This outline guides you through a unit using readings, videos, and other resources from Holocaust and Human Behavior. The unit is organized to follow the Facing History Scope and Sequence, and it is designed to be taught in a Jewish setting.
As you prepare for and teach this unit, it is important to refer to the book Holocaust and Human Behavior for context necessary to help guide students from lesson to lesson and to answer their questions. We also recommend that you read the Get Started section in the book as you prepare to teach this unit for important suggestions about how to foster a reflective classroom community and how to support students as they encounter the emotionally challenging history of the Holocaust.
Each row in the charts below corresponds roughly to one day of instruction time. Since schedules, class period length, and the needs of individual classes and students vary, teachers will likely need to make adjustments to this plan to best suit their needs and circumstances. The teaching notes accompanying each lesson often provide suggestions for making adjustments to the lesson in order to abbreviate it or go deeper.
This outline is also available for download as a PDF.
Section A: Individual and Society [~3 days]
In this first series of lessons, students begin the unit by examining the societal factors that shape how we think about our own identities and how we define others. After a broad introduction to the concept of identity, these lessons look closely at how one factor, religion, influences the way many people see themselves and others, and the lessons go on to explore the way that stereotypes can distort our perceptions of others.
- What factors shape our identities? Which parts do we choose for ourselves, and which are determined by others, society, or chance?
- In what ways are our identities shaped by the fact that we are Jews?
- What dilemmas may arise when others view us differently than we view ourselves?
Lesson 1. Charting Identity
Students create identity charts for Moshe and themselves after reading the two readings.
Students respond to the following question in their journals:
How does Moshe’s chart and/or your chart reflect a dual identity?
Lesson 2. Identity and Contrasts
Students read How It Feels to be Colored Me and have a class discussion based on the following questions:
- Why does Zora Neale Hurston say she was no longer Zora when she disembarked at Jacksonville? What does she mean by that?
- Look through the full text and highlight what qualities Hurston relates to being black. What adjectives does she use? What does being black mean for her?
Write on the board adjectives (or adjectival phrases) that students find. Discuss the list.
Students then analyze Glenn Ligon’s etchings using the Analyzing Images teaching strategy.
Finally, students respond to the following prompt:
I feel most Jewish when...
Students write their sentences on Post-it Notes (without names) and paste them on a communal chart.
Tell students to look for similarities/differences in the answers. Ask students:
Do you notice any similarities to Zora Neale Hurston’s thinking?
Lesson 3. Stereotypes and "Single Stories"
Students read The Danger of a Single Story, create an identity chart for Chimamanda Adichie, and discuss the “single stories” they have encountered in their own lives.
Connect the idea of “single stories” to Jewish identity. Ask students:
Have you ever experienced your identity as a Jew narrated through a single story? What story is that?
Excerpt the reading as necessary to make it accessible for your class, or show the video from TED.com.
Lesson 4. Multiple Identities
Students read two readings about identity and then apply the Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World teaching strategy to make connections with the experiences the texts describe. Focus the discussion on the question:
What happens when we have to choose one part of our identity over another?
Conclude by leading a class discussion in response to the following question:
What do the readings from Angela Warnick, Zora Neale Hurston, and Chimamanda Adichie have in common?
Watch the video. Ask students:
Which voice resonated with you? Why did it resonate?
Section B: We & They [~2 days]
Students now turn their attention from individual to group identity. These lessons introduce the human tendency to create “in” groups and “out” groups, and they look at the way humans have created such groups throughout history on the basis of race and religion, among other factors.
- How have societies distinguished between who can be a member and who must remain an outsider, and why have those distinctions mattered?
Lesson 5. Differences in Belonging
Students read and discuss (using the connection questions) the two readings, and then they use the handout to illustrate the universe of obligation for themselves and a group to which they belong.
Lesson 6. The Concept of Race
Students read aloud Defining Race and discuss the connection questions. Then they watch a clip of the video (0:43–9:46) and record something they found surprising, something they found interesting, and something they found troubling to discuss with a partner afterward.
As students respond to the video, listen to their discussions and look over their notes to check for understanding of two important points about race: (1) identifying a person as being of a particular race does not tell us anything about their physical or intellectual capacities or their character, and (2) definitions of race are not fixed and have changed from place to place and time to time.
Lesson 7. Defining Antisemitism
Students learn from the reading and video about the history of anti-Judaism and how it evolved into antisemitism. Then they discuss the connection questions following the reading using the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy.
Section C: Life before the War [~2 days]
This section offers a glimpse into Jewish life before World War II. 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. This is to ensure 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 also offers points for reflection on Jewish life in the diaspora before the war and Jewish life today.
- How does modernity affect tradition? How is Jewish identity shaped in a changing world?
Lesson 8. The Dilemma of the Modern World for Jews
Read Choices in a Modern World. Ask students the following question:
Pauline Wengeroff and her husband saw themselves as “modern.” Do you agree? What does the word mean to you?
Then have students explore the reading using the Reader’s Theater teaching strategy. Break up the class into four or five groups. Each group will act out for the class one of the following scenes from the readings:
Conclude with a discussion of the following quotation from Pauline Wengeroff:
“A Jew could renounce everything that had become indispensable to him, or he could choose freedom with its offers of education and career...”
Ask students to think about whether Jews today still need to make choices that sacrifice their identity as Jews in order to succeed in the contemporary world.
- Hanan decides to see the rabbi and has a conversation with the rabbi
- Hanan decides to shave his beard and open a business
- The struggle between Pauline and Hanan
- Jews are allowed into universities and then, after the events of 1881, forced back into the ghettos
- The children leave the tradition
For background information and more teaching resources on the history of Jews in Eastern Europe, see Chapter 2 in The Jews of Poland, “Outsiders in Eastern Europe.”
Students may need help understanding the use of the word modern in this lesson’s readings. Here, modernity refers to the society that emerged as a result of the new beliefs, paradigms, and attitudes of the Enlightenment.
Lesson 9. Yiddish Tradition and Jewish Life before the war
While students view the two short videos about Sholem Aleichem and shtetl life, they take notes in response to the following questions:
- What do we learn about shtetl life through these videos?
- What did Sholem Aleichem seek to preserve through his stories?
Next, students read The Town of the Little People by Sholem Aleichem and discuss the following question: How is humor used here to show both the beauty and the hardships of the shtetl Jews?
Finally, students participate in a gallery walk created with photographs from both image galleries.
After students finish the gallery walk, lead a class discussion about the images, including the following questions:
- In what ways might these photos reinforce stereotypes about Jewish people?
- In what ways might they contradict stereotypes?
To conclude, the class watches A Day in Warsaw. Students write down their overall impressions of life for Jews in Warsaw right before the war. They also consider these questions:
- 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?
You might choose to share with students additional background information about Sholem Aleichem:
He was the first popular Yiddish writer, the Mark Twain of his time. Twain wrote in dialect and with humor. Sholem Aleichem did the same. He wrote in Yiddish to capture the cadence of his own people in a language for his own people. Refer to the movie Fiddler on the Roof for a reference in popular culture.
You might also refer back to Zora Neale Hurston in this lesson. She was harshly criticized by the black community during her own time for writing Their Eyes Were Watching God in southern black dialect. Her work as a folklorist informed her writing, and she was trying to capture the colorful language of the black South. Today, she is celebrated for capturing a time and place through the use of dialect. It is interesting to ask why Twain was not criticized for writing in dialect but Hurston was.
For more background information and additional lesson plans, see Understanding the Life of Shtetl Jews.
Section D: Case Study: Nazi Germany and the Holocaust [~13 Days]
In this series of lessons, students dive deeply into a historical case study about the Holocaust, practicing historical thinking skills while finding links to the universal themes of human behavior they examined in the first three stages of the unit. In this case study, students explore the idea of democracy and what is essential to support and sustain it. They examine how it is possible that some groups within a society could be discriminated against, dehumanized, and eventually targeted for mass murder. They are also challenged to think about the choices available to individuals in times of injustice and the factors that influence such decision making. The dramatic and sometimes painful stories told in these resources require students to respond to history with not just their intellects but also their hearts.
- What choices and circumstances enabled the Nazi Party to rise to power in Germany?
- What is the Holocaust? How did the choices of individuals, groups, and entire nations help to make it possible?
- What can we learn about human behavior from confronting this history? What can we learn about ourselves? What new questions does this history raise for us in the twenty-first century?
Lesson 10. The End of War and the Beginning of Democracy
Students watch the video, which ends with Germany’s loss in World War I.
The class begins a concept map (or identity chart) for democracy and uses it to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of the Weimar Constitution.
The class reads aloud Creating a Constitutional Government, and then students work in pairs to analyze the Weimar government, comparing it to the democracy concept map.
Optional: Students read Rumors of Betrayal and reflect on how rumors about the end of the war affected Germans’ trust in their new government.
Lesson 11. Art and Culture in the Weimar Republic
Students analyze images from the visual essay using the Analyzing Images and Big Paper strategies. In pairs, students silently write their observations, questions, and conclusions as annotations around the image. Finish with a whole-group discussion, focusing on the following questions:
- What do these images suggest about art and culture in Weimar society?
- What reactions might individual Germans have had to these images?
- What is the role of free expression in democracy?
Lesson 12.Politics and Elections in the Weimar Republic
Students watch the video to provide/deepen historical context.
Students then discuss in pairs or small groups which party platforms (listed in the reading Hard Times Return) would be most appealing to one or more of the individuals profiled in the handout.
Lesson 13. From Democracy to Dictatorship
The class reviews the characteristics of democracy from the concept map they created in earlier lessons.
Students view the video for background information.
Then, small groups of students each work with one reading and analyze how the reading adds to their understanding of how democracy was destroyed in Germany. Small groups each report out to the whole class.
Finally, the class begins a concept map for Nazi dictatorship.
While it is important to illustrate the variety of ways in which the Nazis attacked democracy in Germany, the size of your class and the needs of your students may dictate that you choose not to use every suggested reading in this lesson.
Background Information: Chapter 5
Lesson 14. Choosing between Conformity and Dissent
Students read and discuss the three readings and then hold a fishbowl discussion on the interplay between Hitler and individual Germans in creating and sustaining the new dictatorship. The discussion focuses on the following questions:
- To what extent did Germans choose to conform or consent to the dictatorship, and to what extent were they coerced?
- What kinds of pledges and oaths do people take today? For what reasons? How do they affect people’s choices? How should they?
Add to the concept map for Nazi dictatorship.
Lesson 15. Analyzing Nazi Propaganda
Using the visual essay introduction, the class records a definition for propaganda. As a whole class, they analyze The Eternal Jew poster using the Analyzing Images strategy and the accompanying handout.
Then students work in small groups to use the same strategy to analyze additional images from the visual essay.
The class ends with a whole-group discussion about what students observed, what makes propaganda effective or ineffective, and how it adds to their understanding of conformity and consent in Nazi Germany.
Throughout these activities, help students connect what they are learning about propaganda to the influence of media today. Ask students if they can think of examples of propaganda in society today. How do they think propaganda influences the attitudes and actions of people today?
Lesson 16. Youth in Nazi Germany
Students work in pairs to read and discuss one or more readings about youth in Nazi Germany. Their discussion should focus on what evidence the readings provide to answer the following questions:
- What role did youth play in the Nazis' attempt to build a "racially pure and harmonious national community"?
- What difficult choices were young people faced with—at home, in school, and in their communities—during this period?
- How did these choices challenge the way young people saw themselves and understood their identities?
Pairs share summaries of their readings and their conclusions in a whole-group discussion.
Lesson 17. Understanding Kristallnacht
The class watches the video for an overview of Kristallnacht and its significance.
Introduce terms to describe the roles people can play in times of crisis: perpetrator, victim, bystander, upstander.
Students then work in groups to analyze readings that describe different responses to Kristallnacht, identifying evidence they find of perpetrator, bystander, and upstander behavior.
Emphasize that perpetrator, victim, bystander, and upstander are roles, not identities. A single individual can slip in and out of each of these roles, depending on circumstances and choices.
Teachers will need to provide context for this lesson about the rearmament of Germany, the Anschluss, and the annexation of the Sudetenland. Consider creating a mini-lecture about events in the following Chapter 7 readings: Rearming Germany, Taking Austria, Crisis in Czechoslovakia, Beyond Any Nation’s Universe of Obligation
Background Information: Chapter 7
Lesson 18. A War For Race and Space
Students watch the video for an introduction to the Nazi “race and space” ideology.
Then they analyze four excerpts from readings, using the Big Paper strategy. In groups, students silently discuss how one of the excerpts relates to the “race and space” ideology. Then they rotate to other groups’ “big papers” to read the other silent conversations and contribute their thoughts.
Lesson 19. Ghettos: Confronting the Suffering Caused by the Nazis
Students learn about the confinement of Jews in ghettos in Poland by reading The Jewish Ghettos: Separated from the World.
Then they read the diary of a teenager imprisoned in a ghetto (also in the reading) and reflect on the emotional challenges of this history.
Students respond privately to the following prompt in their journals or notebooks:
Accounts like this one are disturbing and painful to read. They prompt us to ask many questions, some of which may be unanswerable. What questions do these events raise for you about history and human behavior?
Finally, students read about the Oyneg Shabes archive in Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto, and reflect on the struggle to maintain a sense of identity, dignity, faith, and culture as a form of defiance and resistance.
Lesson 20. Mass Murder: The Stories of Survivors
Students watch the video, which provides an overview of the phases of the Holocaust, and they then examine the map illustrating the locations and the variety of methods the Nazis used to perpetrate mass murder.
Students then read and learn about a variety of experiences of those targeted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. They create a found poem based on one account and using the accompanying handout.
Finally, students respond privately to the following prompt in their journals or notebooks:
How did working so closely with the words of a survivor affect you? What did these words make you think and feel?
Lesson 21. Perpetrators: Choosing to Murder
Students examine a variety of factors that might have helped make it possible for individuals to participate in the mass murder of the Holocaust.
First, they read aloud Reserve Police Battalion 101 and discuss the reading and connection questions using the Fishbowl or Think, Pair, Share strategy format.
Students then learn about the Milgram experiments conducted in the 1960s and watch Obedience: The Milgram Experiment. Using the same discussion format, they discuss what they observed in the video and the factors that encouraged the “subject” of the experiment to proceed. Then they discuss what insight Milgram’s work might provide for understanding the motivations of the members of Police Battalion 101.
Teachers will need to provide the class with a brief overview of the way the Milgram experiments were set up. Use the reading A Matter of Obedience? to prepare the overview.
Help students understand the variety and complexity of perpetrator motivations, noting that experiments like Milgram’s can provide insight but not necessarily the whole story. Encourage students to challenge the ideas of Milgram, Browning, and Goldhagen.
Time permitting, introduce one or both of the optional readings and discuss with students how those stories extend, deepen, or complicate their discussion of perpetrator behavior.
Consider ending this lesson by having students complete exit cards to give you a sense of how they are responding to this emotionally challenging content.
Lesson 22. Resisters, Rescuers, and Bystanders
Students read Choiceless Choices as a class and discuss the quotation by Lawrence Langer.
Students then read and analyze a selection of readings about choices by those who did have varying levels of agency during the Holocaust. Assign individuals or small groups to focus their analysis on one or two readings.
Finish with a class discussion of the following questions:
- What led each individual to make the choices he or she made?
- How did circumstances of time, place, and opportunity play a role in the choices each person made?
While it is important to illustrate varying levels of agency people experienced and the variety of choices they made during the Holocaust, the size of your class and the needs of your students may dictate that you choose not to use every suggested reading in this lesson.
Background Information: Chapter 8 and Chapter 9
Lesson 23. Jewish Resistance
Students read The Vilna Ghetto Manifesto and discuss the following questions:
- What does Abba Kovner mean by “sheep to the slaughter”?
- Why do you think this phrase resonated within the Jewish community?
- Why do some people find this phrase to be problematic today?
Then students read the The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and participate in a discussion using the Think, Pair, Share strategy in response to the following question:
Scholar Michael Berenbaum wrote that for those who resisted, “Death was a given.” With such terrible odds against them, why did so many Jews participate in the Warsaw ghetto uprising? Did their resistance matter?
Students read Vitka Kempner’s Biography and Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto.
Finally, students discuss the following two statements (write both on the board):
- Vitka Kempner: “But of all the underground movements in the ghettos, nobody did anything until the last moment. Because no one of us wanted, that because of some carelessness on our side, other Jews would get killed. We were young, and the claim against us from many people inside the ghetto was, You are irresponsible young people, because of you all the Jews will get killed. . . .”
- Abba Kovner: “They shall not take us like sheep to the slaughter . . . ”
Focus the discussion on the following questions:
- Why did the older generations in the ghetto try to dissuade the younger generation from resistance?
- How can we understand and justify both viewpoints today?
- How do the need for resistance and the fear of resistance live side by side?
Section E: Judgment, Memory, and Legacy [~4 days]
Students consider the challenges the world faced and continues to face in response to the horrors of the Holocaust. First they explore the meaning of justice and whether it was achievable after crimes committed on the scale of the Holocaust. Then they learn about some dilemmas we face today in judging the choices made by those who lived in the past, and they reflect on the “call to conscience” that the history of the Holocaust provides as we respond to injustice in the world today.
- What is justice? Can justice be achieved after mass murder on the enormous scale of the Holocaust?
- What can individuals or nations do to repair, rebuild, and restore their societies after war, genocide, and mass violence?
- Why is it important to remember the past?
Lesson 24. Justice after the Holocaust
Students consider some of the dilemmas of justice after the Holocaust and World War II by completing the anticipation guide, using the handout, and having a debate in the format of the Four Corners teaching strategy.
Then they watch Nuremberg Remembered, read the two readings on Nuremberg, or listen to a mini-lecture to learn about how the Allies addressed those dilemmas after the war.
Teachers should give a few details about the end of World War II. You might refer to the reading As the War Ended or the short video testimonies (Eyewitness to Buchenwald or The Red Army Enters Majdanek) by American and Russian soldiers who encountered camps as the war ended.
Make the debate about justice the focus of the lesson. Depending on available time, teachers might choose to share details about the Nuremberg Trials using the video or suggested readings, or by creating a mini-lecture based on information from the readings.
Lesson 25. Dilemmas of Judgment
Students will watch the video and read the reading, and then they will use the connection questions to reflect on the idea of “moral luck” and the role that circumstances play in influencing our choices and judgment. Students will share their thoughts in small groups or a brief class discussion.
Students will then respond to the statement “I am myself and my circumstances” (José Ortega y Gasset). Ask students:
- Do you agree?
- Was it true of the Nazis?
- How do our "circumstances" influence who we are and the moral choices we make today?
“What would I have done?” is a difficult, if not impossible, question to answer when learning about horrific events such as the Holocaust. In order to foster deep and thoughtful contributions from students in this lesson, avoid that question and instead focus on the factors that influence our choices today.
Lesson 26. Contemporary Responses to the Holocaust
Half of the class will begin by reading The International Criminal Court, and the other half will read Remembering the Names. After reading silently, students will find one or two classmates who read the same reading. They will discuss the reading’s connection questions and then collaborate on an answer to the question:
How does the action described in this reading offer an important response to the history of the Holocaust?
Students then meet with new partners who read and analyzed the other reading. In their new groups, they will share a summary of their readings and then discuss the following:
How are the responses described in the readings similar and different? How do they each offer, in their own way, an important response to the history of the Holocaust?
Lesson 27. Post-Holocaust Theology
Students view The Creation of Wartime by Samuel Bak, following the Analyzing Images strategy.
Students compare Bak’s piece to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, with which Bak is in dialogue. Ask students the following questions:
- How can we interpret the empty spaces in the painting?
- What questions is the artist asking by recreating and reinterpreting the iconic Michelangelo painting?
- What is the role of God during the Holocaust, as depicted by Samuel Bak?
Students work in groups of three and read the six short responses to retaining faith after the Holocaust in the reading Faith Despite a Broken World. Once these become familiar, a representative from each group interprets the Bak painting from the point of view of the author/scholar they were assigned.
Lesson 28. Facing the Past in Poland
Students read Facing the Past in Poland. Using the Fishbowl strategy, students discuss the connection questions that follow the reading, focusing especially on the connection between history, national identity, and individual identity.
~Section F: Choosing to Participate [1 day]
Students end the unit by considering their responsibility to participate as caring, thoughtful citizens in the world around us. They analyze examples of individuals and groups who are seeking to make a difference in order to consider the strategies that they might use to help bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate world and a more democratic society.
- How does learning about history educate us about our responsibilities today?
- What must individuals do and value in order to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate world and a more democratic society?
Lesson 29. Choosing to Participate
Students read aloud Not Just Awareness, But Action and respond to Obama’s argument about the need for strategies in order to make change.
Students will then read or watch one or more stories about people who “choose to participate” and will use the Analyzing Levers of Power handout to analyze the strategies employed by the individuals described in the reading.
End the lesson by brainstorming with the class about the characteristics of an upstander. Introduce the five Quotes from Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot). Put each quote up around the classroom on a large piece of paper or sticky note. Have students walk around, read the quotes, and stand by a quote that resonates with them and that they can relate to an upstander they have heard of or know.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: "There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story—an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story—something that happened to me and is part of who I am. . . . As with individuals, so with a nation: it has a continuing identity to the extent that it can remember where it came from and who its ancestors were."1
When we study the Holocaust, history and memory, as defined by Rabbi Sacks, collide. The Holocaust is a story that has become part of Jewish memory and, as a result, part of Jewish identity. But it is also a history that forever changed the world and the many nations that exist in it.
What has learning about the Holocaust suggested to you about your identity as a Jew? What does it suggest to you about what it means to be human?
 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "History and Memory," JewishPress.com, last modified March 25, 2015, accessed May 1, 2017.