Why do We Call the Destruction of European Jewry “the Holocaust?”
Abstract: This article was written in order to address the ongoing debate on the terminology for the Nazi WWII atrocities by utilizing the possibilities of electronic archives and databases of historical books and press. I claim that if we want to contemplate (or even criticize) the appropriateness of the word “Holocaust” to describe the Nazi crimes, we have to first understand the historical context, in which this word was originally used. The main point about the etymology of “Holocaust”, as presented in this article, is that the Greek word “holokauston” was taken over to Latin and English with early Biblical translations, but as time went on and the old Catholic translations of the Bible were replaced by the King James Version, which dropped using the word “holocaust” for description of burnt offerings, the meaning of “holocaust” slowly broadened. In the 19th century, the meaning of “Holocaust” was understood not only as a “burnt sacrifice” but more often as “wholly burnt down”, or “wholly destroyed” without any religious connotations. In these meanings, the word “holocaust” was understood literally and it was commonly used to describe the horrors of war, forest fires, massacres and other large catastrophes. I document this very closely by particular quotations from the historical English-language newspapers. I claim that when the English-language media (including the Palestine Post in the Yishuv) used the word “holocaust” at the end of 1942 to describe the Nazi atrocities, they acted fully according to the discourse of their time. Moreover, the word “genocide” did not even exist at that time (it was coined a year later by Raphael Lemkin), so there was no other appropriate term. In the second part of the article, I use the Google Ngram Viewer and other tools to reflect on the birth of contemporary practice of writing the word “Holocaust” with a capital letter. The article also briefly explains the process by which the Hebrew word “Shoah” was brought into Western languages in the mid-1980s. I claim that to a great extent it was popularized by Claude Lanzmann?s famous documentary “Shoah”. Only since then can we see the discussions over whether it is better to write “Holocaust” or “Shoah”. In the end, I claim that to some extent the original religious, biblical meaning of the word “Holocaust”, long forgotten for most of the 20th century, is now being “rediscovered” in these polemics.
Keywords: Holocaust; Shoah; etymology; Holocaust memory; burnt offering; Elie Wiesel; discourse; calque
Mgr. Zbyněk Tarant, Ph.D., je odborným asistentem na Katedře blízkovýchodních studií Filozofické fakulty Západočeské univerzity v Plzni. Vedle témat spojených s židovskou kolektivní pamětí holocaustu se zabývá výzkumem a reflexí soudobého českého antisemitismu a politického extremismu ( firstname.lastname@example.org).