Teaching the Holocaust to Help Us Understand Ourselves and Our World
Holocaust and Human Behavior leads students through an examination of the catastrophic period in the twentieth century when Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews and millions of other civilians, in the midst of the most destructive war in human history.
Following Facing History’s unique methodology, the book also takes students on a parallel journey through an exploration of the universal themes inherent in a study of the Holocaust that raise profound and disturbing questions about human behavior.
By focusing on the choices of individuals who experienced this history as victims, witnesses, collaborators, rescuers, and perpetrators, students come to recognize our shared humanity—which, according to historian Doris Bergen, helps us to see the Holocaust not just as part of European or Jewish history but as “an event in human history,” confirming the relevance of this history in our lives and our world today.1
This approach helps students make connections between history and the consequences of our actions and beliefs today—between history and how we as individuals make distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil.As students examine the steps that led to the Holocaust, they discover that history is not inevitable; it is, rather, the result of both individual and collective decision making.
They come to realize that there are no easy answers to the complex problems of racism, antisemitism, hatred, and violence, no quick fixes for social injustices, and no simple solutions to moral dilemmas. After studying Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, one Facing History student wrote, “It has made me more aware—not only of what happened in the past but also what is happening today, now, in the world and in me.”
As theologian Eva Fleischner explains, learning about this history can change each of us: “The more we come to know about the Holocaust, how it came about, how it was carried out . . . the greater the possibility that we will become sensitized to inhumanity and suffering whenever they occur.”2
This crucial sensitization to inhumanity and suffering can help students develop the patience and commitment that is required for meaningful change. As another Facing History student wrote: “The more we learn about why and how people behave the way they do, the more likely we are to become involved and find our own solutions.”
Using Holocaust and Human Behavior
Holocaust and Human Behavior is the flagship title in Facing History’s collection of resources about the Holocaust, and it is part of an even larger collection of resources on genocide and mass violence. It includes a wealth of material, and teachers are encouraged to curate their own selection of readings, videos, and other resources using our new playlist tool. Our Teaching Toolboxes provide unit outlines and other materials to help teachers with this process.
This resource consists of 12 chapters, sequenced to explore the history of the Holocaust through the Facing History scope and sequence. Each chapter contains an Introduction and Essential Questions, which connect the chapter’s specific focus to the big ideas and universal themes that are woven throughout the book. Each chapter ends with a series of Analysis and Reflection questions that reinforce the connections between the chapter’s specific content and universal themes.
The bulk of each chapter consists of a series of readings that either explore a theme, such as the relationship between the individual and society, or present part of the historical narrative of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Each reading is followed by a series of Connection Questions that help students comprehend the text, illuminate important themes, and find connections between this history and their lives and the world today. Many readings are also accompanied by links to streaming videos and other Facing History publications that you may use to supplement or deepen students’ learning.
Three chapters (Chapters 4, 6, and 11) include visual essays that use a series of images to provide a visual entry point to a key aspect of the history of the Holocaust and how it is remembered today. Each visual essay also includes an introduction and a set of Connection Questions to help guide students’ analysis of the images.
Exploring the BookYou can access the contents of Holocaust and Human Behavior in four ways:
- Browse the Table of Contents: This digital edition is designed to let you skip around or read the book from cover to cover. Regardless of where you choose to begin, keep in mind that we have carefully sequenced these resources to offer a continuous reading and learning experience that builds as the book progresses. Important themes and concepts are introduced early and then built upon and reinforced in later readings and videos.
- Search Holocaust Topics: This page offers another way for teachers, students, and other readers to find what they are looking for. Here, resources are organized according to common subtopics associated with the study of the Holocaust. While the majority of the resources found here are part of the book, you may also find readings, videos, lessons, and more materials from other Facing History resources related to the Holocaust.
- Use the Scope and Sequence: When creating a Facing History unit about the Holocaust, we recommend that teachers select and organize resources using a framework that we call the Facing History scope and sequence. Rigorous research and evaluation has shown that units and courses structured using this approach can increase engagement, empathy, critical thinking skills, and civic responsibility among young people. While the majority of the resources found here are part of the book, you may also find readings, videos, lessons, and more materials from other Facing History resources related to the Holocaust
- Use our Media and Teaching Tools: We have created media and instructional resources to help teachers present the contents of Holocaust and Human Behavior to their classes. Here, you will find lists of all streaming video content referenced throughout the book, organized by chapter. You will also find a variety of lessons and unit outlines that model teaching strategies and provide examples of how to curate units based on this wealth of resources.
Teaching Emotionally Challenging Content
Many teachers want their students to achieve emotional engagement with the history of the Holocaust and therefore teach this history with the goal of fostering empathy. However, Holocaust and Human Behavior, like any examination of the Holocaust, includes historical descriptions and firsthand accounts that some students may find emotionally disturbing. Teachers should select components from this resource that are most appropriate for the intellectual and emotional needs of their students.
It is difficult to predict how students will respond to such challenging readings, documents, and films. One student may respond with emotion to a particular reading, while others may not find it powerful in the same way. In addition, different people demonstrate emotion in different ways. Some students will be silent. Some may laugh. Some may not want to talk. Some may take days to process difficult stories. For some, a particular firsthand account may be incomprehensible; for others, it may be familiar.
It is also important to note that our experience suggests that it is often problematic to use graphic images and films or to attempt to use simulations to help students understand aspects of this history. Such resources and activities can traumatize some students, desensitize others, or trivialize the history.
We urge teachers to create space for students to have a range of reactions and emotions. This might include time for silent reflection or writing in journals, as well as structured discussions to help students process content together. Some students will not want to share their reactions to emotionally disturbing content in class, and teachers should respect that in class discussions. For their learning and emotional growth, it is crucial to allow for a variety of responses, or none at all, from students to emotionally challenging content.
Fostering a Reflective Classroom Community
We believe that a Facing History and Ourselves classroom is in many ways a microcosm of democracy—a place where explicit rules and implicit norms protect everyone’s right to speak; where different perspectives can be heard and valued; where members take responsibility for themselves, each other, and the group as a whole; and where each member has a stake and a voice in collective decisions. You may have already established rules and guidelines with your students to help bring about these characteristics in your classroom. If not, it is essential at the start of your study of Holocaust and Human Behavior to facilitate the beginning of a supportive, reflective classroom community. Once established, both you and your students will need to nurture this reflective community on an ongoing basis through the ways that you participate and respond to each other. We have found that classroom contracts and student journals are invaluable tools for creating and maintaining a reflective classroom community. We recommend considering the following ideas and strategies as you plan your unit or course.
- 1 Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 1.
- 2 Eva Fleischner, Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? Reflections on the Holocaust (New York: Ktav Publishing Co., 1974), 228.