In April 1961, the trial began playing on the TV in our den, and the images still hover on the edges of my memory—the mournful parade of survivors testifying while Adolf Eichmann sat in his glass cube. From the newspapers I knew that Eichmann had helped arrange the murder of millions of Jews, but the turkey-necked man with the black-frame glasses looked more like a bookkeeper than the bad guys in The Magnificent Seven.

My parents stared at the TV with a grim silence that discouraged questions. The year before, William L. Shirer had published his huge best seller, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, yet in some 1,200 pages only 30 addressed the attempted genocide of the Jews. But as the survivors testified and their stories were broadcast around the world, the destruction of European Jewry began to evolve into an event separate from the Second World War and would be given a name—Holocaust.

Before the trial, the word was spelled with a small h. But Paul Jacobs, an American journalist covering the proceedings, needed a stand-in for the biblical term Israelis used to refer to the six million, shoah. (For example, see Zephaniah 1:15: That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of shoah and desolation. . .) Jacobs capitalizing the H in his dispatches was emphasizing the singularity of the events. Although he considered himself an assimilated Jew, listening to the witnesses Jacobs felt as if his identity had been upended and admitted that he “started to wonder if the American gentile world has always regarded me as a Jew who is also incidentally an American.. . . I shall certainly be troubled until I find out.”

I don’t know if Mr. Jacobs ever found his answer.