The Slaughter of Six Million Jews: A Holocaust or a Shoah?
Language is a reciprocal tool: it reveals and, at the same time, it is revealing. We use language to explain the things that define our world, but, by the same token, the way we use language also necessarily discloses how we explain and define ourselves within that world. In general, everyone can instinctively grasp how a given word or phrase is used to demarcate, even create that small bit of universe that it encompasses in linguistic terms. But the subtle aspects of how this same word or phrase might disclose a part of our own identities is less obvious and is less consciously considered.
Holocausts and “The Holocaust”
Take the term, “The Holocaust,” in contemporary American language. The term “holocaust” is commonly used to connote a genocide, i.e., the systematic murder of any group. When used in this manner, the term is usually qualified so it is clear what “holocaust” is meant; “the Armenian holocaust,” “the Senti-Romani holocaust,” and “the Biafran holocaust” are some examples. Similarly, “nuclear holocaust” can be used when describing the elimination of the entire human race in a nuclear war; one simply shifts the qualifier from the object to the agent of destruction.
But the most common and prominent use of the term “holocaust” without any qualifiers is as a reference to the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis; it is taken to be the archetype, the most extreme case, against which all secondary applications of “holocaust” are measured and from which they each draw their sense of meaning. One simply acknowledges the primacy of what has come to be identified as the most horrible event of the 20th century – the destruction of European Jews by the Nazis – by capitalizing the “T” of “The” and the “H” of “Holocaust.” “The Holocaust” serves as the designated term of record for the murder of two thirds of European Jewry; nothing more needs to said.
And yet the term “The Holocaust” did not evolve in a vacuum but, like all semantic developments, has a context. In examining that context, one is necessarily drawn into consideration of that other side of language, the self-revelatory aspect involved in the choice of a given word or phrase. For, as it turns out, “holocaust” is a rather strange term: its use as the label to designate the Jewish genocide is neither obvious nor inevitable; in fact, it is surprising.
The Origins of the Word “Holocaust”
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests that the word “holocaust” comes via the Latin holocaustum from the Greek word holocaustos (ὁλόκαυστος) or it's more common variant holocautos (ὁλόκαυτος). This, in turn, is a compound composed of holos (ὅλος), an adjective (or adjectival substantive) meaning “whole, entire, complete in all its parts,” and kaustos (καυστός), another adjectival form meaning “burnt, red-hot.”
Thus, the basic etymological meaning of holokaustos is “something wholly burnt up.” But whereas we usually think of that something being people, the original referent was something else.
Burnt Offering (ʿolah): LXX and Vulgate
The Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Bible, employs the term holokautōma (ὁλοκαύτωμα) or its variant holocautōsis (ὁλοκαύτωσις), well over 200 times, and without exception the term is used to designate a sacrifice, specifically, the ʿolah (עֹלָה), the offering that was to be wholly consumed by fire (e.g., Lev 1:3, 6:9; 1 Sam 7:9, etc.). The Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, uses holocaustum, the Latinized version of this Greek term, for ʿolah as well.
From the Catholic Bible into English
From here, the term appeared in the Catholic translation of the Bible into English, the Douay-Rheims translation of 1609, which used the Vulgate as its base text. Translating ʿolah as “holocaust” was actually a sharp departure from older English translations. The Middle English translation of the Vulgate, done under the direction of John Wycliffe from 1382-1395, uses the term “brent sacrifice,” while William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible, done directly from the original language (Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, depending on the book), goes with “burntoffrynge,” as does the Geneva Bible of 1560 (“burnt offring”).
In fact, in the introduction to the 1611 Protestant translation known as the King James Version, the translators attack the Catholic use of the word “holocaust” among other calques, i.e., words taken from another language that aren’t really English. The KJV translators claim that use of this term is an example of “Papist obscurantism,” designed to make the text difficult to understand.
Be that as it may, this “Latinism” entered the English language as a rendering for “burnt offering.” Thus, the first definition in the OED is: “a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; a whole burnt offering”; while the second definition applies this sense of sacrifice in a more general fashion: “a complete sacrifice or offering; a sacrifice on a large scale.”
A Derivative Definition of Holocaust
The OED then offers an additional definition, which derives from a broader, more generalized sense of the term: “Complete destruction by fire, or that which is consumed; complete destruction, especially of a large number of persons; great slaughter or massacre.” Early examples of this usage are strongly connected to fire.
For example, in his 1833 book Wanderings by the Loire (p. 104), Leitch Ritchie quips that Louis VII of France was “a man of nice honour (although he once made a holocaust of thirteen hundred persons in a church).” Ritchie is here referring to how, toward the end of Louis VII’s war against Theobald II of Champaign (1142-1144), he attacked and burned the town of Vitry-le-François, during which attack over a thousand people who took refuge in the local church were burnt alive.
The Armenian Holocaust and the Burning of Villages
As a reference to genocide, i.e., the systemic murder of one race of people by another, the term is first employed to describe the Hamidian (or Armenian) Massacres (1894-1896) and the burning of Armenian villages by the Ottoman Turks. For example, on Sept 10, 1895, the New York Times ran this headline: “Another Armenian Holocaust,” with the byline: “five villages burned, five thousand people made homeless, and anti-Christians organized.” One “holocaust” in particular stands out during this period: the burning of a cathedral in Urfa (formerly Edessa) with 3000 Christians still inside.
The term is again employed to describe various stages in the Armenian genocide:
- The 1909 massacre, which involved the burning of villages in Adana,
- The 1915 massacre,
- The systemic destruction of the Armenian population in the wake of WWI,
- Ataturk’s burning of Smyrna in 1922.
This last episode was described as “the Smyrna holocaust” by Melville Chater, a well-known American journalist and travel writer for the National Geographic, who had spent years reporting on the tragic plight of the Armenians. He writes:
[T]he initial episodes of the exchange drama were enacted to the accompaniment of the boom of cannon and the rattle of machine gun and with the settings pointed by the flames of the Smyrna holocaust… The dance of flames became a fiery hurdle race, as the wind-fanned flames leaped from a balcony to balcony across the narrow streets: then the race became a hungry conflagration whose roaring mouth ate through and gulped down that mile-and-a half breadth of city down to where the 300,000 refugee souls huddled between a waste of fire and a waste of sea… Maddened horses… ran amuck through the press, leaving a wake of crushed bodies, which roasted where they lay…
The connection between the massacre of Smyrna’s inhabitants and the burning of the city, elegantly expressed in Chater’s prose, highlights the deep connection between fire and death or destruction that inheres in the world holocaust.
The Jewish Holocaust
Eventually, during and after World War II, when the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews became clear, the term was adopted by many as a reference to this Jewish genocide, which was even more systemic and large scale than the Armenian genocide. The connotation of not merely massacre, but the destruction by fire seems to give the term appropriately tangible overtones. That is to say, the horror of the event may be said to be properly emphasized by a term that evokes the smell of burning corpses in the Nazi furnaces. Seen in this light, “holocaust” appears a most apt term to characterize what the Nazis did to the Jews.
The Problem with Holocaust as a Term for Genocide
Acknowledging the semantic development of the term holocaust outlined above, the word’s origin as a reference to a “burnt offering” remains. Personally, I find the religious imagery implicit in “holocaust” objectionable when applied to genocide, insofar as it seemingly designates the murderers as priestly officiants engaged in acts of divine propitiation and brings up the grotesque image of Nazis burning six million Jews as an offering to God.
Moreover, in the Jewish imagination, such an offering is associated with the ʿakedah, the “binding” of Isaac, in the biblical story in which Abraham is tested and Isaac is victimized and almost offered as an ʿolah or “holocaust” by his own father at God’s command (Genesis 22:2). These are troubling images to have juxtaposed to the slaughter of six million Jews by the Nazis.
Other terms can appropriately describe the sense of utter destruction that “holocaust” conveys without adding a religious, sacrificial connotation to the event: e.g., extermination, annihilation, destruction, massacre, slaughter, or genocide (a term coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944). Indeed, “Holocaust” is not the only term for the Nazis’ near destruction of European Jewry.
Ḥurban, Die Milḥomeh Yohrn, Shoah, – The Many Names of the Holocaust
Most Yiddish speaking victims and survivors refer to the Nazi period as Ḥurban Europa (חורבן אײראָפּע), “the European Destruction,” or just the Ḥurban (חורבן), “Destruction,” a rabbinic term describing the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the Second in 70 C.E. Others simply refer to it as Die Milḥomeh Yohrn (“The War Years”).
But neither of these terms seem particularly appropriate to the Nazi genocide. The former is associated with other national calamities, thus failing to reflect the category–shattering character of the German Judeocide. The latter is simply a Yiddish reference to the Second World War, hardly a fitting designation for the murder of six million.
The modern Hebrew term for the European Jewish genocide, “Shoah,” has no religious or sacrificial overtones. It is a powerful term, which comes into modern Hebrew from biblical Hebrew, and means “devastation, desolation, or ruin that affect man, nature, and land.” First used in the booklet ShoatYehudei Polin (“Devastation of Polish Jewry,” Jerusalem, 1940), the word today is widely used in academic and ecclesiastical circles and is becoming more recognized in popular usage.
It is used in the Hebrew term for holocaust memorial day, Yom HaZikaron la-sho’ah ve-la-gevurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה), “the Memorial Day of the Devastation and the Bravery,” typically called by it shortened form, Yom Hashoah (יום השואה), “the Day of the Devastation.” And because shoah is a Hebrew term, it forces us, unlike the English “holocaust,” to focus on the Jewishness of the victims.
Shoah versus Holocaust
Whereas “holocaust” is inevitably a God-focused word, because of its older meaning, the word Shoah (devastation, destruction) is human-focused and is not loaded with theological overtones. This is why I prefer the name, Shoah.
Language determines how we think. If we call the slaughter of six million Jews a “holocaust,” we are consciously or subconsciously, connecting victims of genocide with “sacrificial victims,” and perpetrators of murder and genocide with Levites and Temple priests. Such thinking further distracts us from the human evil by putting too much focus on God and theology.
Using the term shoah, however, puts the focus squarely back on the tragedy of the Jewish genocide and the evil perpetrated by the Nazis. Though this does not absolve us from grappling with the Shoah’s theological ramifications, choosing to call the slaughter of six million Jews by such a human-focused term forces us to consider the very human reality of this most catastrophic event in Jewish and indeed, human history.
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April 11, 2018
March 23, 2020
Professor Zev Garber is (Emeritus) Chair of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Los Angeles Valley College. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Studies in Shoah and Shofar Supplements in Jewish Studies and is the editor of the journal, Shofar. Among Garber’s publications are Methodology in the Academic Teaching of Judaism; Shoah: The Paradigmatic Genocide; Perspectives on Zionism; and Double Takes: Thinking and Rethinking Issues of Modern Judaism in Ancient Contexts.
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