In this lesson, students consider the complexity of the final days of World War II by reading the diary of Alice Ehrmann, who experiences these events in Terezín.
Educators and students are encouraged to read the introduction to Alice Ehrmann’s diary in Salvaged Pages, pages 395–403. It provides valuable information about the writer’s life and a historical context for a reading of the diary.
Core diary entries from Salvaged Pages used in this lesson: Alice Ehrmann, April 20, 1945, April 21, 1945, April 30, 1945, May 7, 1945
By the spring of 1945, the Germans had all but lost the war. The Soviet Army advanced and occupied previously held German territories in Eastern Europe, and the Allied forces did the same from the west. As they closed in on Germany, Allied armies discovered internment camps, ghettos, slave labor camps, and killing centers, especially in the East.
During these final days, the Germans feverishly attempted to cover up the evidence of their mass killings of Europe’s Jews. They forced thousands of surviving Jews to march westward, out of reach of Soviet troops, and allowed countless to die along the way. They also attempted to destroy physical evidence in the form of documents and human remains. Eventually, Nazis officials fled, leaving the camps in chaos and anarchy. In Terezín (in German, Theresienstadt), prisoners from the East arrived in mass transports beginning in April 1945, bringing with them the first glimpse of the scope of the crime committed against European Jews. On May 9, 1945, Soviet troops entered Terezín. The next day they assumed responsibility for the prisoners.
Alice Ehrmann, who survived the Terezín ghetto, recorded the details of this pivotal and painful moment of the war. Rather than reinforcing the myth that the end of the war, often called “liberation,” was exclusively a time of joy, Alice captured the contradictions inherent in survival. In particular, she wrote in her diary about her own confrontation with the reality of the Nazi genocide, the loss of loved ones and community, and the prospect of rebuilding a life following such trauma.
“Liberation,” or the final days of World War II, was not exclusively a time of joy and celebration. It was also a time filled with great loss and uncertainty for Europe’s surviving Jews. By reading first-person witness accounts from this time we are able to gain a more full and accurate understanding of the end of the war. We also have the opportunity to challenge, and correct, deeply-held historical myths.
- What do we learn about Alice's experience during liberation from the account in her diary?
- What challenges and changes did survivors face after liberation as they sought to rebuild their lives? What had changed for Alice? Based on a reading of her diary entries, how did Alice's experiences during the war change the way she thought of people and life?
- What does the word liberation mean? Are there parts of her account that fit this definition? Are there parts that don’t? What are they? Would you choose a different word to describe this moment? If so, what would it be?
This lesson was initially drafted by Holocaust educator Bonnie Sussman.
Opener: The First Hints of the Final Days
Have students read Alice Ehrmann's Diary Entries on the End of World War II in Theresienstadt and discuss the following questions:
What is she describing?
What details does she document?
What questions surface?
What observations stand out?
What words could be used to describe the climate of the moment?
What did I learn about the end of the war from these entries?
Main Activity: Understanding the Final Days of the War
Alice Ehrmann’s personal account of the final months of the war offers students important historical information to consider and reflect upon.
Read Alice Ehrmann's Diary Entry on Death Camp Survivors, April 20, 1945, Alice Ehrmann's Diary Entry Reflecting on the End of World War II, April 21, 1945, Alice Ehrmann's Diary Entry on Her Feelings at the End of World War II, April 30, 1945, and Alice Ehrmann's Diary Entry on the Theresienstadt Ghetto at the End of World War II, May 7, 1945. Have students highlight statements that stand out to them. Have them share the passages they chose.
View images of the transports that arrived at Terezín in the gallery below.
What do they see that correlates with Alice’s written account? What questions surface? What new information do these images reveal?
Return to the Focus Questions. Have students choose one question to reflect on in writing. Then have them share what they have written in small groups or in the larger class.
Deeper Exploration and Assessment: Across-Diary Comparison
As Germany’s defeat neared, Alice Ehrmann wrote almost daily of the events she witnessed in Terezín as did diarist Eva Ginzová, who also lived in Terezín and wrote in her diary about the first transports arriving from the East.
Begin by having students read Eva Ginzová's Diary Entry on Auschwitz-Birkenau Survivors, April 23, 1945. (Note: Eva Ginzová’s entry was actually dated April 23, 1945, but she references April 20th, 1945, in the opening lines. Alice Ehrmann writes about these final days in almost consecutive entries beginning on April 20, 1945, through May 19, 1945.) Revisit Alice Ehrmann's Diary Entry Reflecting on the End of World War II, April 21, 1945.
Have students compare and contrast these two entries using the discussion questions below.
What was similar between Alice’s and Eva’s entries from April 23, 1945? What was different?
How does the difference in their ages impact their perspective as the end of the war approaches?
How can your understanding of the Holocaust be enhanced by comparing multiple perspectives of the same events?
What questions do you have after reading both of these entries?
There are a wealth of supplemental sources that relate to Alice Ehrmann’s final days of the Holocaust. The following sources are particularly relevant to her diary entries: