Organizers of Pacific Lutheran’s Wang Center symposium chose to use the word ‘Shoah’ rather than ‘Holocaust’ in the title because of its lack of religious connotations. At first glance, this seems a more appropriate label for a conference that focuses on crimes against humanity.
One student said she is excited to see how the symposium will be different than the annual Powell-Heller Holocaust Conference, as indicated by the use of the word ‘shoah’ rather than ‘Holocaust.’ ‘Shoah’ is a modern Hebrew word for catastrophe.
Senior Julia Walsh, who converted to Judaism and has done extensive research on the Holocaust, said the word ‘shoah’ is very specific. “It is used as ‘the Shoah. Ha-shoah.’ That is very specifically Jewish deaths of World War II. Not even non-Jewish deaths of World War II,” she said.
This year’s Wang Center symposium, entitled “Legacies of the Shoah: Understanding Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity,” focuses on conflict and genocide around the world at various periods of time. Only three of the dozen-odd presentations will focus at all on the Holocaust, with the rest of the topics ranging from violence in places like Cambodia and the U.S.-Mexican border, to more general concepts such dehumanization and cultural trauma.
Walsh said in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish communities referred to it as churbin, a Yiddish word for destruction or calamity. The word ‘Holocaust’ was not used to describe this genocide until 1948.
‘Holocaust’ comes from a Greek word which comes from the Hebrew word olah meaning a holy burnt offering – a term some Jews find offensive because it implies the Jews were sacrificed rather than murdered.
“If you go into Jewish circles, some of them will let you use ‘holocaust’ and some of them will freak out,” Walsh said. “Some of them don’t like it at all because of those religious implications.”
While ‘shoah’ lacks the theological implications of ‘holocaust,’ however, Walsh said ‘shoah’ is a much more specific word. “It’s something that actually does specifically refer to the period, 1933 to 1945,” she said. “I think they’re trying to universalize it, but that doesn’t make linguistic sense. It doesn’t make historic sense.”
Walsh wasn’t involved in the planning or naming of the Wang Center symposium, but she speculated on why they chose the word ‘Shoah.’ “It may be that they were looking for something that wasn’t named ‘Holocaust Conference’ but still wanted something that spoke about genocide,” she said. “Maybe they were just looking for a word that was new, exotic, but still applied to the topic.”
Still, the word ‘shoah’ may be too specific for a conference with such a broad focus.
“If they’re looking for something that was more broadly genocide rather than Jewish-specific Holocaust stuff, they picked the wrong word,” Walsh said. “I don’t know why they picked that word. I will have to go to the conference and find out.”
For more information regarding the 2014 Wang Center Symposium, including a complete schedule of events, visit www.wangcentersymposium.org