European Jewish Life before World War II | Facing History & Ourselves
Shabbtai (Shepske) Sonenson takes one of the shtetl's Hebrew teachers for a ride on his new motorcycle.

European Jewish Life before World War II

Students analyze images and film that convey the richness of Jewish life across Europe at the time of the Nazis’ ascension to power.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In previous lessons, students learned about the effect of World War I on Germany and how its aftermath created conditions that helped give rise to the Nazis in the years that followed. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by learning more about Jewish life across Europe at the time of the Nazis’ ascension to power. This lesson serves two crucial and related purposes:

  1. It provides a counterbalance to the historical antisemitic and racist ideas and actions students learn about throughout this unit. Despite the efforts of the Nazis to reduce the lives and experiences of Jews to a “single story,” Jewish life throughout Europe in the 1920s and 1930s was marked by great diversity, as it is today. Reality did not conform to the myths and stereotypes.
  2. It will help students better appreciate the lives and cultures that were lost when they later learn about the devastation of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Students will also consider in this lesson the ways in which Jews were interwoven in the societies in which they lived and the ways in which they lived apart (by force or by choice). Students will think about how separation affected the beliefs and attitudes that non-Jewish Europeans developed about their Jewish neighbors.

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

  • How can we describe Jewish life in Europe between the two twentieth-century world wars?
  • How can isolation and unfamiliarity between groups influence the beliefs that members of one group form about members of another? How can this lead to the creation or reinforcement of “in” groups and “out” groups?
  • Through an analysis of images and film, students will recognize that Jewish life in the 1920s was characterized by great variety in religious practice, culture, national affiliation, occupation, wealth, and status.
  • Students will explore the idea that when groups in a society live separately and are unfamiliar with one another, they might develop myths and stereotypes about each other that can cause harm, especially to the less powerful group.

This lesson is designed to fit into a one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 1 gallery
  • 1 handout
  • 1 video
  • 1 assessment
  • 1 extension activities

Over the course of this unit, students will come to see how, throughout history, many have sought to define Jews, incorrectly, as a single and uniform category of people with fixed characteristics, which racists and antisemites falsely believe are rooted in biology. But the lives Jews have lived around the world and throughout history can perhaps be characterized best by their immense diversity. Jews have always expressed their religious faith (or lack thereof) and connection to Jewish culture in myriad ways. It is important for students to understand and appreciate the richness and diversity of European Jewish life before the Third Reich, both to honor what was lost in the Holocaust and to counterbalance the “single story” about Jews spread through Nazi ideology and policy. As historian Doris Bergen writes:

Nazi propaganda would create the category of "the Jews," a composite based on myths and stereotypes...In reality there was no such thing as "the Jew," only Jews who often differed as much, and in many cases more, from one another than they did from the Christians around them. 1

Throughout history, Jews have always been a small minority in Europe that never made up more than 1 or 2% of the population. Yet, 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 held a variety of occupations. Bergen continues:

[T]here were wealthy Jews in Europe around 1930 as well as middle-class and very poor Jews. There were Jewish bankers and shopkeepers, Jewish doctors, nurses, actors, professors, soldiers, typists, peddlers, factory owners, factory workers, kindergarten teachers, conservatives, liberals, nationalists, feminists, anarchists, and Communists. 2

Many Jews identified more closely with the nations in which they lived than with Jewish religion and culture, while others lived apart from non-Jews and hewed to a more traditional and religious way of life. Bergen explains:

European Jews, like European Christians, were and are a diverse group. By the early twentieth century many Jews were highly acculturated; neither their appearance, habits of daily life, or language distinguished them from their non-Jewish French, German, Italian, Polish, Greek, or other neighbors. Some attended religious services on high holidays only; others, never. Some maintained a strong sense of Jewish identity; others, very little or none at all...

In Europe in the early 1900s there were also more visible kinds of Jews. In some parts of eastern Europe many Jews lived in communities known as shtetls. Confined by the Russian tsars to an area in the west of the Russian empire called the Pale of Settlement, these Jews developed a lifestyle based on shared religious observance, the Yiddish language, a diet following kashrut—the Jewish dietary laws—and predominance of certain occupations. For example, many were small traders and craftspeople. Those lines of work did not require them to own land, something from which they were restricted and in some places prohibited altogether. 3

In this lesson, students will glimpse a small part of Jewish rural and urban life before World War II by comparing and contrasting life in shtetls with life in Jewish communities in Warsaw, Poland (see the lesson Understanding the Life of Shtetl Jews for more background). Nevertheless, it is important when explaining and debriefing the following activities to share with students this larger historical context, in which it is not possible to reduce the Jewish experience to just a few stories.

  • 1Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 20
  • 2Bergen, War and Genocide, 20.
  • 3Bergen, War and Genocide, 19.

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.

It is important to help students understand that although this lesson’s photographs depict a variety of experiences, they do not begin to fully represent the richness and diversity of European Jewish life. Nevertheless, the photographs and analysis activity will help students glimpse the everyday lives of some European Jews living in shtetls and larger cities to get a sense of what life was like for them before World War II.

Before class begins, determine how students will access and view the photographs in the first activity so that you can have the materials and classroom prepared in advance. Options include the following: printed packets, a gallery walk, laptops, or mobile devices.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Secular
  • Isolation
  • Shtetl

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

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Lesson Plans


  • Students will begin to learn about pre-war Jewish life in eastern Europe by examining a series of photographs from the period. Students will need to see the entire Pre-War Jewish Life in Eastern Europe gallery of nine photographs, from which they will choose one to examine more closely.
  • Tell students that they are about to look at photographs depicting scenes from “everyday” Jewish life in eastern Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Before introducing the photographs, ask students to think for a moment about what they expect they might see.
  • Then give students a few minutes to browse through all of the photographs in the collection. As they browse, instruct them to choose 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 the photograph that surprises or captivates them.
  • Pass out the handout Photo Analysis of Pre-War Jewish Life. This handout includes a version of the Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World strategy modified for use with photographs.
  • Ask at least one student per image to share with the class his or her response to one of the questions on the Photo Analysis of Pre-War Jewish Life handout.
  • Then ask students to think for a moment about the entire set of images. Have them respond to the following question in their journals:
    What do these pictures tell you about the lives of eastern European Jews during the period before World War II? What stories might be missing from this collection of pictures? What questions do the images leave unanswered?
  • After students have completed their journal writing, ask them to volunteer some of the conclusions they drew from the photo gallery activity while you record their ideas on the board.
  • Now that students have drawn some preliminary conclusions from their investigation of European Jewish life before World War II, share the following background information with them:
    Before World War II, Jews lived 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. While for many, being Jewish was central to their identity, for others it was just one part of who they were.
    In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many European Jews lived in small villages called shtetls, where they were often isolated from many aspects of modern life, especially if the shtetl was not near a city or railway line, while many other Jews moved to cities. Some in the cities chose to live more secular and modern lives than shtetl Jews lived and worked to integrate themselves within a broader European society. Others strongly valued Jewish religious and cultural tradition. Still others lived somewhere in between tradition and modernity, and between the religious and the secular.
  • Introduce the documentary film A Day in Warsaw (10:18). Explain that this film was produced in 1938 and 1939, and its purpose was to encourage American Jews to visit Poland. (The filmmakers did not know, of course, that six years later, 90% of Polish Jewry would have been killed in the Holocaust.) Given this purpose, have students brainstorm what parts of life in Warsaw the filmmakers may have intentionally left out of the final version shown to Americans.
  • After showing the film, have students respond in their journals to the following questions:
    • Looking at the film, what is your overall impression of life in eastern European cities such as Warsaw at the time this film was made?
    • Based on what you've seen in this film, what opportunities do you think were available for Polish Jews in cities during this time period?
    • Which of the photographs from the opening activity seem to connect most closely to this film clip? What answers does this film provide to questions raised from the photograph activity? What new questions does it raise?
  • Then ask students to return to the conclusions, written on the board, that they made about the lives of eastern European Jews before World War II. Discuss the following three questions as a class:
    • How might you revise your conclusions based on the new information you encountered in the film?
    • What new conclusions might you add?
    • What questions remain unanswered?
  • Now share with students the following statement from sociologist David Schoem:
    The effort it takes for us to know so little about one another across racial and ethnic groups is truly remarkable. That we can live so closely together, that our lives can be so intertwined socially, economically and politically, and...yet still manage to be ignorant of one another is clear testimony to the deep-seated roots of this human and national tragedy. What we do learn along the way is to place heavy reliance on stereotypes, gossip, rumor, and fear to shape our lack of knowledge. 4
    Have students think about Schoem’s statement and respond to the following questions in their journals:
    • To what extent does Schoem’s statement describe Warsaw in the 1920s and 1930s?
    • To what extent does it describe your community or country today?
    • How might the type of separation Schoem describes affect how individuals, communities, and countries define their universe of obligation? How can people break the isolation he describes?
  • Depending on time, ask students to share one line from their journals in a Wraparound activity, paired discussion, or class discussion.
  • 4David Louis Schoem, Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews, and Latinos (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 3.


  • Read the connections students made with the photographs of pre-war Jewish life on the handout Photo Analysis of Pre-War Jewish Life. Look for evidence that students engaged emotionally in this activity by viewing the subjects of the photographs not through the lens of difference but by looking for common humanity.
  • Listen carefully to students’ contributions to the Wraparound activity that closes the lesson to hear how they are thinking about the connection between isolation and stereotypes, as well as the connections they are making to the world today.

Extension Activities

  • Introduce the documentary film clip Sholem Aleichem: Understanding the Life of Shtetl Jews (04:28) by explaining that it is part of a documentary about one of the most renowned eastern European Jewish writers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Sholem Aleichem. He was born and raised in one of hundreds of small, predominantly Jewish villages, called shtetls, that once dotted the map of eastern Europe. His stories and plays were often set in shtetls, and the clip students will watch draws in part from his descriptions of the life and culture of these villages.
  • Show the clip, and then use the Connect, Extend, Challenge teaching strategy to help students analyze how what they learned from the film relates to what they learned from the previous activities in this lesson.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the European Jewish Life before World War II lesson plan.  

Download the Files

Photo Analysis of Prewar Jewish Life - PDF
Complete a Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World activity using photographs of Jewish life in Europe before World War II.

Get Files Via Google

Photo Analysis of Pre-War Jewish Life - Doc
Complete a Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World activity using photographs of Jewish life in Europe before World War II.

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