onetoone
one
Current Issue
September, 2018
Volume 44, Number 3
  
25 January 2018
Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.




Pope Francis visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem in this 26 May 2014 file photo. The United Nations observes Holocaust Memorial Day this Saturday 27 January.
(photo: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via EPA)


On 27 January every year, the UN observes Holocaust Memorial Day in memory of the millions of Jews who lost their lives in the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe. That singular event cast a long shadow over the 20th century and helped shape the very world that CNEWA serves. Significantly, it reminds us of our association’s work to uplift human dignity and aid those suffering from persecution of all kinds — part of our mission that continues in so many places today. Attention must be paid.

There are some things which non-Jews need to know about the UN observance. First, it is not the same as the Jewish , Yom Hashoah, “Day of the Holocaust,” which is observed every year on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nisan (April/May), 13 days after the beginning of Passover. Because the Jewish calendar follows the moon, Yom Hashoah falls on a different day every year in the calendar used in the secular world. In 2018 Yom Hashoah falls on 12 April. The UN observance of Holocaust Memorial Day falls on the same day every year.

There needs to be another clarification for non-Jews. The Hebrew word , shô’ah, is commonly translated holocaust, which is derived from the Greek ὁλὁκαυστοç, holokaustos, which referred to a sacrifice which was completely burnt. The term appears in many translations of the Bible; see, for example Leviticus 17:9 “any man... among you who offers a holocaust or sacrifice....” The Hebrew word which “holocaust” is translating is , ‘olah — a sacrifice totally consumed by fire. Although the Hebrew words shô’ah and ‘olah are both translated into English as “holocaust,” the two should never be confused. ‘olah refers to a religious act; shô’ah means total, devastating destruction that has nothing to do with worshiping God.

The Shoah was a defining moment in the history of the West and, indeed, of the entire world. In Nazi Germany, the ideology of anti-Semitism was able to use modern technology in a demonically thorough way. Over six million Jews, an estimated two-thirds of the European Jewish community, were slaughtered in a Europe that considered itself “enlightened.” While many of the elements of the Shoah were and remain unique, the 20th century witnessed the invention of the word megadeath. In the 20th century millions of people were slaughtered because of who they were — Jews in Nazi Europe, Armenian and Assyrian Christians in the Ottoman Empire, opponents of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and others.

As it unfolded, the 20th century came to be seen by many as a time of great progress. The Shoah and other genocidal actions shocked the world out of its often self-righteous complacency. It was learned to our horror that progress is a two-edged sword. It can be used to improve peoples’ lives — or used to kill with an efficiency only the modern world could muster.

Pope Francis kisses the hand of a Holocaust survivor during a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Abir Sultan, EPA)

The Shoah forced Europe and European Christians to face centuries of anti-Semitism in culture, politics and even religion. Major figures such as Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom, Elie Wiesel, Jules Isaac and others aroused the world’s conscience. Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, helped Jews escape the Nazi’s while he was stationed in Istanbul. Later as pope, he had a crucial encounter with the Jewish philosopher Jules Isaac, who wrote about the “teaching of contempt,” which Christians had used to dehumanize Jews for centuries. The experience of the horror of the Shoah was certainly in the background when Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It was this council which produced the document Nostra Ætate (28 October 1965) which made it the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that “neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time {i.e. the death of Jesus}, nor Jews today can be charged with the crimes committed during his {i.e. Jesus’} passion” (par. 4). The age-old accusation that Jews were deicides, or “God killers,” was rejected by the Catholic Church. Other churches soon followed suit.

We humans have short memories, however, and ancient pathologies, prejudices and hatreds have a tendency to resurface as if we had learned nothing. Both the Jewish observance of Yom Hashoah and the UN observance of Holocaust Memorial Day are not merely observances of past history. They are potent reminders of the depths to which we humans can sink at any time, and powerful calls to vigilance against that murderous hatred and bigotry which can erupt when we become indifferent and forgetful of the past.