Why Didn’t They Just Leave? Lesson

Download a PDF of the Lesson here

This lesson is adapted from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s lesson called Challenges of Escape, 1938-1941 to North Carolina standards and includes an adapted student handout and activities. A common question students ask while studying the Holocaust is “Why didn’t they (the Jews) just leave?” As the USHMM Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust state, it’s important to “avoid simple answers to complex questions”. This lesson will guide students through the complex factors that both led German Jews to seek to emigrate from Nazi Germany and the complex factors that impeded their immigration to the United States in the 1930s and 1940s.

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.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words. RI.11-12.7 Analyze information presented in different media on related topics to answer questions or solve problems.

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.

SL9-10.1 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.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 Questions:

  • How and why did the Holocaust happen?
  • What “push” factors — events and pressures that motivate people to leave their countries — sparked Jewish emigration from Germany in the 1930s?
  • Why was it difficult for many Jews to immigrate to the United States?
  • How did government policies, public opinion, and global events in the 1920s and 1930s affect the ability of Jews to flee from Germany to the United States?

Learning Objectives:

After the lesson, students will be able to:

  • Analyze primary sources
  • Analyze and evaluate multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past
  • Use secondary sources to inform their interpretation of primary sources

Previewing Vocabulary:

  • Push factors: Internal and external pressures that prompt individuals to move voluntarily.
  • Emigration: Leaving one country to permanently live in another.
  • Immigration: Arriving in a new country to live there permanently.


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

Additional Material for Teacher Prep (Optional):

  • Read the following recommended articles:

Anti-Jewish Legislation in Prewar Germany

German Jewish Refugees, 1933-1939

Immigration to the United States 1933-41

  • Read the following optional articles:

The United States and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941

United States Immigration and Refugee Law 1921-1980

  • Examine the following optional resource:

What Did Refugees Need to Obtain a US Visa in the 1930s?


Prior to Lesson:

  1. Prior to starting the lesson, make copies of the Student Worksheet, Map of Immigration and Emigration 1933-40, Steps to Immigrate to the U.S. (one set of the presentation for each group)

Lesson Prep / Warm-Up:

  • To start the lesson, hand out the student worksheets and, as a class, go over vocabulary.
  • Ask students the following questions and record answers on board/padlet:
  • What push factors might lead people to have to emigrate? (See Answer Key for possible answers)
  • What do people potentially give up if they immigrate to another country? (See Answer Key for possible answers)

Part I: Citizens to Outcasts

  • View Citizens to Outcasts (Chapter 3 of USHMM film, The Path to Nazi Genocide) to examine how the Nazis persecuted Jews. (7min, 28sec film)
  • Instruct students to answer the corresponding questions on their worksheet.

Part II: American Newsreel Clips

  • View Newsreel film and instruct students that while viewing this, they should list examples from the film that answer the corresponding questions on their worksheet.
  • Read the Holocaust Encyclopedia article, Immigration to the United States 1933-41, as a class or individually.
  • Have a class discussion about the Newsreel film and the Encyclopedia article.
  • Write the themes (in blue bold below) on the board or in some shared digital space. Ask students to share examples from the film and article to answer each question.
  • How did American racism and antisemitism influence immigration in the 1930s?
  • How did the Great Depression and economic concerns influence immigration in the 1930s?
  • How did national security concerns influence immigration in the 1930s?
  • How did the 1924 immigration law influence immigration in the 1930s?
  • How did World War II make immigration even more difficult?

Part III: Reviewing Documents and Primary Sources

  • Divide the class into small groups and provide each group with the Steps to Immigrate to the United States. (This presentation can be shared with the whole class via projector, or hand out copies of the PDF to each group.)
  • Within their groups, ask students to discuss and draw conclusions about why they think each document or step was required for emigration and/or immigration to the United States and fill out their worksheets.
  • Students should draw on the categories identified (racism/antisemitism, Great Depression/economic concerns, national security concerns, the 1924 immigration law, and World War II) for their answers.
  • Students also should use the lists they made while watching the films and information from the Holocaust Encyclopedia article to inform their answers.
  • Students should write their answers in the graph provided on their worksheet.
  • Next, have students read the Excerpts from Klaus Langer’s Diary either as a group or individually and then answer the corresponding questions on their worksheets. Discuss answers as a class. You can also access video clips of Klaus Langer talking about his experiences in the multimedia edition of Salvaged Pages. Supplement this discussion by projecting those video clips for the class, especially the one where he talks about leaving his parents at the train station.
  • Have students read Otto Frank’s letter to Nathan Strauss (also written in full within their worksheet) and complete the Constructed Response on the space provided in their worksheet.
  • This can be assigned as homework if you’d like to move on to the last section to complete together.
  • Lastly, have students view the Refugee Ships at Sea video (the link takes you to the USHMMs online exhibit, Americans and the Holocaust; you’ll need to scroll down through the topics until you come to the one named Refugee Ships at Sea; you can then hide the text and play the video for students).
  • After watching the video together, students should answer the corresponding questions on their worksheet. They may need to go back to the video several times to answer the questions or pause the video at different spots while watching so they can answer.
  • Hand out copies of Map that shows total immigration and emigration from 1933-40.

Part IV: Wrap-Up

  1. Hold a class discussion to conclude the lesson or assign one or more of the questions below as homework or an assessment.


  • What did you learn about emigration/immigration during the 1930s?
  • What surprised you about the documents, including the diary, that you analyzed?
  • How did the documents you analyzed change your prior assumptions about this topic?
  • What does Klaus’s diary show us about how refugees experienced the immigration process?
  • What made the immigration process difficult?
  • How did government policies, public opinion, and global events affect the ability of Jews to flee from the German Reich to the United States in the 1930s and 1940s?


Evaluate the challenges faced by Jews attempting to flee the German Reich and immigrate to the United States, utilizing the information and documents from this lesson. Provide evidence from primary sources (government documents, Klaus Langer’s diary, Otto Frank’s letter) and secondary sources (Holocaust Encyclopedia articles, Path to Nazi GenocideCh. 3 Citizens to Outcasts, and Newsreel film, Refugee Ships at Sea), to answer the following questions:

  • How did anti-Jewish policies, laws, and actions influence Jewish emigration from the German Reich?
  • How did American domestic concerns influence the ability of Jews to immigrate to the United States?

Consider the impact of government policies, public opinion, and global events in the 1920s and 1930s when

formulating your response.

E-Learning Adaptation:

This same lesson can be used as an E-learning lesson as all materials are available online with instructions listed on their worksheets.


Students can further explore the USHMM online exhibit, Americans and the Holocaust, to gain additional insight to this time (within the online exhibit, simply scroll through the topics to find each one listed below).

Topics of interest may include:

  • Boycott the Olympics?
  • Nazis in America
  • The Evian Conference
  • Admit Refugee Children?
  • The St. Louis (further information on the voyage of the ship)
  • Americans Who Dared (Stories of Rescue)
  • WWII: Fear of Spies
  • America First Committee
  • War: Citizens or Enemies?
  • State Department Obstruction Exposed
  • War Refugee Board
  • A Refugee Camp in NY
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