Honoring Holocaust Remembrance Week

Examining a difficult history through contextual foundations, personal stories, and Dr. Seuss.

By Mollie Moore

Anne Frank postage stamp

Ask any teenager why they ought to study history and you’ll likely hear the well-versed, yet veritable response, “So we don’t repeat past mistakes.” Here’s a magnificent chance to add authenticity and critical analysis to this central ambition as you approach Holocaust Remembrance Week. Themed this year by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as Never Again: Heeding the Warning Signs, the week spans April 7-14, with April 8 recognized as Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Three Helpful Tools

So, how do you approach this weighty event in an age-appropriate, meaningful, and informative way? First of all, I believe that the details of the Holocaust should be reserved for the upper grades. However, it is certainly valuable to prepare kindergarten through third-grade learners by setting a foundation of human behavior. Piaget suggests that they will have trouble understanding events like this within a larger historical timeline, but can benefit from approaching it ideologically. Nevertheless, most of the curriculum ideas here are for middle and high school classes.

I first encountered the challenge of how to convey the crucial aspects of the Holocaust with my students when I was teaching tenth grade world history. I was overwhelmed by endless resources, pedagogies, and egg-shell-laden unit plans; not to mention a deep sense of social responsibility at broaching the Holocaust with kids. Whether you can relate to my dilemma, or have a well-oiled strategy for Holocaust Remembrance Week, I would love to share with you three essential tools that have proven successful in my classroom: historical context, primary sources, and Dr. Seuss.

Building a Context: The Versailles Treaty and Yertle the Turtle

It’s important that scholars understand the Holocaust didn’t just happen accidentally; it was the result of a series of actions (and appeasements) that had numerous warning signs. Because the aftermath of WWI and the Versailles Treaty are huge parts of this context, I hold a mock Paris Peace Conference with groups representing Italy, the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and Germany. I clarify that although Germany wasn’t present during negotiations, it’s interesting to hear their point of view. Plus, the group that gets Germany always has fun with it. Countries participate in negotiations and vote on the German punishment. The results are compared to the historical treaty and used to better understand the German humiliation and subsequent nationalism, as well as the West’s appeasement strategies.

Believe it or not, Dr. Seuss spans grades K-12 when it comes to providing context to the Holocaust. For middle and high school historians, read Yertle the Turtle before discussing the rise of dictators and fascism. Ask them to make predictions about how the story relates to the unit. Why don’t the turtles stand up to Yertle? For younger elementary learners, build a foundational context by reading Dr. Seuss’ The Sneeches and discussing diversity and prejudice. Find free videos of both books being read online if you don’t have them.

Tell the Story: "This I Believe" 

In whatever way you can, capture the essence of this event through stories and artifacts. It not only engages young historians, but also helps protect them from subjectivity and inaccurate conclusions.

Consider these options:

  • Your learners may be among the last generation to have an opportunity to listen to a live Holocaust survivor. The Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Division of Survivor Affairs can guide your school in booking a speaker. You also might consider visiting a Holocaust museum near your town. Many of these museums have grade-appropriate programs and speakers. Contact the education department prior to visiting in order to ensure it will be appropriate for your class.
  • Eliezer Wiesel was one of the first survivors to put his story into a published autobiography. In his novel Night, he wrote a brief, haunting account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Consider reading this with older scholars, or exploring Wiesel’s NPR essay and podcast, “A God Who Remembers,” part of the station’s “This I Believe” series. At the end of this unit, offer your scholars a chance to write their own “This I Believe” essay, which they can choose to submit on the NPR website.
  • Once again, Dr. Seuss offers excellent primary sources for a study of the Holocaust and its surrounding context. His series of political cartoons offer a poignant parody of the times and are great discussion-starters for older learners. Use these in a station rotation with comprehension questions accompanying each before discussing meanings in small groups. See if your library has his anthology of almost 200 WWII-related cartoons, Dr. Seuss Goes to War.
  • If your class is ready, they can participate in a Names Reading Ceremony this week, or organize one of their own. Find a list of names and guidelines on the Holocaust Memorial Museum site. Learners can even participate virtually on Facebook or Twitter.

Time-Sensitive Activity

You can receive a free curriculum planning guide and CD/DVD set from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum! Simply take a minute to fill out this online form and the museum will mail you the resources free of charge. Order as soon as possible, as delivery can take up to three weeks. 

A Final Note

It can be tempting to simulate the Holocaust experience with scholars, and I would side with currently accepted best practices and suggest refraining. Not only can this escalate emotionally, but it gives your learners a one-dimensional sense that they understand what survivors went through. Check out the Holocaust Memorial Museum website for multi-media resources, modern genocide studies, and fantastic primary sources. Here are some resources to get you started:

Dr. Seuss and Universal Themes

View Dr. Seuss' works through a political lens with young historians. They investigate themes and morals, recalling those they remember from the Dr. Seuss books they read as young children. Then, analysts watch excerpts from The Political Dr. Seuss and discuss some of the surprising themes they may not have noticed years ago. Excerpts include Yertle the Turtle and The Sneetches, among others.

Using Primary Sources to Study the Holocaust

Pastor Martin Niemoller's famous poem, "First They Came..." will inspire discussion as scholars begin examining primary source documents and images from the Holocaust. Find artifacts online and set up research stations; learners can record findings on the linked worksheets.

Treaty of Versailles Simulation

One of many versions of this activity, this simulation has six groups represent countries involved in the Paris Peace Conference conduct an organized debate. A handout gives brief overviews of each party's motivations, but groups conduct outside research as well. Consider concluding the activity by comparing the actual treaty to your pupils' results.

Recognizing How We Are Alike

To introduce young pupils to concepts such as diversity and prejudice, have them sort themselves into groups based on attributes such as hair color or favorite pet. Does this make one group better than the other? They listen to The Sneeches and come up with a list of physical differences, drawing a picture of two children playing together who look very different.