Other Voices: Understanding, appreciating differences between Shoah and Holocaust


Every year, my students in my Holocaust course ask me: What’s the difference between Shoah and the Holocaust? Or the difference between Yom HaShoah and Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust? In my years of work as a scholar and Holocaust educator, I’ve seen much confusion over these names and definitions. In the wake of the upcoming remembrance ceremonies, I thought it appropriate to offer some clear definitions.

Q: What is Shoah?

A: “Shoah” means “catastrophe” in Hebrew.

Shoah, the Holocaust of the Jewish people, was the ideological, systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of millions of Jews by Hitler’s Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945, in the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jewish people. Nazism, an extreme racist, anti-Semitic, fascist and totalitarian ideology, with a vision of a world without Jews, was the main driving force behind the Shoah, which resulted with the death of some 6 million Jews, one-third of the Jewish people.


Q: What is the Holocaust?

A: “Holocaust” is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.”

Holocaust was the ideological, systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of millions of innocent civilians, targeted for racial, ethnic, national, political, ideological and behavioral reasons (Jews, political and religious dissidents, members of the clergy, Afro-Germans, Roma-Sinti/Gypsies, the physically and mentally challenged, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, some of the Slavic peoples, Poles, Russians, Soviet prisoners of war, Afro-American and Jewish prisoners of war and others) between 1933 and 1945, by Hitler’s Germany and its collaborators, in the Nazi attempt to create a racist and exclusive world dominated by the Aryan master race. Nazism was the main driving force behind the Holocaust, which resulted in the death of 6 million Jews and millions of members of other groups.


Q: What is Yom HaShoah? Who are we remembering? Why?

A: Yom HaShoah, Holocaust of the Jewish people and Heroism Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom Hazikaron LaShoah VeLagvurah, memorializes the 6 million Jews murdered in the Shoah – “commemoration of the disaster … brought upon the Jewish people and the acts of heroism and revolt performed,” as stated by the 1959 Israeli law. Yom HaShoah begins at sunset on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan and ends the following evening, according to the Jewish calendar. The date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Yom HaShoah 2019 begins at sundown today and ends the following evening.

Recently, American Jewish communities have observed Yom HaShoah. Commemorations range from synagogue services to communal vigils, a talk by a Shoah survivor, reading the names of the Jewish victims one after another and lighting six torches to represent the 6 million murdered Jews.


Q: What are Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust? Why do we as a nation remember victims of the Holocaust? Who are we remembering?

A: Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust is a seven-day period of commemoration in the U.S. honoring the millions of innocent civilians murdered in the Holocaust. The U.S. Congress in 1980 instructed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council to create “a living memorial to the 6 million Jews and millions of victims who perished during the Holocaust (and) establish Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust to ... provide for appropriate ways for the nation to commemorate the Days of Remembrance, as an annual, national, civic commemoration of the Holocaust, and encourage and sponsor appropriate observances of such Days of Remembrance throughout the United States.” The dates mark the anniversary of significant U.S. involvement in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps.

This year, Holocaust observances and remembrance activities occur nationwide this week through Sunday. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council encourages and sponsors appropriate observances throughout the country, and is responsible for leading the national Days of Remembrance ceremony in the U.S. Capitol with Holocaust survivors.


Edith Shaked of Los Altos Hills is a second-generation Holocaust survivor and an advisory board member of H-Holocaust, an international academic consortium for scholars of the Holocaust. For more information, visit networks.h-net.org/h-holocaust.

Never forget

Two local events are scheduled to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.

• Congregation Beth Am has scheduled a Yom HaShoah v’Hagevurah Service of Remembrance 7-8:15 p.m. today in the sanctuary, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. The service will include accounts of Holocaust survivors’ lives, readings, songs, prayers and the sounding of shofars.

• Santa Clara County is set to host a Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony 4-6 p.m. Thursday in the County Government Building, 70 W. Hedding St., San Jose. The ceremony will include a presentation on “Courageous Diplomats: Rescuers During the Holocaust of the Jewish People.” Attendees can view the “Beyond Duty” exhibition in the County Government Building breezeway.

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