I was going to write about this yesterday, the 60th anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation, but thought better of it because of others' possible sensitivities. But OpenDemocracy yesterday published a piece (Words we live by: choice versus complicity, by Zsuzsanna Ardó) that echoed some of my own thoughts on why the word Holocaust is the wrong one. This is roughly my take on it.
A holocaust was first and foremost (until the Holocaust industry appropriated it) a religious term. Etymologically, it was a sacrificial offering to God (or to a god) burnt whole upon an altar-fire.
Holocaust comes from Greek holokauston (“that which is completely burnt”), which was a translation of Hebrew ‘olâ (literally “that which goes up,” that is, in smoke). In this sense of “burnt sacrifice,” holocaust is still used in some versions of the Bible.
In other words, 'holocaust' entered our language-stream when the (Greek) Septuagint translators chose 'holocaust' to stand for the 'ola'. The Catholic Encyclopedia adds details:
As employed in the Vulgate, ['holocaust'] corresponds to two Hebrew terms: (1) to holah, literally: "that which goes up", either to the altar to be sacrificed, or to heaven in the sacrificial flame; (2) Kalil, literally: "entire", "perfect", which, as a sacrificial term, is usually a descriptive synonym of holah, and denotes an offering consumed wholly on the altar.
It goes on to say: "At whatever time and by whomsoever offered, holocausts were naturally regarded as the highest, because the most complete, outward expression of man's reverence to God."
There are five forms of sacrifice described in Leviticus, and the 'burnt sacrifice', the Holocaust, was 'the most important of all the sacrifices offered to God, because it expressed 'dedication.'" Which is why, I guess, God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering.
Were the Nazi genocides of the disabled, the Jews, the Gypsies, et al., sacrificial offerings made to God? Many survivors seem to say the opposite - that God wasn't apparent anywhere in the death camps. If the 11 million (or however many) victims of the genocidal policies of the Nazis were a sacrifice to God, who did the sacrificing? And did the victims die by fire? No, the majority were were killed by gas and bullets.
So how come the Nazi genocides are nevertheless called by a name meaning 'the Burnt Offering', 'the Fire Sacrifice', when neither God, fire nor sacrifice adequately describe or explain what happened? Is it because the word 'Holocaust' has mostly Jewish connotations and therefore helps commemorate the 6 million Jews who were killed?
But should the memory of the Nazi genocides be linked by name only to the Jewish victims? The extermination of the impure began not with the Jews but with the disabled. And once the mentally and physically handicapped had been disposed of, the logic was to extend it to other perceived untermenschen - to the Jews and the Roma especially. The propelling philosophy of the exterminations was eugenics, not anti-semitism. (It's an historical irony that the Jews and Roma, for whom purity laws are so important, were both believed to be 'impure' by the Nazis.)
Hebraic speakers tend not to use 'hola/holocaust but instead refer to the Shoah. The OpenDemocracy writer thinks we Anglophones should use Shoah instead of Holocaust. But while Shoah avoids the connotations of the genocides being sacrifices to God or to Baal, using a Hebrew word still claims it as a Jewish catastrophe, rather than as a human one. It's right for speakers of Hebrew to refer to it as the Shoah, but for non-Jewish English speakers the word doesn't do justice to the events.
If not Holocaust or Shoah, then what? The Catastrophe' or 'the Calamity' makes it sound extrinsic to human agency, like an earthquake. The Roma call it "the Porrajmos, "paw-RYE-mos" in Romani, a word which means "the Devouring"", which is poetic but I don't think will catch on. So I'm left with 'the Nazi genocides', which is prosaic but at least accurate, and am waiting for a better term to emerge.