Whole libraries have been written to document and explain the Shoah (Holocaust), but more research is still needed if we are ever to understand an event so complex and devastating. The word ‘holocaust’ comes from the ancient Greek, and means a sacrifice completely burnt on an altar. Today ‘holocaust’ is generally used as a euphemism for mass murder; genocide in its most brutal and vicious form. ‘Shoah’ is a Hebrew word which specifically denotes the Nazi effort to annihilate the Jews, as distinct from other instances of genocide against other peoples throughout history.

In specific terms, ‘the Holocaust’ or ‘Shoah’ refers to the systematic annihilation of six million Jewish people by Germany’s Nazi regime over the period January 30 1933 to May 8 1945. The Holocaust is a unique event in the history of humankind, in that one specific people, the Jews, was marked for destruction as a basic ideology of the state. It should be remembered that a number of other groups and individuals (including Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents and the intellectually and physically disabled) were also targeted by the Nazis.

Two other factors which make the Holocaust/Shoah unique are the gigantic scale of the persecution, oppression, enslavement and extermination of human beings and the ‘industrialisation’ of the process of doing so. However, if the Holocaust was unique, its lessons are universal. They include the potential for evil in totalitarian regimes, the need for active opposition to such evil wherever it occurs and the obligation to cherish the individual freedoms and human rights that people take for granted in democracies such as Australia.