Holocaust – An attempt of definition

By Andrei Oisteanu

Pogrome, genocide, Shoah


As six decades from the massacre of the Jews from Iasi (1941) passed away, the so-called League for fighting against the Anti-Romanian Attitude (leaded by Ion Coja, I,C. Dragan etc) organized in Bucharest a discussion with the purpose of denying the existence of the massacre where several thousands of Jews died. I attended “incognito” this discussion under some circumstances that I mentioned with another occasion (“22″ magazine, no.656/2002). To the discontent of the organizers, one of the lecturers (who was an eye witness to the events) made the mistake to admit that “several hundreds of Jews were killed”, adding (immediately) that what happened was not a pogrome.
“Starting with what number of dead persons is it considered to be a pogrome?” I asked. Indeed, how can we define the pogrome, the genocide, the Holocaust?
The massacre suffered by the Jews during the second World War is called genocide, ethnocide, martirdom, Shoah , Holocaust.

The term “genocide” defines the deliberate and systematic extermination of a population of a community with ethnical identity and, by semantic extension, with political or religious identity. This term is often used, even generating the name for a new academical research branch:”genocide studies”.

The biblical terms Shoah and Holocaust were used by the Jews even since the beginning of the ’40 years for defining the massacre they were exposed to. Shoah (read shoa’) is an Hebrew word – meaning “catastrophe”, “disaster”, “total destruction”. This term appears twice in the Old Testament:” You will not fear (…) of the calamity of the outlaws ” (Proverbs, III, 25; see Isaiia, X, 3)

In the Bible they speak of the “customs of the different sacrifices” (“Exodus”, XIX, Levitic, VI). Among these customs there can be found the “total burning sacrifice” where in its processes, all the parts of the animal sacrificed were burned: “To burn all the ram on the pyre, as this means to burn for God” (“Exodus”, XIX, 18). Another type of sacrifices are when only a part of the animal is burned on the pyre or where a part of the sacrifice is consumed by the executioner: “To take the chest of the ram, (…) and this will be your share”(“Exodus”, XIX, 26). The translator of the Bible for the Greek language – Helen Jews from Alexandria, in the II century A.C. – had equalised the phrase “total burning” through the Greek term “holo” (total) + “causton” (“burning”).

Evidently, the term Holocaust – brought in the ’60′s by the American intellectual society – initially was used in a figurative manner to designate the massacre to which the European Jews were exposed between the ’30s and the ’40s. However, there are a few commentators who, deliberately interpret the term in a literal sense. A confusing mistake, sometimes voluntarily made. One can accentuate the first part of the collocation (“burning”) sustaining that the term Holocaust is referring to the burning of the bodies in the crematories. As on the territory of Romania such crematories did not exist nor in the territories administrated by the Romanians, the conclusion resulted is that “in Romania there was no Holocaust”.One can accentuate the second part of the collocation (“totally”) outlining the point of view that the Holocaust was the “total” extermination of the Jews. And as the community of the Jews from the Great Romania was not totally destructed, the conclusion is the same.

The terminology of the executioners

As complex as it is, the Holocaust phenomenon can be reduced to a three terms equation: executioners, victims, and eyewitnesses (perpetrators, victims and bystanders, according to Raul Hilberg). If the Shoah and the Holocaust are terms rather used by the victims and the “genocide” and “ethnocide” are more likely used by the eyewitnesses, it is interesting what is the terminology used by the executioners. Evidently, it is the word “Endlosung (“the final solution”), however, the Nazi preferred other term, apparently less offensive:Vernichtung. This term, also was misunderstood and differently translated and by considering its semantic root (nichts), it can not be equalised with any other word but “annihilation” (semantic root:”nihil”) or “destruction” (semantic root:”nothing”). For example, in the proceedings of the sinister Conference from Wannsee (20 th of January 1942) there were established the technical details for the “annihilation” (Vernichtung) of “over 11 millions of Jews”- according to Adolf Hitler’s will.

Some Romanian representatives of anti-semitism proved themselves to be “in sync”. For example, in 1913 (!), Mr. Nicolae Paulescu presented “the most facile and convenient way to get rid of the Jews” – the mass killing with toxic substances:” to exterminate them as the bed bug are killed”. In 1928, A.C. Cuza- the mentor of C. Z. Codreanu – also proposed the “final solution”.”The only possible solution of the Jewish issue is to eliminate them”. In 1941, the leaders of Romania opted for the usage of the “ethnic purification” term. “The Satan is the Jew” was writing Ion Antonescu, from Odessa to the Council of the Ministers. “It is a battle of life and death. Either we win and the world will be purified, either they win (the Jews) and we will become their slaves” .” Let us use this historic moment – declared, on his turn Mihai Antonescu, – to clean the Romanian land and our nation (…). If necessary, use the machine gun”

Emergency Ordinance no.31/2002

In order to gain the good will of the Occident before the Prague NATO summit, the Romanian Govern published in March 2002 an Emergency Ordinance which refers to the prohibition of the fascist, racist or xenophobic organizations or symbols and of the promotion of the cult of persons who are guilty of crimes against peace and humanity”. The 6-th article stipulates “the prison penalty from 6 months to 5 years” for the act of public denial of the Holocaust or one of its effects”. Similar settlements are also in operation in countries like Gemany and France. On the 2-nd article, the legislator defined the terms used within the Ordinance (“organization with a fascist racist or xenophobic character”, “fascist, racist or xenophobic symbols” and “person who is guilty of crimes against peace and humanity”) in order to designate the penal sanctioned acts. It is curios that the legislator did not consider necessary also to define the term Holocaust. Or, under these circumstances, the legal application of the 6-th article can generate arbitrary exonerations and abusive accusations.

Observing this deficiency, the Culture Commission of the Senate published, in May 2002, a definition of the term Holocaust, perhaps with the view of including it in the body text of the law at the moment of its discussion in the Parliament (event currently delayed indefinitely in order to prevent the occidental offices to learn about the opinions of many Members of the Parliament related to such sensitive issues as the Romanian Holocaust or the cult of Antonescu). The definition of the Holocaust given by the Commission of Culture is: “the systematic mass extermination of the European Jews in the Nazis concentration camps during the second World War” Although, apparently it seems correctly formulated, the subject brings into disscution several aspects which I shall also approach.

Confusions and questions

From the Ordinance it is not clear whether only “the public denial”of the Holocaust as an historic phenomenon is considered an offence, or the denial of the participation of the Romanian authorities to the Holocaust is included too. This aspect is relevant because most of the Romanian negationists do not contest as much the general idea of the Holocaust as they oppose the idea of the Holocaust under the Romanian authorities (“selective denial” as it is called by Michael Schafir in his last book)

It is questioned whether the 6-th article of the Ordinance (which sanctions the denial of the Holocaust) has to refer exclusively to the Jewish population, or other minorities which were decimated (for example, gypsies) should be included too. If the term Holocaust is considered to refer exclusively to Jews, there must be found a formula of prohibition of the denial of the genocide of the gypsies (even if it was of a smaller extension). It is a law by which the racist and xenophobic manifestations are meant to be sanctioned by the Penal Code and it would be abnormal that through it, to allow the denial of the genocide in the gypsies case, and to prohibite only the denial of the Jews genocide (according to the principle “what it is not prohibited is allowed”)

The definition of the Senatorial Commission is referring to the murder of the Jews only in the “extermination camps”. However, for a Holocaust concept definition, not only this aspect should be considered but any other form of opression leading to killing practiced by the authorities, as it happened in Romania during the 1940-1944: the deportations in Transnistria (where the usual “extermination camps” did not exist), the massacres from certain cities (Dorohoi, Bucuresti, Iasi, Odessa), the “death trains” etc.
The definition is including the aspect of the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis , but not by their allies, even the Romanians (“the cuzists”, the legionars, the Antonescian authorities etc). The “extermination camps” are mentioned but the “antonescian extermination camps” (where the deported Jews died, as a result of a brutal extermination regime of starvation, cold, diseases, exhaust etc), the massacres where the Romanian army participated (Dorohoi, Odessa) or the Romanian police or constabulary (Iasi, “the death trains”) or the legionary police (Bucharest) etc.

Instead of conclusions

Based on the existence of this negligent definition concept, the conclusion is easy to infer: even if there is admitted that the Romanian authorities did expose the Jews to a rougher regime (“a la guerre comme a la guerre”, cynically says I.Coja), it can not be affirmed that on the territory of Romania there was a Holocaust, because the exterminations camps did not exist. Therefore, by the formulation of the definition itself, the Senators from the Commission of Culture could be accused of the denial of the Holocaust from Romania and in this way, of the violation of the provosion of the 6-th article of the Ordinance no.31/2002.
The atypical situation of Romania is speculated by the negationists. With some exceptions, the Jews were massacred, on one side, on the territories which at that time were not under the Romanian administration – but they are at the present – (the Northern Transilvania) and, on the other side, on territories which were at that time under the Romanian administration – but they are not at the present (Basarabia, Northern Bucovina, Transnistria, Odessa)

Finally, as the Gulag, the Holocaust is a complex phenomenon having political, juridic, social and moral implications. In my opinion, this term does not cover from the semantic point of view, just the “extermination of the Jews” but the measures that proceeded , prepared it too: law discrimination, the loss of the civil rights, the dismissal from the job functions, the property confiscations, the forced emigration, the yellow star stigmatization, the “ghettoization”, the deportation to extermination camps … These measures were also used in Romania between 1938-1944, and one way or another they should appear in the frames of a concept definition of the Holocaust, near the massacres made by the Nazis – shooting, hanging, asphyxia, burning alive, gass, starvation, cold, diseases – from which only the gass method was missing from the antonescian regime.