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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Analyze a Film about Shtetl Life
- 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.