How do we teach about the horrors of war? Why should we continue to pass on this historical knowledge? We could answer that it is simply out of a duty to remember. However, teaching about sensitive subjects, when grounded in facts and in-depth analysis, can allow us to go well beyond simply remembering by cultivating students’ critical thinking skills.
Having the right tools and resources at hand before you begin is essential. This article was designed specifically to assist you with teaching the history of the Holocaust to students from elementary to high school.
Why teach the history of the Holocaust?
Let’s begin by defining what the Holocaust is:
The Holocaust is the systematic persecution and killing of 6 million Jews, organized by the Nazi state and its allies from 1933 to 1945. In addition to the genocide of the Jewish people, the Nazis are also responsible for the Roma and Sinti genocide.
They also persecuted other groups, including:
- Handicapped people (T4 program)
- Political opponents
It is important to teach the history of the Holocaust for the following reasons:
1. Teaching about the Holocaust allows us to understand the impact of history on our society
- The Holocaust was a defining event in the history of humanity that shook the foundations of Western civilization and transformed international politics and justice.
- The study of the Holocaust helps us to understand key concepts such as democracy, dictatorship, propaganda, collaboration, resistance, intervention, and genocide.
- The Holocaust impacted Canada in a variety of ways. By studying the Holocaust with a focus on the peripheral role played by the Canadian government and some of its citizens, we can learn more about Canadian and Quebec society, as well as Canada’s Jewish communities.
You can learn more about the role of Canada during the Holocaust by consulting our History of the Holocaust timeline poster, the Exploring the Evidence – Holocaust, Cambodian Genocide, and Canadian Intervention pedagogical activity or A Brief History of Antisemitism in Canada reference guide.
2. Teaching about the Holocaust helps us to understand the impact of history on human beings
- Analyzing the accounts of Jewish men and women’s experiences brings a human dimension to the study of the Holocaust and helps us find the right balance between critical analysis and empathy with the victims. These personal accounts allow us to see events from the victims’ point of view, and where relevant, to understand how they resisted spiritually and physically.
Find survivors’ testimonies on our Survivors’ Stories page, Holocaust Life Stories and Building New Lives virtual exhibitions and Teaching about the Holocaust Using Recorded Survivor Testimony pedagogical activity.
3. Teaching about the Holocaust allows us to study the impact individuals can have on history
- Studying the behavior of individuals during the Holocaust and situating them in a historical context allows us to highlight what power citizens had at that particular time. It can also lead us to consider what power citizens have today.
- A comprehensive study of the Holocaust must also include the initiatives undertaken by some citizens to stop or mitigate the atrocities committed against the Jewish people. No matter how marginal the clandestine rescue efforts and underground support systems were, they remain a part of the history of the Holocaust. Analyzing examples of resistance or interventions that saved lives contributes to a better understanding of the power of individual citizens.
- Studying the Holocaust also gives us the opportunity to reflect on the fragility of democracy, the importance of our participation as citizens and the necessity of holding people in power to account.
- Studying the Holocaust contributes to civics and human rights education. It invites us to reflect on fundamental themes of life in society and the negative impacts of common realities such as racism, discrimination and hatred.
- The historical study of the Holocaust and Nazism teaches us that genocide occurs in phases and that it is possible to identify them in advance, in order to prevent future genocides. Doing so successfully requires the engagement of all levels of society, from the international community to governments and citizens.
How do we approach the subject?
Although it is essential to learn about the Holocaust, it can be difficult to explain. How do humans come to hate an individual or a group enough to want to completely annihilate them? How could humanity have let such an event take place?
We must avoid seeing the Holocaust as a single event but rather as several individual and combined elements which led to the genocide of Jewish people during the Second World War. Each of these elements must be analyzed objectively in order to understand the magnitude of the crimes, the impact of political decisions and the behaviour of the perpetrators.
Genocide, ethnic cleansing and even terrorist acts are sensitive subjects which may trigger strong emotions and reactions. Therefore, it is critical to have a solid understanding of historical facts in order to avoid subjectivity.
Our interactive maps and timelines can help you provide a context and historical background for the events of the Holocaust.
Avoid making generalizations and remember that not all Germans were Nazis and not all genocides are identical. Encourage your students to make the distinction between various historical events of a similar nature and to properly contextualize each of them. Maintain complexity in your explanations and answers. Although time constraints will limit how many facets of the subject you can explore, encourage your students to properly analyze the events. This will allow them to study the historical context and circumstances without falling back on simple black-and- white answers.
Do not tell this story exclusively with numbers
In the same way that it’s important to avoid generalizations, it’s also key to avoid overusing statistics. If we focus strictly on numbers, we miss what is truly important: the human beings. It is far easier to empathize with an individual human being’s story that we can relate to, rather than with estimated numbers in the millions.
Students need to see the individuals behind the Holocaust. Who were the people that were persecuted? Who were the persecutors? What were their names, their stories and their motivations? By using documents from valid sources, students will be able to find the answers to these questions. In fact, we strongly encourage teachers to use survivors’ testimonies and letters in the classroom.
However, it is important to avoid dehumanizing the perpetrators. While we should never diminish the magnitude of the facts, it’s advisable to avoid demonization. All Nazis were not psychopaths. It is your duty to teach the history of the Holocaust in all of its complexity by providing the background on factors (political and economic context, racism, historical antisemitism, etc.) that led to its occurrence.
Take the time to survey your class
Before getting started, ask open-ended questions in order to evaluate your students’ understanding of the subject matter. What is genocide? What is antisemitism? Even though your students may not have all the answers, it is important to know the extent of their knowledge before you begin. You will then be better equipped to establish learning goals for the class and tailor the information you are presenting to their specific needs.
Be aware of young peoples’ sensitivity to this material
Learning the history of the Holocaust may be traumatic for certain students. The images and the audio and video testimonies can have a strong emotional impact on them. Focus on stories of life before the war, resistance and liberation. Dive into these areas in detail, without falling prey to romanticism.
Avoid excessive sharing of images of concentration camps at the time of liberation, death squads (Einsatzgruppen) and any other images that might traumatize students The main objective is to increase their awareness in a positive way.
You can use the Heart from Auschwitz pedagogical activity or analyse the “Resistance” artefacts in our Objects of Interest page (using the Interpreting an Artefact analysis sheet) to discuss the themes of resistance and solidarity during the Holocaust.
This heart-shaped booklet is a birthday card given to Fania Fainer on December 12, 1944, when she turned 20-years-old in Auschwitz. © Montreal Holocaust Museum
This letter reveals the secret exchanges between Charles Kotkowski and a resistance group in the Warsaw ghetto. © Montreal Holocaust Museum
Book of recipes made out of pieces of paper retrieved from the factory where Edith Gluck worked. The booklet is bound together by a thread, also found in the factory. Edith hid this booklet, which contains about 200 recipes, which she collected, while imprisoned in the Lippstadt camp in Germany. (Photo: Peter Berra)
Finally, it goes without saying that the subject matter of the Holocaust is difficult and even painful. However, you are not alone in your initiative to teach the history of the Holocaust. We have a database of resources and materials that can be very helpful for your class. As mentioned above, it is of the utmost importance that you focus on the people involved in the history of the Holocaust. It is through their accounts and personal stories that your students will develop compassion and empathy, as well as a better understanding of the society in which they live.
To read more about how to teach about the history of the Holocaust, consult the following articles:
- 5 recommendations for teaching the Holocaust to grade school students
- 11 recommendations for teaching the Holocaust to students ages 11 to 17