Why Shoah and not Holocaust?

  •   On memory and justified paranoia, by H.E. Mordechay Lewy

    Listen to the audio presentation at the University of Bologna on January 24

    or download the video​

    Any discourse on the Shoah should for the sake of normative clarity state that the Shoah is the ultimate evil. An event that casts its shadow over any future achievement human progress may produce, it has created a normative crisis of values identified with Western civilization, and – moreover – shaken mankind's belief in the existence of God. 

    A senior official at the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs stated at an internal briefing to newly appointed ambassadors in the early nineties that the memory of the Shoah should be maintained as an intimate private memory, rather than exposing the sufferings and traumata to the public stage. Thus the memory will remain genuine, and void of any banality and instrumentalisation.

    Such remarks, though impressive, ran counter to the publicly shared experience of how to establish and maintain a culture of memory, at the time. Indeed, they seemed to undermine a certain aspect of the Israeli ethos that related the Shoah with the eventual establishment of the Jewish Homeland.

    Before the Shoah, the notion already existed that – more than simply the fulfillment of a dream of returning to the Promised Land – the State of Israel's raison d’être was to establish a safe haven for the Jewish People, which had been dispersed and persecuted in the Diaspora. As aconsequence of the Shoah, an additional notion emerged: that this kind of calamity would never be allowed to happen again. Israel was not founded because of the Shoah, but an earlier founding might have prevented the Shoah.

    As a result, it seems that Israelis are doomed to live under a constant state of justified paranoia. The New York Times made a point in its headline from August 12, 2009 by asking: "Is it too quiet for the Israelis? Apprehension growing of what trouble enemies has up their sleeves". It seems that Israelis do not allow themselves the luxury of conceiving daily life devoid of threats. The other side of this coin is fostering the heroic posture of being Israeli, as opposed to the defenseless slaughter of Jews without a state of their own.

    No doubt, the creation of a collective memory regarding this unique traumatic event is a requisite; for, as time passes by, the survivors' generation dies out and the facts may fade away.

    The early fifties were marked by silence on the Shoah by victims and perpetrators alike – a silence that slowly eroded in the late fifties and during the sixties. The Eichmann trial also led to finding a new articulation of Shoah among the Second Generation of both victims and perpetuators alike; nevertheless, it was the Second Generation that promoted the culture of memory of the Shoah more than any other.

    It is believed that memory is maintained through repetition. Motifs of Shoah effectively became an essential part of post war literature, as well as the visual media of mass communications. However, the obvious success of shaping a culture of memory had adverse affects.

    As decades elapsed since this unique event took place, the problem of relevance emerged, especially when the indescribable events had to be explained to younger generations. As time elapsed, nothing was self-evident, and – perhaps inescapably – the path towards banalization was opened. Moreover, since political correctness prescribed the term Holocaust as the ultimate evil, the temptation to label other events as holocausts became politically rewarding. Holocausts in Biafra, Cambodia, Burundi or in Darfur have marked the headlines of the media, each in turn, and also helped to foster the attention they deserved. The price, however, was a blurring of the uniqueness of the Shoah and its memory. The term Holocaust has become politically inflated – a vehicle to transport political and human grievances of any kind.

    In this essay, the use of this inflated term has been carefully avoided.

    Holocaust is the Greek term in the Bible translation of the "Septuaginta" for the Hebrew term Olah. The Olah is a sacrifice which is entirely burnt to a cinder on the altar. According to the Torah, the use of this religious term was not applied to human beings; but in Jeremiah 19:4-5, the much condemned human sacrifices of the pagan cult of Baal are termed Olot in plural. The Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible (1750 edition), which has tried to remain as faithful as possible to the "Septuaginta", presents the following translation:

    "And they have built the high places of Baalim, to burn their children with fire for a holocaust to Baalim: which I did not command, nor speak of, neither did it once come into my mind."

    The Greek term holocauston itself is not an indicator of whether the term referred to a pagan or a Jewish rite of sacrifice.  Xenophon uses the term holokautei – referring to the Greek pagan rite of sacrifice – in his historical account, "Anabasis", which is much earlier than the Greek translation of the Bible. Xenophon's text was read by virtually all educated classes throughout European history. They would thus frequently associate "sacrifice" and "holocaust" – meaning "a whole burnt offering" –with pagan practices. .  The thirty line entry for "Holocauste" in the Diderot and D'AlembertEncyclopedie (1765) makes no references whatsoever to Jews or Jewish practices, only to sacrifices honoring "infernal gods".  In 1929, Winston Churchill described the Turkish atrocities on Armenians as an "administrative Holocaust." On the other hand, an advertisement for a general clearance sale in New York in 1932 appeared claiming that Oriental and domestic rugs are all included in this "great holocaust of price." The first application of the term holocaust to the Nazi extermination of Jews appeared in November 1942 in an editorial of the Jewish Frontier.

    And yet, even after 1945, the term holocaust never became a synonym wholly devoted to describing the extermination of the Jews; in fact, until the early nineteen-sixties, it was used mainly in the context of nuclear catastrophe. It was the Catholic thinker Francois Mauriac who, introducing Eli Wiesel's book "Night" in 1958, adopted the religious meaning of the term holocaust, used by Jeremiah (19: 4-5) as a grave sin:   

    "For him [meaning Wiesel] ... God is dead ... the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob ... has vanished forevermore ... in the smoke of a human holocaust exacted by Race, the most voracious of all idols."

    Mauriac's interpretation might be conducive to open a discourse towards formulating a binding Catholic commitment, in which Holocaust denial should be considered a sin against God.  It is interesting to note that when the Israeli law establishing Yad Vashem was proclaimed in 1953, its English title was "Remembrance Authority of the Disaster and Heroism." The term Shoah was translated as "disaster" or "catastrophe" – a rather accurate translation of its biblical meaning.  The term holocaust for the extermination of the Jews was used seldom and, even in the sixties, always with the suffix "Jewish" or other qualifiers. In the seventies, the use of holocaust in American publications for expressing the Jewish extermination increased. In 1978, the American TV series, "Holocaust" was screened all over the Western World. And still, the term could never be uniquely identifiable with the Jewish extermination.

    There are many reasons why Shoah became the preferable term to use, if one means the unique event of mechanized and systematic murder in which about one third of the Jewish people was exterminated. Firstly, it presented an alternative to the use of the somewhat blurred meanings of the term holocaust. The uniqueness is better maintained with the term Shoah. Secondly, by using the term Shoah, one is able to show respect and solidarity to the victims and to the manner in which they themselves express their memory in their own Hebrew language. Most likely, we owe this substitution of terms to the filmmaker Claude Lanzman, who titled his widely acclaimed nine-hour documentary "SHOAH" in 1985. This made the Hebrew term internationally known. Its acceptance is shared also by the Holy Father  Benedict XVI, who on the 70th commemoration of Kristallnacht refered to "that sad event" as the beginning of "the systematic and violent persecution of the German Jews, which ended in the Shoah."

    Jews ever since the Second Generation of Shoah survivors have developed a paranoid attitude to avoid forgetfulness. This notion is pacified through repetition or, in other words, through ritualized memory. To this very day, to share its unique victimization with atrocities done to other nations seems to amount to the betrayal of a legacy which was transferred to all future Jewish generations by the survivors of the event itself.

    For, if the possible consequence of memory is banalization, the price of forgetting is so much worse. Hence, over the entrance to Yad Vashem are inscribed the words attributed to the founder of the Chasidic movement, the Ba’al Shem Tov:


                                  “Memory is the source of redemption”