Pre-Viewing: Establishing the Historical Context for Schindler’s List | Facing History & Ourselves
Nazi officers stand guard and march at Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland.

Pre-Viewing: Establishing the Historical Context for Schindler’s List

Students are introduced to the history of ideas, events, and decisions that shaped the world of Schindler’s List.


At a Glance



English — US


  • History


  • The Holocaust



While Schindler’s List is based on a true story, the film cannot address the full historical context of the events it portrays, for practical and artistic reasons. Many questions may surface for students as they watch the film: What was the Holocaust? What was its relationship to World War II? Why are Jews being targeted for deportation and death? Offering some answers to these anticipated questions, and introducing the history of ideas, events, and decisions that shaped the world of Schindler’s List, will enrich students’ experience and understanding of Spielberg’s film as they view it.

The resources in this lesson trace the roots of the Holocaust from the long history of the ideology of anti-Judaism and antisemitism to the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and the evolving persecution and murder of Jews and other targeted groups throughout Europe under the cover of war. The activities in this lesson can be adapted to be taught in one class period or several.

  • What is the historical context for Schindler’s List?
  • What was the Holocaust? Why is it important to confront this history?
  • 3 activities
  • 1 extension
  • 1 video
  • 1 handout
  • 1 timeline

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

We recommend that you spend time reviewing the complex history of the Holocaust in order to better anticipate and answer questions that students may have. See the “Context” section of Lesson 19, The Holocaust: Bearing Witness from the unit Teaching “Holocaust and Human Behavior” for a summary of crucial historical background information before teaching this lesson. For deeper background information, read Chapter 9 of the resource book Holocaust and Human Behavior. As you review, consider the following questions:

  • What details of the history do you think will be most important for students to understand before they watch Schindler's List?
  • What details and nuances in the history can you share with the class to help students better understand the lesson’s documents and think more deeply about the moral and ethical dilemmas they encounter?

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Lesson Plans


It is important that students have some basic knowledge about the history of the Holocaust before watching Schindler’s List. In the video Step by Step: Phases of the Holocaust (06:47), historian Doris Bergen divides the history of the Holocaust into four phases, described on the handout Phases of the Holocaust. Pass out the handout and give students a few moments to read through the information. Then show the video so that students can hear Bergen’s description of the four phases.

Our multimedia timeline Historical Context for Schindler’s List  features mini-documentary films as well as readings and eyewitness accounts of the years preceding the Holocaust. The timeline can be accessed directly by students, or you can select and assign just a few elements as part of your lesson. Together, these resources help students understand both the broad history and the difficult choices faced by individuals and groups in the years before the time period of Schindler’s List.

Below are three different approaches to bringing the historical context for Schindler’s List into your classroom using the interactive timeline.

  • Build basic historical knowledge with a flipped classroom approach: Assign students to watch a selection of the mini-documentary films in the timeline for homework, and ask them to capture the most important events depicted in those films. In class, work together to build a timeline for 1918–1945.

  • Connect the broad sweep of history with decisions made by individuals and groups: In class, watch (or re-watch, if you’ve completed the first activity in this lesson) the mini-documentary Step by Step: Phases of the Holocaust. Then discuss the following:

    • What events does Bergen reference?
    • How does she define the phases of the Holocaust?

    Follow the film with a selection of readings drawn from the interactive timeline that take students deeper into the dynamics and decisions of each phase. (The connection questions that accompany each reading can be used as journal or in-class discussion prompts to deepen students’ comprehension and reflection.) Afterward, discuss the following question as a class: How do these readings help us understand choices that led to the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, the targeting and persecution of Jews, and the death of millions in the Holocaust?

  • Make a human timeline: The Human Timeline teaching strategy uses movement to help students understand and remember the chronology of events. Students can work with the interactive timeline as the central text for this activity. By combining, deleting, or adding events, you can adapt the interactive timeline to best meet the needs of your students. Once you have assigned events to students (individually or in pairs), they can use the associated mini-documentaries or readings and make notes to share with their classmates when they present their events as part of the timeline. As students present their events, ask others to discuss these questions: What might be some of the causes and consequences of this event? How does this event relate to those that came before and after it?

The reading The Life of Oskar Schindler provides a biographical sketch that helps students understand Oskar Schindler’s evolution from a Nazi war profiteer to a rescuer. Pass out the reading and read it aloud, or have the class read it in small groups. After reading, ask students to respond in their journals or in small groups to one or all of the connection questions. Then lead a whole-class discussion to debrief students’ responses.


To provide a counterbalance to the racism and antisemitism in the history students explore in this lesson’s activities, and to help students better appreciate the lives and cultures that were lost during the Holocaust, consider teaching the lesson European Jewish Life before World War II from the unit Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior.

You might also wish to pair this lesson’s materials with two interview clips from Holocaust survivor Rena Finder, who was one of the Jews rescued by Oskar Schindler and will appear in subsequent lessons of this guide. In Rena Finder on Life Before the Holocaust (02:25), Finder recounts her happy childhood living in Krakow before the war, while in Rena Finder on Krakow at the Start of World War II (06:59), she describes how she felt after the Nazis invaded Poland and she became an “enemy of the state,” seemingly overnight.

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