There are two major things that should be considered before moving into Holocaust-related texts and/or examinations of perpetrators, victims, bystanders and upstanders/rescuers throughout the Holocaust: Prewar European Jewish life (in order to contextualize both the primary victims and what was to come) and an attempt to explain why the Nazis hated the Jews, ie., racial antisemitism and the aftermath of World War I.
- Introduction to Judaism - Students often ask who are the Jews, and then why did the Nazis target the Jews. This brief article from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) is written for students provides an overview and introducation. The latter question (why the Jews?) is treated in the sections below.
Prewar European Jewish Life
- Three Minutes in Poland. The short film, in light of the ensuing history, is mesmerizing and includes an introductory lesson.
- Jewish Life in Europe Before the Holocaust - A short article written for students by the USHMM
- Jewish Life Before World War II - A lesson created by Facing History and Ourselves that includes consideration of what groups you belong to and how we identify ourselves.
Why were Jews singled out for mass murder; why did people hate them so much?
The answer to this question goes back to the long history of Jew-hatred in Western Civilization. Living in many countries as a minority, Jews continued to practice their own religion, Judaism, which was different from their neighbors’ religions. Jews were kept apart and not allowed to integrate into society until the modern period. Over centuries, many negative stereotypes about them took root. Jews became the ultimate “other.” For example, one of the most incendiary accusations made against the Jews was that they had killed Jesus and deserved to be eternally punished. This accusation was officially rejected by the Catholic Church in Nostra Aetate, passed during the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (known as Vatican II), in 1965. The Nazis, in particular, had a racial view of the world, and saw Jewishness as a race more than a religion. They adopted the idea that the Jewish “race” was the cause of all the world’s ills (especially communism, modernization, and capitalism) and their foremost enemy. They believed the Jews sought to dominate the world and enslave and destroy the Nordic Aryan race (the Germans). The Nazis believed that they had to get rid of this “Jewish Problem”; their “Final Solution” was murder. (Echoes and Reflections - "Students' Toughest Questions")
- Antisemitism - A short overview article for students (USHMM)
- Lesson Plan: History of Antisemitism and the Holocaust - This great lesson squarely traces antisemitism from its historical roots to today. It is suited for grades 7-12, with many available extensions. (USHMM)
- Lesson Plan: Prewar Jewish Life and Nazi Antisemitism AND Lesson Plan: Nazi Antisemitic Ideology and Propaganda - This set of two lessons (60-90 minutes each, grades 6-12) span from prewar Jewish life to the history of antisemitism then and now in one lesson, and Nazi antisemitic ideology and propaganda in the other. Both lessons incorporate video testimony. (Echoes and Reflections)
- Aftermath of World War I and the Rise of Nazism - 1918-1933. This excerpt from the film, "The Path to Nazi Genocide," is accompanied by a transcript. It helps explain this significant issue succinctly. (USHMM)
If you have one class period or less to cover pre-war, start here.
Europe had a rich and diverse set of Jewish cultures that had existed for generations, in some areas for over a thousand years.
In 1933, approximately 9.5 million Jews lived in Europe, less than 2% of the total European population. The Jews of Eastern Europe lived predominantly in Jewish villages called shtetls. They wore traditional clothes, spoke Yiddish, and often kept to themselves.
In Germany and Western Europe, Jews tended to assimilate. They lived in the cities, went to the same schools, and dressed and spoke like their non-Jewish neighbors. The roughly 500,000 Jews who lived in Germany made up less than 1% of the German population. More than 100,000 Jews had served in the German army during World War I, and some were decorated war heroes.
Jews in Europe could be found in all walks of life: farmers, tailors, factory hands, accountants, doctors, teachers, artists, and business owners to name a few. Some families were wealthy; many more were poor. More than 60% of the world’s Jewish population lived in Europe at the time, and in little more than a decade, two out of every three of them would be dead, killed during the Holocaust.
- What challenges do minorities often face in societies? How might challenges and pressures change during of periods of great stress for a nation?
- Can minorities protect themselves and preserve community life in these environments?
- How can knowledge of the events in Germany and Europe before the Nazis came to power help citizens today respond to threats of genocide and mass atrocity in the world?
- Consider the place(s) in the world from which you/your family came to live in this country. To “assimilate” means to blend in, become fully part of, or integrated into a group or nation. How “assimilated” do you believe you/your family are into American life? Why, or why not? What are some challenges that immigrants and/or refugees might face when entering a new country? Are there reasons why some groups of people might, or do choose not to assimilate? Why, or why not?
- What is the author’s most likely purpose for including the following quote: “More than 100,000 Jews had served in the German army during World War I, and some were decorated war heroes.”
- Consider the video testimony of survivors Magda, Frieda, Noemi and Loreen. With which survivor, or part of their testimony, do you most closely connect? Elaborate on what you believe you most have in common with that survivor.
This is a second example of the new lessons section.
This is where content for lesson one will be.