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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

How to Use Dr. Seuss in the Social Studies Classroom

How to Use Dr. Seuss in Your Classroom
One of the best ways to ensure students retain and comprehend historical information is to draw on what they already know. This includes using references from their prior experiences and pop culture. Students may be surprised to see the historical connections in things that are a part of their everyday lives. One great resource to draw from is the stories of Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss has penned numerous books, cartoons, and animated stories that have deep historical meaning and applications and they can be tied directly to the social studies curriculum. Below is a sampling of how Dr. Seuss can be included in the social studies classroom. While these activities are designed with social studies in mind, many of them can be adapted for use in the language arts classroom as well.

Dr. Seuss Goes to War

Political Cartoons: Dr. Seuss Goes to War

Throughout World War II Dr. Seuss inked hundreds of editorial cartoons about the war and American involvement, including scathing depictions of Hitler, Mussolini and other Axis enemies. (Warning: there are numerous stereotypical and racist depictions of non-American combatants that may require a separate lesson or explanation). One method that that would engage students would be to pick out a real life character depicted in the political cartoon and list and describe the character traits Dr. Seuss assigns to him. This asks the students to identify the person in the cartoon and to combine their knowledge of history and understanding of symbolism.

The Butter Battle Book

Mutual Assured Destruction: The Butter Battle Book

This story is a satirical look at the Cold War arms race that nearly led to nuclear annihilation, using the Yooks and Zooks as stand ins for the United States and the Soviet Union. The songs, rhyming, and Dr. Seuss style will keep the kids interested, even as they are watching a children’s cartoon from the 1980s. The students will simultaneously follow the story and find parallels to the Cold War, so a Story Map will help them keep track of the action as they watch. This particular organizer also asks the students come up with a solution or ending to the cliffhanger, adding to the interpretive nature of the activity. Another engaging activity uses the Boxes and Bullets graphic organizer which asks the students to write an overriding connection between the Butter Battle and the Cold War, then give three examples to back up their connections, and lastly, to add specific events from history or the story to give depth to their examples.

The Cat in the Hat

Psychology: The Cat in the Hat

Every student and teacher knows of The Cat in the Hat, but its uses in Psychology classes may not be as well known. The main characters of the children, the Cat, and the fish each display different characteristics of Freud’s personality components of id, ego, and superego. Teachers can use the Narrative Procedure organizer to chart the examples of each appearance of id, ego, and superego throughout the story. Another method would be to use the Plot Diagram to chart the action of the story as it relates to Freud’s theory.

These cartoons and stories are not just for Social Studies class. The skills that Seuss instills and reinforces travel across curricula, and can be used to meet Common Core Standards. Check out Top Ten Ways to Teach the Common Core ELA Standards for more ways to integrate a great resource like Seuss. However you utilize Dr. Seuss in your Social Studies classroom, it’s clear he will be having an impact on children’s education long after their days of bedtime stories are over.

Five Documents that Changed the World (and Will Engage Your Students)

5 Historical Documents that Changed the World
The Social Studies classroom is built around primary source exploration. The use of primary sources can lead to incredible analysis, discussion, and higher level thinking. Use the five sources below in your classroom to engage your students and to explore new and exciting methods of critical thinking and active learning.

1. Magna Carta

The theme of revolution is very apparent in today’s world. The causes of these revolutions reflect the very same issues that have faced people for centuries: equality and protection of rights. While the Magna Carta was not written with regular folks in mind, it certainly has been used that way throughout history. American revolutionaries used this document from 1215 to reinforce their rights as citizens and subjects of the British crown.

Excerpts of the Magna Carta can be used to analyze modern international and national incidents. Two standout sections that can be used in a modern discussion about Ferguson, Missouri, the Assad regime in Syria, or a historical analysis of Stalinist Russia are:

“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

“To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”

Help Teaching’s library of printable worksheets includes a quiz on the English Monarchy that would serve as an apt companion to a Magna Carta discussion.

2. Bill of Rights

The rights granted to Americans in the first ten amendments to the Constitution are so influential that they can be used across disciplines. These rights are the basis for so many other successful governments across the world that activities related to this document are easy to find and engaging to teach. The Bill of Rights can be analyzed to help your students think beyond the basics and improve their higher level thinking. Another resource offered by Help Teaching is an application of the liberties offered in the Bill of Rights.

3. Washington’s Farwell Address

As he left office, President George Washington was able to encapsulate the conflicts that would soon bubble over in the country he helped to build and protect. This speech gives the students a glimpse into the future of the united States, while also allowing them to engage in critical thinking activities. Students can make inferences and draw conclusions about what may happen next in American history based on Washington’s speech. Help Teaching offers a worksheet that analyzes this historic speech and asks students to compare it to a modern speech given by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

4. Treaty of Versailles

This document ended a world war and started another. It is directly responsible for the anger and desperation that allowed Adolph Hitler to gain power. The Treaty of Versailles can lead to an engaging lesson on long and short term effects or the spoils of war, and allow students to hypothesize and experiment with historical events. These activities would be greatly enhanced with a graphic organizer or a KWL chart that organizes their knowledge base and learning objectives into manageable chunks.

5. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution

The struggle for women’s equality does not garner the same attention as other mistreated groups in many Social studies curricula, but covering the 19th amendment assists the females in the class to take more ownership of the content and exposes the students to women’s issues that still plague the country and the world today. The 19th Amendment can also be used in a larger unit on women’s history. Help Teaching offers a worksheet that can help you to map the unit.

These documents not only had an impact on a specific era, they also connect to so many more events, people, and themes that play a major role in the world today. They also assist teachers in engaging students with critical thinking and higher learning activities. Help Teaching’s library of informational text analysis worksheets will help further your successful implementation of engaging documents in the classroom,  For more tips on using graphic organizers with documents, check out Graphic Organizers in the Social Studies Classroom.

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