Americans and the Holocaust: The Refugee Crisis | Facing History & Ourselves
A crowd of American men and women hold signs protesting Nazi Germany's actions.

Americans and the Holocaust: The Refugee Crisis

Explore the motives, pressures, and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism and the humanitarian refugee crisis it provoked during the 1930s and 1940s.




One week


  • History




English — US



About This Unit

Interweaving Facing History’s innovative approach to historical inquiry with groundbreaking new sources from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s special exhibition Americans and the Holocaust, this unit shifts students’ study of World War II and Nazism to the other side of the Atlantic.

The unit deeply explores the motives, pressures, and fears that shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism and the humanitarian refugee crisis it provoked during the 1930s and 1940s. By examining primary sources that range from public opinion polls to personal narratives to radio plays, students will explore why widespread American sympathy for the plight of Jewish refugees never translated into widespread support for prioritizing their rescue. The unit also highlights the stories of individual Americans who did take tremendous risks to rescue Jews, as well as the questions this history raises for taking action in the context of contemporary refugee crises.

In times of crisis, what does it take to move from knowledge to action?

This unit supports a one-week exploration of  Americans’ responses to the Holocaust:

  • 3 lessons
  • Videos, readings, handouts, and images that correspond with activities

When learning about the refugee crisis preceding and during the early years of World War II, many observers frequently wonder why America did not respond more effectively. This unit challenges us to think about societal fears and the missed opportunities to intervene alongside the impact of those few individuals who did. By guiding students to reckon with the multiple factors that limited American responses during this tumultuous era, the unit promotes reflection on the role of civic participation in confronting today’s equally complex social and political problems.

Each of the unit’s three lessons, which can also stand alone, prompt students to consider this history in light of the essential question: What does it take to move from knowledge to action? The first lesson, The Refugee Crisis and 1930s America, introduces students to the many factors that influenced Americans’ will and ability to respond to the German Jewish refugee crisis, including isolationism, racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism. The second lesson, The Child Refugee Debate, explores sources from the debate surrounding the 1939 Wagner-Rogers Bill, which proposed admitting 20,000 German refugee children over the course of two years to the United States outside of immigration quotas. The bill ultimately died without ever coming to a vote, but the congressional hearings and public debate surrounding it offer excellent opportunities for students to understand Americans’ various responses to the refugee crisis. Students will also investigate the terms of this debate by analyzing an excerpt from a radio play, “Miss American,” that was produced as a response to the Wagner-Rogers legislation.

In the third and final lesson, Refugees and Rescuers: The Courage to Act, students will explore the intertwined personal narratives of Jewish refugees who attempted to flee to America and the American rescuers who intervened on their behalf. This lesson prompts students to reflect on how circumstances of time, place, and opportunity often limited the ability of Americans to help, while also recognizing the crucial role that individual Americans and organizations played in helping Jewish refugees.

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 and needs.

Research indicates that almost two-thirds of teaching and learning about the Holocaust occurs in the English/Language Arts (ELA) classroom 1 , yet there are surprisingly few resources tailored to this discipline. This unit is designed to be interdisciplinary and suited for either an ELA or social studies class. ELA teachers will especially appreciate teaching about the public debate over Jewish refugees through a literary analysis of the radio play “Miss American” in Lesson 2, as well as the unit’s connections to themes of human behavior and contemporary issues. Social studies teachers will find that the primary source documents in this unit enrich an in-depth study of the Holocaust.

  • 1dZ. Gross and E. D. Stevick, eds., As the Witnesses Fall Silent: 21st Century Holocaust Education in Curriculum, Policy and Practice (Springer International Publishing Switzerland, 2015), 375–90.

Each lesson in this unit is designed to work either as a standalone lesson or in sequence. However, we strongly advise that you read the context sections for the other three lessons if you intend to teach one or more lessons on their own. Depending on students’ background knowledge, you may need to provide additional context for students to prepare them for the lesson or to answer any questions that may arise.

In this unit, students will explore Americans’ responses to Nazism and the German Jewish refugee crisis of 1938–1941. While they will engage with the subject matter intellectually, studying primary sources and the historical, social, and political factors that shaped American responses, it is also important to acknowledge students’ emotional responses to this history. This unit includes historical descriptions and firsthand accounts that some students may find emotionally challenging. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of previewing the readings and videos in this curriculum to make sure they are appropriate for the intellectual and emotional needs of your students.

It is difficult to predict how students will respond to the readings, documents, and films in this unit. 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. 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 challenging 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.

We believe that a classroom in which a Facing History unit is taught ought to be 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 beginning of this unit to facilitate a supportive, reflective classroom community.

Two ways in which you can create a strong foundation for a reflective classroom are through the use of classroom contracts and student journals. Even if you already incorporate these elements in your classroom, we recommend taking a moment to review both strategies.

The following essential question provides a framework for exploring this unit’s main ideas and themes:

In times of crisis, what does it take to move from knowledge to action?

This essential question challenges students to make important connections between history and the contemporary world. We do not expect students to determine a single, “correct” answer. Essential questions are rich and open-ended; they are designed to be revisited over time, and as students explore the content in greater depth, they may find themselves emerging with new ideas, understanding, and questions.

Each lesson includes one or more guiding questions. Unlike the unit’s essential question, which is broad and open-ended, guiding questions help to direct student inquiry at the lesson level and are aligned with its specific learning objectives. Answering guiding questions requires deep thinking and textual interpretation. Unlike essential questions, guiding questions might have a clear answer, which students should be able to support with specific evidence from the lesson to demonstrate their understanding of the content.

For the culminating assessment in this unit (located at the end of Lesson 3), teachers can choose from two options: a Socratic seminar discussion or a role-audience-format-topic writing assignment (RAFT). The Socratic seminar will require additional class time, while the RAFT assignment can be completed by students independently. Please consult the Assessment section of Lesson 3 for more information about how to implement these assessments in your classroom.

The readings and videos in this unit introduce some vocabulary and concepts that may pose a challenge for your students, especially for struggling readers, so you might consider using the Word Wall strategy to keep a running list of critical vocabulary posted in your classroom that you and your students can refer to over the course of the unit. Students might have a corresponding list in a section of their journals or notebooks, and you could also challenge them to incorporate Word Wall terms into their writing and discussions to help them internalize and understand these challenging terms and concepts.

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Special Thanks

A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. Located among our national monuments to freedom on the National Mall, the Museum provides a powerful lesson in the fragility of freedom, the myth of progress, and the need for vigilance in preserving democratic values. The Museum promotes the responsible teaching of the Holocaust through a variety of resources and programs to help the nation's educators increase their knowledge of Holocaust history and implement sound teaching strategies. Education outreach programs provide teachers with tools to deliver quality Holocaust education, incorporating accurate history, appropriate pedagogy, classroom strategies, and teaching resources. Visit for more information.

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