On Root The Shoah: Naming the Unnamable

Naming is crucial. To forget something, to obliterate its memory, is to blot out its name.

Jeremy Benstein
Jeremy Benstein

In Israel, during the seven weeks between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, there is a holiday or remembrance day of some sort every single week.

This week marks Yom Hashoah - Holocaust Day.

What do we call that which is so difficult to grasp? How do the names we choose reflect, and in turn, shape our understanding of events, and our own identity in relation to them?

The full name of this civic commemoration is Yom Hazikaron Lashoah Velagevurah, literally "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day" (though the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center's site refers to it as "Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day").

Naming names

Naming is crucial. To forget something, to obliterate its memory, is to blot out its name.

The name of Yad Vashem, the Israeli institution mandated with researching and perpetuating the memory and meanings of the Holocaust, is taken from Isaiah 56:5. It means "a monument and a name."

One of Yad Vashem's central tasks is indeed to catalog as many of the names as possible of the close to 6 million Jewish victims.

The Hebrew term shoah is of Biblical origin, referring there to "disaster" or "destruction" (for example, Isaiah 10:3: "What will you do in the day of visitation, and in the disaster which comes from far?). It was used in medieval Hebrew literature to refer to disasters befalling Jewish communities.

As for the events in Europe, Israelis began to refer to them as "shoah" already in the thirties and forties. By the time the original law that instituted Yom Hashoah was enacted by the Knesset in April, 1951, it had become common Hebrew parlance. It achieved wider currency among non-Hebrew speaking publics with Claude Lanzmann's epic 1985 film of that name.

The English standard term is of course, "the Holocaust." This word is Greek in origin, meaning "a completely burnt sacrificial offering."

While the term was originally used in a pagan ritual context, it was also used as the Greek translation of the 'olah sacrifice prescribed in the Torah. By the 12th century, it was also used to describe massacres of Jews in England, and by the late 18th and 19th centuries, to describe deaths of large numbers of people.

"The Holocaust" came into broad use for the Nazi's "final solution" in the late 1950s, at first to translate the Hebrew shoah. By the time of the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961, it had become common.

As in the spread of the term shoah, a film - this time the 1978 TV miniseries "Holocaust" starring Meryl Streep - served to anchor the term in the wider public consciousness as referring exclusively to the Nazi genocide of the Jews.

Despite its ubiquity, some object to its use, claiming that the image of a burnt offering, a ritual sacrifice, is at best, inappropriate, and at worst - obscene.

Heroism and bravery

The full name of the day is Holocaust and Heroism (gevurah) Remembrance Day. To counteract early Zionist interpretations of the events of the Holocaust, that European Jews were weak and passive, and went as the stigma claimed "like lambs to the slaughter," various forms of gevurah - heroic resistance - gradually became better known.

From its inception, Yom Hashoah shed a positive light on ghetto uprisings and other types of heroism, armed and otherwise, in the face of annihilation.

In fact, the original intension was to institute Yom Hashoah on the day of the outbreak of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. However, since this occurred on the eve of Passover, which is not a viable time for a new civic observance, it was decided to set the date halfway between the end of Pesach and Israel's Independence Day.

That is not coincidence: the timing is meant to link between the idea of the movement from slavery to freedom, and what is called "between shoah and tekumah" - from the root k-u-m, "stand," not exactly "uprising," but perhaps "arising," meaning "rebirth" or "rejuvenation."

This construction of this historical memory is key. Next week we will explore the Jewish-Israeli historical consciousness, as it were, from A to Z (or from 'ayin to zayin): 'atzmaut, "independence," and "zikaron," remembrance."

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

The train track into Auschwitz, WWII.Credit: AP
Today Israel sends delegations of high school students to visit concentration camps. This mixed group of Jewish and Arab pupils is visiting Auschwitz.Credit: Amal



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