History of the Holocaust Timeline Lesson

Download a PDF of the Lesson here

This lesson is adapted from the USHMM Timeline Lesson and is structured around a multi-layered wall timeline that encourages critical thinking about the relationship between Nazi policy, World War II, historical events, and individual experiences during the Holocaust. An important component of teaching about the Holocaust is to provide accurate historical context. This lesson serves not only to contextualize the complexity of WWII and the Holocaust, but also provides a nuanced, deeper understanding of events when placed within the larger context. This lesson utilizes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust, Holocaust Encyclopedia, and primary sources such as photo archives, International Tracing Services documents and oral testimony.

Grade Level: MS and HS (Grades 7-12)

Subject: English Language Arts, Social Studies

Duration: One-Two 90-minute class period(s);

This activity is highly adaptable and can be utilized in multiple class sessions; we recommend referencing it throughout entire unit of study; you may also add thematic or literature layers as extensions.

NC Standards Addressed:


RI.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

RI.3 Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.

Social Studies:

WH.H.1.1 Chronological Thinking: Use Chronological thinking to: Identify the structure of a historical narrative or story: (its beginning, middle and end); Interpret data presented in timelines and create timelines.

WH.H.1.3 Historical Thinking: Use Historical Analysis and Interpretation to: Identify issues and problems in the past; Consider multiple perspectives of various people in the past; Analyze cause-and-effect relationships and multiple causations; Evaluate the influence of the past on contemporary issues.

WH.H.7 Understand how national, regional, and ethnic interests have contributed to conflict among groups and nations in the modern era.

Essential Question:

How and why did the Holocaust happen?

Learning Objectives:

After the lesson, students will be able to:

  • Define the Holocaust (USHMM Definition)
  • Understand that Nazi ideology targeted Jews as the priority “enemy”
  • Recognize that the Nazi concept of “race” targeted other groups for persecution and annihilation, including Roma, people with disabilities, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war
  • Learn that political opponents and others were targeted as enemies because either they opposed the Nazi regime or their behavior defied social norms under the Nazi regime
  • Identify that Nazi persecution of Jews and others gradually increased over time; the Holocaust happened incrementally
  • Examine how the events of World War II and the Holocaust are intertwined
  • Make inferences about the interrelatedness of time and geographic location to events and how that affected individuals and groups
  • Identify patterns of cause and effect as it relates to the events of WWII (including pre-war events in Germany; Rise of Nazism) and experiences of individuals and groups during the Holocaust

Previewing Vocabulary:

  • Propaganda: Ideas, facts, or allegations/rumors spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.
  • Aryan: Of or relating to a hypothetical ethnic type illustrated by or descended from early speakers of Indo-European languages; used in Nazism to designate a supposed master race of non-Jewish Caucasians usually having Nordic features.
  • Antisemitic: Relating to or characterized by anti-Semitism; feeling or showing hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a cultural, racial, or ethnic group.
  • Annex: To incorporate (a country or other territory) within the domain of another; to obtain or take for oneself.
  • Kindertransport: Efforts to bring Jewish children from Nazi-controlled territory to safety. Jewish parents voluntarily sent their children on transports to countries not yet occupied by the Nazis (Great Britain, France, the Netherlands).
  • Liberate: To set at liberty; to free (something, such as a country) from domination by a foreign power.


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


Prior to beginning the lesson, you will need to make copies of the following:

STEP ONE: YEARS (White; 13 cards)

  1. Prior to beginning the lesson with students, place the timeline cards of each year horizontally around the classroom. Note that the cards with years in blue reference the years of WWII.


  1. Have students work in small groups. Distribute the Student Worksheet and Individual Profile cards. Have students read for basic information, noting the following on their worksheets:
  2. Country of origin
  3. Gender of individual
  4. Nazi justification for persecution
  5. The year in bold that notes Nazi persecution of the individual
  6. Age of individual at the time of highlighted persecution
  7. Why do you think the particular year is highlighted for the individual? Would you have chosen another year? Why or why not? Are there other times when the individual suffered from Nazi persecution?
  8. Have students record their answers on their worksheet and share the information with their group.
  9. Following this, students should place the individuals on the timeline based on the year in bold on the cards.
  10. When finished, ask students to share the following information from their Individual Profile card with the whole class:
  11. Country – As students listen to their classmates, they should shade or color the countries listed on their worksheet (provides visual context for scope of Holocaust).
  12. Nazi justification for persecution
  13. Year in bold
  14. Ages
  15. Record the responses on the board.
  • You could also have a world map projected or printed and hung on wall. Color or highlight each country as students name them. This helps students visualize the scope of the Holocaust.
    • Using string, have students link their individual profile card to the country from which they originated (again, having large world map printed and hung on wall).
  • Ask the following as you help students identify patterns and historical context:
  • What do you observe about the range of individuals targeted by the Nazis for persecution?
  • Are people targeted from the beginning to the end (1933-45) or are there years with more victims than others?
  • What questions does this raise?


  1. With students still working in small groups, distribute the Laws and Decrees cards for students to read, noting the following:
  2. Who does the law/decree target?
  3. How could it affect an individual’s life?
  4. Have students record their answers on their worksheets and then share their law/decree card and answers with their group.
  5. Following this, have students place their law/decree on the timeline.
    1. OPTIONAL ACTIVITY: Using string, have students now link their earlier individual profile to a law or decree that impacted them.
  6. When finished, have students write their answers to the following questions on their worksheets and then discuss as a class:
  7. Describe patterns you see emerging in relation to the timing of the laws and decrees.
  8. Considering the whole timeline with the Individual Profile cards and the Laws and Decrees, what assertions can be made?
  9. What questions does this layer of the Timeline raise?


  1. With students still working in groups, distribute the Historical Events cards.
  2. After reading and sharing about their event within their groups, on their worksheets, have students write one sentence stating its significance in relation to the Holocaust.
  3. Ask students to place their historical event cards on the timeline.
    1. OPTIONAL ACTIVITY: Using string, have students now link their earlier individual profile to a historical event that impacted them.
  4. When finished, ask students to take a gallery walk to study the completed timeline and to record their observations.
  • During this time students should also revisit their individual profile card and list the laws/decrees and historical events that affected the person on the individual profile card they studied.

STEP FIVE: DEBRIEF AS A CLASS (Questions are also on student worksheet)

  • What did you observe? What patterns emerge on the Timeline?
    • The Individual Profile cards are in clusters, as are the Laws and Decrees and the Historical Events. Why?
  • Choose some (or all, if time permits) Laws and Decree cards and Historical Events cards.
    • Ask students to indicate if the selected card affected the individual on their profile card.
    • Record the events with the most impact.
    • What assertions or inferences can be made from this evidence?
  • Which events are pivotal to the Holocaust? Consider:
    • What is the connection between the invasion of Poland and Polish victims?
    • When are Jews targeted / victimized?
    • Gay men and political prisoners were designated for persecution early on. Why?
    • When and where are Soviet POWs affected?
  • Can you see responses on the timeline?
    • Who was responding? How? Why?

If your students are reading literature, you can also add those layers to the Timeline (Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Gerda Weissmann Klein are provided for you, but you can also make your own cards – or have students create them as they read – to add to the timeline). You may want to use the last 5-min of each class period to add new layers to the Timeline based on what the students have read for the day. Perhaps spend the first few minutes of the next day’s class referencing the Timeline as a review and preparing them for today’s reading assignment.

Additionally, there is a Contemporary Genocide Timeline Layer and worksheet included for you to expand your study. We recommend leaving the Timeline up on your wall as long as possible to help students see the historical context as you make your way through your Holocaust and WWII unit of study or as you move into a unit of study regarding contemporary genocide.


  1. Assign a written reflection or use a ticket out the door as a way of assessing student understanding as it relates to the essential question: How and why did the Holocaust happen? (Looking for answers that reference the Timeline and make connections.)
  2. Share the USHMM definition of the Holocaust. Ask students to find evidence within the timeline that connects to this definition.
  3. Based on evidence from the timeline, ask students to write one question about how or why the Holocaust happened that they can answer, using the timeline as a source. Share with the class.
  4. Have students write a paragraph about how and why the Holocaust happened, citing textual evidence from the timeline.

E-Learning Adaptation:

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

Have students access the Google Slides presentation that segments the USHMM film, “The Path To Nazi Genocide” and answer the corresponding questions.

“This 38-minute film examines the Nazis’ rise and consolidation of power in Germany. Using rare footage, the film explores their ideology, propaganda, and persecution of Jews and other victims. It also outlines the path by which the Nazis and their collaborators led a state to war and to the murder of millions of people. By providing a concise overview of the Holocaust and those involved, this resource is intended to provoke reflection and discussion about the role of ordinary people, institutions, and nations between 1918 and 1945.” – USHMM


  1. You can use the History of the Holocaust Important Dates worksheet to have students go back through the next day and write down the dates and events on the timeline so that they can build their own timeline to keep in their notebooks and reference during your study of the Holocaust.
  2. If your students are reading literature about the Holocaust, place the events from the story on the timeline in addition to the existing layers provides historical context. Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, and Gerda Weissmann Klein Timeline Layers are included in this lesson for you. Have students write an essay answering the following question: What does the timeline add to your understanding of their personal stories (Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, or Gerda Weissmann Klein)?
  3. Have students visit the Museum’s website where they can select additional individual profile cards (these are the ID cards from which Museum visitors select when entering the Permanent Exhibit so they can follow an individual’s experience as they make their way through the exhibition). Using the Holocaust Encyclopedia to research further, choose at least two laws/decrees and two events from the timeline that affected the individual’s life and write a summary.
%d bloggers like this: