eTeach logo

Lessons of the Holocaust and Prejudice Reduction

by Arlene Shenkus

Selecting Materials
The Teachable Moment—Focusing on the Student
Rules for Discussion
Planning Considerations
Teaching About the Holocaust
Prejudice Awareness and Reduction
Assessment of Learning


from Survival of a Spirit, by Eva Salier


Teaching the Holocaust is one of the most difficult and, at the same time, one of the most rewarding things that you, as a classroom teacher, can do. This subject intrigues students because it helps them to learn more about humanity and about themselves. Research tells us that young people are more likely to resist prejudice if they have a way of talking about it, i.e., if they understand such terms as stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and scapegoating. Common sense tells us that they will also be more likely to intervene in conflicts related to prejudice and discrimination if they have some examples of how this can be done.

As they study the Holocaust, students will deal with human motivations and human frailties. They will be personally affected, leading to intense and productive classroom discussions. Yet, the teaching of Holocaust history demands a high level of sensitivity. A study of the Holocaust raises difficult questions about human behavior. It presents horrific images and stories that may profoundly affect your students. As a teacher, you need to know how well your students can handle the subject and what lessons may lead to constructive explorations and which may not. Graphic material should be carefully used and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson.


Materials about the Holocaust abound. In fact, it is far easier to find materials than to decide which ones to select. Also, the field of Holocaust studies is very broad. Because of time constraints, deciding exactly which areas to cover and what depth of coverage is appropriate become issues of concern. Below are two good basic resources for teaching about prejudice reduction and the Holocaust.

Review the Prentice Hall booklet Understanding Prejudice (PDF). It contains a wealth of materials, including five easy-to-use lessons on prejudice, discrimination, conflict, and genocide; interdisciplinary activities and student handouts; and materials from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It shows graphically that the 20th century was a time of unparalleled violence against minorities.

The State of New Jersey has mandated the teaching of Holocaust/Genocide in grades K–12. I served on this state curriculum committee that issued a suggested curriculum for Holocaust/Genocide studies. It was a daunting task to select appropriate materials and activities—what was to be a one-year project took two years, including summer work. The curriculum was designed to include both literary and historical readings and references, as well as films, CD-ROMs, and Web sites. Everything we included was familiar to and had been used successfully by someone on the committee.

The New Jersey curriculum is comprehensive but flexible. It allows classroom teachers to design a unit that will meet the strengths and interests of teacher and students.


In preparing to teach the Holocaust and prejudice reduction, consider what you, as a teacher and a human being, are comfortable discussing. The Holocaust is a difficult subject for both you and your students. You never know what will come up in your classroom discussions. My students have discovered and revealed personal issues regarding their own identities during discussions of this topic. These revelations open up the teachable moment. For example, the discussion of Nazi racial laws has profoundly affected students of mixed racial background. Some have revealed that they don't know where they "belong" because of the pressures of finding racial identity. This resulted in an exploration of racial issues in the United States. The larger issue was brought to the personal level in this research-based discussion. It led to discussions of racial identity for the census, school applications, or driver's licenses.

Others, in discussing the unit at home, have discovered that Jews in their family perished in the Holocaust. Some students did not know until they took the course that they had any connection to Judaism or the Holocaust. This led to a discussion of "assimilation" and the human need to belong to a larger national identity while preserving individual values and customs. Productive discussions followed, based on who the students are, on how they identify themselves, on what they want, and on what is important to them.

As you may have noticed, the topics of the Holocaust and prejudice reduction quickly lead to a focus on the individual student. Teaching the events of history is our lifetime passion, but as teachers we know that for maximum impact, the student must find meaning for his or her own individual life.

Yet the topic of the Holocaust is challenging to teach because it raises issues deep in the inner core of the student. Teaching the Holocaust has the power to disturb students. Students with their parents' consent and in consultation with school administrators may choose not to participate in the Holocaust unit.


One of the most memorable discussions that took place in my classroom began with a question: "What have you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask?" This leads to rules that need to be established before this activity begins.

  • First, no question is "stupid." If you want to know, ask.
  • Second, no one will be belittled or laughed at for asking a question, because the question asked is a legitimate concern to the questioner.
  • Third, each question will be discussed until the questioner has a satisfactory answer. This encourages answers from different members of the class. Sometimes, one question will take an entire class period to answer.
  • Fourth, students will be honest.
  • Fifth, all answers and questions, including the teacher's contributions, stay in the room. This rule is vital to establish the kind of trust that enables an open and honest discussion.

The most successful discussion topics have been minority/majority and male/female relations. Students have shared feelings and concerns that they had never discussed with each other before, even though they may have known each other for a long time and may have been friends outside of school. Of course, the teacher needs to consider his/her own comfort level, each student's ability to handle this activity, and school philosophy and guidelines. Obviously, you would not want to do this activity in every class.


Before you begin teaching the Holocaust, decide how much time you have and exactly what issues you want to cover. You may find some students voicing concern about studying the Holocaust. As noted earlier, you may want to consider giving these students an alternate assignment after consultation with school administrators and parents.

Do not try to compare suffering. One person may cite the Holocaust as an example of man's inhumanity to man. Another may see it as a crime related to a particular era in time or set of conditions. One person may point to the paradox of Germany's rich cultural tradition. Another may focus on Germany's long history of anti-Semitism. Some may focus on barbarities inflicted on Europe's Jews. Others may focus on depredations against the Roma and other "gypsy" groups, on homosexuals, and on religious minorities. Mentioning these other persecuted groups during the Holocaust gives a picture of the magnitude of the killing. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, have tapes and study guides that can be used to examine how this group was persecuted during the Holocaust.

Another issue to prepare for is the recent fascination that some youths have with Adolf Hitler. Keep in mind that you can never be fully aware of where your study of the Holocaust will take you or of what your students will want to explore and discuss. The New Jersey Holocaust Commission has material that addresses this issue, and its Web site is given in the list of recommended materials.

Put the Holocaust in perspective by referring to the issue of genocide, the deliberate attempt to destroy an entire religious or ethnic group. You might distribute student handout 4.3 from the Prentice Hall booklet Understanding Prejudice—"A Partial List of Acts of Genocide During the Twentieth Century."

An annotated list of suggested materials is provided here. It is strongly recommended that you preview in advance all the readings, films, CD-ROMs, and especially Web sites you plan to use in your classes. Some material contains very graphic images and language.

You may also want to send a letter home to parents/guardians, especially if you intend to show films which have a PG rating, including Schindler's List. This letter may also give parents an option for their child to select an alternate assignment if they think the material will be too sensitive. Remember, you are dealing with material that explores the inhumanity of some people towards other people, and some of this material can be very difficult for some people to watch, read, and discuss.

Finally, never end a class with a film or reading, letting students go directly to their next class. I always leave ten minutes or more to discuss the material that they have just read or viewed so that students get a chance to address any concerns before they leave the classroom.


The Holocaust refers to a specific period in 20th century history: the systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by the Nazis. During this era, the Roma and the handicapped were also targeted. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents died under Nazi tyranny as well.

Using Poetry to Explain the Unexplainable

One difficult aspect of teaching the Holocaust is that you are trying to explain the unexplainable. An interdisciplinary approach helps to do this. Because poetry is generally brief and immediate, it can be used in a class period to discuss personal and emotional aspects. For example, Charlotte Delbo describes cold, hunger, and thirst in the death camps brilliantly. In her poem "None of Us Will Return" (Delbo, p. 11), she confronts the unexplainable. Read the poem aloud with students. Discuss sections that are particularly poignant to them.

Before students read this poem, they should be told that the author was a leader of the resistance movement, a female, and a non-Jew, who felt a moral obligation to raise the past from its ashes. She believed that survivors must continue to live as well as to carry the word of their experiences to others so that the true story of genocide can be told.

The poem can be discussed for what it says as well as for how it delivers its message. The grammar and the language used help to describe the unexplainable to the reader. Point out the repetition of "did you know" and "O you who know." Students are usually quick to pick up on the irony in these words. They also get a feel for how the survivors had to numb themselves to their experience in order to make it to the next minute, let alone the next day.

After discussing the poem, consider asking the following questions, which have been successful prompts for writings:

  1. Does Delbo's writing evoke any feelings in the reader? If so, what are they? How does she explain the unexplainable? Quote lines and discuss their impact.
  2. How has Delbo succeeded in describing her experiences in the Holocaust? What images are the most powerful?

"Roll Call" (Delbo, p. 102) is another poem by Charlotte Delbo about the Holocaust. After reading this poem aloud, discuss its contents. Describe the endless hours that death camp inmates had to stand outside in all kinds of weather until the numbers came out right. Discuss how the stronger often supported the weak, because frailty could mean instant death. Discuss the inmates' hope in the last line of the poem. Discuss Taube, the commandant, and the concerns of the guards. How does the poet portray the horrors of the camps?

Survivor Testimony

A very effective tool for teaching about genocide is to present survivor testimony. Inviting a Holocaust survivor to speak will make a lasting impression on your students. Prior to the visit, discuss with the students the intense pain that the survivor must feel. Discuss these difficulties with the class. Warn them that the survivor may cry while remembering the deep personal losses. Not only may the survivor be emotional in front of the class, he or she may often have nightmares, both before and after the visit.

At the same time, you should provide the survivor with guidelines as to the target audience and the purpose of the presentation. Ask the survivor about the content of the presentation, including any sensitive material. If your district has speaker guidelines, give them to the speaker before the presentation.

Students also need to be prepared for their own emotions before they hear survivor testimony, whether it is in person or on film. They need to study the Holocaust first so that they can better understand the testimony and so that the survivor's story will have understandable historical and informational references.

The Dutch writer Carl Friedman explains this very well in the book nightfather. Friedman, who, despite the name, is a woman, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Have students read excerpts from this book before hearing a survivor. I have successfully used an excerpt from the chapter "Request" (Friedman, pp. 57–58).

This excerpt introduces students to the trauma that survivors continue to suffer years after their liberation. It also shows the inability of others to understand this continuing trauma. It better prepares students for the difficult story they will hear and the difficulty the survivor will have in telling it.

The urgency of using survivor testimony cannot be stressed too much. Soon, the last of the survivors of the Holocaust will be gone, and many are only telling their stories now because of the prominence of Holocaust deniers. My students recently heard a Holocaust survivor speak. The person said he didn't like to tell his story because it was so difficult for him to do so. Yet, he felt he had to say something because he saw with his own eyes the horror and hatred of the concentration camps, and he was a living witness to dispute those who deny the Holocaust. He told my students that they were now able to speak against deniers because they had heard from someone who witnessed the Holocaust.

A Novel Approach: Critique and Guide

We, as human beings, are stunned, somewhat embarrassed, and definitely moved when we learn about the Holocaust. It definitely enrages us, but, at the same time, it intrigues us. We are intrigued by our past, the past of humanity.

Links with literature and language are beneficial in assisting students in their study of the Holocaust. Literature and "oral testimony" make history more understandable because feelings become involved and students can more easily relate to one person's story.

The Holocaust survivor Tadeusz Borowski uses forceful language without being grossly explicit. His ironic understatements speak volumes. His writing makes you feel uncomfortable.

Borowski, in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, says that inmates in Auschwitz-Birkenau spoke "crematorium Esperanto" to interpret their world. Even the title of this story about his own experience in a death camp uses this "cremo" talk. Are we to laugh at or be appalled by his title? When we give it some thought, we can see it as very appropriate. Ironic humor often helps get us through trauma.

To cope with his situation, he does what he must to survive. In the first sentences of his story, he mixes the common events of life with the uncommon, but everyday, events of the camp experience: "All of us walk around naked. The delousing is finally over, and our striped suits are back from the tanks of Cyclone B solution, an efficient killer of lice in clothing and men in gas chambers" (Borowski, page 29). It is bizarrely jarring that the two uses of Cyclone B for killing are connected by a coordinating conjunction, giving them equal value in the same sentence. After all, the killing of lice in the camp was good because it prevented typhus and saved lives, whereas killing people in gas chambers is hardly equivalent to killing lice. Equating the killing of lice and the killing of people suggests that lice and people are both a menace to be eliminated. In this world of the Nazi death camps, they were.

Borowski gets a job unloading the transports, which happen to contain people, many of whom will be ashes within a half hour of his herding them off the train. These transports of people provide him with food and clothing. He lives off their possessions.

"This is where they load freight for Birkenau: supplies for the construction of the camp and people for the gas chambers. Trucks drive around, load up lumber, cement, people—a regular daily routine" (page 34). Borowski ironically equates people with lumber and cement. As the trains come into the camp, Borowski and other men unload them. Everything that arrives on the trains is referred to as transport or freight.

Even though the work was disgusting and made him want to vomit, Borowski/Tadek (the character in his story) knew that the work enabled him to get the extra food that kept him alive. What kind of "choice" did he have? Certainly, he did not have a normal choice as we know it. He wasn't killing anyone directly, although he certainly wasn't helping to save anyone either. The gap between what he should do and could do is accentuated. Neither choice is "right" or morally satisfying.

Borowski is a master at manipulating language to explain the unexplainable. "If I had said to you as we danced together in my room in the light of the paraffin lamps: listen, take a million people, or two million, or three, kill them in such a way that no one knows about it, not even they themselves, enslave several hundred thousand more, destroy their mutual loyalty, pit man against man … surely you would have thought me mad" (p. 112). Borowski, in all of his writings, is not mad. Rather, he uses words which wrenchingly convey to the reader the "normal," everyday horror of existence in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Surrealism is brought into the world of realism—and vice-versa—in his writing.

Borowski's style of writing includes irony, cynicism, the use of description, contrasts, and images. The writing shows icy detachment and keeps the reader off-guard. Borowski uses the images of children, fire, heat, and hunger. His themes include justice/punishment, hope, love, victim/victimizer, survival, and methods of coping. He provides a literary approach that gives us insight into how people survived in a world turned upside down.

Historians interpret history, but "oral testimony," although subjective and personal, is an important component of historical description. This text gives students a disturbing, but comprehensible insight into humans' strong will to survive.

Studying the Holocaust Through Its Art

Using art to teach the Holocaust can be challenging. The teacher of the Holocaust needs to consider the effect graphic photographs or creative art will have on his/her students. One suggestion is to show students the beauty of the life that was lost. If this is done, the tragedy of what was lost during the Holocaust will be better understood. For example, consider the pictures and text from Eva Salier's book, Survival of a Spirit.


There are many different ways to help students recognize subtle—and not so subtle— forms of prejudice. An interesting area to pursue is the language and the changing terms used to refer to people and ideas. This leads to a discussion of terms that refer to people and groups today as well as a discussion of how these references have changed over time. A male student told the class several years ago that he had never been in Africa and that he did not want to be called African American. This opened up a discussion about the complexity of labels and terminology that is used to refer to people. Again, this issue has both national and personal meaning for students.

Other themes to pursue include the role of bullies, collaborators, bystanders, role models, and those who put their lives at risk in order to save the victims. The New Jersey curriculum has an assessment worksheet that students can use to assign degrees of responsibility to such people as doctors, train engineers, clerks, teachers, and parents. My students always rate teachers and parents as highly responsible for the events of the Holocaust, which gives us something to ponder as both adults and as teachers.

Suggested Lesson Plan: The Bully

A good tangential area to explore in relation to prejudice reduction is the role of the bully. A great deal of literature is currently available on this topic, including articles in national newsmagazines.

A suggested starting exercise is to have groups of students list characteristics of a bully. Then, one person per group can report on the list, and the teacher can make a class list on the board. Students can discuss factors that lead to the development of a bullying personality. This can then lead both to discussions on how to identify inappropriate behavior and to student and research-based suggestions about what to do about this behavior. Students will also probably bring up incidents in their school as well as in the nation, including the highly publicized high school shootings. This gives the issue both a national-historical perspective and a personal resonance.

Suggested Lesson Plan: The Bystander

The study of the Holocaust leads naturally to this question: Why didn't people do more to prevent it? An effective way to deal with this issue on a personal level is to have students read "The Dying Girl That No One Helped." This discusses the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, which was witnessed by 38 of her neighbors. The case became a symbol of people who were too indifferent, frightened, or alienated to "get involved" in helping a fellow human being. It is easy for our students to say they would do something. The difference between what you would want someone to do for you and what you would be willing to do for someone else is directly involved in your decision to help. This reading can be used in a discussion of degrees of involvement—from getting directly involved (i.e., going out to help Ms. Genovese) to indirectly getting involved (i.e., anonymously calling the police and reporting the incident). This allows students to explore choices and options, along with their own comfort level. Making your students aware of choices gives them a chance to get involved and not stand by and do nothing.

Prejudice Reduction Exercises

"Students need to learn that each citizen must bear personal responsibility to fight racism and hatred wherever and whenever it happens" (State of New Jersey legislation, April 4, 1994). The Holocaust provides a context for exploring the dangers of remaining silent, apathetic, and indifferent in the face of others' oppression (U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum).

Often, prejudice reduction is accomplished in subtle ways. One of the best ways I have found to help students eliminate prejudice is for them to get to know each other better. This sounds both simple and logical, but that is not always the case because students are often unaware of the subtleties of prejudice. A student recently wrote in her journal, after we had done a week's worth of exercises to learn more about each other, that she wanted to thank me for the new insights she had acquired. She also stated that we answered questions that she would not have even thought to ask. This reinforced the idea that prejudice and discrimination are both subtle and often not discussed. She went on to say that she will look at people in a different way armed with this new knowledge and that she will be more sensitive to them.

Exercise #1
The first exercise that the student above referred to is one that divides students into groups by gender and ethnicity, according to the makeup of the class. This is a multifaceted exercise. This year, I assigned three groups: majority females, majority males, and minority students. Groups had to complete three lists about themselves: ten things that are stereotypes about the group that they would like to dispel, ten things they like about being who they are, and ten things they don't like about being who they are. Then one member from each group read the list, one list at a time, and the class asked questions or made comments.

This result was gratifying. The majority students realized that the minority students had a great deal of pride and unity as a group, with a great deal of family support and traditions. The majority students said that they never realized this and that they were even a little envious that they didn't feel this while they were doing their own lists. They also commented that they took longer to make their lists and that some groups could not come up with ten things. This exercise allows each group to look at its members and to also see how the other groups think and feel. It gives each group a better understanding of and respect for the other groups. This has been rated the most effective exercise by my students in their journals every year I have done this exercise.

Exercise #2
A second successful activity is to have students watch the tape The Eye of the Storm. This portrays an exercise conducted by Jane Elliott on her third graders. She divided the class into two groups: blue-eyed children and brown-eyed children. The tape shows students the hurt that discrimination can cause. They see students turn into nasty people. This leads to animated discussion.

Another Jane Elliott tape I show has her doing the exercise with adults. It also shows segments of the high school reunion with her students, their comments about how the two days of this exercise changed their lives, and the way they planned to raise their children. It also has a segment about the community opposition she faced when she began doing the exercises in class. This allows students to feel some of the effects of prejudice and discrimination. Jane Elliott has said that talking does not always help. She wanted her students to feel prejudice and discrimination firsthand.

These exercises work. I also have students work in groups with people they don't know well. They fuss at first, but by the end of the semester, friendships are formed and students tell me that they probably would not have spoken to each other, let alone become friends, without these exercises. It takes patience and persistence on the part of the teacher, but the results can make such a difference!


Because teachers are looking for both subjective and affective learning in their students, a paper and pencil test is not always the best way to measure learning. The New Jersey State Holocaust Curriculum suggests that teachers include performance tasks of all kinds as tools of assessment. These could be artistic creations, musical performances, volunteer work, and individual and group projects, as well as tests, quizzes, and exercises. Other suggested strategies for assessment are student self-assessment, journals or learning logs, and reflective essays.

My students keep a journal in which they record their development throughout the semester course. Many of their assignments are for their self-analysis. They write about any changes they see in the way they think and about the new insights they have gained. Because I check their journals twice a marking period, I tell them to staple any pages that they feel are private and that they don't want me to read. This gives them a record of their learning and it gives me a tool to use for evaluating the impact of what I am trying to accomplish, particularly with the affective objectives, which are more difficult to measure using traditional means.


Teaching prejudice reduction and Holocaust/Genocide, as previously stated, can be the most difficult and the most rewarding subject for a teacher. The New Jersey Holocaust Commission has recently added affective objectives to its suggested state curriculum for grades 9–12. These suggest the importance of teaching students about prejudice and of using the Holocaust as an example. The objectives include:

  • "Students will demonstrate behaviors that are respectful of individuals regardless of differences based upon factors related to race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender, disability, economic status or sexual orientation.
  • "Students will demonstrate a willingness to take appropriate action when observing or becoming aware of a violation of human rights.
  • "Students will take appropriate action when confronted with information intended to distort or deny history, such as that presented by deniers of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.
  • "Students will increase their voluntary involvement in causes designed to fight bigotry and hatred, and to promote and preserve human rights.
  • "Students will continue to assess their understanding of human nature and apply their newly acquired understandings to the way they lead their lives."

The knowledge and insights your students acquire will stay with them for the rest of their lives. As one of my students told me, " I will never see the world the same way again after taking this course." You will make a difference, an important one.


Allport, Gordon W. The Nature of Prejudice. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1979.

Bachrach, Susan D. Tell Them We Remember. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1994.

Bauer, Yehuda. History of the Holocaust. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust As Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1993.

Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Brown, Jean E., Elaine C. Stephens, and Janet E. Rubin. Images from the Holocaust: A Literature Anthology. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC, 1997.

Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Friedman, Carl. nightfather. New York: Persea Books, 1994.

Gilbert, Martin. Atlas of the Holocaust. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1993.

Hayakawa, S. I. and Alan R. Hayakawa. Language in Thought and Action, 3d ed. Philadelphia: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1990.

Klein, Gerda Weissman. All But My Life. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Langer, Lawrence L., ed. Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995; Oxford: Westview Press, 1994.

Pincus, Fred L. and Howard J. Ehrlich, eds. Race and Ethnic Conflict: Views on Prejudice, Discrimination and Ethnoviolence. Oxford: Westview Press, 1994.

Salier, Eva. Survival of a Spirit. New York: Shengold Publishers, Inc., 1995.

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

Spiegelman, Art. Maus II. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.

Weinberg, Jeshajhu and Rina Elieli. The Holocaust Museum in Washington. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1995.

Weisel, Eli. Night. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Yad Vashem

USC Shoah Foundation

New Jersey Department of Education, Commission on Holocaust Education