Jewish Life before the Holocaust | Facing History & Ourselves
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Jewish Life before the Holocaust

Students learn about pre-war Jewish life and compare it with today’s diaspora in order to reflect on how modernity can impact tradition.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




Two 50-min class periods
  • The Holocaust


About This Lesson

After learning 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, students will turn their attention to Jewish life in Europe before World War II. In this lesson, they will compare and contrast Jewish life in today’s diaspora with pre-war Jewish life to reflect on the many ways in which modernity can impact tradition. 

On the first day of the lesson, students learn about shtetl, or rural, life, as well as urban life in Europe between the wars. The second day focuses on the challenge of preserving tradition in the face of modernity. This lesson also invites students to make connections to the complexities of diaspora Jewish life before the war and Jewish life in the diaspora today. Through readings and videos from the point of view of Jews at the time, students will consider the ways in which Jews were interwoven into the societies they lived in and the ways in which they lived apart, whether by force or by choice.

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?

Alternate Jewish Ed Unit Essential Question:

How is our Jewish identity tied in with the history of the Holocaust?

  • What did Jewish life look like before the war in Europe?
  • How does modernity affect tradition? What factors influence Jewish identity in a changing world?
  • What are the similarities and differences between today’s Jewish life in the diaspora and pre-war Jewish life?
  • Through an analysis of images, film, and readings, students will reflect on the struggle between modernity and tradition in pre-war Europe after the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement.
  • Students will reflect on the issues of assimilation and modernity versus tradition in today’s Jewish life.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 8 activities
  • 3 videos
  • 1 reading
  • 1 assessment
  • 2 extension activities

It is important for students to understand that before the Holocaust, Jews led rich and varied lives in Europe, struggling with many of the same issues that we struggle with today. Studying this rich and varied pre-war life ensures that the Holocaust and the Nazi atrocities do not define Jewish identity in Europe in students’ understanding. 

This unit gives students a broader perspective on the long and rich history of European Jews. It is important to note that this lesson concentrates only on Russia and Poland and does not include Germany, where, for the most part, there were more affluent and assimilated Jews. It is also important that students understand that Jewish life looked different, with its own nuances, depending on the specific country where the Jews were living at the time. Jewish life also differed depending on whether one lived in a rural or an urban setting.

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.

The activities on Day 1 center around the popular Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. He is often referred to as the Yiddish Mark Twain. Just as Twain wrote in dialect and with humor to capture the vernacular and culture of the American antebellum South, Sholem Aleichem did the same for turn-of-the-century Jewish life in the shtetl. He wrote in Yiddish to capture the cadence of his own people in a language for his own people. For a reference in popular culture, refer to the movie Fiddler on the Roof, which was based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Dairyman in Tevye and His Daughters. Both writers wrote to preserve a time and a place, with an understanding that the world was changing.

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. 

Familiarize yourself with the Gallery Walk strategy and prepare materials for the second activity on Day 1 in advance of teaching this lesson. Other options for viewing the images in this activity are to project them and discuss them one by one as a class, print packets for groups, or use laptops or mobile devices.

Students may need help understanding the use of the word modern in the readings. Here, modernity refers to the society that emerged as a result of the new beliefs, paradigms, and attitudes of the Enlightenment (Haskala), or the exposure to secular literature and philosophy.

  • Shtetl: A small, predominantly Jewish rural town in eastern Europe or Russia.
  • Haskala: An intellectual movement among Jews of eastern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that attempted to acquaint the masses with European and Hebrew languages and with secular education and culture to supplement talmudic studies. It is often called the Jewish Enlightenment period.
  • Pogrom: An organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, in particular that of Jews in Russia or eastern Europe.
  • The Pale (or the Pale of Settlement): A western region of Imperial Russia with varying borders in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed during the time preceding and after the turn of the twentieth century.

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Lesson Plans

Activities Day 1: Shtetl Life

  • Tell students that in this lesson, they will be learning about shtetl life in Europe between the two world wars. Write the following questions on the board and let students know that while they view the two short videos about Sholem Aleichem and shtetl life, they should take notes that help them answer the questions.
    • What do we learn about shtetl life through these videos?
    • What did Sholem Aleichem seek to preserve through his stories?
  • Play the trailer for Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (02:21) and the video Sholem Aleichem: Understanding the Life of Shtetl Jews (04:48). Pause between the two videos and after the second so students can record their responses to the two questions above.
  • To debrief the videos, have students share their notes with a partner. Encourage them to add any new information or ideas from their paired discussion to their notes.
  • Tell students that they will now be examining photographs of pre-war Jewish life in rural and urban areas in Europe. Using the Gallery Walk teaching strategy, have students walk around to examine images from Pre-War Jewish Life in Europe and the Roman Vishniac Gallery Walk. Then, as a class, discuss the following questions, having students point to specific images for evidence:
    • Which of the photos of pre-war Jewish life reflect Sholem Aleichem’s story of shtetl life?
    • What other lifestyles are reflected in these photographs? How are they similar to or different from what you learned from Sholem Aleichem’s story?
    • Which photos, if any, reflect your own life today?
    • What questions do these photographs raise for you?
  • Tell students that they will watch a short documentary that captures the spirit of Jewish life in pre–World War II Warsaw. Narrated in Yiddish with English subtitles, the film presents the viewer with important images of daily life in Jewish Warsaw as it was before the Nazi invasion. Tell students that they will be answering the following questions after they watch the film:
    • What impression does the filmmaker want us to get about Jewish life in Poland?
    • What similarities are there to Jewish life in a big city with a large Jewish population in America today—for instance, New York?
  • Show the film A Day in Warsaw (10:56). After watching, give students some time to reflect on the two questions in their journals and then share their ideas in a paired discussion. Then briefly discuss their responses in a class discussion.
  • To synthesize this lesson’s content, have students reflect on the videos and images as a whole. Start by discussing the following question: How can the videos of shtetl and urban life, as well as the photographs in today’s lesson, broaden our understanding of pre-war Jewish life?
  • As students share their ideas, make an identity chart on the board for pre-war Jewish life (the chart might include the words urban, rural, rich, poor, varied, work, leisure, shopping, community, education, etc.).

Pass out the reading Choices in a Modern World for students to read for homework, and let them know that they will be discussing and doing an activity with it in the next lesson. Tell students to read and answer the second connection question in preparation for the next class.

Activities Day 2: The Complexities of Modernity: Urban Life

  • Have students take out the reading Choices in a Modern World and share their responses to the second connection question with a partner or in small groups. Have students work together to respond to each other’s comprehension questions and then answer any remaining questions as a class.
  • Tell students that they will be presenting the message of the reading using the Reader’s Theater teaching strategy. Divide the class into five groups and explain the teaching strategy to the class, with a special emphasis on Step 3: Groups Prepare for Performance. Remind students that the goal is not to perform a skit that summarizes their scene. Rather, they should use specific language (words and phrases) to represent the conflict, theme, and/or underlying message of their excerpt. Assign each group one of the following scenes:
    • Hanan decides to see the rabbi and has a conversation with the rabbi.
    • Hanan decides to shave his beard and open a business.
    • Pauline and Hanan struggle over traditions in the house.
    • Jews are allowed into universities and then, after the events of 1881, forced back into the ghettos: a conversation between Pauline and Hanan.
    • The children leave the tradition.

After each group has presented its scene, discuss the following questions as a class:

  • Pauline Wengeroff believed that a Jew had only two choices: “He could, in the name of Judaism, renounce everything that had become indispensable to him, or he could choose freedom with its offers of education and career—through baptism.” Were these the only choices? If not, what other choices were available?
  • What factors influence Jewish identity in a changing world? How does modernity affect tradition?
  • What are the similarities and differences between today’s Jewish life in the diaspora and pre-war Jewish life in shtetls and urban centers?

Have students choose one to three of the following sentence stems for a journal or exit ticket reflection on this two-day lesson

I noticed . . .
I wonder . . .
I was reminded of . . .
I think . . .
I’m surprised that . . .
I’d like to know . . .


Students write a one-page response to one of the following prompts. Pauline Wengeroff writes in Choices in a Modern World: “A Jew could renounce everything that had become indispensable to him, or he could choose freedom with its offers of education and career . . . ”

Do Jews today still need to make choices that sacrifice their identity as Jews in order to succeed in the contemporary world? Give examples as to how this might be true or not true today.

Pauline Wengeroff and her husband saw themselves as “modern.” Do you agree? What does the word mean to you? How do we, as Jews today, need to adapt to “modern” ideas? Do any of those ideas necessarily conflict with our traditions? Give examples.

Extension Activities

Bring Sholem Aleichem’s writing into the classroom by dividing the class into small groups and passing out the reading The Town of the Little People. Have each group read aloud the story to each other. While they are reading, instruct students to underline places in the story where Aleichem uses humor to show the beauty and the hardships of shtetl life.

To help students deepen their understanding of how Jews were viewed as outsiders, see Chapter 2 in The Jews of Poland, “Outsiders in Eastern Europe,” as well as Lesson 10 of Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior, European Jewish Life before World War II.

For teachers who are interested in taking a deeper look at Jewish life in Poland before the war, we recommend viewing “Jewish Life in Poland Before World War II,” in which historian Jeffrey Shandler discusses the topics, and “Rachel Auerbach and Jewish Life in Warsaw Between the Wars,” a short excerpt from the documentary Who Will Write Our History.

For teachers who are interested in examining Jewish life in Germany before the war, we recommend the streaming video Camera of My Family: Four Generations in Germany 1845–1945.

Materials and Downloads

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