Baker Academic

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Holocaust or Shoah? : Scratching the Surface of How Christians and Jews Remember Differently - Le Donne

Over at Jewish-Christian Intersections, Larry Behrendt suggests that remembering the Holocaust ought not be a casual endeavor, but an act of commemoration that sets us in a principled stance against all forms of genocide. I hope that I've summarized him aptly (even if I've played the reductionist) because this post is part of an ongoing conversation between us about sacred identity and memory.

I am convinced that memory shapes identity. No controversy there, I would guess. Of course, some might state this more boldly (e.g. memory is identity!). I am also convinced that the ways that we remember are just as identity-forming (and informed by identity) as the content of our memories. I think that the ways that Christians and Jews remember the Holocaust is a great example.

It is all but impossible to be an adult, self-identifying Jew without bearing some existential relationship to the Holocaust. For many (most?) Jews, the Holocaust is a singular event that caps centuries of persecution, catastrophic violence, and attempted genocide. Indeed, I have been told by a senior colleague that the plural "holocausts" is an improper use of the word as it diminishes the singularity of the catastrophic violence done to European Jews during World War II.  It is for similar reasons that the term "Shoah" has come into use. Larry's post links to a definition of Shoah:
Shoah :The Hebrew word meaning "catastrophe," denoting the catastrophic destruction of European Jewry during World War II. The term is used in Israel, and the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) has designated an official day, called Yom ha-Shoah, as a day of commemorating the Shoah or Holocaust.
By this definition of Shoah, we would be reminded that six-million Jews (mostly civilians) were murdered by the philosophers, theologians, scientists, architects, politicians, and soldiery that attempted to solve the "question of the Jews" with a final solution. Contrast this definition with Merriam-Webster's online definition of the Holocaust:
the Holocaust : 
the killing of millions of Jews and other people by the Nazis during World War II
: an event or situation in which many people are killed and many things are destroyed especially by fire
 1 : a sacrifice consumed by fire 2 : a thorough destruction involving extensive loss of life especially through fire <a nuclear holocaust> 3 a often capitalized : the mass slaughter of European civilians and especially Jews by the Nazis during World War II —usually used with the b : a mass slaughter of people; especially : genocide
As used when it is capitalized, "the Holocaust" occupies a different place and function in non-Jewish memory. Here "Holocaust" evokes a primarily Jewish catastrophe but also includes non-Jewish victims as well.  The phrase "Jews and other people" is significant. Using this definition, we are reminded that eleven-million civilians were murdered, including Jews, communists, gays, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other people deemed ideologically dangerous to the "common good".

So if you simply want a numerical difference, it could be counted in the millions.

But there is a more important difference to be drawn here. Christian memory (a subset of non-Jewish memory, in this case) tends not to think of the final solution in terms of "philosophers, theologians, scientists, architects, politicians, and soldiery". Your average Christian tends to think of the Holocaust as a politically motivated war crime.  In fact, it was not committed by Christians at all, but by an archetypal enemy: the Nazis. Indeed - still speaking as my hypothetically "average Christian" here - the "true Christians" were heroic during this period! We remember Bishop von Galen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Willhelm Rott, and the many sisters who aided Irena Sendler. No doubt there were many. But Katharina von Kellenbach reminds us that these "were a very small minority! These activists, as well as individual Roman Catholic priests and religious monks and sisters, risked their lives in the battle against Nazism. .... Their heroic resistance should not be forgotten or diminished. But it was only part of the story. On the whole, the churches colluded and compromised, and they failed to defend the victims of dehumanizing  policies and extermination" (42-43).

We Christians tend to use the Holocaust to celebrate our collective heroism. Nobody - nobody - who uses the word "Shoah" thinks of the Holocaust as a backdrop to celebrate Christian courage.  The Shoah was not a stage - it was genocide. This is not to mis-remember those who were courageous, but the memories of the "Shoah" and "Holocaust" tend to function differently depending on who is doing the commemorating.

Let's put it this way: there were more Christians who died in the Holocaust than there were operating the various resistance movements. Still more Christians were vocally anti-Jewish. Still more Christians looked the other way.

Yet we Christians choose to remember and celebrate Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We have chosen a heroic self-identity because of our memories and we have chosen our memories because of our heroic self-identity. But, and this point cannot be overstated, it is likely that your average Christian has no significant relationship to the memory of the Holocaust. It simply functions for Christians as an unfortunate historical fact of war.  In others words, it is possible (indeed likely) to be an adult, educated Christian and never commemorate the Holocaust. We have a better chance of being shaped by the words of Rich Mullins than Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

For many (most?) Jews, the Shoah is a culmination of centuries of victimization and dehumanization. So much so that I have been in several conversations wherein thoughtful Jewish educators have wondered aloud whether the "Shoah" should even be taught anymore. After all, "what more is there to say?" And "don't we want our children to have a positive identity, rather than a victimized identity?" As a Christian, I am baffled by such questions.

But the Holocaust / Shoah dichotomy is just one example of Christians and Jews remembering differently.  Indeed, our methods of remembrance have set us on different courses and have too often alienated us from the other.



  1. Anthony, much to say here, but I only have time for a quick note. I’ve never before encountered a distinction between “Holocaust” and “Shoah” based on one of these terms referring exclusively to the murder of Jews by the Nazis, and the other term referring to all victims of Nazi genocide. There has certainly been discussion of whether the term “Holocaust” should refer only to the Nazi murder of Jews. The Yad Vashem website defines “Holocaust” as “the sum total of all anti-Jewish actions carried out by the Nazi regime”, and goes on to describe the Holocaust as “part of a broader aggregate of acts of oppression and murder of various ethnic and political groups in Europe by the Nazis.” In other words, Yad Vashem does not consider the Nazi murder of Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled and others to be part of “the Holocaust.” This is most clearly seen in the Yad Vashem page describing these murders, titled “Non-Jewish Victims of Persecution in Germany.”

    There are Jews who argue that there are reasons to distinguish between the Nazi effort to eradicate world Jewry and the Nazi murder of vast numbers of non-Jews, and perhaps this argument is reflected in the definitions we find for “Shoah”, which (being a Hebrew word and initially an Israeli term) reflect a Jewish view of things (embodied in the way Jews view both “Holocaust” and “Shoah”). Personally, I find it hard to draw such distinctions, and I side with people like Hannah Arendt who see the Holocaust (or the Shoah) primarily as a crime against humanity; even if Jews were the primary victims of this crime, the law that was broken here is one that protects (or should protect) all people. Still, the Jewish memory of the Holocaust will, quite naturally, focus on the devastation it wrought on the body of European Jewry, once the intellectual and emotional heart of Judaism, which was for all intents and purposes eradicated.

    1. Thanks Larry. Of course, you're right: the Holocaust / Shoah is "a crime against humanity". (BTW, this is a phrase that was made popular at Nuremberg.) My central point is that the Holocaust occupies different mnemonic space and with different mnemonic function for (most) Jews and non-Jews. The fact that some folks have developed event-specific terminology is just an indication of this.... still, the differences in the definitions and connotative values are striking no matter what the label is.


    2. ...and I would also agree that there is good reason to distinguish between "the final solution" and the larger practice of mass murder of non-Jews. It is quite clear that the genocide of Jews in particular was especially important to the Aryan program.


  2. Thanks for this post anthony. Just one quick typo: "and this point cannot be understated" - I think you mean it cannot be overstated.