6,000,000 Jews were sacrificed by fire during World War II. Or alternatively: six million Jews were made as a burnt offering at the altar during the 1940s. Is this how you choose to remember our 6 million fellow Jews who were slaughtered in the most deplorable of circumstances?
This is not how I want to refer to the 1,500,000 Jewish children who died, nor their fathers, mothers, grandparents and other relatives. Yet this is how the world, including many Jews, continue to refer to them.
A holocaust is defined as a “sacrifice by fire, burnt offering”. While The Holocaust is defined as the “Nazi genocide of European Jews in World War II”. Alternatively, holocaust is defined as “a completely (holos) burnt (kaustos) sacrificial offering”, or “a burnt sacrifice offered to a god”. Our greatest tragedy was not referred to as a holocaust until the late 1950s. Its use became more widespread in subsequent decades before becoming known as The Holocaust. Called The Holocaust in capital letters because of its consideration as the greatest of genocides. Previously, it was described in Hebrew by the word Shoah, meaning catastrophe, calamity or disaster.
The word’s origins actually stretch back to the Torah:
“I will bring them to My holy mount, and I will cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) (emphasis added)
These burnt offerings were required sacrifices on the altar in the Jerusalem temple, involving various animals (e.g., bulls, goats, ram, sheep). Burnt offerings were made daily, for shabbat and for proscribed festivals.
We, Jews, should own our narrative. We refer to our loss of 6 million souls in Hebrew as our Shoah because it was our greatest catastrophe. Greater than the Inquisition or any other tragedy we have suffered.
But why refer to our tragedy as The Holocaust? Why use a word that is rooted in such horrible meanings: sacrificed by fire; burnt offering. Just using these words brings up images in my mind of bodies being burned in the furnaces of the Nazi death camps.
Shouldn’t we take ownership of our history? Why not call it the Shoah, or HaShoah, not only in Hebrew and Israel but around the world?
Every year on the 27th of Nisan, Israel commemorates with Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (Yom HaShoah for short). The day was officially established with the passage by the Israeli Knesset (parliament) of the Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day Law on April 8, 1959, and signed into law by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Now the day is translated into English as Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.
The use of the term Holocaust in English globally has also become enshrined in Israeli institutions. Yad Vashem (literally, “a memorial and a name”) in Jerusalem uses the English title The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Therefore, what I’m calling for would have profound changes even to a landmark, internationally acclaimed Israeli institution that it always on the list of sites visited by foreign dignitaries. Although some Jews working on The Holocaust in its immediate aftermath also helped to propagate the term, why should we, in essence, allow the perpetrators to name their crime against us?
I prefer the term HaShoah. Once I learned the true meaning of the word holocaust, I began referring to it as The Shoah. The Ha is a recent addition to my vocabulary for the full Hebrew effect. I do use The Holocaust in certain contexts, mostly when I know people are likely unfamiliar with HaShoah. I will say, “HaShoah, The Holocaust” so people understand what I am talking about.
Changing terminology will not undo the past nor rid the world of Shoah denial. It will allow us to take ownership of our narrative in our fight to ensure our people’s survival. The Holocaust: Never Again.
Let’s start teaching HaShoah.