What is the Holocaust?

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.

What is the origin of the word “Holocaust”?

The the origin of 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.

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.

To learn more about the Holocaust, visit the Museum’s online Holocaust Encyclopedia, which features articles, photographs, maps and other resources. http://www.ushmm.org/

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