First, by way of disclaimer:

This node was written for those, like myself, are English-speakers who have no working knowledge of Hebrew, Yiddish, or Greek. Consequently, every non-English word appears in its transliterated form.

It is important to note that these words are used interchangeably by most people. Though they imply different outlooks, one should not assume that simply because a speaker uses the word holocaust to refer to the Nazi annhilation of millions of human beings, that speaker intends everything using the word holocaust implies, or necessarily prefers it over the word shoah. Take, for example, the titling of this node: I've used holocaust here because that is the term that most of my audience is familiar with. If this node were titled "Names for the Third Khurban," it's possible that fewer members of this audience would be familiar with the term. I do not intend to privilege one name over another. Historians and survivors of these events use all three of the following terms, often from one paragraph to the next, often to signify the same thing.

That said, the following three terms all have different implications, which may come into play when talking about the events surrounding the Second World War. When they refer to those events, these words take on an inital capital letter. Let's take each in turn.

  1. Holocaust (From the Greek: holo, whole + kaustos, burnt)

    The word holocaust has a long history in English. It comes to us from the Greek through the Old French holocauste. From the time of Middle English on, it meant "burnt offering" -- specifically, an offering in which the sacrifice is totally consumed by fire. It's interesting to note that the Greek word itself (holokauston, from the neuter holokaustos, literally meaning "that which is completely burnt") may have a connection to the Hebrew ola, which literally means "that which goes up" (like smoke from an offering). The relationship between the Hebrew ola and Greek holokauston (sometimes transliterated as olokauston) is fuzzy -- the OED is at odds with both The American Heritage Dictionary and many Holocaust scholars here.

    The modern use of holocaust to refer to systematic genocide of Jews, Gypsies, and others deemed "undesirable" by the Third Reich dates back to 1942, when it was applied by Christian theologians. The word did not gain wide acceptance until the 1950s, and nowadays sees its widest use among non-Jews.

    The notion of a burnt offering, which holocaust so clearly contains, is a problematic one. For starters, an offering needs an object, some one or thing that the offering is to. This makes holocaust and uncomfortably freighted world, not because it implies the existance of god, but because it implies that those millions of people slaughtered by the Einsatzgruppen, starved in the ghettos of Europe, or burnt in the death camp crematoria were a sacrifice to that god.

  2. Shoah (Hebrew: annihilation, calamity)

    Variants: Shoa (Yiddish).

    The word shoah occurs in Tenach, or Hebrew Bible, in three places. The following passages are in translation, so the word itself does not appear. Still, you get the flavor. Note that the Everything2 database contains the King James Bible rather than Hebrew scripture, so the hardlinks may be a bit misleading:

    Eyov (Job) 30:3:

      They are gaunt with want and famine; they gnaw the dry ground, in the gloom of wasteness and desolation.

    Tehilim (Psalms) 35:8:

      Let destruction come upon him unawares; and let his net that he hath hid catch himself; with destruction let him fall therein.

    Yisheyah (Isaiah) 47:11:

      Yet shall evil came upon thee; thou shalt not know how to charm it away; and calamity shall fall upon thee; thou shalt not be able to put it away; and ruin shall come upon thee suddenly, before thou knowest.

    In the scriptures, shoah indicates a desolation of cosmic proportions, which transcends space and time. This makes it the most tempting of all three names, but also the most problematic for anyone trying to understand Shoah in a historical context. If, as the word implies, Shoah transcends space and time, a priori it is impossible to contextualize or understand. Indeed, one's understanding of Shoah would be completely irrelevant, since Shoah itself is so vast.

    Those looking for support for the assertion that Shoah was an event transcending space and time, and, consequently, an event that renders human understanding irrelevant can look to the writings of Elie Wiesel.

  3. Khurban (Hebrew: literally "destruction")

    Variants: Khurbn (Yiddish), The Third Khurb[a]n.

    Khurban stands in contrast to shoah. It also refers to terrible destruction, but places such events firmly within a historical framework. Specifically, khurban is used to refer to three events:

    Khurban, then, refers to tremendously destructive events, but implies that they can be situated in history and that human understanding is a relevant endeavor. Unlike shoah, it does not imply a singular event without parallel. Khurban avoids both the theological problems posed by holocaust and the historical difficulties raised by shoah, but does not offer the events of The Third Khurban an absolute uniqueness or singularity. Some feel that, as a consequence, it fails to convey the essence of the events it describes.

    At least in the English-speaking world, this is the rarest of the three terms.

Again, this write-up is not intended to argue for any one word over the others, nor is it an argument for one point of view on the Holocaust/Shoah/Third Khurban. It is merely intended to outline the origin of three names, and the implications contained therein.


The American Heritage Dictionary:
The Oxford English Dictionary
The Jewish Publication Society Bible:
Lectures by Elliot Ginsburg and Zohar Raviv, University of Michigan

Corrections to my Hebrew, Yiddish, Greek, and understanding of Jewish scripture are very welcome. Thanks.

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