How to Teach Kids About the Holocaust

On January 27, 2021, the world observes Holocaust Remembrance Day to remember the millions of Jewish people and other minorities who were systematically persecuted and murdered by Nazi Germany. Learn how to teach this dark (but important to know) period of history to kids.

What was the Holocaust?

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Treblinka: these and the names of the other Nazi concentration, labor, and extermination camps raise the spectre of a living hell of hopelessness, human degradation, and gripping fear.  The Holocaust was an unprecedented, systematic, and total genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, with the goal of completely wiping out the Jews and other “undesirable” minorities. 

The primary motivation for the genocide was the Nazis’ anti-Semitic, racist ideology that positioned them as superior to all other races.  Between 1933 and 1941, Nazi Germany followed a policy that stripped the Jews of their rights and their property, and subsequently branded and concentrated the Jewish population. This policy had broad support in Germany and much of occupied Europe.

In 1941, following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Third Reich and their collaborators launched the systematic mass murder of Jews.  By 1945, nearly six million Jews had been executed according to Adolph Hitler’s “final solution”.  The Nazis also murdered a quarter of a million handicapped persons and over 200,000 Roma.  Soviet civilians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and those the authorities deemed “asocial” were also killed.  When totaling all civilians killed, not as collateral damage due to military conflict, but those murdered in cold blood by the Nazis and their collaborators, the total dead reaches a staggering 11 million.

Most of Europe’s Jewish population was exterminated by 1945.  A civilization that had flourished for millennia was no more.  The dazed and emaciated survivors were bereaved beyond measure.  They gathered whatever strength which remained and rebuilt. They never sought out justice – for what justice could ever be achieved after such a heinous crime?  Rather, they turned to rebuilding.  Their new families were forever under the shadow of absent loved ones.  Their new life stories were forever twisted by terrible physical and psychological wounds.

The human tragedy of the Holocaust would be unimaginable if it hadn’t, in fact, happened.

What is Holocaust Remembrance Day?

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, is an international memorial day held every January 27.  It commemorates the tragedy of the Holocaust that occurred during the Second World War.  This day of remembrance was so designated by the United Nations General Assembly on November 1, 2005.  January 27 was chosen because that was the day in 1945 when Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration and death camp, was liberated by the Soviet Army.

The January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day should not be confused with Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Holocaust Day, (known in Hebrew as Yom HaShoah).  This memorial day occurs on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (which falls in April or May).  This day is observed in Israel and by many Jewish communities in the United States and elsewhere.  The date is tied to both the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began 13 days earlier in 1943, and to the Israeli Independence Day, which happened eight days later in 1948.

Holocaust survivors

It’s estimated that approximately 67,000 survivors of the Holocaust are living in the United States and about 400,000 survivors worldwide. With most eyewitnesses to Nazi atrocities now in their 80s and 90s, it’s imperative that our society keep their story alive to that it never happens again.  You can do this with your students by using some of the resources highlighted below.  Help Teaching has scanned the many websites which offer Holocaust content, and the best are listed here.

Teaching about the Holocaust

If you are nervous about teaching this very sensitive subject, you are not alone.  Teaching Holocaust history calls for a high level of sensitivity and a keen understanding of the complex subject matter.  The photographic and film images can produce emotional reactions in students (and adults, too).  The heart-wrenching stories of survivors may have an unforgettable impact on students.  Here are some articles you might find helpful:

Holocaust Resources

There are countless resources out there for all grade levels.  Here are a few.

From Help Teaching

From KidsKonnect

Online resources

These groups and institutions offer resources to help you teach about the Holocaust:

Online events

Here’s a sampling of the many live and recorded online events planned for this year:

Hollywood films about the Holocaust

A word of caution: Always preview any film you are going to show to students for appropriateness of content for the given age group.  The films recommended here best shown only to high school students.

  • Eight lessons on Schindler’s List from Facing History
    • Steven Spielberg’s 1993 epic starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley remains at the top of the list. (Rated “R” for violence, nudity, language; here is a critique of the film’s elements)
  • Defiance study guide from the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation
    • Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests, where they endeavor to build a village, in order to protect themselves and about one thousand Jewish non-combatants (Rated “R” for violence, nudity, language; here is a critique of the film’s elements)
  • Denial discussion guide from the ADL
    • Denial recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against British author David Irving who sued her and her publisher for libel after she declared him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book (Rated “PG-13” for language; here is a critique of the film’s elements).  For resources specifically addressing this issue see below.
  • The Book Thief activity guide from the Unitarian Universalist Association
    • Based on the novel by Markus Zusak, this film tells the story of a young girl living with her adoptive German family in the 1930s and 40s.  After her foster father teaches her to read, she begins “borrowing” books and sharing them with the Jewish refugee sheltering in their home. (Rated “PG-13” for violence; here is a critique of the film’s elements)
  • Life Is Beautiful discussion questions from ReadWriteThink
    • Director/actor Roberto Benigni’s Italian-language (with English subtitles) recounting of Holocaust atrocities is injected with a story of hope, joy and a love more precious than words.  The film won three Oscars in 1999.  (Rated “PG-13” for violent content; here is a critique of the film’s elements)
  • The Hiding Place curriculum created by the Holocaust Museum Houston 

The true story of the Ten Boom family, members of the Dutch Resistance during World War II who found shelter for dozens of Jews, including many children. Corrie Ten Boom and her sister were caught and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  (Rated “PG” for mild violent content; here is a critique of the film’s elements)

Holocaust denial

Sadly, we must note that in recent decades, Holocaust denial has become more widespread and sophisticated worldwide. The Miami Herald reports one in ten young American adults thinks Jewish people caused the Holocaust. Another one in ten doesn’t believe the Holocaust happened.  However, encouragingly, 80% of Millennials in a survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, responded they felt it is important to continue teaching about the Holocaust.  In October 2020, Facebook placed a ban on posts espousing Holocaust denial.

Holocaust denial is a form of historical revisionism which denies that the murder of six million Jews ever happened.  This phenomenon gained some popularity after World War Two among former supporters and participants of the Nazi regime who refused to accept responsibility for the crimes of genocide.

The general aim of Holocaust denial is to challenge and ridicule the history of Jewish suffering during the war.  Holocaust denial is the most extreme form of antisemitism.  Here are some classroom resources which specifically counteract this dangerous retooling of history:

Image source: www.freepik.com

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