The Holocaust is the state-sponsored systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims -- six million were murdered; Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), people with mental and physical disabilities, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents, also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi Germany.
To learn more about the Holocaust, visit the Museum’s online Holocaust Encyclopedia, which features articles, photographs, maps and other resources.
The word holocaust comes from the ancient Greek, olos meaning "whole" and kaustos or kautos meaning "burnt." Appearing as early as the fifth century B.C.E., the term can mean a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire or a great destruction of life, especially by fire.
While the word holocaust, with a meaning of a burnt sacrificial offering, does not have a specifically religious connotation, it appeared widely in religious writings through the centuries, particularly for descriptions of "pagan" rituals involving burnt sacrifices. In secular writings, holocaust most commonly came to mean "a complete or wholesale destruction," a connotation particularly dominant from the late nineteenth century through the nuclear arms race of the mid-twentieth century. During this time, the word was applied to a variety of disastrous events ranging from pogroms against Jews in Russia, to the persecution and murder of Armenians by Turks during World War I, to the attack by Japan on Chinese cities, to large-scale fires where hundreds were killed.
Early references to the Nazi murder of the Jews of Europe continued this usage. As early as 1941, writers occasionally employed the term holocaust with regard to the Nazi crimes against the Jews, but in these early cases, they did not ascribe exclusivity to the term. Instead of "the holocaust," writers referred to "a holocaust," one of many through the centuries. Even when employed by Jewish writers, the term was not reserved to a single horrific event but retained its broader meaning of large-scale destruction. For example:
You are meeting at a time of great tragedy for our people. In our ... deep sense of mourning for those who have fallen ... we must steel our hearts to go on with our work ... that perhaps a better day will come for those who will survive this holocaust. (Chaim Weizmann, letter to Israel Goldstein, December 24, 1942)
What sheer folly to attempt to rebuild any kind of Jewish life [in Europe] after the holocaust of the last twelve years! (Zachariah Shuster, Commentary, December 1945, p.10)
By the late 1940s, however, a shift was underway. Holocaust (with either a lowercase or capital H) became a more specific term due to its use in Israeli translations of the word sho'ah. This Hebrew word had been used throughout Jewish history to refer to assaults upon Jews, but by the 1940s it was frequently being applied to the Nazis' murder of the Jews of Europe. (Yiddish-speaking Jews used the term churbn, a Yiddish translation of sho'ah.) The equation of holocaust with sho'ah was seen most prominently in the official English translation of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, in the translated publications of Yad Vashem throughout the 1950s, and in the journalistic coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961.
Such usage strongly influenced the adoption of holocaust as the primary English-language referent to the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry, but the word's connection to the "Final Solution" did not firmly take hold for another two decades. The April 1978 broadcast of the TV movie, Holocaust, based on Gerald Green's book of the same name, and the very prominent use of the term in President Carter's creation of the President's Commission on the Holocaust later that same year, cemented its meaning in the English-speaking world. These events, coupled with the development and creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum through the 1980s and 1990s, established the term Holocaust (with a capital H) as the standard referent to the systematic annihilation of European Jewry by Germany's Nazi regime.
Sources: Jon Petrie, "The Secular Word 'HOLOCAUST': Scholarly Myths, History, and Twentieth Century Meanings," Journal of Genocide Research 2, no. 1 (2000): 31-63.
Zachariah Shuster, "Must the Jews Quit Europe? An Appraisal of the Propaganda for Exodus," Commentary 1, no. 2 (1945): 9-16.
Chaim Weizmann, Letter 360, in The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann (London: Oxford University Press, 1968-1980), 20:383.
Further information about the history of the term, Holocaust, can also be gained through the following sources:
Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known by the Hebrew term Yom Hashoah, falls on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, chose this date because it falls between the date on which the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began and Israel's Independence Day, and also because it occurs during the traditional Jewish period of mourning known as the Counting of the Omer.
Listed below are the dates in the Gregorian calendar on which this memorial day will fall over the next ten years:
|2013||Monday, April 8|
|2014||Monday, April 28|
|2015||Thursday, April 16|
|2016||Thursday, May 5|
|2017||Monday, April 24|
|2018||Thursday, April 12|
|2019||Thursday, May 2|
|2020||Tuesday, April 21|
|2021||Thursday, April 8|
|2022||Thursday, April 28|
Further information about the history and observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day can be gained from the following source:
Yizkor books, also known as memorial books, chronicle the lives of Jewish communities destroyed during the Holocaust. These rare books uniquely record the history of the shtetls, cities, or regions of Europe, and are often one of the few remaining sources on a town’s people, as well as its cultural, religious, and social institutions. As such, these works are an invaluable resource for scholars and family historians, providing personal glimpses into Jewish life before, during, and after the Holocaust.
The first yizkor books were written immediately following the War, as reassembling the pieces of their community’s life and history often became an early focus of Holocaust survivors. Work on some memorial books began as early as the displaced persons’ camps, while others emerged later out of the painstaking efforts of the landsmanshaften, the immigrant mutual aid societies in Israel and North and South America. Their collective efforts created an estimated one thousand memorial books honoring the lost lives and destroyed communities of Europe.
Each yizkor book is different, with its content determined in large part by what records, images, and memories survived the War. Nevertheless, they often possess common elements:
With so many of the memorial books written in Hebrew and/or Yiddish, language often proves to be a barrier for family historians. Few works have been translated in their entirety. More commonly, volunteers motivated by their own needs and interests translate portions of a book and make them available to others doing similar research.
To find translations of some titles, along with other valuable information regarding memorial books, consult JewishGen’s Yizkor Book Project online. This site provides translations, lists of libraries and retailers with relevant holdings, and a yizkor book database and a necrology index, both searchable.
The Dorot Jewish Division at the New York Public Library is creating a freely-available collection of digital memorial book reproductions at the Yizkor Books Online page. Reprints of these yizkor books are available through the National Yiddish Book Center.
For the yizkor books held by the Library at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, consult the Memorial Books list in the Family History section of the Library’s website.
The American press reported Nazi violence toward Jews as early as 1933, and by 1938, published reports of anti-Jewish measures such as the Nuremberg Laws, along with other incidents of antisemitic violence, had multiplied dramatically. In 1941, as the magnitude of anti-Jewish violence increased, newspapers began running descriptions of the Nazi mass murder of Jews, some even using the word "extermination" to refer to these large-scale killings. However, it wasn't until late 1942 that the American public received official confirmation of these reports. On November 24 of that year, Rabbi Stephen Wise disclosed in a press conference that the State Department had investigated and confirmed reports about the Nazis' extermination campaign against European Jews. A few weeks later, on December 17, the United States, Britain, and ten Allied governments released a formal declaration confirming and condemning Hitler's extermination policy toward the Jews. Despite the official status of these announcements, most major dailies in the United States minimized their importance by burying them on inner pages. The New York Times, for example, allocated space on the front page for only the latter of these official reports, relegating Wise's press conference to page ten.
Deborah Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust (New York: Free Press, 1986).
David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (New York: The New York Press, 1998).
"Wise Gets Confirmation: Checks with State Department on Nazis' 'Extermination Campaign,'" New York Times, 25 November 1942, p. 10.
"11 Allies Condemn Nazi War on Jews: United Nations Issue Joint Declaration of Protest on 'Cold-Blooded Extermination,'" New York Times, 18 December 1942, p. 1, 10.
Riegner telegram American Jewish Archives
Though intelligence data and news reports revealed Nazi violence against Jews as early as 1933, and a dramatic increase in that violence in 1941, scholars generally agree that the United States government did not receive reliable confirmation of the full scope of the Nazis’ "Final Solution" until August, 1942.
On August 1, 1942, Gerhart Riegner, a representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland, received information from a German source regarding a Nazi plan to exterminate all the Jews in Europe. Due to the shocking and somewhat unbelievable nature of the report, Riegner refrained from passing on this information until he investigated its source. One week later, satisfied with the reliability of the informant - though unable to confirm the news itself - Riegner requested that the American consulate in Geneva cable this information to the American and other Allied governments, along with Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress in New York. However, given the unsubstantiated nature of Riegner’s report, the State Department chose not to forward it to Rabbi Wise and instead suppressed it.
In the months that followed, as reports of massacres of Jews steadily increased, a pile of evidence grew validating the idea that the Nazis were carrying out a plan to destroy the Jews of Europe. Finally, on November 24, 1942, Rabbi Wise held a press conference to announce news of the Nazis’ "extermination campaign." A few weeks later, on December 17, 1942, the United States, Britain, and ten other allied governments made this news official, feeling confident enough in the evidence to publicly reveal their knowledge of the Nazis’ plan to systematically kill all of Europe’s Jews.
Walter Lacquer, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth About Hitler’s Final Solution (New York: H. Holt, 1998).
David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (New York: The New York Press, 1998).
David S. Wyman, America and the Holocaust: A Thirteen-Volume Set Documenting the Editor’s Book The Abandonment of the Jews (New York: Garland, 1989-1991).
To learn more about the United States government’s response to the persecution of European Jews, see the Holocaust Encyclopedia article "The United States and the Holocaust," as well as the Museum Library’s bibliography of books and other resources on this subject.
Latest update: January 14, 2008