Dr. Arnold Richards of New York has a question concerning a passage in the European-born, American Jewish psychiatrist A. A. Brill’s “The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud” — an anthology of Freud’s major essays, published by Brill in 1938. There, in his introduction, Brill wrote:
“Alas! As these pages are going to the printer we have been startled by the terrible news that the Nazi holocaust has suddenly encircled Vienna and that Professor Freud and his family are virtual prisoners in the hands of civilization’s greatest scourge.”
Here’s the question: Is this use of “holocaust” by Brill, who was writing at the time of the Austrian Anschluss in March 1938, the earliest known case of the word having been applied to the actions of the Nazi regime?
The answer is no. At most, it’s the second earliest. The first occurred after the mass burning of banned books by the new Nazi government of Germany in May 1933, described by Newsweek magazine as “a holocaust of books.” Time magazine, for its part, punning on its competitor, called it a “bibliocaust.”
Neither Brill’s nor Newsweek’s use of “holocaust,” however, referred specifically to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. According to California researcher Jonathan Petrie, who has looked into the history of the word more thoroughly than anyone has, the first such reference is to be found in a telegram sent in November 1938, immediately after Kristallnacht, by Yitzhak Herzog and Ya’akov Meir, chief Ashkenazic and Sephardic rabbis of Palestine. The telegram was sent to J.H. Hertz, who at the time was Great Britain’s chief rabbi. It said, in part:
“Propose you with leading French American rabbis and ourselves proclaim Jewish day of mourning throughout world for holocaust synagogues Germany….”
Did this telegram have anything to do with the subsequent use of “holocaust” as the English equivalent of the Hebrew sho’ah? It’s hard to say. Petrie’s next recorded appearance of “holocaust” is in the October 3, 1941, issue of “The American Hebrew,” a few months after the German invasion of Russia and the beginning of the Nazis’ mass liquidation of Europe’s Jews. The magazine’s front page featured a photograph of two French Jews carrying Torah scrolls, one wearing a French army uniform (thus dating the photo to before the Nazi invasion of France in 1940), with the caption: “Before the Holocaust.”
But it was in another American Jewish weekly, the Jewish Frontier, that the word “holocaust” was first used in the sense that it has today — that is, to describe a systematic program of extermination. In a November 1942 editorial, the editors wrote:
“This issue of the Jewish Frontier attempts to give some picture of what is happening to the Jews of Europe…. [We speak] of the victims not of war, but of massacre…. The annals of mankind hold no similar record of organized murder.”
Although the Frontier, edited by Zionist intellectual Chaim Greenberg, was hardly a mass-circulation publication, it was well known in the Jewish world, making it probable that the increasingly frequent use of “holocaust” as a term for the Nazi genocide from 1942 on can be traced back to it. But although “holocaust” turns up in the U.S. Congressional Record in July 1943 and in a New York Times story from October 1945, it seems for a long time to have been limited largely to English-speaking Jews, since in 1949 the non-Jewish Franklin Littel, later the author of several works about the Holocaust, wrote about the word while on a trip to Germany:
“I must have picked it up — as a precise reference to the Nazi genocide of the Jews — from American Jewish chaplains or from workers in the DP camps.”
Petrie demonstrates conclusively that “holocaust” (originally from Greek holokaustos, “burned whole” — i.e., a sacrificial offering on the altar) had, long before the rise of the Nazis, an extensive history of being used to describe both natural and manmade catastrophes, and that its application to the Shoah was neither unique nor a product — as sometimes has been claimed — of theologized notions of the murder of millions of Jews. The word was used for the San Francisco earthquake, for volcanic eruptions, for forest fires, for human sacrifice in pagan antiquity, for the American Civil War, for the slaughter of World War I, for the Turkish massacres of the Armenians, for anti-Jewish pogroms in Ukraine, for the Japanese bombing of China in World War II and so on. We even find it in an antisemitic Latin document from medieval England, “The Chronicle of Richard of Devizes,” which called the purported Jewish ritual sacrifice of Christian victims in London a holocaustum.
In recent years, the Hebrew word Shoah has begun more and more to replace “Holocaust” as the accepted term for the Nazi genocide of the Jews, and this is just as well. It is possible to understand both those Jews who protest when the term “Holocaust,” which has come to be synonymous with this genocide, is applied to lesser historical atrocities, and those non-Jews who object to Jews having a monopoly on a word they did not invent. Using “Shoah” for the Nazis’ murder of Europe’s Jews and “holocaust” for whatever other calamities one pleases is perhaps the optimal solution.
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