July 10, 2020

Meaning Making: Holocaust, Shoah, Genocide, Judeocide

The mass annihilation of European Jews from 1939-1945 has taken on many names and each holds a particular nuance. Diverse titles—such as the Holocaust, Shoah, genocide, and Judeocide—used to describe a singular event in history elucidate the challenge of explaining the murder of some 6 million Jews.



The term “Holocaust” remains the standard word used by Americans to describe the catastrophe.  Some argue that this word is problematic because it is covered in a theological shroud. Originally, “Holocaust” was a word of Greek origin meaning, “sacrifice by fire.” If taken literally, the biblical roots of this term suggest that a Jew who died in a gas chamber and or mass grave was sacrificed, not murdered. This would also seem to suggest that all those who died were martyrs, not victims.  The secular interpretation of this term, which came into popular use in the 1950s, eschews its religious roots and speaks more broadly to the Nazi crimes and horrors that annihilated Europe’s Jews.



The Hebrew term Shoah has been used since the Middle Ages to mean “destruction.” Shoah became the standard word used to describe the murder of European Jews as early as the 1940s.



Holocaust survivor Rafael Lemkin crafted the term “genocide” to describe the mass murder of Jews in Europe at that time, as well as other instances of destruction such as the annihilation of the Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans (1915-1923). The term is made up of two words: “-geno” derived from the Greek word for race or tribe, and “-cide” derived from the Latin word for killing. He proposed the word “genocide” in 1944 when he published his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation Analysis of Government Proposals for Redress. The United Nations adopted, refined, and ratified a broader definition that Lemkin’s in 1948. Genocide is a word not limited to the Jewish atrocity and can be used to speak of the Holocaust and other targeted killings such as the Rwandan Genocide and Cambodian Genocide.



The term “Judeocide” picks up on Lemkin’s term “genocide” by adopting his attention to the Latin word “-cide” meaning killing.  Many “-cide” terms now exist in the Human Rights field—for example, gendercide and politicide—and each offers a more clinical and precise definition of a given atrocity. In my own studies of Italy, I often use the word Judeocide in place on the Holocaust because in the Italian context the word Holocaust has taken on a colloquial meaning that includes non-Jewish victims, such as members of the Resistance killed fighting the Germans.  Using “Judeocide” allows me to draw attention to specific sect of victims.


To learn more about terms and their significance, see:

– Omer Bartov, “Antisemitism, the Holocaust, and Reinterpretations of National Socialism,” The Holocaust and History, pp. 75-98.

– Lucy S. Dawidowicz, “Thinking about the Six Million: Facts, Figures, Perspectives,” in Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications, eds. John Roth and Michael Berenbaum (New York: Paragon house, 1989), pp. 51-68.

– Anna-Vera Sullam Calimani, “A Name for Extermination,” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 94, No. 4 (Oct., 1999), pp. 978-999.

– “God and History,” in Richard Rubestein and John Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), pp. 327-354.

– Robert Jay Lifton, “This World is Not This World,” Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications, pp. 191-200.

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