About This Lesson
The purpose of this lesson is to introduce students to the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust and to help them bear witness to the experiences of those targeted by the Nazis. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by learning about four phases of the Holocaust and then looking closely at stories of individuals who were targeted by Nazi brutality.
The extension includes the stories of individuals who, in spite of the danger, violence, and suffering around them, resisted the Nazis’ programme of dehumanisation and murder. A small percentage of prisoners in camps and ghettos found ways to carry out armed resistance, while others engaged in forms of ‘spiritual resistance’, and fought to maintain a sense of identity, dignity, faith, and culture in the degrading and dehumanizing systems of the ghettos and camps.
It is crucial in a study of the Holocaust to acknowledge the various ways that Jews and others targeted by the Nazis resisted, and to recognise the incredible challenges they faced.
What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
- What was the Holocaust?
- Why is it important to confront the brutality of this history?
- Students will understand the range of Nazi methods of mass murder, including the establishment of Jewish ghettos, mobile killing units, concentration camps, and killing centres.
- Students will bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:
- 3 activities
- 1 suggested homework
- 1 reading
- 2 videos
- 5 handouts
- 2 maps
- 1 image
- 1 PowerPoint
- 2 extension activities
Holocaust survivor Sonia Weitz begins her poem ‘For Yom Ha’Shoah’ with these lines: ‘Come, take this giant leap with me / into the other world ... the other place / where language fails and imagery deﬁes, / denies man’s consciousness ... and dies / upon the altar of insanity.’ 1
To study history in this lesson is to take Weitz’s ‘giant leap’. Learning about the Holocaust requires us to examine events in history and examples of human behaviour that both unsettle us and elude our attempts to explain them.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, its goal was to claim living space for the Aryan race that the Nazis had long wanted. However, in order for Germans to settle in the territory of Eastern Europe they had conquered from the Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942, they would have to empty it of so-called ‘inferior races’, including the millions of Jews who lived there. Early in the war, the Germans had forced Jews from the territories they conquered into ghettos and concentration camps and killed scores of them in mass shootings by mobile killing units. They had also considered plans to move the populations of Jews and other ‘non-Aryans’ to far-off places like Madagascar or Siberia.
Eventually, however, the Nazi leadership decided that these plans would be too impractical or expensive; they chose instead a policy to annihilate all of the Jews of Europe. Historians believe this decision was made by Hitler and his advisers towards the end of 1941. As mobile killing units continued to operate throughout Eastern Europe, the Nazis began to establish killing centres – camps designed for the purpose of murdering large numbers of victims, primarily in gas chambers, as quickly and efﬁciently as possible. By the end of the war in 1945, more than 6 million Jews and millions of other civilians, including Roma and Sinti, Slavs (Poles, Russians, and others), disabled people, and many of the Nazis’ political enemies, were murdered by the Third Reich.
To gain an understanding of the Holocaust, it is important to look not only at the acts of the perpetrators but also at the experiences of victims and survivors. However, it is impossible to truly understand their experiences. Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel explains, ‘Ask any survivor and he will tell you, and his children will tell you. He or she who did not live through the event will never know it. And he or she who did live through the event will never reveal it. Not entirely. Not really. Between our memory and its reflection there stands a wall that cannot be pierced.’ 2
Even though it is impossible to truly understand the victims’ experiences, and even though nothing can prepare us to encounter the horror of this crime, it is still important to take stock of the scope of this genocide and to appreciate how humanity was stripped from millions of people. This lesson helps students bear witness to the stories of some of the people who suffered under Nazi brutality.
The history and the stories that students encounter in this lesson are disturbing and difficult to fathom yet necessary to confront. They show the importance of honouring human dignity by showing us what can happen when it is taken away and what can be prevented when it is preserved.
Preparing to Teach
A Note to Teachers
Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts.
In this lesson, students will encounter emotionally challenging content. Carefully consider each of these suggestions before engaging with this material with your students:
- Teachers know their students best. Preview each resource in this lesson before you share it with your students. Let students know in advance when they are about to encounter material that some may find upsetting. If necessary, omit resources that you believe will be too disturbing for your students.
- Briefly review the class contract with students before beginning the lesson. This will help reinforce the norms you have established and reinforce the idea of the classroom as a safe space for students to voice concerns, questions, or emotions that may arise.
- Be prepared for a variety of responses from students. Students often react to the Holocaust with sadness, anger, or frustration, yet it is also the case that many students do not have an immediate public response to learning about the Holocaust. Many teachers have been surprised by some students’ lack of emotion during a lesson on the Holocaust. Experience has taught us that it can take time before students are able and ready to make sense of this material. In the meantime, many students report that their journals provide a safe space where they can begin to process their emotions and ideas. Therefore, we recommend that students are invited to write in their journals at many points throughout this lesson.
The resources in this lesson refer to ghettos, concentration camps, and killing centres. It may be helpful to post simple definitions of each of these words in the room to help students understand and distinguish between them:
- Ghetto: a specific area of a city or town in which Jews were forced to live (and often not permitted to leave). Ghettos were overcrowded and deprived of sufficient food and other basic supplies.
- Concentration camp: a camp created to confine large numbers of prisoners (including political opponents and those deemed racially inferior) in harsh and unhealthy conditions.
- Killing centre: a camp designed for the purpose of murdering large numbers of victims, primarily in gas chambers, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The reality of the Nazi ghetto and camp system is quite complex, as the Nazis operated more than 40,000 ghettos and camps that served a variety of purposes and varied in size and operation. But for this lesson, these three definitions will suffice.
In addition to ghetto, concentration camp, and killing centre, the following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:
Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide the necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.
- Activities in this lesson include a gallery walk and a graffiti board. Prepare in advance by placing the gallery walk resources around the room (these are also included in the PowerPoint) and setting up a whiteboard or large paper to use as a graffiti board. We recommend leaving up the graffiti board for a few days, so make sure it does not occupy space you anticipate needing.
- Graffiti boards can offer the richest opportunity for reflection and written discussion when students can revisit them over time to observe new contributions from classmates. You might help to make this a more rewarding activity, and save some class time in the process, if you are able to find time outside of the normal class period (such as tutor time) when students are able to visit your room and work on the graffiti board.
The Holocaust - Bearing Witness
Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.
The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales, context, and detailed activity instructions that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.
The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.
- Project the poem ‘For Yom Ha’Shoah’, from the reading Take This Giant Leap, by Sonia Weitz, a Holocaust survivor. We suggest asking students to read the poem silently twice. After reading, ask students to respond to the following questions in their journals:
- What does this poem mean to you?
- What does this poem suggest it is like to learn about the Holocaust?
- What questions does the poem raise for you?
- Then ask students to share their responses to these prompts. Their questions about the poem can be recorded on the board so that they can be revisited at the end of the lesson, when students have greater familiarity with the Holocaust.
- While the primary goal of this lesson is to provide students with the opportunity to bear witness to some specific stories and experiences of individuals who lived or died during the Holocaust, it is first necessary briefly to give students a framework to understand what happened.
- In the video Step By Step: Phases of the Holocaust (6:45), historian Doris Bergen divides the history of the Holocaust into four phases, described on the handout Phases of the Holocaust. Pass out the handout and give students a few moments to read through the information. Then show the video so that students can hear Bergen’s description of the four phases.
- In this activity, students will have the opportunity to work independently to reflect on, and bear witness to, a variety of stories and experiences during the Holocaust.
- Firstly, students will watch a short video with testimony from a Holocaust survivor from the city of Vilna, Lithuania. The Jews of Vilna were forced into ghettos after the German invasion in 1941, and tens of thousands of them were then murdered either in mass shootings or at the Sobibór killing centre. Show the class the video The Nazis in Vilna (5:06). After the clip is over, give students a few minutes to write in their journals in response to the following questions:
- What about Jack Arnel’s testimony is most striking to you? What does it make you think about or feel?
- What is the value of hearing this kind of first-hand account? How does it change how you understand the Holocaust?
- If there is time and if desired, invite some students to share their responses with the class.
- Next, tell students that in order to bear witness to the many ways that people experienced and responded to the brutality of the Holocaust, they will be looking at images from the period and reading the words of people who were there. They will also view two maps to get a sense of the scope of the Nazi atrocities.
- Set up a gallery walk by placing the following resources on tables or hanging them around the room (they are also included in the PowerPoint, if it is easier to print from there):
- Map: Jewish Ghettos in Eastern Europe
- Map: Main Nazi Camps and Killing Sites
- Image: The Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto
- Handout: Mobile Killing Units
- Handout: Auschwitz
- Handout: We May Not Have Another Chance
- Handout: Diary from the Łódź Ghetto
- Ask students to silently ‘tour’ the gallery. Give them ten minutes (or longer if you have more time) to view or read as many of the resources as they can. For each one they view, ask them to do the following in their journals:
- Record the name of the resource.
- If it is a text-based resource, record a sentence, phrase, or detail you think is striking or significant.
- If it is an image, describe a part of the image that provokes a question, observation, or emotional response from you.
- When students are finished, rather than return to their desks, ask them to visit the graffiti board you have set up in advance and write a response to the resources they encountered. They might add one or more of the notes they took during the gallery walk to the graffiti board, or they might write a new thought, observation, or feeling they are experiencing after viewing the resources.
- Give students five minutes to finish their silent writing, but leave the graffiti board up in the classroom for the next day or longer so that students have additional time to reflect on the activity, view their peers’ responses, and add new comments if they would like to.
This lesson prioritises emotional engagement over ethical reflection and intellectual rigour. While it is important for students to know what happened during the Holocaust, it is crucial that they have the opportunity to confront the brutality of this history and to process individually and together the emotions and questions this history evokes.
For homework, ask students to produce a response to today’s lesson in any form they choose – for example, a drawing, painting, poem, sculpture, song, essay or account.
It is important for you to look at student contributions to the graffiti board and homework responses for evidence of how they are processing what they have encountered in this lesson. If necessary, follow up with individual students to offer support, or set aside additional class time for students to talk through and articulate their thoughts and feelings about this challenging history.
It is crucial in a study of the Holocaust to acknowledge the various ways that Jews and others targeted by the Nazis resisted. In spite of the danger, violence, and suffering around them, individuals resisted the Nazis’ programme of dehumanisation and murder. Some individuals imprisoned in the concentration camps made enormous efforts to preserve human dignity for themselves and others. A small percentage of prisoners in camps and ghettos found ways to carry out armed resistance.
Students will often associate the idea of resistance with violent or armed rebellion. It is important to acknowledge that such actions did occur, such as the efforts of Jewish partisan groups, the sabotage of the crematoria by Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz, or the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Tell students that scholar Michael Berenbaum writes that for those who resisted violently, ‘Death was a given.’ 3
It is important to recognise the incredible challenges that confronted Jews trying to resist Nazi oppression and violence. For some victims it was impossible to believe what lay ahead. Even once Jews recognised the gravity of their situation, during the war it was difficult for anyone, and especially Jews, to gain the resources or arms to resist the Nazis.
It is important to challenge students to expand their ideas about resistance to include forms of ‘spiritual resistance’, or the struggle to maintain a sense of identity, dignity, faith, and culture in the degrading and dehumanizing systems of the ghettos and camps. While perhaps less perceptible, acts of spiritual resistance such as secretly providing education for children in concentration camps (A Basic Feeling of Human Dignity) or creating a secret archive representing the individual lives lost (Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto) are equally powerful.
Explain to students that there are other types of resistance for them to consider. Pass out the reading A Basic Feeling of Human Dignity and read it aloud with the class.
After reading, share the following questions with students:
- What is dignity? What do you think Hanna Lévy-Hass means by the phrase ‘a basic feeling of human dignity’? How did the Germans try to deprive Lévy-Hass and her fellow prisoners of this feeling?
- How did Lévy-Hass attempt to restore dignity for some of those imprisoned in her camp? Were her efforts an act of resistance?
You might also wish to introduce students to the idea of spiritual resistance by providing them with the following definition:
Spiritual resistance: the struggle to maintain a sense of identity, dignity, faith, and culture in the degrading and dehumanising systems of the ghettos and camps.
- 3M. Berenbaum, ‘Some Clarifications on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising’, in Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust, ed. E. J. Sterling (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 22–3.
Many Facing History and Ourselves teachers arrange to have a Holocaust survivor visit their classroom to tell their story. Hearing a survivor’s story in person is an extraordinary experience that often changes the way students feel about history and themselves. However, with the passage of time the number of survivors alive and available to speak to students is shrinking. In some cases, children of survivors are also visiting classrooms and sharing their families’ powerful stories with students.
If you are unable to schedule an in-person visit with a survivor, Facing History has produced a collection of films of survivor testimony. The videos are divided into three sections: ‘The Nazis in Power: Voices in Europe’, ‘The Holocaust’, and ‘After the Holocaust’. Consult the lesson Using Testimony to Teach for suggestions and strategies for viewing testimony and facilitating purposeful reflection with students.
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