What We Talk About When We Talk About The Holocaust

I will forever be fascinated by how my Jewish Day School handled Holocaust Remembrance Day. There were three parts to it, each of which accorded with the maturity of the students involved. During the introductory portion, all, including the kindergartners, were in attendance. They would then remove the kindergartners and discuss the historical context. Fifth-graders would discuss stories about children who were hidden in cupboards and rescued by heroic Americans. They gave stories about danger, but then they, too, were removed. At that age, we all had heard vague stories about the horrors that had occurred in Europe, but as we were shuffled out of the room briskly, there was a deep unending question: What was so horrible that they could not tell us?

I do not believe that those at my Jewish Day School have been the only ones to treat the Holocaust with a kind of morbid reverence. This is, of course, not without reason. The Holocaust was one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, but therein also lies the issue. It is no longer an event but, rather, an idea, a collection of associated images: trains, gas, shoes, gray, ash. Why is it that no other genocide, massacre or instance of sectarian killing is referred to as a “Holocaust?”

There is some historical explanation as to why this is the case. For the Americans, it provided a justification for entering World War II. Before Pearl Harbor, many did not wish to enter a European war again. In fact, much of the war propaganda at the time depicted Germany in the same way as during the previous war. The Holocaust became a revisionary justification for entering the war. This time, the war was not just about nationalism but also the horrors that could be inflicted by total ideologies. The Holocaust was used as a symbol for the point where scientific inquiry crossed a line, where European civilization could go no further.

The strategy worked well. Even today, many still hold the view that the war was justified and required. When Americans think of evil, we do not think of Hirohito and the Japanese Empire, nor do we think of Pharaoh, as people did before the war. No, the face of evil will undoubtedly be that of Adolf Hitler, standing before a sea of black Wehrmacht soldiers. It is no wonder that when President Bush warned that Saddam Hussein intended to attack Israel with chemical weapons, people listened.

However, as we are all aware, times change. Do we still consider Hitler to be any more evil than Osama bin Laden, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot or Idi Amin? Was Hitler not a product of his environment? If he had not risen, would not someone else have taken his place?

The most important point, however, is this: the valorization of any genocide to the status of “holocaust” removes it from its context. It becomes the textbook example. It becomes the barometer by which all other genocides are measured. People ask things like: How many more or less people died? How greater or lesser was their suffering? Was it more or less socially accepted in its time?

There is no simple solution to this problem, but I do offer a starting point. We must once again alter the meaning of the word “holocaust” and think deeply about how we use it. We may also choose to revoke the term. For instance, one might choose to call what we know as “The Holocaust” by its Hebrew term, “The Shoah.” We may also ask to which events we grant the title of “Holocaust.” I know that I would personally consider the Atlantic Slave Trade to be a “Holocaust.”

To mythologize a genocide is to make it holy, pure and untouchable.