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History And Meaning Of The Word ‘Holocaust': Are We Still Comfortable With This Term?

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People visit the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on Jan. 27, 2011, during the International Holocaust Day which remembers the 6 million Jewish victims who perished under the Nazi regime. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)
People visit the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on Jan. 27, 2011, during the International Holocaust Day which remembers the 6 million Jewish victims who perished under the Nazi regime. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

What's in a name?

When it comes to remembering the millions of victims of the Nazi quest to "purify" Germany during World War II, names are often all that remain.

So why do we call the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews and millions of others "The Holocaust"?

This usage came about gradually. The lower-case "holocaust" has described the violent deaths of large groups of people probably since the 18th century, according the Oxford English Dictionary. Before World War II, the word was used by Winston Churchill and others to refer to the genocide of Armenians during World War I. In 1933, "holocaust" was first associated with the Nazis after a major book burning. And after Word War II, the "Final Solution" was often called a holocaust. By the 1960s, according to the Jewish Magazine, it became common to refer to the Nazi genocide of Jews as "The Holocaust." The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes three events that led to this shift: the English translation of Israel's Declaration of Independence in 1948, which mentions the "Nazi holocaust"; the translated publications of Yad Vashem, the "world center for Holocaust research, education, documentation and commemoration" in Jerusalem; and English newspaper coverage of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

But what does "holocaust" mean?

“The word is not clearly defined,” said Marshall J. Breger, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America and Vice Chairman of the Jewish Policy Center, who has organized educational interfaith trips to Auschwitz. Does it refer only to the Jewish victims of the Nazis? Are other victims of the Nazis included? What about the Ukrainians starved by Stalin? Or the Armenians murdered by the Ottomans? Does the Holocaust not include them, too? In other words, who owns the word and the memory it contains?

“The only problem I have with the word," Breger said, "is that it’s a cause for fighting, not a cause for clarifying.”

"Holocaust" comes from the the Greek word holokauston, itself a translation of the Hebrew olah, meaning "completely burnt offering to God," implying that Jews and other "undesirables" murdered during World War II were a sacrifice to God.

While Shoah, the Hebrew word for "catastrophe," is the preferred name -- Yad Vashem now advocates using Shoah to refer to the near destruction of European Jewry and the word is used throughout Israel -- Jews have not entirely avoided the sacrificial moniker. Itzik Gottesman, Associate Editor of Forverts, the Yiddish version of the Jewish Daily Forward, said in an e-mail that the Yiddish word for the Holocaust is Khurbn, coming from a Hebrew word that refers to the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. This was the word used by survivors of the Nazi project, who often referred to their ordeal as der letster khurbn, the "most recent destruction." The Nazi genocide, in this context, is but the latest in a string of epic catastrophes.

There was a definite religious connotation for survivors, said Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at the American Jewish University. As they knew, Jewish sages taught that the underlying spiritual reason for this destruction was the baseless hatred of one Jew for another. In this context, the word "holocaust" implies some measure of guilt.

At this point, the word is too entrenched in popular vocabulary to change, he said. Now, "Holocaust" is used to refer generally to Nazi atrocities during World War II. In 2006, the United Nations instituted an International Day of Commemoration, declaring, "the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one-third of the Jewish people along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice."

Still, the magnitude and uniqueness of this catastrophic event in Jewish history transcends the meaning of words and defies understanding. Yes, many of Nazi's victims were consumed wholly by flame. But was this some sort of divine retribution for the sins of a nation?

"I wouldn't want to know the God who sacrificed these people," Berenbaum said.

The International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, observed on Friday (Jan. 27), the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, is dedicated this year to remembering the children who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

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Filed by Josh Fleet