daily Stormer had access to all Gersh’s information after Anglin posted it time and again. He put up photos and personal details: phone number, address, workplace and social media profiles – including one used by her 12-year-old son. Each contained instructions to tell Gersh how they felt.
“Listen here you fucking Jew. You had better back off and leave Richard Spencer’s mom alone, you dirty scumbag,” one caller said on Gersh’s voice mail. “You fucking Jew. You had better back off of Richard Spencer’s mom. Everybody is watching you.”
The Daily Stormer published more about Gersh and her “Jew agenda,” once with a doctored photo showing her and her tween son on the gates of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.
A tweet was sent to Gersh showing her surrounded by gas, with the message: “Hickory dickory dock, the kike ran up the clock. The clock struck three and Internet Nazis trolls gassed the rest of them.”
More messages referenced crematoriums and said she should have died in the Holocaust.
A tweet to her 12-year-old son had an image of an oven with the message: “PSsst kid there is a free X-box inside this oven.”
Gersh thinks she will always be haunted by those images, and by the family talks she was forced to have. They had known the horrors of the Holocaust, but to them it had been something foreign and distant. No longer.
She hangs her head, remembering the conversation.
“I never imagined that I would have to teach my children that they might be hated because they are Jewish,” she says.
For Gersh, these threats were personal and real, not to be confused with generic if vile ramblings on an online comments board.
“These are not trolls. They are terrorists,” Gersh says. “They are very harmful, they are very malicious and they are dangerous.”
And Gersh decided to take a stand. She didn’t know who had threatened her – they hid behind withheld numbers and untraceable email addresses – but knew who she believed had sent them into her life.
“Andrew Anglin has done this to so many people. I’m going to make sure it doesn’t happen to anybody else,” Gersh says defiantly.
Encouraged by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based organization that monitors hate crimes across the country, she decided to sue Anglin, accusing him of intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and violation of Montana’s anti-intimidation statue.
Protected speech … or hate?
On DailyStormer.com Anglin wrote he has hired a First Amendment lawyer to fight the lawsuit; he says he was simply “blogging.” A prominent fundraising post declares: “The Daily Stormer is being sued by Jewish terrorists. In order to survive, we need shekels.” It is paired with another doctored photo of Tanya Gersh, her head on a dragon’s body being slain by a knight on a white horse with the face of Anglin. So far there have been around 2,000 donations, totaling in excess of $150,000.
Still, Anglin did ask readers to leave the Gersh family alone, allow the case to proceed and be simply about protected speech.
“(T)hough this is going to get a lot of publicity, I am asking all of you, genuinely, that you don’t attempt to contact the Gershes during this process,” Anglin wrote on the site. “This has escalated from jokes on the Internet to something which could potentially lead to a big step towards the hellish, Orwellian world that the enemies of freedom wish to bring down on this country.”
Lawyers for Gersh say it is ironic that they cannot find Anglin – a man apparently proud of what he’s done – to serve him to compel him to appear in court. But they expect the case to proceed.
“I hope the result is that we get fair compensation for the Gersh family, that we punish Andrew Anglin and the people who are associated with him in this circle of terror,” SPLC co-counsel John Morrison says. “And beyond that, my hope is that we wind up convincing him to stop.”
Morrison says they have a strong case.
“This is not free speech, this is nothing protected by the First Amendment, this is not the expression of political opinion,” he says. “The purpose of this is to damage these people, the purpose of this is to cause them fear and emotional harm, and that’s illegal.”
CNN reached out to Anglin, who told us he now lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where he says his rights to say what he wants are not limited. He declined to comment to us on the Gersh case.
Morrison and Gersh believe Anglin is not the whole problem, as he has followers ready to be encouraged to act. Morrison describes them as an “army” that carries out “vicious attacks that are done in a concerted way at the beck and call of a commander who puts out the orders on this website.”
Robert Ray, who writes features for The Daily Stormer under the name “Azzmador,” told CNN he was “absolutely” OK with what was written on the site about Gersh. He called her a “Jewish terrorist” for allegedly threatening Richard Spencer’s mother.
“I want anyone who thinks that they can exert this terroristic activist style political pressure on family members of people whose political views they don’t like, I want them all terrified to do that,” Ray says.
But he adds that messages to Gersh were not threats, but expressions of opinion.
“There’s no evidence that anyone from, who was influenced by Daily Stormer, made any death threats or anything,” he says.
Gersh says she does not expect to change the beliefs of Anglin or his followers. But she does have a message for them.
“You are allowed to believe whatever you want to believe but you absolutely cannot take your beliefs and use it to terrorize,” Gersh says.
Words do matter, she and her legal team argue. The SPLC tracks instances of hatred from all groups. It says the unapologetic hatred on the Daily Stormer – which also takes aim at African-Americans and opponents of President Donald Trump, for example – is a catalyst for division. Among its readers were Charleston, South Carolina, church mass killer Dylann Roof and the murderer of Jo Cox, a British legislator.
For Gersh, this is a new reality. She had never never heard jokes about Jews or been subject to anything anti-Semitic before this. Now she is consumed by fighting a battle she had thought was over. She talks about the Nazis – with their swastikas, concentration camps and genocide – being defeated decades ago. And how the world stood up then to say “Never again.”
But now she finds it is her turn to stand up to another group of people who are adamant in their hatred of Jews. She says she must take on the people who told her she should have died long ago and those who told her they hope she kills herself now.
So Gersh hopes her voice is clear when she echoes those words of warning again to those who have threatened her.
“What we are saying is never again.”
Illustrations by Will Mullery, CNN