Volume: 4, Issue: 3


Holocaust Education in Southern California: Instructional Perspectives and Resources
Пиерсон, М. [about] , Мареска, Кэтти [about]

DESCRIPTORS: Holocaust education, resources for seventh graders, major topics, specific strategies, websites and texts for teaching Holocaust
SYNOPSIS: This paper talks about the importance of teaching Holocaust and describes the experience of teaching Holocaust to seventh graders in one private middle school in Southern California. It also provides the readers with a number of strategies and resources than can be successfully used in Holocaust Education in the United States and elsewhere.


Few teachers doubt the importance of teaching seminal events in history and many embrace the opportunity to create moral discussions with their students – especially at the secondary level.  However, teaching the Holocaust and the specific lessons that can be learned from such a delicate subject are not always easy to face every day.  Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time planning for each lesson and having to prepare to teach the Holocaust can be emotionally draining.  This paper will discuss why it is important to teach the Holocaust, one California teacher’s choice of instructional materials on the Holocaust, and also detail some resources for teachers.

The Importance of Teaching the Holocaust

Examining the Holocaust is a necessary part of confronting evil and analyzing the morality of humanity.  One should not shy away from history, no matter how painful it may have been.  This event in history has impacted foreign relations (Karn, 2012), yet to ignore it in any way is to miss numerous lessons that can be gleaned from this tragic period in time.

Holocaust education with numerous new resources for teachers has gained importance in the past 40 years (Karn, 2012).  Lindquist (2011) describes studying the Holocaust as the opportunity to examine “every possibility of human behavior, spanning a continuum ranging from ultimate evil to ultimate good.”  Holocaust education leads to classroom discussions that may not otherwise occur due to issues being raised that are critically important in contemporary American society (Curtis, 2000).
Students may be taken over by extreme emotions due to the topic’s intensity so teachers must be prepared for this reaction and not take teaching the Holocaust lightly.  “Teachers must commit themselves to a special level of decision making in planning and implementing Holocaust curricula” (Lindquist, 2011).  With these intense emotions at the forefront, students may better be able to consider critical moral issues, human behavior, and the dynamics of their own lives in a democratic society. 

The most convincing argument for teaching the Holocaust was proposed by Adams and colleagues (1985).  They believe that the most important rationale is that understanding the event helps prepare students to live in a fragmented world that lacks concern for others. This is a strong rationale for Holocaust education that must not be ignored.

One California Teacher’s Approach to Teaching the Holocaust

One particular teacher at a private school in Southern California took an interest in exposing her students to the moral lessons of the Holocaust.  With parental permission and an opportunity to preview all materials, she went forward with focusing on the main theme of accepting or rejecting evil.

She focused on 7th grade students who were predominantly Caucasian from middle to upper class families.  The teacher commented that:

  • This was my first year with this grade and with these students.  I wanted them to think outside of the box so they could relate, empathize, and understand more.
  • The classroom was a junior high 7th grade class consisting of about 45 students.  The student makeup was 60% female and 40% male.  These 7th graders averaged in age to about 12-13 years old.  There were two classes of 7th graders (one class with 22 students and another with 23 students).  These students have Language Arts/Literature two periods per day.
  • Now teaching 4th grade, we will be doing a unit on the Holocaust as we use excerpts from “The Diary of Anne Frank,” short stories, poetry, and reading “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry.
    • The students need to know what occurred in history, because history itself along with the memories cannot be erased.  On the other hand, they can learn from the past and be grateful for that knowledge.

Resources Used by the 7th Graders

  • Website --> Chapman University Holocaust Education (videos, teaching ideas):
    • Some of the websites have been taken down
  • Website --> Museum of Tolerance
  • Allegory --> “Terrible Things” by Even Bunting
  • Poem --> “Butterfly” by Pavel Friedman
  • Images & Video à Miep Gies interview and Otto Frank information http://www.miepgies.nl/en/
  • Novel --> The Diary of Anne Frank
  • Poem --> “Never Shall I Forget” by Elie Wiesel
  • Short Story --> “Suzy & Leah” by Jane Yolen

Major themes

  • Discrimination and prejudice against others:
    • If we do not stand up for what is right, we are taking part of cruel actions.
  • Respect, hope, peace, freedom, determination:
    • Many people turned fear into hope for the future.  Some were in hiding and others thought the evil would end soon
    • People turned to prayer and relied on each other
    • They longed for freedom.
  • Separation, Loneliness and Being Lost:
    • People who were in the concentration camps were pulled away from families and there was no escape.  The people’s freedom vanished and they felt lost, confused, and terroricken.
  • Memories matter:
    • Even with groups of people who are in denial of the Holocaust
    • Memories, facts, and stories keep history real
    • Heroes and survivors inspire us to make a difference and open our eyes to reality.

Specific Strategies

  • Discussed what we knew as a class about the Holocaust:
    • Concept from a KWL Chart (what we know, want to know)
    • Looked at the history and timeline of events.
  • Began discussion by introducing “Terrible Things” by Eve Bunting:
    • Read twice (first time – students listened, second time – students read)
    • Students played different roles
    • We discussed how this allegory represents prejudice, discrimination, and other themes during the Holocaust
    • We used the short story’s imagery as a way to relate with what we knew about the Holocaust (smoke, innocence, blame)
    • Compared the different creatures to historical events.
  • Connected emotions for students if they were sent out of the classroom or school because of religion, gender, eye color, etc.
  • Extension – How can we apply this in our daily lives (at home, school, etc.):
    • Lesson – we cannot look the other way, or it will be too late
    • Read, discussed, and analyzed the poem “Butterfly” by Pavel Friedman
    • The symbol of a butterfly – delicate, transformation, life cycle, freedom
    • Art – Created a butterfly with color to show an “idea” (word, phrase, characteristic) that encompasses Holocaust victims and survivors.
  • Some examples – respect, peace, hope, determination
  • Read The Diary of Anne Frank:
    • Read and group discussion
    • Students apply the content to classroom experience.
  • Empathizing with people in the past as if they were reliving the historical event
  • Used the size of the secret annex during reading:
    • Students saw a video and interview of Otto Frank and Miep Gies
    • “Dear Kitty” video with Miep Gies Interview
    • Otto Frank and Other information – http://www.miepgies.nl/en/
    • Images were shown at the teacher’s discretion as some were too graphic and not given permission
    • The class sometimes questioned why people did not help immediately.
  • Explanation for the United States – people thought it was rumor, technology was very different then
  • Some people did not want to believe it and some people still deny it ever happened
  • Students were in shock, and could not fathom that there are groups of people who disbelieve and deny history
  • Technology - Students went online and used the Chapman University website as a resource:
    • Listened to stories of people sharing their experiences during the time of the Holocaust or concentration camps.
  • Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles:
    • Artifacts and Education experience – full-day field trip.
  • Read poems and shared ideas of how remembering can remind us how to treat one another:
    • “Never Shall I Forget” by Elie Wiesel
  • Read, discuss, compare/contrast:
    • “Suzy & Leah” by Jane Yolen
    • Two different perspectives through diary entries
    • Eyes are opened when we do not make judgments
  • Wrote essay to conclude learning experience:
    • Essays submitted to Chapman University Holocaust Writing Contest
    • Topic – Memories Matter.

Student Feedback

  • 50% of the students were eager to participate in sitting in the Secret Annex.  On the other hand, 10% of the students were disinclined and wary about the Secret Annex; however, they participated without negative commentary.  The other 40% of the class showed an unbiased opinion for being selected as they agreed and participated in the activity.
  • While the students participated in this movement and lack of movement within the Secret Annex, I observed that the students focused more on the Diary of Anne Frank.  Especially as the students read, they showed a desire to continue reading as a class because they told me that the setting with the Secret Annex gave them clarity on what was occurring in the story.  These students discussed that they placed themselves in the characters’ situation.  One student shared that he was “motivated to read,” as he tried to identify the characters in their impediment.
  • Annex – personal experience or the idea of sitting must have been boring
  • Not knowing if or when people would find you must have been scary
  • I would probably go crazy if I had to stay inside all the time
  • Things that happened at the concentration camps make me sick to my stomach:
    • If it was me at a concentration camp, I just hope I would be strong enough like they were…even if they were sent to the chambers, just being there took courage.
  • Museum of Tolerance – students responded that it was depressing, but very interesting
  • The fact that this happened in history makes me angry that people would be so evil.

Additional Resources for Teachers to Teach about the Holocaust

Living in Europe gives many teachers and students opportunities that American students do not have.  Being able to actually visit a concentration camp and witness the evidence is shocking, painful, and that opportunity makes the Holocaust real.  However, with technological advances as well as museums in key parts of the world, students who do not live close to where the Holocaust occurred can still be inspired to learn about the past and be present in current times by learning how to be socially responsible citizens.

Museums around the world such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (http://www.ushmm.org) in Washington, D.C. make the experience of the Holocaust come alive for visitors.  In Los Angeles, teachers can take their students to the Museum of Tolerance (http://www.museumoftolerance.com), a hands-on museum, which focuses on racism and the Holocaust.  Interactive exhibits are available for visitors of all ages and participants are able to explore the past and learn strategies for prevention of bullying and hate crimes.  Each of these two museums offers youth programs as well as resources for professionals on their websites.  There are additional museums throughout the United States which focus on documenting the Holocaust so it will not be forgotten.  A new one in Boston is gaining interest for its delicate approach to preserving Holocaust memories.

Additional Websites for Teachers (Lindquist, 2011)

  • Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies  (http://www.chgs.umn.org). This website includes a visual museum which has extensive educational resources, historical narratives, and a specific focus on art as it relates to the Holocaust.  It is hosted by the University of Minnesota.
  • The Holocaust Chronicle (http://www.Holocaustchronicle.org).  This is a user-friendly yearly chronicle of the Holocaust which has links throughout the manuscript to further research the topics listed.
  • A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust (http://fcit.usf.edu/Holocaust). This website provides primary-source documents for teachers and is hosted by the University of South Florida.
  • Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.  (http://www.yadvashem.org). Historical narratives, suggestions for teachers, and online exhibitions are posted by the Israeli State Holocaust Institution called Yad Vashem.

Suggested Texts

  • Bauer, Y.  (1982).  A history of the Holocaust.
  • Berenbaum, M.  (2005).  The world must know:  The history of the Holocaust as told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2nd ed. 
  • Bergen, D.L.  (2009).  War and genocide:  A concise history of the Holocaust, 2nd ed.
  • Fallace, T.  (2008).  The emergence of Holocaust education in American schools.
  • Gitelman, Z.  (1997).  Bitter legacy:  Confronting the Holocaust in the USSR.
  • Millen, R.  (2007).  Testimony, tensions, and Tikkun:  Teaching the Holocaust in colleges and universities.
  • Shermer, M., Grobman, A., & Hertzberg, A.  (2000).  Denying history:  Who says the Holocaust never happened and why do they say it?


Overall, the Holocaust is an intense historical period in time which must be taught.  Teachers should be prepared for difficulty in teaching the truth of those years, but it is a vital part of education for all students.  Students will face dilemmas in their daily lives that may be better understood after lessons in the Holocaust are completed.  Sydnor (1987) stated it best when asked how he could bear to teach the Holocaust? His immediate response was, “How can we not?”


  • Adams, C., Larson, J., Maskin, M., & Merems, E.  (1985).  Teaching about the Holocaust and genocide, vol. 2.  Albany, NY:  The University of the State of New York.
  • Curtis, M.  (2000).  Lessons for life (film).  Trenton, NJ:  NJN Viewer Services.
  • Karn, A.  (2012).  Toward a philosophy of Holocaust education:  Teaching values without imposing agendas.  The History Teacher, 45(2), 221-240.
  • Lindquist, D.H.  (2011).  Meeting the moral imperative:  A rationale for teaching the Holocaust. The Clearing House, 84(1), 26-30.
  • Lindquist, D.H.  (2011).  Instructional approaches in teaching the Holocaust.  American Secondary Education, 39(3), 117-128.
  • Rossel, S. (1992).  Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust, the World, and the Jews 1933-1945. West Orange, NJ:  Berhman House.
  • Sydnor, Jr., C.W.  (1987).  “How can you bear to teach the Holocaust?” “How can we not?”  Chronicle of Higher Education, 34(3), A52.

1 Pierson, Melinda R., PhD, Professor and Chair, Department of Special Education, California State University, Fullerton; Maresca, Katie, M.S., Teacher, La Purisima Catholic School, Orange, CA.

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