Over the years I have asked educators to provide me with a definition of the Holocaust. Much to my surprise no matter what state I was in, whether it was Minnesota, Tennessee or California, I have heard several different answers. Numbers of dead ranged from 6 to 12 million and several victim groups were covered under the term.
A few weeks ago the Rialto School District in California had written and distributed an assignment to eighth graders asking them to debate whether the Holocaust was an actual event in history or a hoax perpetrated on the public to raise funds for Israel. They asked students to look at newspaper articles to form their answers. With the thousands upon thousands of primary source documents (mainly left by the perpetrators themselves) available, they thought opinion based articles were the best method towards the students forming their own ideas under the guise of increasing the students’ critical thinking skills.
So how are these two events related? And why does it matter that we have only one definition of the Holocaust? We can debate whether the term “Holocaust” is the most fitting to describe the event, but there is no debate to what it signifies. Holocaust is the term that defines the destruction of the six million European Jews by the Nazi’s and their collaborators between 1933-1945.
How we define the Holocaust is important to how we teach it. If we continue to add other groups to the equation, such as Homosexuals, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Poles, the Handicapped and the Sinti-Roma (Gypsies), it takes away the fact that the Nazis and their collaborators specifically planned and attempted to carry out the complete destruction of European Jewry. This is not to say that these other groups did not suffer greatly, nor should they be forgotten in the study of the Third Reich, as their persecution is also important to our understanding of the Holocaust.
The Nazis came to the Final Solution by problem solving and perfecting persecution. The extermination camps profited greatly from the knowledge gained during the T4 program use of gas vans and shower rooms to murder the mentally and physically disabled. It should also be noted that the T4 program was discontinued due to public outcry, something that did not happen for the Jews.
Every decade we move further from the event, the more we water it down the further damage we do. Singly defining the Holocaust as an event that took place against Jews does not negate the Holocaust as an event that has universal implications.
Genocides are “any acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:.” If everything is equal, and all victims of Nazism are included under the term Holocaust, then the historical specificity of the genocide of six million European Jews is blurred. This of course plays right into what Holocaust and genocide deniers want you to believe. That it did not happen the way it has been written, history is arbitrary and events can be debated on opinion rather than fact, just like in Rialto. This is why we need to get the definition right, for if we truly want to ignore what made the Holocaust unique then we not only dishonor the victims of that genocide but all others, doing a disservice not only to them but to ourselves.
Jodi Elowitz is the Outreach Coordinator for CHGS and the Program Coordinator for the European Studies Consortium. Elowitz is currently working on Holocaust memory in Poland and artistic representation of the Holocaust in animated short films.