Elie Weisel survived the Shoah. More than surviving, he insisted that we talk about it. He insisted that our talk not be an exercise in self-pity, but that we cultivate a willingness to put ourselves on the line for any group of people denied the dignity of their own humanity. He did so himself, time and again.
Now he is gone, but his words remain.
If you have not yet had a chance to read one of Mr. Weisel’s books, start with Night. It is one of the world’s great books.
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)
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.”
Whenever Linda or I told anyone we were going to Amsterdam, the first question was usually, “Are you going to get stoned?” (No.) The second question was, “Are you going to the Anne Frank House?”
The Anne Frank Huis (its Dutch name) is the third largest tourist attraction in the city, after the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. It is the building where eight Jews hid from the Nazis for two years during WWII, only to be ratted out by an unknown person near the end of the war. Only one of the eight survived, Otto Frank. After the Nazi raid on the house, a friend found a collection of books and papers that she recognized to be the diary of Anne Frank, Otto’s teenaged daughter. The Diary of a Young Girl became a bestseller, a play, and has been made into a movie as well.
To get a sense of the popularity of this museum, look at the photo above. This is the line of people waiting to buy a ticket early on a weekday morning. We’d been told it was best to get tickets online before we even left home, but there were already no tickets available for the dates when we’d be there. At our hotel, we were assured that the best thing to do was get over there and wait in line before the doors opened.
I had visited the “Secret Annexe” in the summer of 1973, and I knew that it was not accessible for a person on wheels. A quick check of the website told me that that was still the case. So that day we split up: Linda went to visit the Anne Frank House and I had other adventures. She arrived at 8 a.m. to find the line in the photograph above. I don’t know how long those people had been waiting, but it was a long line even so early.
Linda tells me that the museum and the hiding place itself were very educational and very moving. Certainly the hiding place had made a huge impression on me when I visited there at age 18. Anne’s diary comes to life there, when the reader can feel how cramped the rooms are, and how careful one must be to be utterly quiet when anyone else in on the premises. As an American kid used to moving about at will, I remember marveling that the eight people hiding there for over two years managed to hang onto their sanity. It is unbearably sad to know that they went to the camps, after all they’d been through, so near to the liberation of Holland.
If you wish to get a sense of the Anne Frank House, the museum website has an excellent online exhibit complete with a virtual tour. I know that Linda’s glad she went; I’m glad I saw it when I could climb all those stairs.
Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea. –If This Is A Man / The Truce
I’m tempted to do no more than link to an article, because it’s almost a case of res ipsa loquitur–the thing speaking for itself. But I think it’s important to talk about this issue a little more: making your own Haggadah.
The prompt for this post? This article at Tablet Magazine. (The link will open in a new window.)
Take a close look at that Haggadah. What do you see in its language?
Yom HaShoah (Yohm Hah-show-AH or Yohm Hah-SHOW-ah) is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was established in Israel as Yom HaZikaron LaShoah v’LaGevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.
Yom = Day Zikaron = Remembrance Shoah = Catastrophe (refers now to the atrocities against the Jewish People in WWII.) Gevurah = Heroism.
It began in 1953 as Israel’s day for remembrance of the 6,000,000 Jewish men, women and children who were murdered in the 1940’s in Europe, established by Israeli law as a Memorial Day. Increasingly it has been adopted as a day for remembrance by Jews the U.S. as well. It is a memorial for our dead and for the heroes among them.
The originators proposed the date for the 14th of Nisan, which was the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, to underline the fact that there was also Gevurah (heroism) involved, to counter the myth that Jews were passive victims. However, that is also the day immediately before Passover, so that was impractical. Instead, it was set for the 27th of Nisan, except when that day falls immediately adjacent to Shabbat, in which case it is moved by one day, forward or back as appropriate.
Like all Jewish days, it begins at sundown and ends at sundown. In Israel, it is marked with solemn assemblies and flags at half mast. TV and radio stations play classical music and documentaries. At noon, everything stops in the country: people even stop their cars on the street, and get out of them, to stand for a moment of silence.
In the United States, Yom HaShoah is marked with community memorial ceremonies and educational programs. If survivors of the Holocaust are available as speakers, they tell their stories. With the passage of time, that is more and more rare.
Not all Jews observe 27 Nisan as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some Orthodox and Hasidic groups include Holocaust remembrance in the Tisha B’Av memorial of the disasters to the Jewish People.
Upcoming Dates of Observance in the Gregorian calendar:
“When I told the rabbi I was half-Jewish, he was not very friendly.”
The young man who said that to me had recently discovered that his father was a Holocaust survivor. His dad had felt it was not safe to be a Jew, so after the war he hid his Jewish identity, and only revealed it on his deathbed. Joe (not his real name) had been raised without religion, had become a Christian in college, and now was trying to deal with this new information about his family. He was also still grieving for his father, and exploring Judaism was one way to feel connected to his dad. He went to a synagogue (I do not know what synagogue, or which movement it was) and when he approached the rabbi after services and introduced himself with, “I’m half Jewish” the rabbi said, “That’s not possible.”
Joe was baffled and hurt. “What did I do?” he said.
Sometimes I hear people say, “I’m half-Jewish” or “I’m one-quarter Jewish.” That reflects their self understanding. What they need to know, though, is that in the rabbinic Jewish universe, there are categories labeled “Jewish” and “not-Jewish,” but that there is no “part Jewish.” An analogy: it’s like sitting in a poker game and suddenly yelling “GIN!” You know that the hand you hold looks like “gin” (and it does!) but that’s not a hand in the game of poker. “Part Jewish” may be accurate genealogy but Judaism isn’t genealogy.
Why is this? Go back in time, not even very far. Jews were despised by Christians, and not very well-thought-of by most Muslims. Being “half-Jewish” meant having the worst of both worlds: membership in a despised group, and outsider status within that group. Jews decided, sometime about two thousand years ago, to define any person who had a Jewish mother as a Jew, no matter who the father was. That way a child would not be labeled “half-Gentile” and suffer for it. Children with Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers would not be living in the Jewish community. They would be in the Gentile community with their mothers, so they were beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world, hence, not Jewish.
So if you have described yourself to someone as “half-Jewish” or “part Jewish” and gotten a strange reaction or a lecture about Jewish law, that’s what was going on. If you want to bypass the semantics, try saying that you have a “Jewish heritage.” That may make for an easier conversation.
And Joe? We talked at length. It turned out that he was a devout Christian. Ultimately he decided to say he was a believing Christian with a Jewish heritage. I was able to put him in touch with a program for children of Holocaust survivors, because he certainly qualified as a member there.
To my Jewish readers: we need to be careful in speaking to people who identify as part-Jewish, remembering that unkindness is never OK. And if you are a person who has Jews in the family tree, I hope that you will find friendly people with whom to explore as much as you wish.
We are in a time of changes for the Jewish community in the United States. I have a feeling that while traditional categories are not going to change, the number of people who identify as “part Jewish” will grow. It’s going to be an interesting millennium.