“At crucial junctures, every individual makes a decision…and every decision is individual” – Raul Hilberg, Holocaust scholar. When trying to better understand how and why the Holocaust happened, it’s important to examine the choices that individuals and institutions made. This lesson provides a framework for discussion that allows students to explore the roles and responsibilities that teachers and the education system played during the Holocaust. By closely examining and scrutinizing the past, this lesson strengthens critical thinking about one’s role in society today.
Under the authority of the Third Reich, teachers were obligated to join the National Socialist Teacher’s League, which was responsible for carrying out the educational goals of the Nazi Party, and to take an oath of loyalty to the Führer, Adolf Hitler. Despite these obligations, though, teachers were still able to make individual choices. Some chose to comply with Nazi ideology, while others chose to act in opposition. This lesson helps students explore the pressures teachers felt under the Nazi regime, the range of decisions individuals made in the face of those pressures, and the relevance of this history now.
Grade Level: Grades 6-8
Subject: English Language Arts, Social Studies
Duration: 90 minutes (or two 45 minute classes)
NC Standards Addressed:
RI 2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
RI 3: Analyze how a text makes connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events.
8.H.1.3 Use primary and secondary sources to interpret various historical perspectives.
8.H.1.4 Use historical inquiry to evaluate the validity of sources used to construct historical narratives (e.g. formulate historical questions, gather data from a variety of sources, evaluate and interpret data and support interpretations with historical evidence).
How and why did the Holocaust happen?
After the lesson, students will be able to:
- Identify and examine the challenges and pressures of education in Nazi-occupied Europe (1933-45)
- Identify choices available to individuals and institutions during the Holocaust
- Objectively summarize one person’s experience (and choices made) and communicate conclusions drawn from primary source documents
- Reflect on how these lessons can be applied to their own lives; strengthening critical thinking about their role in society
- Begin to explain how and why the Holocaust happened; that people and institutions made choices.
- Ideology: A system of beliefs or theories, usually political, held by an individual or group.
- Underground/Resistance: A movement or group organized in strict secrecy among citizens especially in an occupied country for maintaining communications, solidarity, and resistance actions.
(Links to Google Docs, Forms, and Slides will ask you to make a copy):
- PDF: Student Handout
- Online Resource: USHMM Oath and Opposition: Education Under the Third Reich
- Introductory Film (4:40; also embedded at the bottom of this page)
- Google Slides: Oath and Opposition: Education Under the Third Reich (Teacher version with notes on slides)
- Google Slides: Oath and Opposition: Education Under the Third Reich (Student version without notes if doing this as an E-Learning Adaption; or you can also provide them with the version with notes if you prefer.)
- Before beginning the lesson, make copies of the following for your students:
- Case Studies (decide if you want to print the PDF version or have students access them electronically)
- Also before beginning the lesson, visit the USHMM website to preview the full lesson including the introductory film, case studies, and survivor testimony clips to decide if you will use all of them or just a few.
- Introduce the lesson by using the teacher version of the Google Slide presentation. As you make your way through the teacher version of the Google slide presentation, there are explanations and teacher notes provided for you in the Speaker Notes section.
- After going through the initial Google slides that help to set up the introductory film for students, view the USHMM introductory film that sets the historical context for this lesson. If you can’t access the original link on the USHMM website (this is blocked in some school districts), use the Google Slide link.
- After viewing the film, pass out the student handout and have students work individually or with a partner to complete page one. Discuss answers as a large group before moving on.
- Next, have students examine primary source documents in the four Case Studies that highlight the pressures felt and the range of choices available to both teachers and students during Nazi rule. These may be accessed either electronically or you may pass out printed copies of the PDF version.
- You can choose whether your students read all case studies on their own, with a partner, or be put into small groups with each group reading only one case study; they would then jigsaw with other groups until all case studies have been discussed.
- After reading through each assigned case study, have students complete the student handout that corresponds with each case study.
- Using the Google slides (teacher version) that correspond with the student handout, discuss each case study as a large group (be sure to see teacher/speaker notes for additional help in guiding the discussion).
- Next, access the survivor testimony clips and listen to each one together (if you made photo copies of the PDF version for students, they may also follow along with the transcript as a few of the survivors have a bit of a thick European accent that may make it a little harder for some students to decipher if they’re not used to it). Most of the survivor clips are paired/grouped to provide opposing experiences, again highlighting the range of choices people made during this time. See speaker notes in Google Slides for additional context and discussion prompts.
- After listening to the survivor testimony clips, again following the teacher version of the Google Slides presentation, instruct students to highlight one line from each testimony that best summarizes the experiences of the survivor with the education system or the Holocaust in general. If you made photo copies of the PDF version, they can highlight the one line there, or you can use the Google Slides and advance each slide to show the transcript and have students write down the one line, or you can make copies of the Google Slides and they can highlight the line on their copy.
- Next, ask students to review the one line in each testimony that they highlighted and select the one that resonates the most with them and share why. Everyone should write down their answers and they can either share with a partner or you can ask for volunteers to share with the class. It can also be a powerful experience to have all students share by you first reading your line and then go fairly quickly – trying to be sure students take no pauses, just go right up and down the rows or around the room – with each student reading aloud the line they selected; it’s completely fine is some lines are repeated often (this also gives you an idea of what was most important to your students).
- Next, from the one line that they chose, ask students to select what they feel is the one most powerful word in that line and share why. Again, everyone should write down their answer and then they can either share with a partner or you can ask for volunteers to share with the class, or you could again read your one word and then go quickly around the whole room having each student read their one word aloud – no pauses or explanations – and again, it’s completely fine if some words are repeated often. If patterns emerge, you may want to add some final thoughts.
- To conclude the lesson, ask students to write a reflection explaining what they learned from the lesson, what surprised them, what they’d like to know more about, what lessons we can learn from this that can be applied to our lives today, and how this lesson starts to explain how and why the Holocaust happened (looking for explanations that discuss how people and institutions made choices).
You can either assign the written reflection or use a ticket out the door as a way of assessing the essential question: How and why did the Holocaust happen? (Looking for answers that reference how people and institutions made choices which allowed this to happen.)
To flip your classroom, or for a situation where students are virtually learning, we suggest the following adaptations:
- Share the Google Slide presentation (student version, or you can share the teacher version with notes, if you prefer) for the lesson with students in your online platform (Google Classroom, Canvas, PowerSchool Learning, etc.)
- Students should watch the introductory film that helps to set the historical context of the lesson.
- Students should answer the intro film’s corresponding questions found on the Google Slide presentation.
- Have students access the USHMM website to read through the four case studies and answer the corresponding questions found in the Google Slide presentation.
- Jeanne Daman: Risking Her Life to Save Her Students, pages 2-4
- Teachers Facilitate Sterilization of Students, pages 5-8
- Teachers Ask Students to Write Letters to Hitler, pages 9-11
- Norway: Arrest of Teachers Prompts Nationwide Protests, pages 12-16
- Students will then listen to the various survivor testimony clips and answer the corresponding questions as they progress through the Google Slide presentation.
- The final reflection found within the Google Slide presentation may serve as their assessment or simply as a writing assignment.
- Visit the USHMM website to access the online exhibition and introductory film of Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust (reinforces the lesson that people had choices and the choices made by both individuals and institutions allowed the Holocaust to happen; further exploring the essential question of “How and why did the Holocaust happen?”)
- Read USHMM online article, Victims of the Nazi Era: Nazi Racial Ideology, to better understand Nazi ideology that was to be instituted in all school curriculum under the authority of the Third Reich (there are several other links that can also be accessed within the article).
- Students could read the short novel (historical fiction), Children and Fire, by Ursula Hegi. The novel is “a thoughtful, sidelong approach to the worst moment in Germany’s history that invites us to understand how decent people come to collaborate with evil” – Kirkus Reviews. The story focuses on one teacher and her classroom of students during the Holocaust.
Students could write a summary, report, or complete a creative assignment to assess their learning from any of these extension assignments.