Teach About the Holocaust To Prevent Acts of Hate

Study personal histories, poetry, and movies about the Holocaust so learners can grasp the plight of individuals.

By Donna Iadipaolo


Wrist with numbers tattooed

The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust states that including Soviet civilian deaths, the total Holocaust death toll is close to 17,000,000 people. The Holocaust is an important topic to study, in part, so we can prevent such atrocities. One way to study this period is through literature. Another is to integrate aspects of the Holocaust across the curriculum. I recently interviewed Lindy Bruton, an English teacher who taught a Holocaust literature class for fifteen years at Groves High School in Birmingham, Michigan. Bruton shared many important insights from her experience and teaching. High school is the most suitable age to study the following material, but some of the curriculum could be modified for 8th graders.

Implement a Strong Curriculum

Bruton was able to dedicate an entire semester to Holocaust literature, but she said many of these materials may be integrated to enrich classes that have a broader scope. She offers an extensive list of beneficial resources: Night by Elie Wiesel, Maus by Art Spiegelman, All But My Life by Gerda Klein, The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. In addition to literature, Bruton effectively employed an extensive film list for her class: Schindler’s List, Americans and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference, Anne Frank Remembers, Au Revoir Les Enfants, The Courage to Care, The Long Way Home, and One Survivor Remembers. Ms. Bruton emphasized the importance of integrating the personal narrative aspect into the curriculum in order to offer learners greater historical insight.

She suggests adding Holocaust curriculum to a history or English class. For instance, if you are in including this material in an American history class, "you could focus on what the Americans knew, or when and how they reacted. Young scholars could look at immigration laws and/or explore the first-person narratives of the soldiers that liberated the camps. The American role in bringing the perpetrators to justice could also be explored.”

Emphasize Human Beings over Statistics

Bruton also stressed the importance of remembering those killed as unique individuals rather than just a nameless statistic.

“A literature class is the perfect place to recognize that the Holocaust was an event that happened to individuals, not just six million. Students could look at the various roles people chose or were forced to take on, such as victim, perpetrator, bystander, and rescuer,” according to Bruton. “Spiritual resistance can be found in written works, and can be models for the various writing assignments. All of this can be interdisciplinary when learning history through literature.”

Over the years, Ms. Bruton has found that studying the Holocaust is transformational. It helps students understand where prejudice and hatred can lead, and also encourages tolerance and respect for others. "We say we study the Holocaust so an event like this won’t happen again, but in the face of Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur, it appears that we haven’t learned enough.”

Responsible Reaction

Another possibility in relating the Holocaust to recent events is to have young scholars study contemporary acts of genocide. Learners can explore what it means to not allow prejudice and hatred to continue without taking action“There were choices to be made during the Holocaust,” argued Bruton. “Unfortunately, most chose to be bystanders and allowed this event to happen. I want my students, when they finish this class, to know how not to be a bystander.” After studying the Holocaust, learners should be better equipped to examine their own behavior and choices. Hopefully, they will be able to take a stand against hate, scapegoating and bullying. 

As a whole, reactions from people who have taken Ms. Bruton's class have been positive. “Students still tell me how it changed their life,” she says. “It is a hard class to teach, to force young people to see such pain and hatred, but I believe, and they agree, that it makes them better people.”

Creative Assessment

In terms of the assessment of this material, Bruton believes that this is not a class that should require tests.

“I used journal assignments and projects,” explained Bruton. “Certainly creating a persona of someone who experienced the Holocaust can be a great creative writing assignment....... Again, the important aspect here is to walk away from numbers (statistics) and look at individuals.”

Students can also research, reflect, and respond to the following quote from Martin Niemöller:

"In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."

More Lesson Plans That Teach About the Holocaust:

The History of the Holocaust from A Personal Perspective

Young scholars research and identify how Holocaust events affected lives of real people who lived in Europe from 1933 to 1945. Learners create original artwork, poetry, and essays that reflect an understanding of the Holocaust, its causes, and effects.

Remembering the Holocaust

Learners examine the Holocaust by using primary-source documents. They focus on a person who immigrated to Wisconsin after surviving the Holocaust.

Diaries and Memoirs

Young scholars analyze how personal diaries and memoirs record actual events. They compare and contrast diaries and memoirs from the Holocaust. In addition, they engage in journal or diary writing as a way to explore feelings.

The Holocaust from Beginning to End

High schoolers explore the events that occurred before, during, and after the Holocaust. They create a time line showing how those events are connected. 

Conversations with The Past

Learners consider what they already know about the Holocaust and reflect on the sixtieth commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz by reading and responding to testimonials of victims. They create artwork to honor those who experienced the Holocaust.