The probable first use of the word 'Holocaust' to refer to the mass slaughter of the Jews was from the May 14th, 1943 Polish daily Nowy Dzien, which used the Polish word for holocaust, calopalenie, to describe the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, according to Dina Abramowicz, Librarian and Yiddish Expert at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Author: Alex Chilton
Performed by: Big Star
Album: Third/Sister Lovers/Beale Street Green (Rykodisc, 1992)
Recorded at: Ardent Studios, Memphis

Personal notes: I met Alex Chilton in 1991 at a gig in Nashville. I was there with an old friend of his, Tommy Hoehn, who I was representing as a music publisher and quasi-manager. Alex is something of a living legend, and has been for a long time, but he went through the motions of his show with all the enthusiasm of getting up in the morning and brushing your teeth. Afterwards, I went back stage with Tommy and smoked a few joints with Alex and his entourage, and got to talk with Alex for a while. Did you know he rolls his own cigarettes? It's true. He makes the tobacco blend himself, and keeps it in a Ziplock bag. He went on at great length about it, and how it contained a variety of herbs and botanicals of some sort; apparently he thought that was important for a good smoke.

I was first turned on to Big Star by Tommy, who had all the records that the band had ever released commercially. I remember listening to the tape I made of Radio City over and over until I absolutely wore it out. Shortly after Rykodisc released Third, Jeff Rougvie sent us several copies on CD. I have never been so awed at an album of music in my entire life. Discounting the fact that at that time I knew many of the principal participants in the the recording of the album (my story about producer Jim Dickinson deserves its own node), this was music that touched my soul in ways that I had never experienced before. I count Big Star on an equal level with The Velvet Underground, whom I had worshipped for years as the seminal alternative rock band of all time.

I was told this song is about Lesa Aldridge's mother. At the time it was written and recorded, Alex was dating Lesa, and Tommy was dating Lesa's sister. This is the source of the Sister Lovers title of the album it appears on. Lesa's mom was an alcoholic and prescription drug addict at the time, and Alex didn't get along with her. Holocaust was written as a sort of stab at her, since Alex can be quite a vindictive bastard when he wants to be, God bless him. Tommy later married Lesa, and she confirmed for me this story about the song. (She is credited as a singer on Third for her vocal performance on "Femme Fatale" along with backup vocals on other tracks.)

Apart from the VU, Big Star is unquestionably my favorite band of all time. Of all their songs, this is my favorite one. It is a dismal dirge, as depressing and low as anything can be. Gustav Mahler and Samuel Barber would be fucking jealous. I remember standing in the studio at Ardent where it was recorded, and feeling the vibes coming back like ghosts, flowing through me, and part of my soul is trapped in that room with this song. It will be forevermore.

Regarding the word Holocaust as a Taboo

The inability to use any holocaust-related word in any normal day or (heavens forbid) entertainment related conversation without bringing down on yourself the righteous wrath of the masses.

This is a social behavior I've noticed in Israel. As far as I know, Jewish people in the US are much more calm about it (see The Million Dollar Man as opposed to The Six Million Dollar Man for a good example).

This phenomenon constraints the Israeli social etiquette in a most severe way, giving Israeli comedians a huge gaping hole of Israeli culture they cannot even touch. The comedy style of Conan O'Brien, for example, would not work in Israel, as he is famous for not taking shit from no one.

This has more implications on Israeli society than those who meet the eye, seeing as, for example, Izaak Perlman tried to conduct a session in which The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra would play a little Wagner, but, as expected, he was Boo-ed off stage, as the sensitivity of Israel's highbrow intellectuals couldn't overcome the fact that Wagner's music was sometimes played in concentration camps. Condemning a composer because his pieces were used in conjunction with something horrific is not something I would expect from a highbrow intellectual.

The examples are quite abundant: anywhere between saying that the Armenian Holocaust is not a holocaust because that term is descriptive of the Jews' holocaust and not any other mass murder event in the history of mankind, to banning Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy because it was adopted by some Nazis as a tool of propaganda. Although it is no longer practiced in the Universities, it is quite a popular belief that Nietzsche was either the harbinger of Nazi ideology, or that his philosophy is somehow an encouraging medium for that ideology.

Being an Israeli, and a seeing as half of my family is gone because of those horrendeous events, I can try to understand the grief and suffering of those who underwent the Holocaust, and try not to hurt their feelings. But opening another wound instead, and creating urban myths and untruths, and even banning people from performing their art is far from where I draw the line between personal comfort and social dogma.

Afterthought: Regarding Wagner's antisemitism:
I do not try to argue the point (as some of you have thought) that Wagner was indeed antisemitic, or that perhaps Hitler was indeed a Wagner devotee, or even that Wagner's hatred towards Jews is rooted in Jealousness towards one rivaling artist, but rather point out that even if he was, it should not be a reason in judging his art. If his art did include antisemitic traits, or did have an underlying layer of them, I would see it as wrong; however, seeing as it was used a long time after his death, in a completely different state of events, I cannot see the importance of Wagners antisemitism in this matter.

The English word holocaust is derived from Latin holocaustum and Greek holocaustos/holokautos. Holo meaning “whole,” and kaustos/kaustos meaning, “burnt.” Appearances of the second are recorded on more than two hundred occasions in the Septuagint, generally translated to ola literally meaning “that which goes up.” One of the most common, multipurpose, and ancient forms of ancient Israelite sacrifice is the burnt offering, discussed in Leviticus 1, Numbers 15. The slaughtered sacrificial animals, bird, or unblemished four-footed males like sheep, goats, or cattle were wholly burned on the altar, with the exception of the skin, which was given to the priest who performed the ritual (Leviticus 7:8). The holocaust offering is mentioned three times in the New Testament (Mark 12:33 and Hebrews 10: 6, 8). Although the sacrificial system ended with Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, rabbinic literature included traditions about and discussions of the burnt offering, the earliest of which is in the Mishnah, especially tractates Zebahim and Tamid.

Established with the Babylonian exile during the 6th century BC, the Jews were dispersed all through the Mediterranean area from the 8th century BC, principally after the devastation of Jerusalem in 70 AD. By maintaining a separate and highly distinct identity time and again made them the focus of hostility and prejudice. Jews spread to most parts of the world, while continuing to look upon Israel as their homeland. The most important centers of diaspora were, in ancient times, Babylonia and Egypt. By the beginning of the Middle Ages, Spain was the main hub of Jewish scholarship, until the Inquisition expelled all Jews in 1492. During the European medieval times the discrimination of Jews became the widespread answer to financial or societal crisis reinforced by religious intolerance and resentment of the business activities of the Jewish population. Christians were prohibited to practice usury, but Jews were allowed to lend money at interest to Christians. Having taken on this role they became connected in the popular mind with extortion. By the late nineteenth century anti-Semitism crystallized as an explicit doctrine, based on conjectures of cultural determinism. This factored greatly into a major ideology of Nazism, which reached its apex in The Holocaust.

The meaning of “holocaust” has evolved from complete burnt consumption in sacrifice to include complete or massive destruction, especially of people. It was used in this context in the aftermaths of World War I and World War II. In the beginning were pogroms or mob attacks that were condoned or approved by authority brought about most often against religious, ethnic, or national minorities; most often against Jews. The original pogram transpired in the Ukraine following the 1881 assassination of Alexander II. Subsequently, there were numerous pogroms throughout Russia, and Russian Jews began to move abroad to the US and parts of Western Europe frequently giving their support to Theodore Herzl's Zionist campaign. After the revolution of 1905, anti-Semitic persecutions grew and were carried out on a large scale in Germany and Eastern Europe after Adolf Hitler came to power.

After World War II the State of Israel was created in 1948. The holocaust endowed Zionism with an unanswerable case, and with strong American support Zionism has sustained a tough domestic presence in Israel, maintaining the principle that all Jews have a right to live in Israel as Israeli citizens. The World Zionist Congress still exists to support Jewish emigration to Israel. The conflict between this belief and the rights of Palestinians has not, however, been resolved.

There was an enormous exodus of Jews from Russia and Poland with the German holocaust destroying many old European communities and since the 1950s, “The Holocaust” has come to refer to the Nazi murder of approximately two-thirds, some six million Jews from many European countries between 1933 and 1945). After the Nuremberg Laws were enacted in Germany Jews lost civil liberties, the rights to hold public office, practice professions, inter-marry with Germans, or use public education. Their homes and commerce were inventoried and sometimes appropriated. Persistent acts of violence were committed against them, and official propaganda urged Germans to hate and fear them. One such notable incident was the German night of glass or Kristallnacht. Mobs led by Nazi brownshirts (Sturm Abteilung) roamed Austrian and German towns on the nights of November 9th and 10th in 1938. Setting fire to synagogues and smashing windows of the homes and businesses owned by Jews became the first intimation of the coming desolation. The deliberate and anticipated effect was mass flight, halving the half-million German and Austrian Jewish population by the onset of World War II. This act led many academic Jews who later developed the atomic bomb in the United States to also flee Germany. The 2001 Macmillan Encyclopedia defines one of the ugliest episodes in history as being divided into two stages:

    During the first (1935-41), Jews in Germany and Austria were deprived of their civil rights under the (anti-Semitic) Nuremberg Laws (1935) and subjected to officially sanctioned acts of terror. The result was mass emigration. During the second phase (1941-45), Jews throughout occupied Europe were brutally massacred, initially through mass shootings and forced labour but then (following the adoption of the so-called "final solution" at the Wannsee conference of 1942) through (Adolf Eichmann's final solution) policy of systematic extermination in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. The Jewish populations of eastern Europe were the most grievously affected. Nearly half the victims of the holocaust (about 2.6 million people) were from Poland, where some 85% of the Jewish population perished: other countries to lose vast numbers of Jews included Romania, the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Lithuania. The holocaust has raised serious questions about the nature of European civilization in general and German culture in particular. Pope Pius XII, who knew what was happening to the Jews in Germany and occupied Europe, brought the Roman Catholic Church into disrepute by failing to criticize, or even comment upon, the genocide being perpetrated by the Germans.
An estimated six million Jews were systematically exterminated in the camps, as well as almost a half million gypsies; in addition, millions of Poles, Soviet prisoners-of-war, homosexuals, and other civilians perished. Anti-Semitism, found its most violent expression in The Holocaust, most European Hasidic communities did not survive and today by extension, “holocaust’” is sometimes used to designate massive atrocities against or a case of large-scale destruction or slaughter, principally by fire or nuclear war. For example the movie Waterworld (1995) is described as an ecological-holocaust fantasy.

However, the biblical religious-sacrificial origins and connotations of the word are troubling to some who prefer the word used most often in modern Hebrew to refer to the Nazi attempted extermination of European Jewry, Sho’ah, whose biblical meanings include devastation, desolation and ruin.


The Macmillan Encyclopedia 2001

Metzger, Bruce Manning & Coogan, Michael D. The Oxford Companion to the Bible , "Holocaust," Oxford University Press, 1993.

Oxford Paperback Encyclopedia, Oxford University Press 1998 .


Hol"o*caust (?), n. [L. holocaustum, Gr. , neut. of , , burnt whole; "o'los whole + kaysto`s burnt, fr. kai`ein to burn (cf. Caustic): cf. F. holocauste.]


A burnt sacrifice; an offering, the whole of which was consumed by fire, among the Jews and some pagan nations.



Sacrifice or loss of many lives, as by the burning of a theater or a ship. [An extended use not authorized by careful writers.]


© Webster 1913.

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