As Jews in Yisrael prepare to commemorate the Shoah, AKA the “Holocaust,” I keep pondering about a very sad trend that we are witnessing. It is the growing disparagement of this most horrific chapter in human history, the one perpetrated against the Jews.
My sentiments were seconded by a person who is an expert on the subject, Amir Ben Dror. Amir conducted a tour and workshop, which I attended along with other teachers, in Yerushalayim recently. I spoke to him last night. This article is the product of that conversation.
Amir and I wish to make one point very clear lest some of the readers here may take offence with our stance. We are not proud that our Jewish people were the target of such heinous crimes as committed by the Nazis and their collaborators. We do, however, believe that the growing number of groups religious, ethnic and other, who adopt the term “Holocaust” in order to describe crimes carried out against them, is unmerited and somewhat disrespectful towards the facts.
Of course Amir and I are aware that millions of others who suffered and died unjustly in the hands of tyrants and butchers carry deep scars as a result of them. Such actions, though, might have been categorized as genocides but they cannot be called a “Holocaust” or “Shoah.”
The term “Holocaust,” according to Lucy S. Dawidowicz (The War Against The Jews), “is the term that Jews themselves have chosen to describe their fate during World War II. ……its etymological substratum interposes a specifically Jewish interpretation. The word derives from the Greek holokauston, the Septuagint’s translation for the Hebrew Olah, literally ‘what is brought up,’ rendered in English as ‘an offering made by fire unto the Lord,’ ‘burnt offering,’ or ‘whole burnt offering.’”
Why then was the word “Holocaust” selected to describe what was done to the Jews? According to Amir, it is precisely because of its unique nature. It was not just “another” genocide in the timeline of history, past present and future.
According to Amir, other genocides, the Armenian, (1915-1918), the Tutsi-Hutu in Rwanda in 1994 or the attempt to bring about genocide in Bosnia (1992-1995) to name a few, all occurred as a result of a conflict, political, religious or other. Not the Holocaust! The Holocaust, he claims, was carried out on the Jews for the mere fact that they were born. In Germany, where the Holocaust started and in Europe where it resumed, the Jews were in conflict with no one. They were never a threat to anyone. Hence there was a need to create a new term to describe such systematic massive killings which stemmed from pure, sheer hatred.
Personally, I am not in favor of the choice of term. The reason is twofold. The first is that I do not see the Jewish victims of the Nazi killing machine as a “sacrifice”, or a “burnt offering.” Sacrifice for what? Burnt offering for what? I am still searching for the answer.
Secondly, as before, I keep wondering why we, Jews, need to choose Hellenistic/heathen terms to describe what is unique to us only. For me, therefore, there is only one word to describe that ghastly episode in my people’s history. It is the Hebrew word “Shoah.”
It captures the pain, the suffering, the stories and the essence of the very distinctive nature of the event.
Finally, Amir and I realize that one cannot discuss the Shoah and not mention those who saved Jews during that gruesome period, The Righteous Gentiles to whose memory a whole section is dedicated at Yad Vashem. We fear that like the term “Holocaust”, the use of “Righteous Gentile,” is being denigrated and overused nowadays. To earn the title “Righteous Gentile,” Amir asserts, “one has to fulfill three conditions. The first, one has to save Jews. The second, one has to risk his or her own life or the lives of their relatives in order to save Jews. Finally,” he adds, “One has to act against one’s own interests.”
We are grateful to all of them and will continue to express a hope that no one will ever again have to be put to the task.