Two 50-minute class periods

Jewish Life before World War II

Essential Questions

  • What happens when the way we define our identity is in conflict with how others define us?
  • What was life like for Jews living across Europe before World War II?
  • How did antisemitism distort the richness and diversity of European Jewish life in the early twentieth century?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will understand that Jewish life in Europe prior to World War II was characterized by its richness in culture and diversity.
  • Students will be able to explain how antisemites, including the Nazis, used myths, stereotypes, and fear to alienate and marginalize Jews.


Jewish life in Europe in the early twentieth century was comprised of diverse individuals and communities connected to each other by history, beliefs, and a vibrant culture. This lesson explores some of the richness that defined Jewish life in Europe during these years. It also looks briefly at how antisemitism in the early twentieth century distorted the richness and diversity of European Jewish life and used lies and stereotypes to marginalize Jews. The lesson touches on an important theme expressed in our pedagogy: the connection and conflict between an individual’s identity and the identities of (or stereotypes about) groups to which the individual belongs—a phenomenon commonly experienced in the lives of the adolescents we teach.

A variety of extension activities and resources are listed at the end of this lesson that teachers may use to extend their class’s exploration of religious identity, the history of race and antisemitism, and the role of music in pre-war Jewish identity. We highly recommend these activities if the necessary class time is available.



  1. Reflect on Groups and Belonging
    Have students respond to and discuss the following journal prompts using the Think, Pair, Share strategy: 

    • What groups do you belong to? How did you become a member of each of them?
    • Can you think of a time when someone made an assumption about you because of your membership in a particular group? Was it a positive or negative assumption? How did it affect you?
  2. Analyze Photos of European Jews before World War II
    Tell students that they will analyze a set of images of Jewish life during the time period between World War I and World War II. It is important to help students understand that although these photographs depict a variety of experiences, they do not begin to fully represent the richness and diversity of European Jewish life. Nevertheless, the photos will help students glimpse the everyday lives of some European Jews and get a sense of what life was like for them before World War II.

    Ask students to independently view all of the photographs in the gallery Pre-war Jewish Life in Europe and then identify one photo that resonates with them for some reason. For instance, the photograph might remind them of a moment or experience in their own lives, or there might be something about it that surprises or captivates them. Have students reflect on and write about this photo for a few minutes. What draws them to it? What questions do they have about the photo? Then ask them to share their thoughts with a classmate.

    After reflecting on one image, ask students to think about the entire set of photographs and write in their journals about what these images collectively suggest about the diverse life of European Jews living before World War II. What conclusions can students begin to draw? What questions do they have? Ask them to share their thoughts with a partner, small group, or as a class, if you have time.

  3. Provide Background on European Jewish Life before World War II
    Tell students that in the 1930s, the Nazis isolated Jews in German society, in part by spreading stereotypes, myths, and lies that ignored the diversity of Jewish life and portrayed Jews collectively as a fundamentally different and dangerous group that could not live among those the Nazis considered to be “true Germans.” But the Nazis did not invent antisemitism; they drew upon centuries of hatred and backlash against Jews. Share the following background information with students:

    Judaism, a religious faith that has existed for more than 3,000 years, is the oldest monotheistic religion. Throughout much of their faith’s history, Jews lived in territories ruled by other groups. They were often treated as “the Other” and made scapegoats for calamities and misfortunes suffered by the societies in which they lived. Continuous rumors, lies, myths, and misinformation about Jews have circulated throughout history, and many of them persist in the contemporary world. 

    Before World War II, Jews lived and thrived in varied communities, spanning eastern and western Europe, with diverse cultures and ways of life. Jews in Europe came from small towns as well as cities, and they were active in music, theater, politics, the military, business, and education. They viewed themselves as members of the nations in which they lived, not as outsiders. Being Jewish was just one aspect of their identity. But the Nazi Party exploited this part of their identity, not only insisting that a Jew could not be a “true German” but also spreading the lie that Jews were dangerous enemies of the German nation. When the Nazis took power in Germany, Jews made up less than 1% of the population. Despite the efforts of the Nazi Party to depict Jews as a homogenous and dangerous enemy, Jewish life before the rise of the Nazi Party was rich and diverse.

  4. Provide an Overview of Antisemitism before World War II
    At the beginning of the second day of the lesson, show the class the video Antisemitism from the Enlightenment to World War I. Ask them to consider the following questions as they watch:

    After viewing the video, again use the Think, Pair, Share strategy to discuss students’ answers to the questions.

    • Why was there a backlash against Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
    • What myths, lies, and stereotypes about Jews were spread during this period?
    • Compare and contrast the images of Jews from the time period shown in the video and the photographs you analyzed earlier. How do the antisemitic images attempt to distort the truth?
  5. Consider the Effect of Antisemitism on Individual Identity
    Explain to students that antisemitism took a toll on individual Jews and their communities in large part because the way that they defined their own identities was in conflict with the stereotypes and lies others used to define them.

    Share the quotation below from composer Arnold Schoenberg with students. Schoenberg was born to a Jewish family in Austria. He emigrated to the United States in 1934, the year after the Nazis took control of Germany. In 1923, in response to pervasive antisemitism in Germany and Austria, he wrote:

    I have at last learned the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely a human being (at least the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.

    Have students journal their reflections to this quote and share with a partner, or have a few share with the class. Then tell students that Arnold Schoenberg saw himself as more German than Jewish, but he emigrated to the United States when the expression of his musical talent were overshadowed by antisemitism and the rise of Nazis. Ask students how his quote reflects this experience.

    Remind students of the reflection they wrote at the beginning of this lesson about groups and belonging in their own lives. Have they ever experienced, like Schoenberg, a conflict between how they define themselves and the way others define them? 


  1. Learn More about Individual Jewish Musicians
    Using the Biopoem strategy to create poems based on Jewish musicians in pre-war Europe can help students gain a deeper understanding of the impact that Nazi policies had on musicians during this time. This activity can also help students learn more about how group identity and membership shaped the way individuals from this period viewed themselves.

    Assign each student a musician to research on the internet. Musicians you might assign include the following:

    • Arnold Schoenberg
    • Shmerke Kaczerginski
    • Viktor Ullmann
    • Gideon Klein
    • Paul Kling
    • Leo Strauss
    Once students have gathered information, have them use the template included with the Biopoem strategy to create a poem for their assigned musician. In their poems, students should be sure to include words and phrases that describe how conceptions of identity and group membership may have changed for their musician during this time. This activity might be used as an assessment for the lesson.
  2. Explore the Role of Religion in Identity
    Share the reading Religion and Identity with students in order begin a deeper discussion about the role that religion plays in many people’s lives. Use the connection questions at the end of the reading to help guide the discussion.

  3. Go Deeper into the History of Antisemitism
    To learn more about the history of anti-Judaism, race science, and the emergence of antisemitism in the nineteenth century, share with the class the following resources:

    After exploring these resources, lead a class discussion that focuses on the themes of this lesson: Why have Jews been treated as “the Other” throughout history? How have myths and lies been used to raise questions about whether or not Jews belong in the societies in which they have lived?
  4. Analyze Antisemitic Nazi Propaganda
    For further analysis of the antisemitic stereotypes and images that the Nazis used to marginalize Jews in German society, consider showing students the Nazi propaganda image The Eternal Jew. Have students analyze this image using the Analyzing Visual Images teaching strategy. Then have them contrast the imagery spread by the Nazis with the photographs of pre-war Jewish life they studied earlier in the lesson.

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