AskDefine | Define holocaust

Dictionary Definition



1 an act of great destruction and loss of life
2 the Nazi program of exterminating Jews under Hitler [syn: final solution]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Holocaust



Greek ὅλος italbrac holos or italbrac hol “whole” + καύστος italbrac kaustos “burnt” < καίειν italbrac kaiein “to burn”. The term traditionally referred to animal sacrifice where the whole animal was burned as an offering. This was only done in exceptional circumstances. Normally only the bones, fat and skin were burned on the altar; the animal’s edible parts were distributed to worshippers to prepare festive dinners.


  1. A sacrifice to a god that is completely burned to ashes. The following usages are derived:
  2. The annihilation or near-annihilation of a group of animals or people, whether by natural or deliberate agency (eg “nuclear holocaust”)
  3. The state-sponsored mass murder of an ethnic group. In particular (and often with an initial capital) the “Final Solution”, a euphemism used by the Nazis to describe the mass killing of Jews and others either in camps equipped with industrial gassing and crematorium equipment or by more conventional means.

Usage notes

  • Use of the word holocaust to depict Jewish suffering under the Nazis dates back to 1942, according to the OED. By the 1970s, The Holocaust was often synonymous with the Jewish exterminations. This use of the term as a synonym for the Jewish exterminations has been criticised because it appears to imply that there was a voluntary religious purpose behind the Nazi actions, which was not the case whether from the perspective of the Nazis or from that of the victims. Hence, some people prefer the term shoa, which means destruction.
  • The word continues with its other uses. For example, part of the action of a BBC radio drama by James Follett in 1981 takes place in “Holocaust City”, which by inference was named because the inhabitants were the only survivors of a global nuclear war. A current website, Iraqi holocaust, deals with the atrocities of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Related terms


sacrifice to a god
  • Finnish: polttouhri
  • Polish: całopalenie
  • Spanish: holocausto
annihilation of a group of animals or people
  • Finnish: joukkotuho
state-sponsored mass murder of an ethnic group
  • Finnish: kansanmurha


  • Paternoster, Lewis M. and Frager-Stone, Ruth. Three Dimensions of Vocabulary Growth. Second Edition. Amsco School Publications: USA. 1998.

Extensive Definition

The Holocaust (from the Greek (): holos, "completely" and kaustos, "burnt"), also known as (Hebrew: ), Churben (Yiddish: ), is the term generally used to describe the genocide of approximately six million European Jews during World War II, as part of a program of deliberate extermination planned and executed by the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi) regime in Germany led by Adolf Hitler.
Other groups were persecuted and killed by the regime, including the Roma; Soviets, particularly prisoners of war; Communists; ethnic Poles; other Slavic people; the disabled; gay men; and political and religious dissidents. Many scholars do not include these groups in the definition of the Holocaust, defining it as the genocide of the Jews, or what the Nazis called the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." Taking into account all the victims of Nazi persecution, the death toll rises considerably: estimates generally place the total number of victims at nine to 11 million.
The persecution and genocide were accomplished in stages. Legislation to remove the Jews from civil society was enacted years before the outbreak of World War II. Concentration camps were established in which inmates were used as slave labour until they died of exhaustion or disease. Where the Third Reich conquered new territory in eastern Europe, specialized units called Einsatzgruppen murdered Jews and political opponents in mass shootings. Jews and Roma were crammed into ghettos before being transported hundreds of miles by freight train to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, the majority of them were killed in gas chambers. Every arm of Germany's bureaucracy was involved in the logistics of the mass murder, turning the country into what one Holocaust scholar has called "a genocidal state."

Etymology and use of the term

The term holocaust originally derived from the Greek word holókauston, meaning a "completely (holos) burnt (kaustos)" sacrificial offering to a god. Its Latin form (holocaustum) was first used with specific reference to a massacre of Jews by the chroniclers Roger of Howden and Richard of Devizes in the 1190s. Since the late 19th century, it has been used primarily to refer to disasters or catastrophes.
The biblical word Shoah (שואה) (also spelled Sho'ah and Shoa), meaning "calamity," became the standard Hebrew term for the Holocaust as early as the 1940s. Shoah is preferred by many Jews for a number of reasons, including the theologically offensive nature of the original meaning of "holocaust."


The word "holocaust" has been used since the 18th century to refer to the violent deaths of a large number of people. For example, Winston Churchill and other contemporaneous writers used it before World War II to describe the Armenian Genocide of World War I. Since the 1950s its use has been increasingly restricted, and it is now mainly used to describe the Nazi Holocaust, spelled with a capital H.
"Holocaust" was adopted as a translation of "Shoah" — a Hebrew word connoting catastrophe, calamity, disaster and destruction In the spring of 1942, the Jerusalem historian BenZion Dinur (Dinaburg) used "Shoah" in a book published by the United Aid Committee for the Jews in Poland to describe the extermination of Europe's Jews, calling it a "catastrophe" that symbolized the unique situation of the Jewish people. The word "Shoah" was chosen in Israel to describe the Holocaust, the term institutionalized by the Knesset on April 12, 1951, when it established Yom Ha-Shoah Ve Mered Ha-Getaot, the national day of remembrance. By the 1950s, its translation, "Holocaust," popularized by Yad Vashem, had come routinely to refer to the genocide of the European Jews. For a time after World War II, German historians also used the term Völkermord ("genocide"), or in full, der Völkermord an den Juden ("the genocide of the Jewish people"), while the prevalent term in Germany today is either Holocaust or increasingly Shoah.
The word "holocaust" is also used in a wider sense to describe other actions of the Nazi regime. These include the killing of around half a million Roma and Sinti, the deaths of several million Soviet prisoners of war, along with slave laborers, gay men, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled, and political opponents. The use of the word in this wider sense is objected to by many Jewish organizations, particularly those established to commemorate the Jewish Holocaust. Jewish organizations say that the word in its current sense was originally coined to describe the extermination of the Jews, and that the Jewish Holocaust was a crime on such a scale, and of such specificity, as the culmination of the long history of European antisemitism, that it should not be subsumed into a general category with the other crimes of the Nazis.
Even more hotly disputed is the extension of the word to describe events that have no connection with World War II. The terms "Rwandan Holocaust" and "Cambodian Holocaust" are used to refer to the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and the mass killings by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia respectively, and "African Holocaust" is used to describe the slave trade and the colonization of Africa, also known as the Maafa.

Distinctive features

Compliance of Germany's institutions

Michael Berenbaum writes that Germany became a "genocidal state."
Saul Friedländer writes that: "Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews." He writes that some Christian churches declared that converted Jews should be regarded as part of the flock, but even then only up to a point.
Friedländer argues that this makes the Holocaust distinctive because anti-Jewish policies were able to unfold without the interference of countervailing forces of the kind normally found in advanced societies, such as industry, small businesses, churches, and other vested interests and lobby groups.}}
The slaughter was systematically conducted in virtually all areas of Nazi-occupied territory in what are now 35 separate European countries. It was at its worst in Central and Eastern Europe, which had more than seven million Jews in 1939. About five million Jews were killed there, including three million in occupied Poland, and over one million in the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands also died in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, and Greece. The Wannsee Protocol makes clear that the Nazis also intended to carry out their "final solution of the Jewish question" in England and Ireland.
Anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was to be exterminated without exception. In other genocides, people were able to escape death by converting to another religion or in some other way assimilating. This option was not available to the Jews of occupied Europe. All persons of recent Jewish ancestry were to be exterminated in lands controlled by Germany.

Medical experiments

see Nazi human experimentation
Another distinctive feature was the extensive use of human subjects in medical experiments. German physicians carried out such experiments at Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler concentration camps.
The most notorious of these physicians was Dr. Josef Mengele, who worked in Auschwitz. His experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children's eyes, and various amputations and other brutal surgeries. The full extent of his work will never be known because the truckload of records he sent to Dr. Otmar von Verschuer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute were destroyed by von Verschuer. Subjects who survived Mengele's experiments were almost always killed and dissected after the experiments.
He seemed particularly keen on working with Romani children. He would bring them sweets and toys, and would personally take them to the gas chamber. They would call him "Onkel Mengele." Vera Alexander was a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz who looked after 50 sets of Romani twins:
In 1935, Hitler introduced the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and deprived them of all civil rights. In his speech introducing the laws, Hitler said that if the "Jewish problem" cannot be solved by these laws, it "must then be handed over by law to the National-Socialist Party for a final solution (Endlösung)." The expression "Endlösung" became the standard Nazi euphemism for the extermination of the Jews. In January 1939, he said in a public speech: "If international-finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed once more in plunging the nations into yet another world war, the consequences will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation (vernichtung) of the Jewish race in Europe."
The question of the treatment of the Jews became an urgent one for the Nazis after September 1939, when they occupied the western half of Poland, home to about two million Jews. Heinrich Himmler's right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich, recommended concentrating all the Polish Jews in ghettos in major cities, where they would be put to work for the German war industry. The ghettos would be in cities located on railway junctions, so that, in Heydrich's words, "future measures can be accomplished more easily." During his interrogation in 1961, Adolf Eichmann testified that the expression "future measures" was understood to mean "physical extermination."}}
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, leading Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and France to declare war. Hans Frank, a German lawyer, was appointed Governor-General in October.
In September, Himmler appointed Reinhard Heydrich head of the Reich Security Head Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA), a body overseeing the work of the SS, the Security Police (SD), and the Gestapo in occupied Poland and charged with carrying out the policy towards the Jews described in Heydrich's report. (This body should not be confused with the Rasse und Siedlungshauptamt or Race and Resettlement Main Office, RuSHA, which was involved in carrying out the deportation of Jews.) First organised murders of Jews by German forces occurred during Operation Tannenberg and through Selbstschutz units. Later the Jews were herded into ghettos, mostly in the General Government area of central Poland, where they were put to work under the Reich Labor Office headed by Fritz Saukel. Here many thousands were killed in various ways, and many more died of disease, starvation, and exhaustion, but there was still no program of systematic killing. There is no doubt, however, that the Nazis saw forced labor as a form of extermination. The expression Vernichtung durch Arbeit ("destruction through work") was frequently used.
When the Germans occupied Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France in 1940, and Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941, anti-Semitic measures were also introduced into these countries, although the pace and severity varied greatly from country to country according to local political circumstances. Jews were removed from economic and cultural life and were subject to various restrictive laws, but physical deportation did not occur in most places before 1942. The Vichy regime in occupied France actively collaborated in persecuting French Jews. Germany's allies Italy, Finland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria were pressured to introduce anti-Jewish measures, but for the most part they did not comply until compelled to do so. The German puppet regime in Croatia, on the other hand, began actively persecuting Jews on its own initiative.
During 1940 and 1941, the murder of large numbers of Jews in German occupied Poland continued, and the deportation of Jews from Germany, Austria and the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia" (today's Czech Republic) to General Gouvernment was undertaken. Eichmann was assigned the task of removing all Jews from these territories, although the deportation of Jews from Germany, particularly Berlin, was not officially completed until 1943. (Many Berlin Jews were able to survive in hiding—it is an irony of the Holocaust that Berlin was one of the few places where this was possible.) By December 1939, 3.5 million Jews were crowded into the General Government area.
The Governor-General, Hans Frank, noted that this many people could not be simply shot. "We shall have to take steps, however, designed in some way to eliminate them." It was this dilemma which led the SS to experiment with large-scale killings using poison gas. This method had already been used during Hitler's campaign of euthanasia in Germany (known as "T4"). SS Obersturmführer Christian Wirth seems to have been the inventor of the gas chamber.
Although it was clear by 1941 that the SS hierarchy led by Himmler and Heydrich was determined to embark on a policy of killing all the Jews under German control, there were important centers of opposition to this policy within the Nazi regime. The grounds for the opposition were mainly economic, not humanitarian. Hermann Göring, who had overall control of the German war industry, and the German army's Economics Department, representing the armaments industry, argued that the enormous Jewish labor force assembled in the General Government area (more than a million able-bodied workers) was an asset too valuable to waste while Germany was preparing to invade the Soviet Union.
During this period there were a few conflicts between the Army and the SS over policy in Poland. Ultimately, neither Göring nor the army leadership was willing or able to challenge Himmler's authority, particularly since Himmler made it clear he had Hitler's support.

Concentration and labor camps (1933–1945)

Leading up to the 1933 elections, the Nazis began intensifying acts of violence to wreak havoc among the opposition. With the cooperation of local authorities, they set up camps as concentration centers within Germany. One of the first was Dachau, which opened in March 1933. These early camps were meant to hold, torture, or kill only political prisoners, such as Communists and Social Democrats.
These early prisons—usually basements and storehouses—were eventually consolidated into full-blown, centrally run camps outside the cities. By 1942, six large extermination camps had been established in Nazi-occupied Poland. It is estimated that the Germans established 15,000 camps in the occupied countries, many of them in Poland.
New camps were focused on areas with large Jewish, Polish intelligentsia, communist, or Roma and Sinti populations, including inside Germany. The transportation of prisoners was often carried out under horrifying conditions using rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their destination.
Extermination through labour, a means whereby camp inmates would literally be worked to death—or frequently worked until they could no longer perform work tasks, followed by their selection for extermination—was invoked as a further systematic extermination policy. Furthermore, while not designed as a method for systematic extermination, many camp prisoners died because of harsh overall conditions or from executions carried out on a whim after being allowed to live for days or months.
Upon admission, some camps tattooed prisoners with a prisoner ID. Those fit for work were dispatched for 12 to 14 hour shifts. Before and after, there were roll calls that could sometimes last for hours, with prisoners regularly dying of exposure.

Ghettos (1940–1945)

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 opened a new phase. The Holocaust intensified after the Nazis occupied Lithuania, where close to 80% of Lithuanian Jews were exterminated before the end of the year. The Soviet territories occupied by early 1942, including all of Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Ukraine, and most Russian territory west of the line Leningrad-Moscow-Rostov, contained about four million Jews, including hundreds of thousands who had fled Poland in 1939. Despite the chaos of the Soviet retreat, some effort was made to evacuate Jews, and about a million succeeded in escaping further east. The remaining three million were left at the mercy of the Nazis.
In these territories, there were fewer restraints on the mass killing of Jews than there were in countries like France or the Netherlands, where there was a long tradition of tolerance and the rule of law, or even Poland where, despite a strong tradition of antisemitism, there was considerable resistance to Nazi persecution of Polish Jews. In the Baltic states, Belarus, and Ukraine, native antisemitism was reinforced by hatred of Communist rule, which many people associated with the Jews. Thousands of people in these countries actively collaborated with the Nazis. Ukrainians and Latvians joined SS auxiliary forces in large numbers and did much of the dirty work in Nazi extermination camps. Raul Hilberg writes that these were ordinary citizens, not hoodlums or thugs; the great majority were university-educated professionals. They used their skills to become efficient killers, according to Michael Berenbaum.
According to Ohlendorf at his trial, "the Einsatzgruppen had the mission to protect the rear of the troops by killing the Jews, gypsies, Communist functionaries, active Communists, and all persons who would endanger the security." In practice, their victims were nearly all defenseless Jewish civilians (not a single Einsatzgruppe member was killed in action during these operations). By December 1941, the four Einsatzgruppen listed above had killed, respectively, 125,000, 45,000, 75,000, and 55,000 people—a total of 300,000 people—mainly by shooting or with hand grenades at mass killing sites outside the major towns.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells the story of one survivor of the Einsatzgruppen in Piryatin, Ukraine, when they killed 1,600 Jews on April 6, 1942, the second day of Passover:

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

annihilation, bloodbath, blue ruin, breakup, burnt offering, butchery, carnage, clawing, collection, conflagration, consumption, cruciation, crucifixion, damnation, decimation, depredation, desolation, despoilment, despoliation, destruction, devastation, disintegration, disorganization, disruption, dissolution, drink offering, elimination, eradication, ex voto offering, extermination, extinction, final solution, fire, genocide, havoc, heave offering, hecatomb, hell, hell upon earth, horror, human sacrifice, immolation, incense, infanticide, inferno, laceration, lancination, libation, mactation, martyrdom, mass destruction, mass murder, massacre, nightmare, oblation, offering, offertory, passion, peace offering, perdition, persecution, piacular offering, pogrom, purgatory, race extermination, race-murder, rack, ravage, ruin, ruination, sacramental offering, sacrifice, saturnalia of blood, scapegoat, self-immolation, self-sacrifice, shambles, slaughter, spoliation, suttee, sutteeism, thank offering, torment, torture, undoing, vandalism, votive offering, waste, whole offering, wholesale murder, wrack, wrack and ruin, wreck
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