The word’s the thing

When I was a kid I remember reading about the Holocaust for the first time. I think I was nine or ten. I couldn’t believe it, sitting there in the air-conditioned Bellaire Public Library, gazing in disbelief at the photos and disbelieving it even more as I read, then re-read, then re-read again.

Somewhere along the four-dimensional trip to adulthood I learned about the cities of Peking and Bombay, and I became familiar with them in the news, foreign places on a map with which I was comfortable because I knew their names. Peking? Capital of China! Bombay? Magical city of India!

What’s in a name? Everything about the thing, that’s what! The name casts its spell on the thing and makes it what it is, that is why we give them.

One day I noticed with a nasty shock that Peking had been erased from the map, replaced with a clumsy and unspeakable proper noun, “Beijing.” Theft! Grand larceny! Kidnapping! Fraud! Where the fuck is Beijing and who cares, anyway? I want my Peking back!

It took years to absorb that awful new name, but now it is the correct one, and even writing down “Peking” seems laughable, an effort, a word you should only use as an adjective for “duck.” It took longer to understand why Beijing, and later Mumbai, were such proper, such good, such authentic words. They were so because those words, not Peking and Bombay, were the words that the original givers had given.

It was only through theft and colonization and historical rape that white men with clumsy tongues contorted the gentle, melodious tones of Chinese and Hindi into the butchery of anglicized nomenclature. It was only through time and travel and force-fed humility that I came to recognize the propriety of people owning their own culture, and doing it first and foremost through the power of naming.

Unlike the Holocaust, I don’t remember when I first came across the Holocaust deniers. At first I couldn’t believe it, but then, of course I could. And with them came an even more evil tribe, not simply people of flat-earth intellect who challenged demonstrable facts, but people who didn’t deny the fact and instead appropriated it.

“WE HAD OUR HOLOCAUST, TOO!” was their battle cry, not because they felt pity or shame or horror or revulsion or loss at the destruction of European Jewry, but because they knew that by appropriating the words of one of the chief horrors of humanity they would weaken it, casualize it, deflect it, normalize it.

Because I love words, they seemed somehow more evil than the deniers.

Righteousness where I have come to expect it

Every morning I awake, put the kettle on, and listen first to the RFI Chinese radio broadcast and then to the podcast from Falter Radio. Falter is a liberal, aggressive, fair, investigative, thought-provoking newspaper in Austria. Its podcast is always stimulating, sometimes spellbinding.

As a matter of course it reports on every variety of social ill befalling Austria, with a special place for anti-Semitism. And it was about a year ago that I noticed a new word had cropped up: Shoah. Either I was slow on the uptake (highly likely), and/or the word Holocaust had been excised from the media, much as Peking became Beijing and Bombay became Mumbai.

Then a friend sent me a brilliant recent speech by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an exhortation to his nation to essentially be good and kind. And when he invoked the past, he did it with the word of the people who named the thing: the Shoah.

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4 thoughts on “The word’s the thing”

  1. It is my understanding that both “Shoah” and “The Holocaust” are appropriate terms referencing the mid 20th century Nazi efforts to eliminate European Jewry. Shoah is simply the Hebrew word for Holocaust. “Genocide” would be the more generic term for any deliberate killing of a large group of humans.

    1. My link in the blog post does a good job of parsing that. My point is that in Germany and Austria they have adopted the Hebrew word, which is a form of allowing those who have given a name to a thing the ownership of it. You cannot call the Armenian, Rwandan, Cambodian, Romany, or other genocides of the 20th Century the “Shoah,” any more than you can call the Super Bowl the FIFA World Cup … at least you can’t do so without appearing unintelligible.

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