Why Call It The Shoah?

Image: Barbed wire fence at Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. Photo by Barak Broitman via pixabay.com. Public domain.

The murder of six million Jews and many others (Roma, homosexuals, disabled persons, and others) in the 1930’s and 40’s in Europe are often referred to in English as “the Holocaust.” Some Jews, myself included, prefer the Hebrew word “Shoah.” Here’s why:

The word “holocaust” is the Anglicization of a Greek word, ολοκαύτωμα [complete combustion.] It appears in some English Bibles (for instance, the Douai – Rheims Catholic translation) as the translation for עֹלָה [oh-LAH, meaning offering that will be completely burnt.] An example:

Isaac said to his father: My father. And he answered: What wilt thou, son? Behold, saith he, fire and wood: where is the victim for the holocaust? – Genesis 22:7, Douay-Rheims translation)

Here is the same verse, in the Jewish Publication Society translation:

Isaac then said to Abraham his father, “Father!” He answered: “Here I am, my son.” And Isaac said, “Here is the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?” – Genesis 22:7, JPS translation

Later, the word “holocaust” was adopted by English writers to mean “complete destruction by fire.” It first appeared in reference to the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis in a British newspaper, the News Chronicle of December 5, 1942. From there the use spread until today, when that has become the primary definition of the word.

So why use “Shoah” instead?

“Holocaust” entered the English language as a term for a sacrifice, specifically for the sacrifices asked of the Jews by God. For anyone who grew up using a Douai-Rheims Bible, that still is a primary meaning of the word. It therefore implies a particular understanding of the events in Europe: that the murder of the Jews was a sacrifice acceptable to God. For many of us, this is a blasphemous implication.

That’s why I always use “Shoah” unless I am talking or writing to someone who is likely not to know the word. Even though “Holocaust” is generally in use as a term for the Nazi “Final Solution,” it still has the power to suggest that there was something acceptable to God in those events.

My own understanding of the Shoah is that it was the culmination of centuries of antisemitism in Europe, purely the actions and intentions of human beings, not anything wanted by the Holy One. That’s why I and many others prefer the term “Shoah.”

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

11 thoughts on “Why Call It The Shoah?”

  1. Rabbi Adar — Thank you for this post. I had not known the origin of the term Holocaust or that some found it objectionable, and I now can see why.
    I had always assumed the Hebrew word “shoah” meant “holocaust.” But your article prompted me to pull out my trusty old (1970’s well-worn) Ben-Yehuda dictionary, where I learned “shoah” means “calamity, devastation, ruin.”
    And, to throw in an extra bit that you may not know– Rabbi Arthur Green in his 2012 Hasidic Spirituality for a New Era: The Religious Writings of Hillel Zeitlin, notes that in a 1936 book written by Zeitlin (who lived in Warsaw and died marching to Treblinka), Zeitlin used “the word sho’ah for the current and coming situation of the Jewish people, probably the first to do so.”

    1. Jen, I shall add that information to this post as soon as I have time to do so! Thank you so very much for adding to my learning!

        1. My pleasure: “Hinei mah tov uma nayim, shevet achim gam yachad!” – How good it is for brothers and sisters to gather together!

  2. First, Rabbi Adar, I agree completely with your argument & use of “Shoah”.

    Second, you might appreciate Richard Brody’s review of the film, “Shoah”, if you aren’t familiar with it already, especially as Brody finds that the use of “shoah” is de facto in Europe now:

    Third, Wikipedia’s footnoted bio & cause of death of Zeitlin:

    “When the Nazis began liquidating Polish Jewry in 1942, Zeitlin was 71 years old. He was killed by Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto while holding a book of the Zohar and wrapped in a prayer shawl and phylacteries.”

    Fourth, the Wikipedia article on the first use of the term “shoah” includes:
    “The biblical term shoah (שואה), meaning “destruction”, became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of the European Jews, first used in a pamphlet in 1940, Sho’at Yehudei Polin (“Shoah of Polish Jews”), published by the United Aid Committee for the Jews in Poland.”

    Finally, the common interchangeability of the now-English term, Holocaust, & the relatively unfamiliar Hebrew term, Shoah, will be hard to defeat.

    For instance, Wikipedia redirects from “Shoah” to “Holocaust”. And Google’s first definition of “Shoah” reads:
    /ˈSHōə,SHōˈä/ noun
    another term for the Holocaust (see holocaust (sense 1)).”

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