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Teaching Holocaust Literature

by Lisa Armstrong

Why Teach the Holocaust?
Guidelines for Teaching the Holocaust
Common Misconceptions and How to Deal with Them
Holocaust Denial
Teaching History Through Literature
How to Plan a Holocaust Unit
Is It Possible to Teach Values by Teaching Holocaust History?
Night by Elie Wiesel
All But My Life by Gerda Weissman Klein
The Diary of Anne Frank
Middle School Literature Choices
High School Literature Choices
Resources for Teachers and Students


I began teaching the Holocaust as a first-year teacher because Elie Wiesel's Night was part of the freshman curriculum. I knew very little about the subject, having graduated from high school at a time when the Holocaust was not taught. I was not even required to read Anne Frank's diary in school. I had read Summer of My German Soldier and watched the miniseries Holocaust, but my formal Holocaust education was nonexistent. As I learned more about the relevant history in preparing to teach Night, I realized just how little I knew.

My purpose in writing this article is to share with other teachers some of the ideas and resources that I have learned about and used with students in my 13 years of teaching the Holocaust. The resources and techniques I will discuss, while not an exhaustive compilation, work effectively in the classroom. (You may also find it helpful to consult the November 2001 Social Studies eTeach essay, "Lessons of the Holocaust and Prejudice Reduction.")


The value of studying Holocaust literature comes from finding meaning in the stories of people who have lived through incredible, unimaginable circumstances. The history of the Holocaust is compelling, and many of the survivors were the same age as our students when they lived through it. When the late survivor Ben Edelbaum came and talked to our freshman class of 200 students in the gymnasium, I could have heard a pin drop. This subject intrigues students like no other subject I teach.

Holocaust literature is relevant in almost any English class because of the depth of emotion as well as the historical implications of the subject matter. I teach Holocaust literature because the Holocaust is an event in history that changed the face of our world forever. Through the life events of a particular character, or through a survivor's written stories, students can study the most important aspects of Holocaust history.


There are 14 guidelines for teaching the Holocaust that are recommended by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). For educators new to teaching the Holocaust, I recommend the online workshop presented by Warren Marcus, USHMM Educator. This workshop explains the guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust and includes lesson planning exercises for teachers.


Year after year, students come into my class with the preconceived idea that Jews are part of a race, not a religion. I have also talked to teachers who have had the same misconception. Dispelling this myth is important in teaching about the dangers of antisemitism. The idea of "Jewish blood" is a fallacy of Nazi propaganda that has unfortunately taken root in people's minds, even today.

Another common misconception of teachers is that it is possible to simulate in the classroom life during the Holocaust. I have heard of teachers having students pack a suitcase and bring it to school to "pretend" they're being deported from a ghetto, or taping off a section of the classroom the size of a cattle car and getting 30 students to stand there with their luggage. How can teachers think that by having students sectioned off in a corner of the room they can recreate what it was like to be crammed into a cattle car with 80 to 100 people? It is simply not possible. Our students live in a different time and place. It would be better to spend class time reading short excerpts from survivor journals or stories from Holocaust literature that would personalize the lives of victims.

Teachers should stress with students the humanity of each of the victims, bystanders, and even the persecutors. Students must understand that real people with jobs and families were involved. I have heard of educators doing projects to impress upon students the numbers of people killed during the Holocaust. They have students bring six million paper clips, pennies, or other items to class to visualize six million. Unfortunately, activities like this only lessen the impact of the Holocaust. How can paper clips represent individuals?


As impossible as it may seem to those of us who are familiar with history, there are people who openly deny that the Holocaust happened. The Anti-Defamation League has a Web site devoted to helping teachers understand Holocaust denial and to confront deniers in the classroom.

As with any Internet research project, teachers must be especially careful when asking students to research Holocaust history and must guide students to good Internet sites and sources. If students do a simple Google search for "Holocaust," they will find nearly as many hate or revisionist sites as legitimate ones.


Through my work with the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education Teaching Cadre and the USHMM, I have come up with a comprehensive list of topics that I touch upon when teaching the Holocaust.

Before teaching any work of Holocaust literature, I review the list of topics and decide which topics the literature chosen will treat. I have listed my topics below, italicizing topics that are on both my list and the USHMM List.

  1. The Aftermath of World War I
  2. European Jewry Before the Holocaust
  3. Antisemitism
  4. Nazi Racial Ideology
  5. Growing Popularity of the Nazi Party
  6. Dictatorship Under the Third Reich
  7. Nuremberg Laws
  8. The First Concentration Camps
  9. World War II in Europe
  10. Murder of the Disabled ("Euthanasia" Program)
  11. Ghettos
  12. Mobile Killing Squads (Einsatzgruppen)
  13. Expansion of the Concentration Camp System
  14. Wannsee Conference
  15. Killing Centers
  16. Additional Victims of Nazi Persecution
  17. Resistance
  18. Rescue
  19. Death Marches
  20. Liberation
  21. Post-war Trials
  22. Displaced Persons Camps and Emigration


Everyone who teaches Holocaust literature must have a rationale for teaching it. That rationale can range from teaching it simply because it was a watershed event in history to teaching it as an example of narrative writing about a historical event. The rationale, whatever it may be, should guide teachers in choosing the content of a Holocaust unit. Before beginning the unit, teachers should write down their rationale, and they should keep it in front of them while planning.

In addition to establishing a rationale, educators should consider many factors when beginning to teach the Holocaust. Teachers should consider the length of time they have to teach their Holocaust unit. It is possible to do a good job of teaching the Holocaust in one week, even though some of us are lucky enough to have semester courses. If time is limited, choose a shorter work or possibly one that students can read outside of class. Use class time to teach the important history lessons from the list of Holocaust topics and analyze what was read outside of class. Again, a teacher's rationale will determine which topics are especially relevant to a given work of literature and whether the topics will fit the time constraints.


While many educators would say that teaching the Holocaust helps to make students less prejudiced and more tolerant of diversity, many scholars would argue that there is no empirical data to support this assertion. I myself wrote a master's thesis on the subject of teaching tolerance through teaching the Holocaust, and as much as I searched for concrete evidence and statistics, I failed to find any.

Nevertheless, most teachers believe that through teaching the Holocaust, one cannot help but impart to students values of acceptance and tolerance. After all, the Holocaust is an example of what happens when prejudice and stereotyping go unchecked, when people allow their ignorance and their need to scapegoat overcome decency and common sense.

The skepticism of scholars about the use of Holocaust studies to teach values comes from the difficulty of measuring the thoughts, words, and actions of students before and after their exposure to Holocaust history. However, I believe that through teaching students the lessons of the Holocaust, we can influence their thoughts and actions. Students who study this subject can make more informed decisions about their own behavior. For example, by studying the results of being a passive bystander, students will be more inclined to take a stand when they see an injustice, whether in the school cafeteria or in the political arena.

For more information on the possibility of imparting values by teaching the Holocaust, visit The Facing History and Ourselves Organization Web site and read about their philosophy.


For educators who must teach Holocaust literature and history in a very short period of time, I recommend Elie Wiesel's Night. I use this work at the freshman level, but it is appropriate for advanced 8th graders through 12th graders. (Night is available in the Prentice Hall Literature Library.)

At my school, our honors freshmen read this book for homework over a weekend. I have found that even challenged readers finish the book well before the deadline. This is the one book I teach that, year after year, students finish the day after I have handed it out. They tell me, "I couldn't put it down!"

The novel spans Elie Wiesel's life from his childhood in Hungary, through his experiences in the concentration camps until his liberation in 1945. I use this book to cover the following key historical topics:

  • European Jewry Before the Holocaust: Elie studies the Cabbala, mystical Jewish teachings, with Moshe the Beadle. Elie's father plays a prominent role in the Jewish community, and we glimpse Elie's family circumstances as he describes the family shop and life with his sisters.
  • World Response: We learn of the progress of the Allies in 1942 and 1943 from Elie's description of listening to the London news, and we learn of the Russian army making progress against the Nazis in 1944.
  • Persecution and Murder of the Jews/Mobile Killing Operations (Einsatzgruppen)/Ghettos: We learn of the gradual loss of rights of the Jews of Sighet and hear through Moshe a firsthand account of the Einsatzgruppen. Elie writes of his family's experiences in the ghetto and the "liquidation" of the ghetto. Also, he graphically details the train ride to the Birkenau concentration camp.
  • Rescuers: The Wiesels' maid offers to hide the family in the country, and their Hungarian police officer friend knocks on the window to warn them of the ghetto liquidation.
  • Antisemitism: We read about the bystanders watching the Jews leave the ghetto of Sighet, and we also see the dehumanization in the camps. When Elie is on the death march, he writes again of the bystanders' reactions.
  • Concentrations Camps/Killing Centers: Elie experiences the Birkenau death camp, where his mother and sisters are sent, as well as the Auschwitz, Buna, Gleiwitz, and Buchenwald concentration camps.
  • Resistance: We see heroic acts of resistance—for example, the Dutch Oberkapo sneaking weapons into Buna and his assistant refusing to give information about the Oberkapo and being hanged. At another hanging, prisoners shout "Long live liberty!" Elie also writes of the Buchenwald camp resistance organization.
  • Death Marches/Liberation: Elie is led on a gruesome death march from Buna to Buchenwald, just missing the liberation at Buna. Finally, Buchenwald is liberated on April 5, 1945.


This memoir gives students a comprehensive view of Holocaust history from the perspective of a young girl experiencing the Holocaust. The memoir is divided into four sections. Part I covers the invasion of Poland in 1939 and ghetto life during 1942. Part II spans Gerda's time in slave labor camps (1942–1945) and her death march in the spring of 1945. Part III involves her liberation by the Fifth U.S. Infantry Division. The Epilogue shows the reader Gerda's life after liberation. The organization of the book actually sets up topics that you can use to cover the history. The historical topics covered in this memoir are:

  • Aftermath of World War I: At the beginning of the book, Gerda compares World War I and World War II.
  • European Jewry before the Holocaust: Gerda describes her summer vacation in Krynica and the private girls' school she attended before the war.
  • Growing Popularity of the Nazi Party: Gerda's neighbors welcome the Nazis and make a Nazi flag for her Jewish family to display on their house.
  • Persecution: Gerda's family is forced to sell their valuables to non-Jews.
  • Mobile Killing Operations (Einsatzgruppen): Aunt Anna describes what she saw.
  • Ghettos: Gerda's family is moved from the basement of their home to the ghetto.
  • Resistance: The most simple, yet profound, example of resistance is when Gerda hides the pictures of her family in her boots.
  • Death Marches: The women from Gerda's camp are marched across Germany into Czechoslovakia.
  • Humanization of Perpetrators: Frau Krugler is a Kapo (a prison camp guard) who saves Gerda's life.
  • Antisemitism: Townspeople jeer when Gerda and her family walk through their town to the ghetto. Both the Poles and the Germans watch the death march and do nothing.
  • Concentration Camp/Killing Centers: Gerda's parents are sent to Auschwitz, while Gerda is sent to several slave labor camps.
  • Liberation: In May of 1945, the Fifth U.S. Infantry Division liberates Gerda.
  • Displaced Persons Camps and Emigration: Gerda searches for information about her family and emigrates to the U. S. with Kurt Klein, her U. S. army rescuer.


For some students, Anne Frank is the only person from the Holocaust that they can name. This is unfortunate in one respect because Anne did not even receive her diary until April of 1942. She writes of deportations and of hearing rumors of gassings, but her actual experiences of the Holocaust are limited primarily to life in hiding.

Nevertheless, her diary, or the drama by Goodrich and Hackett that is based on it, can be an excellent springboard for teaching the Holocaust. Using either the diary or the drama in this way, teachers can provide students with supplementary information. Teachers can give also students details about the events leading up to the time Anne is given the diary and then teach students about her death. Students can choose topics that are not presented in the diary in order to research what was happening in the Holocaust during the time Anne was in hiding.

For further assistance in teaching about Anne Frank, an excellent resource for supplemental materials regarding the diary is the USHMM's Bibliographies page.


The following three works about the Holocaust are excellent choices for middle school students to read:

Reiss, Johanna. The Upstairs Room. New York: Harper Trophy, 1972.

When Annie de Leeuw is eight years old, the Nazis occupy her country, Holland. Since she is Jewish, she is in grave danger. Her father finds a place for her to hide with her sister Sini. A Gentile family hides them even though the family could also be sent away to Nazi camps if they are caught. When Annie and Sini go into hiding, they think it will be only for a short time. Two years pass by with many narrow escapes, while a loving bond forms between Sini and Annie and between the girls and their Gentile rescuers.

Richter, Hans Peter. Friedrich. New York: Puffin, 1970.

Friedrich and his best friend share a very special bond, until the Nazis begin making changes in their German town. Friedrich's life changes drastically as laws are passed that make him unable to attend the same school or even to sit on the same bench as his best friend. The two boys attempt to remain friends throughout the period of Nazi rule— Friedrich attends a meeting of the Hitler Youth and his best friend attends Friedrich's bar mitzvah. Unfortunately, even their friendship is not strong enough to survive Nazi oppression.

Warren, Andrea. Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.

Jack Mandelbaum is 12 years old in 1939, when the Nazis invade his country, Poland. Soon after, Jack must leave his family and go wherever the Nazi officials send him. Learn about Jack's triumph over evil as he works for the Nazis in camp after camp. Despite the desperate conditions, Jack struggles to keep a positive attitude. When the war is over, Jack comes to the United States and builds a new, successful life.


The following two works are excellent choices for advanced high school students to read:

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I & II. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

These Pulitzer Prize-winning books by Art Spiegelman explore through cartoons what life is like for children of survivors. Artie grows up in New York City knowing that his parents, both of whom survived the Holocaust, have experienced terrible losses. Artie sets out to discover the real story behind their survival before it is too late. In this book, based on Spiegelman's own life, Jews are mice, Nazis are dogs, and Poles are pigs. Students will learn about the harrowing events Artie's father and mother experienced during the Holocaust, as Artie discovers a deep love and respect for his father while piecing together the puzzle of his past.

Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.

Wiesenthal's story, The Sunflower, asks this essential question: "You are a prisoner in a concentration camp. A dying Nazi soldier asks for your forgiveness. What would you do?" Read the shocking personal story of Wiesenthal, and then read the 32 responses from famous scholars who have read the story and answered the question themselves.


Holocaust literature has the capacity not only to open students' minds to compelling, important stories about real people, but also to educate students about one of the most important historical events of the twentieth century. As English teachers, we have the opportunity to teach important historical topics that are part of the literature we cover with students in the classroom. Through our efforts, we can help educate future generations about the dangers of prejudice and stereotyping.

Teaching the Holocaust has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career as an educator. Considering what I knew about the Holocaust when I began teaching years ago, and what I know now, my advice for teachers new to teaching the Holocaust is this: Don't be afraid to learn as you go. My knowledge of the Holocaust was very limited when I began teaching Night years ago. One of the joys of teaching is that we, as educators, are eternal students, always open to new information and ideas so that we can help our students learn and grow.


Although these lists are by no means comprehensive, they are resources that I have found particularly helpful in my own teaching.

Internet resources

Other good sites for teacher and student research include:


Using films in the classroom is an especially effective teaching strategy when covering the Holocaust because of the wealth of good documentaries recently produced. Teachers should preview films before showing them to students and should use only the relevant segments of the film to support the teaching of any particular work of literature.

Below are five films I use to teach the Holocaust. All are appropriate for middle and high school students:

  • One Survivor Remembers (1995). 36 minutes. A perfect companion for All But My Life. In this Academy Award-winning HBO movie, Gerda Weissmann Klein tells her story. The footage includes photographs of where she lived and her incredible story of rescue by her future husband, Kurt Klein.
  • The Camera of My Family: Four Generations in Germany, 1845–1945 (1991). 20 minutes. In this moving short film, Catherine Hanf Noren uses her own family photographs to personalize the history of the Holocaust.
  • The Last Days (1998). 87 minutes. This Academy-Award winning documentary by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation is a perfect companion for Night. It chronicles the lives of five survivors from Hungary. My students are fascinated by every detail of this film.
  • America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference (1994). 100 minutes. A must-see for American students, this film shows the role of the United States in the Holocaust. It is narrated by Kurt Klein, who reads the letters of his parents to tell their story of the problems posed for them by U.S. immigration policies. This documentary uses actual footage to tell the history of the Holocaust.
  • The Courage to Care (1986). 28 minutes. This compelling film shows how ordinary people chose not to be passive bystanders during the Holocaust. Each rescuer tells his or her story of how personal actions made a difference.


Fortunately, there are many quality Holocaust resource books for teachers.

The following are books I recommend that teachers have available in the classroom while teaching their Holocaust unit.

  • Bachrach, Susan D. Tell Them We Remember: The Story of the Holocaust. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994. Concise and easy-to-read summaries of Holocaust topics.
  • Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. An excellent reference book for all topics of research.
  • Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933–1945. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Although a little too scholarly for students, a good reference book for research.
  • Langer, Lawrence. Art From the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Teachers can pull poetry, short stories, or nonfiction pieces from this work to supplement their Holocaust literature selections.