New word to replace Holocaust wins favor
Palm Beach Post (Florida)
Sunday, April 18, 2004
By Charles Passy ([email protected]), Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
When George Lucius Salton tells of his experience as a survivor of the Nazi
concentration camps, there’s no confusion about the details. The fear of
being executed at any moment. The joy of being liberated. The making of a
new life in America.
And so Salton, a retired electrical engineer who lives in Palm Beach
Gardens, says there should be no confusion about how to refer to this
seminal event in modern Jewish history, the systematic murder of an
estimated 6 million Jews by a ruthless German regime.
“‘Holocaust’ is understood as the term referring to the destruction of the
Jews,” he says.
Or is it?
In recent years, many Jewish and non-Jewish leaders in the religious,
academic and cultural communities have begun embracing “Shoah,” a Hebrew
word for “destruction,” as the term for the Nazi-led genocide of 1933-1945.
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg chose it as the name for his foundation that
documents the stories of survivors. The Vatican used it in its report, We
Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, recounting the Roman Catholic Church’s
response to the mass slaughter.
And locally, Rabbi David Goldstein, who heads Temple Beth David in Palm
Beach Gardens, goes so far as to remove most references to “Holocaust” in
“We’re trying to substitute ‘Shoah’ across the board,” he says.
The result is nothing short of a linguistic quagmire, particularly as Jews
throughout the world gather today, designated on the Jewish calendar as Yom
Hashoah, or Day of the Destruction, to remember the tragedy of the World War
But what is it they’re remembering — the Holocaust or the Shoah?
The knock against “Holocaust” is twofold. Many object to the word, derived
from ancient Greek, because it translates as “burnt offering” — in the
sacrificial religious sense, according to select scholars. And that leads to
a horrific connotation when speaking of the atrocities committed against the
Jews, who were often driven to the gas chambers, then cremated. How could
their fiery end be considered a sacrifice?
“If it’s a burnt offering to God, then I don’t want to know the God at the
other end,” says Michael Berenbaum, a leading scholar based at the
University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
But the linguistic issues go deeper. As “Holocaust” seeps into the
vernacular, the term has become attached not only to other genocides and
mass slaughters — in Armenia, Cambodia and elsewhere — but also to a range
of other events and movements. In an article for a Jewish publication, Diana
Cole cited such examples as a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’
“Holocaust on Your Plate” exhibit and SiliconeHolocaust.org, a Web site for
“breast implant victims.”
Maybe better, but realistic?
In the process, many argue, all sense of meaning is lost.
“It has been trivialized so much,” says Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, the
Jewish author and concentration-camp survivor who popularized the term
‘Holocaust’ in the early ’60s through his writings.
By contrast, “Shoah” is a word without negative connotations. And its Hebrew
connection gives it a special significance, some contend.
“The way in which you can keep the particularity of the Shoah as a Jewish
event is to use a Jewish word,” says Zev Garber, a Jewish scholar based at
Los Angeles Valley College who co-wrote a paper, Why Do We Call the
Holocaust ‘the Holocaust,’ which helped spark the pro-“Shoah” movement.
Garber envisions a day when “Shoah” will be as universal as “Holocaust” is
today. “Give it a quarter of a century,” he says.
To which others say: Be realistic.
“With all due respect, it’s not going to happen,” says Berenbaum, who helped
found the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
It’s not that Berenbaum and others don’t recognize the problems with
“Holocaust.” It’s that it’s simply too late to alter the linguistic
landscape, they say.
Consider all the “Holocaust” institutions and groups already in existence,
including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and countless state and
regional Holocaust museums. Even Alan Berger, a leading Jewish scholar at
Florida Atlantic University who says he’s troubled by the term, occupies a
chair in — what else? — “Holocaust studies.”
In other words, there may be too many nameplates to change.
Imperfect but understood
“‘Holocaust’ has been the accepted word,” says Rabbi Alan Sherman, community
chaplain with the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. “It’s not perfect,
but when it’s used everyone knows what it refers to, which is the important
That’s a point echoed by survivor Salton, who wrote a book, The 23rd Psalm,
about his experience in the concentration camps. “If somebody opened a
‘Shoah’ museum, it wouldn’t be understood,” he says.
And Rositta Kenigsberg, who heads the North Miami Beach-based Holocaust
Documentation and Education Center and is leading the effort to establish a
South Florida Holocaust museum, goes one step further: If the Jewish
community gets too caught up in this linguistic fracas, they risk losing
sight of the real issue — the memory and lessons of the event itself.
“I think we’re making more of this than there should be,” she says.
But as far as Rabbi Goldstein is concerned, “when you continue to make a
mistake, you compound the problem from that mistake.”
“To continue using the word ‘Holocaust,’ we let stand those who want to see
it as a punishment for the Jews,” Goldstein says. “When we take away the
burnt offering concept, we’re left with man’s inhumanity to man.”
Still, others say the “burnt offering” religious concept isn’t necessarily
the correct interpretation. True, “holocaust” appears in the Greek
translation of the Old Testament (or, as some now prefer to call it, the
Hebrew scriptures). But “holocaust” was also employed before that to denote
pagan sacrifices, removing it from the Judeo-Christian framework, researcher
Jon Petrie has noted.
And in the 20th century, “holocaust” took on variety of meanings before it
became forever wedded to the crimes of the Nazi era. Often, it simply
signified a great fire. In his writings, Petrie goes so far as to quote a
1940 advertisement in the pre-state of Israel Palestine Post for a show by
one Mandrake the Magician, promising “a flaming holocaust of thrills.”
Right word may not exist
In the early years of the Cold War, “holocaust” was far more likely to be
used in conjunction with the threat of nuclear disaster. Petrie has argued
that it was such usage that prompted Jewish writers, including Wiesel, to
co-opt the term when referring to Hitler’s dreaded “Final Solution.”
“American Jewish writers probably abandoned such words as ‘disaster,’
‘catastrophe’ and ‘massacre’ in favor of ‘holocaust’ in the 1960s because
‘holocaust,’ with its evocation of the then actively feared nuclear mass
death, effectively conveyed something of the horror of the Jewish experience
during World War II.”
For his part, Wiesel says he used the word for its poetic effect. And while
he says he was fully aware of the connection with religious sacrifice, he
thought of it more in metaphysical terms. “This might have been a huge
cosmic burnt offering,” he says.
In any case, by the ’70s, “Holocaust” fully entered into the American
lexicon, especially after a TV miniseries of the same name drew 120 million
viewers. In the same year, President Jimmy Carter established a Commission
on the Holocaust, which led to the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial
In the end, Wiesel says, we may have to accept that when talking about death
on such a massive scale, words ultimately fail us. He recognizes the issues
surrounding “Holocaust,” but he says that “Shoah” isn’t a perfect fit,
either, noting the word was in use before the death camps. (It was often
employed in reference to the feared demise of Europe’s Jewish population.)
So how does Wiesel speak of the unspeakable? He thinks back to the most
infamous of the camps.
“I use the word, ‘Auschwitz,’ ” Wiesel says. “It is something singular