The knock against "Holocaust" is twofold. Many object to the word, derived from ancient Greek, because it translates as "burnt offering" -- in the sacrificial religious sense, according to select scholars. And that leads to a horrific connotation when speaking of the atrocities committed against the Jews, who were often driven to the gas chambers, then cremated. How could their fiery end be considered a sacrifice?
"If it's a burnt offering to God, then I don't want to know the God at the other end," says Michael Berenbaum, a leading scholar based at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
But the linguistic issues go deeper. As "Holocaust" seeps into the vernacular, the term has become attached not only to other genocides and mass slaughters -- in Armenia, Cambodia and elsewhere -- but also to a range of other events and movements. In an article for a Jewish publication, Diana Cole cited such examples as a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit and SiliconeHolocaust.org, a Web site for "breast implant victims."
Still, others say the "burnt offering" religious concept isn't necessarily the correct interpretation. True, "holocaust" appears in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (or, as some now prefer to call it, the Hebrew scriptures). But "holocaust" was also employed before that to denote pagan sacrifices, removing it from the Judeo-Christian framework, researcher Jon Petrie has noted.
And in the 20th century, "holocaust" took on variety of meanings before it became forever wedded to the crimes of the Nazi era. Often, it simply signified a great fire. In his writings, Petrie goes so far as to quote a 1940 advertisement in the pre-state of Israel Palestine Post for a show by one Mandrake the Magician, promising "a flaming holocaust of thrills."
Right word may not exist
In the early years of the Cold War, "holocaust" was far more likely to be used in conjunction with the threat of nuclear disaster. Petrie has argued that it was such usage that prompted Jewish writers, including Wiesel, to co-opt the term when referring to Hitler's dreaded "Final Solution."
"American Jewish writers probably abandoned such words as 'disaster,' 'catastrophe' and 'massacre' in favor of 'holocaust' in the 1960s because 'holocaust,' with its evocation of the then actively feared nuclear mass death, effectively conveyed something of the horror of the Jewish experience during World War II."
Myself, I don't have strong feelings either way. The main thing is, once you've settled on the term, to define it clearly so people know what you're talking about. The first argument strikes me as stronger than the second: "holocaust" did mean a "whole burnt offering" to God in biblical Greek, which is the wrong connotation for Auschwitz. But, at the same time, usage trumps etymology, and the twentieth-century usage was more complicated. The second argument strikes me as weak: whatever term is chosen, some people are going to apply it to their own cause, no matter how inappropriately.
A thoughtful article, well worth reading in full.
UPDATE (19 April): The Am ha-Aretz blogger e-mailed me to draw attention to this post. It appears that the Israeli Knesset has changed the date of Yom HaShoah this year, making it begin on the evening of the 18th through this evening (the 19th).