Torah Thoughts: Yom Hashoah 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we are commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, as we say in Hebrew, Yom Hashoah Vehagvura. We remember the six million of our brothers and sisters who were killed by the Nazis and their partners in crime, during the dark years of 1939-1945.
We tend to use the terms “Holocaust” and “Shoah” indistinctly, to refer to the sum of all anti-Jewish actions carried out by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945, including the systematic murder of Jews during the time of the Second World War. Nevertheless, the two terms have very different meanings and we should be aware of their differences, and of what each term implies. And, as I suggest at the end of this piece, we should prefer one of them over the other.
The word “Holocaust” originally derived from the Greek word holokauston, meaning “a completely (holos) burnt (kaustos) sacrificial offering,” or “a burnt sacrifice offered to a god.” In ancient pagan rituals, animals were offered to the gods by burning them in full. The word “Holocaust” was later adopted in Greek translations of the Torah to refer to the olah (for example, Leviticus 1:17), communal and individual sacrificial burnt offerings that were offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.
In modern times, the term “Holocaust” was used to refer to (non-religious) massacres, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, before the Nazi massacre known today as the Holocaust. From the 1950s onwards, it was increasingly used in English to refer to the Nazi genocide of the European Jews. In fact, by the late 1950s, documents translated from Hebrew sometimes used the word “Holocaust” to translate “Shoah.” By the late 1960s, the term was only being used as referring to the Jewish genocide by the Nazis.
The biblical word Shoah (שואה) means “calamity” in Hebrew (see for example Isaiah 10:3 or Proverbs 3:25). It has also been used to refer to “destruction” since the Middle Ages. It has become the standard Hebrew term for the 20th-century Jewish genocide by the Nazis.
In the 1950s, Yad Vashem, the Israel “Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority” was routinely translating this into English as “the Disaster.” At that time, holocaust was often used to mean the conflagration of much of humanity in a nuclear war. Since then, Yad Vashem has changed its practice; the word “Holocaust,” usually now capitalized, has come to refer principally to the genocide of the European Jews.
What term should we use today? Well, probably both terms are appropriate, as long as we refer to the murder and persecution of European Jewry by the Nazi Regime. However, I believe the term Shoah is preferable. Let me explain why.
Although the term Holocaust is fine, it still carries a religious reference that is not appropriate for designating the massacre of the Jews by the Nazis. As I wrote above, “Holocaust” alludes to a burnt offering to God. However, it is very clear that it was not the intention of the Nazis to make a burnt sacrifice to God when they carried out the systematic murder of Jews. Moreover, it is not historically true to depict the Jews as a ritual victim that is totally burnt.
The Hebrew term “Shoah” meaning a large destruction, is more appropriate. Besides, we should notice that the official name for the day (Nissan 27th) in which we remember the victims of the Shoah is Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah, “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.” We remember the great destruction that the Nazi regimen provoked in our people, but we also remember the heroism of all of those who actively resisted the Nazis during the Shoah. This way, we correct the mistaken picture of the Jews going to the slaughterhouse as sheep. Instead, we remember the anti-Jewish hatred and systematic murder of Jews perpetrated by the infamous Nazi regime. And we don’t forget how heroically our parents and grandparents tried to resist and oppose the Nazis.