How Should We Remember? | Facing History & Ourselves
In Kassel, Germany, artist Horst Hoheisel created a “counter-memorial” marking the site where a majestic fountain built by a Jewish citizen once stood; it had been destroyed by Nazis in 1939.

How Should We Remember?

Students both respond to and design Holocaust memorials as they consider the impact that memorials and monuments have on the way we think about history.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust


About This Lesson

The previous lesson began the “Judgment, Memory, and Legacy” stage of the Facing History scope and sequence by helping students wrestle with dilemmas of justice after the Holocaust. This lesson continues that stage of the scope and sequence by helping students think deeply about the impact of memory and history on the present day. In particular, this lesson engages students in the processes of both responding to and creating memorials to the Holocaust. By doing so, they are forced to grapple with key questions about why history is important and how our memory of history is shaped and influenced. Students will begin by learning about several Holocaust memorials around the world and analyzing the choices that artists and communities made when creating them. Then they will design, plan, and create their own memorial to represent an idea, event, or person they believe is important to remember from the history of the Holocaust.

Unit Essential Question: 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?

  • How should we remember the past? What impact do memorials and monuments have on the way we think about history?
  • What parts of the history of the Holocaust are most important for us to remember today? How can we ensure that this history is not forgotten?
  • Students will analyze several examples of Holocaust memorials to see how the communities and individuals that designed them sought to shape future generations’ understanding of this history.
  • By designing their own memorials, students will become familiar with the many choices artists and communities make in their commemorations about what aspects of a particular history are worth remembering and what parts are intentionally left out.

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

  • 4 activities
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 1 handout
  • 2 assessments
  • 2 extension activities

As students explored in the previous lesson, judgment and justice were crucial components of the aftermath of the Holocaust. Testimony in the Nuremberg trials provided the world with clear evidence of the human devastation wrought by the Nazis and preserved this information in the historical record. In this way, these trials were a step toward another stage of the postwar process: remembrance. This process of reckoning, or coming to terms, with the history of the Holocaust is one that continues today among historians, survivors and their descendants, politicians, citizens, and students. As American author James Baldwin has said, in writing about America’s history of slavery:

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. 1

Baldwin suggests that we won’t really understand history or ourselves unless we consider how the past is “present” in our world. And the Holocaust—which historians describe as not merely a significant moment in history but a “collapse in human civilization” 2  and a “symbol of evil” 3 —exerts an especially powerful force. Author Eva Hoffman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, has observed, “Sixty years after the Holocaust took place, our reckoning with this defining event is far from over. Indeed, as this immense catastrophe recedes from us in time, our preoccupation with it seems only to increase.” 4

There are many ways in which individuals, groups, and nations, in Germany and around the world, have confronted the memory of the Holocaust. Some countries, including Germany and France, have made Holocaust denial a crime, punishable by a fine and imprisonment. Governments have also encouraged or mandated education about the Holocaust. German schools are required to teach their students about the Nazi era and the Holocaust, and in addition to classroom learning, most German students visit either a concentration camp or a Holocaust memorial. 5  Scholars, journalists, survivors, and novelists have helped the public remember the Holocaust through their writing. When Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the chairman of the Nobel committee remarked, “Through his books, Elie Wiesel has given us not only an eyewitness account of what happened, but also an analysis of the evil powers which lay behind the events.” 6

Another way that communities around the world have remembered the Holocaust is through building memorials and monuments. These buildings are created for many reasons: to preserve the past, to honor heroes (such as the resisters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising or the rescuers of Le Chambon), to commemorate tragedies, and to inspire action or reflection. These monuments raise questions about appropriate ways to study and remember the Holocaust. To what extent can any memorial help us truly understand the experiences of victims of the Holocaust? How can we symbolize the vast number of victims while still honoring each unique life that was lost—the schoolchild, the aunt, the tailor, the physicist, the sister? Who should decide how the Holocaust is represented and remembered—what symbols are used, what facts are presented, and whose stories are told?

As the process of reckoning and remembrance continues to unfold, one thing is certain: What happened then continues to have a profound influence on the lives of individuals to this day. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, there is a difference between history and memory: “History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. . . . Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me.” 7  Survivors, witnesses, the descendants of those who lived this history, and all those who learn about it today face the question of how to remember the past and how that memory might shape our understanding of ourselves and our present world.

  • 1James Baldwin, “The White Man’s Guilt,” Ebony, August 1965, 47.
  • 2The President’s Commission on the Holocaust: Guiding Principles,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed June 1, 2016.
  • 3Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), x.
  • 4Eva Hoffman, After Such Knowledge: Memory, History, and the Legacy of the Holocaust (New York: Public Affairs, 2011), ix.
  • 5Holocaust Education in Germany: An Interview,” PBS website, (accessed January 23, 2009).
  • 6Egil Aarvick, “The Nobel Peace Prize 1986,”
  • 7Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Haggadah: Hebrew and English Text with New Essays and Commentary (New York: Continuum, 2006), 29.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this unit, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

The images in this lesson are taken from the visual essay Holocaust Memorials and Monuments in Holocaust and Human Behavior. The introduction to the visual essay provides an in-depth discussion of the relationship of memorials to history and public memory, as well as the variety of roles memorials can serve in a community or country. We recommend that you read this introduction in preparation to teach this lesson in order to help you answer questions that may arise and guide students to a deeper level of understanding of the power of memory. You might also decide to share some of this introduction with your students.

The last activity in this lesson provides students with the opportunity to plan their own Holocaust memorial. This is a task that may warrant more time for reflection than is available in the class period. Consider assigning this activity for homework. You might even give students multiple nights to complete and submit the Creating a Memorial handout so that they have time to develop their ideas more thoroughly.

Also consider devoting an extra class period to this lesson, if possible. Doing so will give students time to workshop their ideas for memorials with each other, as well as time to sketch or build models of their ideas using clay, construction paper, or other materials you are able to provide.

The last activity in this lesson requires students to plan their own memorials related to the Holocaust, and many teachers also ask students to build a physical model of the memorial they have conceptualized. In addition to the examples of existing, real-world memorials and monuments students will analyze in this lesson, it may be helpful to provide students with examples of memorials designed and created using the instructions provided in this lesson. In other words, consider sharing with students one or two examples of memorials that students from past years created, or a memorial you created yourself. These examples can help inspire students’ creativity and set standards for the quality and depth of thought you are expecting.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Memorial
  • Monument
  • Commemoration

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


  • Begin by asking students to take a few moments to describe in their journals one or more monuments or memorials that they are familiar with. Perhaps it is one in their neighborhood that they pass every day, or one they have seen elsewhere in the city, country, or world that they found memorable. Have them describe both what it looks like and what they think its purpose is. What do they think the designer of the monument wanted people to think, remember, or feel?
  • After writing, give students a few moments to share their examples with one or more classmates, and then lead a short whole-group discussion in response to the question: Why do people build monuments and memorials? What purposes do they serve? Record students’ ideas on the board.
  • Continue the whole-group discussion about memorials and monuments by reading the following paragraph to students:
    Across Europe, and even around the globe, people have built memorials to commemorate the Holocaust. Each tries to preserve the collective memory of the generation that built the memorial and to shape the memories of generations to come. Memorials raise complex questions about which history we choose to remember. If a memorial cannot tell the whole story, then what part of the story, or whose story, does it tell? Whose memories, whose point of view, and whose values and perspectives will be represented?
  • Ask students to write down their thoughts in their journals in response to the following question: What do you think the author means when she says that memorials “cannot tell the whole story”?
  • Ask a few students to share their thoughts in a brief, informal whole-group discussion. You might ask students to think again about the memorial or monument they wrote about at the beginning of class. What parts of the story might it leave out?
  • The class will now use the Jigsaw teaching strategy to analyze a variety of Holocaust memorials. Divide the class into six groups and assign each group one of the following images:
  1. Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial
  2. Aschrott Fountain
  3. Stolpersteine
  4. Memorial to Roma and Sinti Victims of National Socialism
  5. Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach
  6. Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial
  • Students can analyze these Holocaust memorials and monuments using the Jigsaw strategy. First, divide the class into “expert” groups of three to four students; each group will analyze one handout that shows one memorial or monument. Depending on the size of your class, you may have more than one group working with a particular memorial. In their journals, have each group answer the following questions, using what they observe in the image and the information in the caption, if necessary:
  1. Who is the intended audience for the memorial?
  2. What, specifically, is the memorial representing or commemorating?
  3. What story or message do you think the artist was trying to convey to the intended audience? What might the memorial be leaving out?
  4. How does the memorial convey its intended story or message? What materials did the artist use? What might the audience’s experience be like when they visit the memorial?
  • Once the “expert” groups have completed their work, students will reorganize themselves into “teaching” groups, with three students in each group. The members of each “teaching” group should have analyzed a different voice in their “expert” groups. Each “teaching” group also has two tasks:
  1. Share their “expert” group’s work (the answers to the above questions).
  2. Discuss the following questions with the group: What similarities and differences do you notice between the memorials/monuments? What do you think accounts for these similarities and/or differences?
  • Complete the activity by asking members of each “teaching” group to report to the whole class the takeaways from their discussions.

Conclude the lesson by asking students to submit a written plan for their own Holocaust memorial (see the Extensions section for an activity that involves creating a visual representation). Pass out the handout Creating a Memorial. Ask students to complete the questions individually and then follow the instructions at the end of the handout to create a simple sketch of their memorial, give it a title, and write an artist’s statement.


  • Assess students’ understanding of the ideas in this lesson by observing the depth of their thinking in their oral participation and written responses in the Jigsaw activity.

Students’ work on the Creating a Memorial handout can also provide evidence of their understanding of the role and meaning of memorials and monuments. Look at the choices they make in planning their own monument, as well as their explanations of those choices and how well they connect to themes, events, and individuals in the history they studied in this unit.

Extension Activities

  • While the Creating a Memorial handout directs students to create a visual representation of the memorials they have planned, many teachers take the activity a step further by giving students the opportunity to actually build something (usually on a smaller scale than their plan may call for). This can be accomplished at school by devoting additional class time to the project and providing a selection of materials and supplies (such as modeling clay or construction paper) for students to work with. The intent is not to judge students’ skills as artists and craftspeople but to give them an opportunity to make their thinking visible with a tangible product. Remind students that even simple shapes, arranged thoughtfully, can communicate powerful ideas, and that the title and artist’s statement that accompany the model of their monument will help explain to classmates and teachers their intent and overall vision. 
  • After students have completed their models, consider giving them the opportunity to share their memorials with their classmates and other audiences in the school. You can give each student a few minutes to present their memorial to the class, or students can set up an exhibit in the classroom or another public space in the school to showcase their memorials.

Memorials and monuments, and the way they relate to the public memory of history, have often been controversial. In the United States, persistent debates have intensified in recent years about the how the Civil War and the related history of racial injustice is represented (or omitted) in the memorials and monuments that occupy public spaces. The lesson After Charlottesville: Contested History and the Fight Against Bigotry can help you introduce to your students some of the debates over symbols of the past in the United States. You might also share with students the readings Acknowledging the Past to Shape the Present and Creating a New Narrative.

All of these resources can help you address the following questions with your students:

  1. What role does history play in a healthy democracy? Is it necessary to acknowledge past injustices to achieve a more just and equitable society?
  2. No matter where you live, your community has a history. Is any part of your community’s history unacknowledged or forgotten today? How might you discover and explore such histories? Could awareness of the past change your understanding of the place you call home?

Materials and Downloads

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This is the handout that students use throughout the How Should We Remember? lesson plan.

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