Defining and Individualizing the Holocaust Lesson

Download a PDF of the Lesson here

Overview: When beginning a study of the Holocaust with your high school students, it is important to provide the background and historical context of the time period before delving into the literature you will have your students explore. This lesson provides a way to ease students into the study of the Holocaust by defining what the Holocaust was and by individualizing the experiences of those in the Holocaust. These two goals are also expressed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust, which we highly recommend that any Holocaust educator should review and consider when planning how and what to teach in a unit about the Holocaust. In this lesson, students will learn about the USHMM’s definition of the Holocaust, study the specific language in the definition, which was carefully crafted by historians, and will interact with one person’s story of life during the Holocaust.

Grade Level: Grades 9-12

Subject: English Language Arts, Social Studies

Duration: 90 minutes

NC Standards Addressed:


RI 9-10.4: CRAFT AND STRUCTURE Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone

SL 9-10.1 COLLABORATION AND COMMUNICATION Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on texts and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Social Studies:

WH.H.8.1: Evaluate global wars in terms of how they challenged political and economic power structures and gave rise to new balances of power

WH.H.1.3: Use Historical Analysis and Interpretation to identify issues and problems in the past. Consider multiple perspectives of various peoples in the past.

Essential Question:

How and why did the Holocaust happen?

Learning Objectives:

After the lesson, students will be able to:

  • Understand the nuances of language and the cumulative impact of word choice on meaning
  • Identify the different groups affected by Nazi ideology and the varying experiences of those groups
  • Objectively summarize one person’s story and communicate conclusions drawn from informational documents

Previewing Vocabulary:

Ideology: a system of beliefs or theories, usually political, held by an individual or group

Final Solution: “The term “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was a euphemism used by Nazi Germany’s leaders. It referred to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. It brought an end to policies aimed at encouraging or forcing Jews to leave the German Reich and other parts of Europe. Those policies were replaced by systematic annihilation.”-USHMM definition

Sterilization: procedure where the courts decided that anyone deemed unfit would undergo an operation, a ligation of the fallopian tubes for the women and a vasectomy for men. Often, the police were needed to get people to the operating room since they did not have any say in whether or not they would be sterilized.


(Links to Google Docs, Forms, and Slides will ask you to make a copy):


  1. Before beginning the lesson, make copies of The Many Layers of the Holocaust handout, print the pdf of the USHMM Individual Profiles (it is recommended that you print them four to a page, laminate them, and cut them out), and the Timeline Years (it is also recommended that you laminate these documents so you can re-use them).
  2. Place the Timeline Years in order around the classroom. If you have open wall space, use the walls to do this, but if you do not, you can put them on large poster paper and then spread them around your room, taping them to the fronts of bookcases, furniture, or on the walls. The idea is to create a timeline around your room.
  3. Before the students begin the lesson (or for homework the night before), have them fill out this simple Google form, which asks them how and why the Holocaust happened:
  4. Introduce the USHMM Definition of the Holocaust using the Google Slides Definition of the Holocaust while students use the handout to record the key language in the definition using the guided notes section of The Many Layers of the Holocaust handout. In the speaker notes section of the PowerPoint, explanations and teacher notes are provided for you. Emphasize the language in the definition, especially the nuances among the verbs historians used (murder, target, persecute).
  5. After finishing sharing the definition of the Holocaust, have students individually reflect on the significance of the language used and how what they learned through the definition helped them understand more of how or why the Holocaust happened (first two questions after the definition), and then share with an elbow partner what they wrote. Ask for reflections from the class by using a random student selector or just Popsicle sticks with student names on them.
  6. Show the USHMM Animated Map of the Definition (1:57) (also embedded at the bottom of this page) and ask students to reflect on the essential question again, sharing what else they learned from the animated map that helped explain how or why the Holocaust happened.
  7. Ask students to brainstorm a question that they have about the Holocaust that either was not answered in the teaching about the definition or was generated while learning about the definition. After they write it down on the handout, share the link to a Padlet (you can set up a free account and students can use their phones to post) and ask students to type in their question. You can either spend some time answering the questions now or find a way to answer them later, but you can point out patterns in the questions, similar questions, and perhaps choose to answer one or two if you have the time. Make sure to project the padlet so that the entire class can see it.
  8. Give each student one of the individual profile cards and give them ten minutes to read the story of the individual who was impacted by the Holocaust and answer the questions on the back of the student handout, including writing an objective summary of their person’s story in one sentence. Remind students that an objective summary does not use any emotional adjectives and does not include their own opinions about the story or the person’s experiences.
  9. Put students in groups of four or five and give them the instructions to share their objective summary with the others in their group. As they share, group members should listen carefully and also use a highlighter or marker to color in all countries where the individuals were born. You can also ask students to pair up, share their summaries, and then move to pair up with someone else every three minutes until they have talked to four or five people.
  10. Debrief as a group and ask students to share all of the countries that they colored in so far. Write the list of countries on the board and have all students color in all of the countries on the list. Often, students do not understand the scope of the Holocaust, and this visual help them not only begin to grasp the enormity of how many people were affected, but also the geography of Europe, which will help them understand the context of what they will read, see, and experience during your study of the Holocaust.
  11. Have students go back to their individual profile card and look for the date in bold. This is the date when their individual was first impacted by the Holocaust. Using tape (you can put a piece of tape on each desk or group’s table while they are sharing about their individuals with each other), students will put their card underneath the timeline year with the bolded date and then sit back down in their seats.
  12. Once all of the cards are on the timeline, debrief as a class to look for patterns. What do they notice about how the cards are grouped? Why might there be more cards in certain years? Lead them through the study of the patterns to help them realize that it will be important to know what events happened in those years to impact more people. For example, once World War II began in 1939 and the Germans began invading Poland and then more countries in Europe, the number of people impacted by Nazi ideology grew, which is why there may be more of the profile cards in these years.
  13. For a final reflection, have students answer the question at the end of the handout, sharing what surprised them and what they learned from the lesson. If you have time, you could have students share their reflections with the class.


Use a ticket out the door as a way of assessing the essential question: How and why did the Holocaust happen? Have them fill out the Google form from the beginning of the lesson again to see how they have grown in their answers:

E-Learning Adaptation:

To flip your classroom, or for a situation where students are virtually learning, we suggest the following adaptations:

  1. Share the Google Slides presentation for the lesson with students in your online platform (Google Classroom, Canvas, PowerSchool Learning, etc.).
  2. Students begin by answering the questions of how they think that the Holocaust happened and why they think the Holocaust happened.
  3. Have students read the article from the USHMM with an overview of the Holocaust before answering the questions on the slide.
  4. Students will progress through each of the slides, following the directions on the slides and clicking on the links to go through the lesson.


Use the USHMM Timeline lesson the next day to add to the layers of information

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