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Students' Toughest Questions

As students study the Holocaust, they will - and should - have lots of questions. Answering and engaging in discussion about these and other questions that arise in the classroom is a valuable opportunity to refute incorrect information, add additional content and context, and deepen learning. For example, "Did the Nazis only go after Jews or other people too?" "Did Americans know about the Holocaust and what did they do?" and "Why didn't Jews just leave?" Click here for "Frequently Asked Questions about the Holocaust." (Created by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum)


The Holocaust:

As stated in the Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust, a historically accurate and precise definition of the Holocaust is essential as part of a successful lesson or unit. Defining the Holocaust at the beginning of a unit provides students with a foundation from which they can further explore the history and its lasting influence, identifying who was involved and placing the history into geographical and temporal context.

The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators. The Nazis came to power in Germany in January 1933. They believed that the Germans belonged to a race that was "superior" to all others. They claimed that the Jews belonged to a race that was "inferior" and a threat to the so-called German racial community.

Strive for Precision of Language

Because of the complexity of the history, there is a temptation to generalize and, thus, to distort the facts (e.g., “all concentration camps were killing centers” or “all Germans were collaborators”). Avoid this by helping your students clarify the information presented and encourage them to distinguish, for example, the differences between prejudice and discrimination, armed and spiritual resistance, direct and assumed orders, concentration camps and killing centers, and guilt and responsibility. (Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust)

Key Terms 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a glossary of key terms. It is hardly all-inclusive, but helpful.

We recommend that teachers create a word wall and/or discuss ‘prejudice,’ ‘racism,’ ‘stereotype,’ ‘indifference’ or ‘apathy’ and ‘scapegoat,’ as well as coming to a common agreement as to what ‘hate’ or ‘hatred’ is. 

  • Prejudice.  A preconceived, usually unfavorable opinion towards others that is not based on reason or actual experience.
  • Antisemitism. Prejudice against or hatred of Jews. Throughout history Jews have faced prejudice and discrimination. 
  • Racism.  Prejudice, discrimination or hatred directed against someone of a different race based on the groundless belief that one’s own race is superior.
  • Stereotype.  An over-generalized, often unfair and untrue belief or expectation about a group of people, such as about the group’s personality, preferences, appearances or ability.
  • Bigotry.  Obstinate or intolerant devotion to one's own opinions and prejudices.
  • Hatred.  Intense dislike or ill will.  A feeling that can cause an angry or resentful emotional response used against certain people or ideas.  
  • Scapegoat.  A person or group of people blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes or faults of others.
  • Indifferent (indifference).  Having no particular interest, sympathy or empathy; unconcerned.  Apathetic.
  • Apathy (apathetic). Lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern.  Indifferent.

It is critical to remember that people are not fixed in one category or definition.  Instead, to be human is to make choices. Although we are often judged – and judge others – based on such choices, it would be naïve to think that a person could only be one thing based on one act or inaction and thus be stationary in time. For example, during the Holocaust, a perpetrator or a bystander could later have become an upstander or rescuer to one or more people. The case of Oskar Schindler is an example of how one overall label oversimplifies the man and his actions. Nevertheless, these definitions may help frame discussion for choices people made during the Holocaust:

  1. Perpetrator: A person carrying out a harmful, illegal, or immoral act.
  2. Victim: A person being targeted by the harmful, illegal, or immoral acts of a perpetrator.
  3. Bystander: A person who is present but not actively taking part in a situation or event.
  4. Upstander: A person speaking or acting in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who inter venes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied. Additionally, a Rescuer is a type of upstander. A rescuer, in the context of the Holocaust, saved one or more people, typically at great risk to him/her and, often, to his/her family.