Two 50-minute class periods

The Web of Community: Jewish Life Before the War

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • build an understanding of the history and culture of Eastern European Jews during the inter-war years.
  • analyze Polish-Jewish relations during a period of dramatic political and economic shifts.
  • examine the choices available to Polish Jews when confronted with questions of membership.
  • comprehend what happens when a group within a society is marginalized beyond the universe of obligation.


What was life like for Jews living in Poland and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust? This lesson outline suggests ways in which students can use readings from Jews of Poland, videos, photos, and literature to uncover the complexities of "Life before the War". Further, the outline suggests opportunities for students to consider how a "universe of obligation" within these Jewish communities was affected by the onset of war.


This lesson focuses on the period 1919 -1939 in Poland. It is important to ensure that students have an understanding of Polish history prior to World War I. The following readings from Chapter 2 of The Jews of Poland can be used to strengthen this understanding: "Strangers in a New Land", "On the Edge of Time and Space", and "The Lure of the Modern World"


Teaching Strategy


  1. After students have read some of the background readings in Chapter 3 of The Jews of Poland, show the video A Day in Warsaw. Before showing the film, remind students that although these films were produced in 1938 - 1939, six years later 90% of Polish Jewry would have died. When viewing the film, students should keep in mind that the purpose of the film was to encourage American Jews to visit Poland. Have students brainstorm what the filmmakers may have intentionally left out of the final versions shown to Americans.

  2. In their journals, have students respond to the following questions:

    • Looking at this film, what is your overall impression of life in Poland/Warsaw at the time these films were made?
    • Based on what you've seen in this film, what opportunities do you think were available for Polish Jews during this time period?
  3. Have students meet in small groups to debrief both their responses to the film and the journal questions. Suggest that students could develop a visual inventory of what is discussed in their small group, which could then be shown to other groups. Another approach would be to compare city life, as depicted in film with images from rural Poland, as represented in the photographs of Roman Vishniac. See our Roman Vishniac gallery or the photos in a The Vanished World (copies may be available in local libraries, synagogues, bookstores, or Amazon. )

  4. After looking at these images of Jewish life in Poland, literature could be used as another lens to understand the Inter-war years. The stories listed below can used to reflect how different versions of life in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, represented a broad range of experiences for Jews. For example, students could explore the differences between secular and religious life, the role in humor in coping difficult times, or the tensions within the Jewish community.
    In My Father's Court, by Issac Beshevis Singer
    Two Anti-Semites and The Yom Kippur Scandal by Sholom Aleichem
    Under the Shade of a Chestnut Tree by Benjamin Tene
    If Not Higher by I.L. Peretz

  5. On page 107 of The Jews of Poland, Abraham Lewin, a well-known Polish diarist, writes to a former student in Palestine, on why it was so difficult to leave Warsaw in 1933.

    • I often ask myself if I could put the Diaspora life, with all the doubts and soul-searching that characterize those around me, behind me and start an entirely new life there, of the sort that you live?


    • The question arises of its own accord, and cuts deeply, but I admit without shame that I find it difficult to give a positive answer. It seems that within me, there is a terrible fear of "there", a fear that can be quieted solely by logic and reason. Yes, I think that this is a weakness that has its origins in man's too great love for himself...


    • I do not have the internal resources to throw off the chains of the past and involve myself in the new life, even if the fetters constraining me to my present circumstances were to be removed.

    Although Lewin did travel twice to Palestine, he ultimately decided to return to Poland. He taught in a Zionist school, were the students were encouraged to think about emigrating to Palestine. In light of this, why do you think it was difficult for Lewin to decide to leave Poland?

    Many Jews did leave Poland, but went to other places in the Diaspora besides Palestine. How do you think one makes that decision? What were some of the reasons why many Jews couldn't or didn't emigrate?

  6. Have students examine some of the difficulties Jews faced in deciding either to leave or to stay in Poland. A think, pair, share activity, or small group discussions could be used to start this process before opening this question to the larger group. Direct students to think about the films, readings, short stories they've reviewed as part of this lesson outline. Have students consider the following questions:

    • What would be necessary for you to leave your home and start an entirely new life?
    • What would it be like to have to make this kind of a decision?
    • What factors would likely influence your decision or that of your family?
  7. The final activities of this lesson focus on the question of how groups become marginalized, and what the consequences are when this happens. During the inter-war years, Jews were struggling to find ways to adapt to being Jewish within Poland. Some acculturated, while others clung to traditions and an autonomous Jewish existence. Still, others came together to form a strong Zionist movement during this period. At the same time, many Poles continued to perceive Jews as "the other".

    In order to build an understanding of these issues it is important to have students examine the concept of a "universe of obligation". Have students brainstorm which groups and individuals are within their own universe of obligation, and which are not. What can happen when society marginalizes people to be outside the universe of obligation.

    A video that confronts this issue is A Class Divided. Show either the first half or second half of the video, depending on whether it is preferrable to show sections of the film which includes adults. After viewing the excerpt, have students write for three-five minutes in their journals about how the "teacher", Jane Eliot, manipulated the situation so that one group became targeted by the other group. Following this, have students form small groups and discuss their journal entries and their reactions to the film.


  1. The short stories listed in Activity 4 can provide a useful complement to this lesson by deepening students' understanding of variety of experience among Eastern European Jews and their struggles to strike a balance between tradition and the modern world.

  2. Review the outstanding websites listed in the above lesson. They can deepen student's understanding of the Eastern European Jewry. These sites could be used for research assignments or to simply provide visual compliments to the readings listed above.

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