Rabbi Weill's Commentary

Holocaust? Shoah? What’s in a name?


We recently commemorated Yom ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in our chapel. We were moved by the story congregant Gunther Marx bravely shared about his late, first wife, Diane, and her experiences during that tragic time.


Two words refer to the decimation of European Jewry in the mid-twentieth century. Years ago in America we only used the word “Holocaust.” Today the Hebrew word “Shoah” has become prominent as well. Both words present problems.


The word “holocaust” originally referred to a ritual sacrifice -- a whole (holo) burning (caust). The word then came to be associated with genocides long before the Nazi genocide against the Jews of Europe. For years after World War II, writers referred to the Nazi genocide as “a holocaust,” and not as a proper noun – the Holocaust – which referred specifically to that one particular period in Jewish and human history. In the 1970s, the word finally took root as a proper noun – the Holocaust – referring exclusively to the Nazi genocide against the Jews.


I am ambivalent about the name, the Holocaust, to refer to the campaign to exterminate the Jews, for, etymologically, it evokes ritual sacrifice, and sacrifices are made with the hope of receiving something in return. Were six million Jews killed in order to receive something in return? Was the creation of the state of Israel a divine response to the death of so many innocents, including more than one million children? Surely not.


The word “shoah” is a biblical word usually translated as “devastation” or “ruin.” But while “shoah” does not imply a sacrifice, the Bible often uses it to refer to divine retribution against the sinful ancient Israelites. Applying this notion of an angry, punishing G-d to the murder of the six million is also inappropriate, even deeply offensive. It is a classic case of blaming the victim.


Both words -- Holocaust and Shoah -- carry an implication that there was a reason and purpose for the murder of millions. They are powerful words, but troubling. On the other hand, perhaps this is appropriate. For how can we really ever expect to find the right word for such evil? The devastation wrought upon our people was unimaginable and indescribable. Such a titanic human tragedy should and must resist any single or simple definition. Words elude us, as does comprehension.


Let us finally note the fuller Hebrew name of Holocaust Remembrance Day: Yom ha’Shoah v’ha’Gevura, Day [of Remembrance] of the Holocaust and Heroism. The Shoah (the word I prefer) presents us with calamity, but also awe-inspiring heroism and bravery. Moreover, one week after Yom ha’Shoah we honor those who heroically died in defense of Israel on Yom ha’Zikaron – the Day of Remembrance – followed immediately by Yom ha’Atzmaut – Independence Day.


It was a tragedy of unspeakable dimensions. But we are Jews. In our tragedies, we will triumph. In our darkness, we shed light. In our despair, we hope. From evil, goodness. From weakness, strength.


Rabbi Jeffrey Weill