Research Forum, Seminars

Dr. Dan Michman | Holocaust or Shoah?

Dr. Dan Michman, Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, came to share with Cohort V earlier this month. His seminar included three topics. This blog is about the second topic: “Shoah, Holocaust and More: The Emergence and Distribution of Terms Designating the Holocaust.”

Dr. Michman says, “there is an importance to names, because a name is a definition.” Some names are invented like “computer.” This name had to be designated with the invention of the computer. Other times, an old word is used to describe a new phenomenon, but the semantics are different. This is the case with the Nazi and collaborator persecution of the Jews within the period of time that includes the murder of six million Jews during World War II.


The first term Dr. Michman discussed is Shoah (Show-AH). This is a Hebrew word for destruction or ruin, see in Isaiah 10:3, and Psalms 35:8. The more common translation is destruction. Ben-Zion Dinaburg’s used the term in a speech, “Fate and Destiny in our Generation,” June 1945. Other documents use the term Shoah as early as 1933. Michman says, “The term became so loaded it became sanctified.” Now the only proper use of the word Shoah is in relation to the specific murder of about six million Jews by Nazis and their collaborators. It used to be that one could use the term Shoah for an economic depression, in modern Hebrew they now use other words.

Some survivors use the term “catastrophe.” When Phillip Friedman was liberated his first order of business was documenting the Jewish Catastrophe. One of his students, Hilburg, uses the term Jewish Catastrophe in a letter from 1955. The popular name in modern Russian is something close to Catastropha. While the common modern French reference is, “Shoah.”

Another popular name was “Hours/Days/Years of Wrath.” In the Warsaw cemetery a memorial stone says: “In commemoration of martyrs, to those murdered by the Nazis in the Years of Wrath, 1939-1945.” This also gives a time period of the Years of Wrath, as 1939-1945. In September of 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, some say this is this the start of the Years of Wrath. Others would argue that they Years of Wrath started in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Very Orthodox circles still use this term, “The Years of Wrath,” which has religious significance in the Torah.


Other terms include: Cataclysm, Extinction, The German Extermination of the Jews, Untergang (German: Downfall), Hurban (Chour-bahn | Hebrew: Destruction, Talmudic term).

Finally, we arrive at the term Holocaust. The origin of the word Holocaust is Greek. In Greek, Holokauston means an entirely burnt sacrifice, which is used in the Greek translation of the Bible. Before the Holocaust, the word was used for a wide variety of significant disasters. In the 1950’s Yad Vashem started using the term, but the use of “Holocaust” was not singular, still the word was used to describe other atrocities such as the America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, WI, which is about slavery in America. The term was popularized as the term we use today, in singular reference to the Holocaust, by the 1978 TV series called “Holocaust.” Since then it has been cemented as the only term to describe the Holocaust in English. The term has been broadening in recent years to include other people groups killed by the Nazis: Roma, the Mentally Handicapped, Poles, and more other groups, in total approximately 12 million people murdered.

In 1948, the UN used the word, Genocide to describe the event. For several decades afterward genocide was used exclusively in relation to the specific persecution of the Jews. Unfortunately, genocide now applies to many other global events. Despite human effort to say “Never Again,” genocide continues.


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