Focal Point Publications

Quick navigationsearch 

Documents on the “Holocaust”

qu_openClearly for writers and editors of the pre 1950 Palestine Post, “holocaust” has a broad range of possible referents and does not carry “deep religious, Judeo-Christian connotations.”qu_close

Jon Petrie investigates the etymology of the word “Holocaust”

THIS SEPTEMBER [1999] some [H-Holocaust] list members have responded to a query about the employment of [the word] “holocaust” before Elie Wiesel‘s first use. Back in April 1997 (24 April) Jim Mott closed down a discussion on early employment of “holocaust” after Hillary Earl claimed that Henry Morgenthau around 1915 used the word to refer to Turkish massacres of Armenians and I quoted a 24 December 1942 use by [Chaim] Weizmann. (My posting also took issue with a claim that “broadening the meaning of the word Holocaust to encompass murder of segments of other population groups is a vicious attempt to diminish the right of the Jewish survivors of this horror to point the finger at the perpetrators …”)

Jim Mott had in my experience never closed down a discussion quite as precipitously and his action lead me to wonder if some aspects of mainstream scholarly representation of the word might not withstand careful examination. My “The Secular Word “HOLOCAUST”: Scholarly Myths, History, and Twentieth Century Meanings” is due to appear this year in the Journal of Genocide Research (Vol. 2, #1). The following, in part, draws from the article:

Typical of scholarly (mis)representations of “holocaust” is Michael Berenbaum‘s: “The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates the Hebrew word olah as holokauston. The Hebrew literally means that which is offered up; it signifies a burnt offering offered whole unto the Lord. The word itself softens and falsifies the event by giving it a religious significance.” (The World Must Know, p. 1.) Omer Bartov writes: “‘Holocaust’ is a name that provides the event with meaning, and the meaning carries deep religious, Judeo-Christian connotations … Holocaust means sacrifice, God, purpose.” (In Michael Berenbaum and Abraham Peck (eds.), The Holocaust and History, pp. 79-80.)

Supporting such statements is a frequently cited article by Zev Garber and Bruce Zukerman “Why do we Call the Holocaust ‘The Holocaust’?” Garber and Zuckerman assert “[T]he editors of the King James Version of the Bible … translated the Hebrew term for whole-burnt offering, the olah … ‘holocaust.’ Indeed, the adoption by the King James editors of this use of the term probably played the decisive role in fixing ‘religious sacrifice’ as the primary sense of the term in English up until the mid-Twentieth Century.” (Modern Judaism, 9:2 (1989), p. 199 — Garber in a posting 1 September directed readers to this article.)

A major problem with the quoted Garber and Zuckerman assertion is that “holocaust” is not to be found in the King James Bible. (Olah is translated as “burnt offerings” and similar in the King James Bible, olah has not been translated as “holocaust” in a Protestant Bible since c. 1600, and olah has never been translated as “holocaust” in a Jewish Bible.) More generally the idea that late twentieth century Protestants and Jews, ‘uninformed’ by such scholars as Barenbaum, Bartov, Garber etc., would ascribe Judeo-Christian connotations to the word “holocaust” is demonstrably false. And, by ignoring the broad pre 1950s secular use of “holocaust,” scholarly commentators, in my opinion, leave the impression that the word jumped out of the Bible into their hands and that any use of the word to describe a non-Jewish catastrophe is illegitimate. To help dispel such impressions consider the seven uses of “holocaust” in the Palestine Post of 1938:

  • “… the French press is worried lest there be some connection between the bloodless holocaust of German Generals and Ambassadors and the persistent reports that Mussolini is about to intervene in Spain …” (6 February, 1938 p. 4, col. 4.)
  • “For the first time since last September Japanese aeroplanes again raided Canton … Although the damage exceeds September’s holocaust, the death toll was somewhat less …” (29 May 1938, p. 1, col. 1)
  • “After the Haifa holocaust … ” (17 July 1938, p. 8, col. 1)
  • “Yesterday was also an anniversary of destruction. It was the day on which Great Britain entered the World War 24 years ago. Since that holocaust swept over the world, it has had no real peace …” (5 August 1938, p. 6, col. 2)
  • “… the holocaust of 1914-18 …” (11 September 1938, p. 8, col. 3)
  • “… thanks to the general dread of yet another European holocaust … [Hitler] has brought them peace with territorial aggrandisement. (11 October 1938, p. 6, col. 2)
  • “… the planning system of the Bolshevist regime has broken down … The holocaust of directors and engineers shot as “wreckers” to stimulate others has brought only spasms …” (27 October 1938, p. 3, col. 2)

A 1940 Palestine Post advertisement for “Mandrake the Magician” promised “a flaming holocaust of thrills” (31 May 1940, p. 10). A column in the Palestine Post of 26 July 1946 reads in part: “There are women … whose household labours resounds [with] the constant ringing of crashing china and glasses … Those glasses that escape the holocaust of housework …” (p. 8, cols. 1-2.) And per the Palestine Post of 9 May 1947: “On May 4 1897 … 1,200 people crowded into a tent to see the cinema. Suddenly the light bulb of the projector exploded … the holocaust, which lasted 20 brief minutes, claimed 124 lives.” (p. 4, cols. 2-3.)

Clearly for writers and editors of the pre 1950 Palestine Post, “holocaust” has a broad range of possible referents and does not carry “deep religious, Judeo-Christian connotations.”

Scholarly commentators, while pushing the idea that “holocaust” came into English through the Bible, pass over the fact that the Greek word, before it entered the Septuagint, denoted pagan sacrifices and that the modern English word in it sense of “religious burnt offering” is not restricted to Judeo-Christian offerings but may denote “a pagan sacrifice to a false god.”

The most circulated “holocaust” of today, in its sense of “religious sacrifice,” and within a secular text, employs the word in its original pagan sense: “For him … God is dead … the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob … has vanished forevermore … in the smoke of a human holocaust exacted by Race, the most voracious of all idols.” (Francois Mauriac in his introduction to Elie Wiesel’s Night, originally published in 1960 — Wiesel first used “holocaust” in August 1963).

An early Jewish employment of “holocaust” to refer to events in Nazi Germany was in a telegram of 16 November 1938 from the Chief Rabbis of Palestine to the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire: “PROPOSE YOU … PROCLAIM JEWISH DAY OF MOURNING … FOR HOLOCAUST SYNAGOGUES GERMANY …” Times Literary Supplement(Hartley Library: University of Southampton Special Research Collections – information brochure, n.d. [1998], p. 12 — MS 175/142/1 in the collection, MS copywright J. Schonfield) As has been pointed out in postings on this list, the London Times Literary Supplement in an editorial of 26 August 1939 warned of an impending “holocaust” of Jews in Nazi Germany. (p. 503, col. 2)

In the United States of the 1940s and 1950s the word saw, in addition to its use as a referent to a wide variety of other events, occasional use as a referent to the mass murder of Jews in the Hitler period or to both the mass murder and preceding persecutions. (For example, “Holocaust in Europe” [chapter title] and “Tzivya Lubertkin, ‘the mother of the ghetto,’ who survived the holocaust …” [Rufus Learsi, Israel: A History of the Jewish People (Cleveland and New York: World, 1949, pp. 645, 654])

Peter Novick has pointed out on this list that Israeli English use of “holocaust” in its sense of the Jewish catastrophe was disseminated to the United States in the early 1960s. (It should be noted that American Jewish interest in the Nazi murders, before the Eichmann trial and the [Hannah] Arendt New Yorker articles of 1963, was very slight.) As Novick notes, the word is employed in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. (New York Times, 15 May 1948, p. 2, col. 3)

In the 1956 numbers of Yad Vashem’s primarily Hebrew Yediot, the phrase “Nazi holocaust” is used on eight occasions in the seven pages of English text. And in one instance, “Holocaust” is employed as it is commonly used today, capitalized and with no modifier: “… the main ceremony of the Memorial Day of the Holocaust and Jewish Heroism …” In 1957 Yad Vashem began publishing the world’s first English journals devoted to study of the Jewish European catastrophe. “Holocaust” was employed extensively in the Yad Vashem Bulletin of 1957 and 1958, but barely occurs in the more academic Studies.

IN THE UNITED STATES of the early 1960s the most common referent of “holocaust” was nuclear war / nuclear destruction. For example, The Reporter of 17 August 1961 titled a review of two books on nuclear war and nuclear strategy, “A Cold Look at the Holocaust.” And the cover of the 4 November 1961 Nation displays in upper case: “SHELTERS WHEN THE HOLOCAUST COMES.”

Beyond the example of Israeli usage, American Jewish writers probably abandoned such words as “disaster,” “catastrophe,” and “massacre” in favor of “holocaust” in the 1960s because “holocaust” with its evocation of the then actively feared nuclear mass death effectively conveyed something of the horror of the Jewish experience during World War II.

The context of Wiesel’s first employment of “holocaust” suggests that the “nuclear holocaust” sense of the word was the association that drove his selection of “holocaust” to refer to the Jewish catastrophe:

“It has become a kind of intellectual fad to upbraid the Jews murdered in World War II for allowing themselves to be killed … Psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim, and sociologists like Hannah Arendt, are not the only ones who have been complaining … One finds this … even in fiction whose theme has nothing to do with the Nazi holocaust. For example, in Fail Safe, the best seller about an atomic accident … a minor character [contends that Jews] should have murdered the SS men who came to arrest them.” (Wiesel, The New Leader, 5 August 1963, p. 21.)

(A key sentence in Fail Safe, ends with the words “atomic holocaust,” and a Bettleheim 1961 Midstream attack on the glorification of Anne Frank refers to an “impending holocaust.”).

Increasingly in the 1970s “holocaust” was capitalized and as writings and other representations of the Jewish disaster multiplied “h/Holocaust” increasingly, in most contexts, did not need modifiers like “Nazi” to clarify that the intended referent was the “Final Solution” and perhaps also the Nazi persecution of Jews. (Yad Vashem, at least in its early years, officially defined the “h/Holocaust” as starting in 1933.) In some employments, particularly since the late 1980s, “Holocaust” refers not simply to the persecution and/or murder of Jews but also to the Nazi persecution and/or murder of Jews and others.

Sometimes references are made to five million non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. (Per the Simon Wiesenthal Center‘s web site “the recognized figure [of non-Jewish civilians murdered during World War II] is approximately five million.”) The five million figure seems to have been pulled out of thin air. (Garber and Zuckerman [Modern Judaism, 9:2, p. 208] write of “eleven million people … killed by the Nazis in the concentration camps.” — the actual figure, excluding POW death in holding camps, is around four and a half million.)

I complained in March 1997 postings of the US Holocaust Museum’s minimization of Soviet and Polish death and suggested list members lobby the Museum. As far as I know no list member, other than myself, has complained to the Museum about its misleading statements.

The tolerance of misleading figures of non-Jewish death at the Museum and elsewhere, the widespread misrepresentations of the connotations of the word “holocaust,” and the failure to criticize a key misrepresentation of the King James Bible in a widely cited article might lead a reasonable but relatively uninformed person to doubt the veracity of core representations of the Jewish Holocaust. I happen to be sufficiently grounded in modern history and to know enough witnesses to the Holocaust to have no doubt that 5 to 6 million Jews were murdered directly or indirectly by the Germans.

Whether the average person in a generation or two will have doubts about this core representation of the Jewish Holocaust, I suspect will depend less on Holocaust deniers than the perceived credibility of the community of Holocaust scholars.

At some point in the future this perceived credibility may depend on a record of intolerance of factual error, on an obvious long standing concern that what is disseminated to the uninformed by the community is in all respects accurate. Per Michael Marrus, “The historian’s job is to get it right!” Within the Holocaust scholarly community “getting it right” and insisting that members of the community “get it right,” demonstrably, has had a fairly low value.square

Jon Petrie ([email protected])


Order books | Auschwitz Index | Irving Index | Irving Page | Irving Book-List | Other FP Authors

GermFlag Buchladen | Auschwitz Irving-Verzeichnis | -Hauptseite | -Bücher Weitere FP-Autoren

© Focal Point 1998 F  [e-mail] DISmall write to David Irving

Scroll to Top