Lesson Plan: The History of the Holocaust From A Personal Perspective

George Cassutto

North Hagerstown High School, Washington County, MD

Grades 8-12

Subject: Social Science, History, Government, Language Arts.


This lesson is intended to supplement any teacher's implementation of the standard Holocaust Education curriculum. It involves the integration of basic historical research, oral history, creative writing, and analysis of primary and secondary documentation.


The purpose of this lesson is to help students identify how the events of the Holocaust affected the lives of real people who lived in Europe during the period 1933 through 1945 and after. Based on the experiences of the parents of the teacher writing this lesson, the following activities are designed to help students relate experiences of individuals they will read about to basic facts and concepts on the Holocaust. They will conduct research into the events of the Holocaust and World War Two, and they will be led to relate those experiences to political and social trends taking place in today's society. The ultimate purpose of the lesson is to increase understanding between members of ethnic and religious groups, to enumerate the causes and consequences of racial prejudice, and to improve chances for students to practice acceptance and tolerance when encountering individuals who might differ from themselves.


Students will be able to:

1) Identify key events and concepts relating to the rise of fascism in Germany, the causes and course of World War Two, and the Holocaust.

2) Determine how the politics of the mid-twentieth century translated into racial politics and ideology.

3) Create original artwork, poetry, prose, and essays that reflect an understanding of the Holocaust, its causes, and its effects.

4) Recognize and develop the idea that the Holocaust is not just a major event in twentieth century world history, but that it is also an event in the lives of individual human beings, having a ripple effect on subsequent generations as well.

5) Relate the experiences of individuals who lived through the Holocaust to situations and dilemmas that young people might face in today's society.

Using The Activities:

The following activities are most effective after students have received some basic instruction regarding the Holocaust and World War Two. Many of these activities can be completed in the form of cooperative team efforts, as full class discussions, or they can be done individually. The teacher can choose to execute one or all of the activities depending on the level of the students and the time allotted for study.

Introducing the lesson:

In order to provide some background on these topics, have students define and discuss these following terms and questions. Direct this question to the student: Ask yourself: "What do I know about the Holocaust?" Have the students make a list of words or phrases that they think are related to the Holocaust. Instruct them to attempt a definition for each term on their list either verbally or in writing. Then have compare their list and definitions with each other. This activity can also be done in cooperative groups of two, three, or four.

The students' list may contain the following terms:

1. Holocaust
2. Anti-Semitism
3. Pogrom
4. Police State
5. Final Solution
6. Concentration camp
7. Extermination camp
8. Genocide
9. Nazi Party
10. Adolph Hitler
11. Auschwitz
12. Eugenics
13. Euthanasia
14. Resistance
15. Liberation

Many of these terms can be found on-line at the Holocaust Glossary of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's web site at http://www.wiesenthal.com/resource/gloss.htm.


Have the students develop their own vocabulary list based on what they know or want to know. It may include general ideas, or it may include specific people, places, and ideas from the Holocaust period. Another alternative is to generate a list of terms, each of which is associated or connected with each other. In class, discuss why students placed those terms in the groups that they did. Example: Jew: religion, race, people, star, Israel.

Direct this question to the students: Ask yourself: "what do I WANT to know about the Holocaust?"

Have the students make a list of questions they would like to have answered while studying the Holocaust. Allow them to compare their list with others in the class. Find out if their lists include these "frequently asked questions" about the Holocaust?

Why did Hitler and the Nazi Party hate the Jews?
Were other people killed along side the Jewish people of Europe?
How did the Nazis identify people who were Jewish?
How did they get the Jews of other countries to go to the concentration camps?
How did the Nazi Party convince the German people to hate and eventually allow the killing of 6,000,000 Jewish people and 5,000,000 non-Jewish people?
How does a concentration camp differ from an extermination camp?
What was it like to be removed from ones home and sent to these camps?
What did the German people know about what was happening in the camps?
How did Jewish people and anti-Nazi European citizens fight back?
What effect did the events of the Holocaust have on those who survived the camps?
What conditions existed that allowed people to inflict such cruelty?
What motivated survivors to live from one day to the next? What "coping skills" did they use?
How were children treated in the camps?
How were the lives of the children of survivors changes by their parents' experiences?

Many of these questions are discussed and answered at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance web site at http://www.wiesenthal.com/resource/36qlist1.htm. Students can research one or more questions and present their answers to the class.

Students should conduct research in the library, on the Internet and using the Encarta CD-ROM to answer the questions listed above. Students may want to choose one or more question to research, or the teacher may want to assign one or more questions to a cooperative group for research and presentation to the class. One excellent resource for understanding the rise of Adolph Hitler can be found at http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/riseofhitler/index.htm. General information on the causes and course of the Holocaust can be found in Encarta and on the World Wide Web. One primary location for a concise overview is located at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's web site at http://www.ushmm.org/misc-bin/add_goback/education/history.html.

Personal Perspectives On The Holocaust: Class Activities, Discussion Questions and Writing Prompts

Have students read and discuss the story of Ernest and Elisabeth Cassutto, two Dutch survivors of the Holocaust. Their stories can be found at http://www.cyberlearning-world.com/memorial/dadmom.htm.The teacher can have the students read the story on-line, or the web pages can be printed and distributed to the students. After the students have read this story, use the following discussion questions in class as other writing prompts or as the basis for discussion on what it was like to live through the Holocaust.

Ernest H. Cassutto: The Last Jew of Rotterdam (http://www.cyberlearning-world.com/memorial/dad.htm):

Discussion Questions:

1) Ernest fell in love at the time that German forces had occupied Poland, marking the start of World War Two. Why was this time period a difficult time to fall in love? What would be the challenges of such a relationship during that type of international atmosphere? What might be the benefits of such a relationship?

2) Ernest watched German forces take over his small nation, which surrendered after five days of fighting. In the United States, it is almost impossible to imagine another nation's troops controlling American cities, farms, buildings, and people. Discuss what kinds of feelings the people of occupied Europe might have felt during the period of German military victory, during the deportation of the populations of those nations, and regarding their feeling toward Germany and Hitler.

3) What events in recent world history can be seen as similar to Germany's military aggression before and during World War Two? Is there any evidence in the print and electronic media that sheds light on how the peoples of those nations felt as their country fell under occupation? What steps did they take to liberate their nation? What should the policy of the United States be in these types of international crises?

Activity: Keeping A Holocaust Journal

Have students write a week-long journal (seven one-day entries) describing the German occupation of a European nation of their choosing. Have them create a fictional character, but the journal should be based on historical events relating to one nation's surrender to Germany and subsequent atrocities committed against the people. Dates and events should be accurate, but the focus should be on the possible feelings and emotions the population of occupied Europe may have experienced.

For an example of a diary entry, have students review Anne Frank's entries at http://www.annefrank.com/anne/diary/entry1.html

Discussion/writing prompt: The Forgotten Holocaust

According to Ernest's account of his arrest and imprisonment,

The prison also housed criminals, those who had been deemed anti-social by the Nazis, homosexuals, pacifists, and communists, all bound for the firing squad or deportation to slave labor or extermination camps in Germany and Poland.
Why do you think the Nazi Party established genocidal policies towards these other groups along with their attempt to exterminate Europe's Jews?

(The following section may contain material too graphic for some viewers. Discretion is advised and may depend on the maturity and community standards of the readers).

To investigate Nazi persecution of homosexuals, have students visit the web site entitled "The history of Nazi persecution of gay men and lesbians" at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/user/scotts/bulgarians/pink.html

Activity: Using Popular Music To Understand Discrimination

Play the song by the rock group Rush entitled "Nobody's Hero" (found on their CD entitled Counterparts). The lyrics can be found at the web site http://syrinx.yyz.com/RUSH/18.cp.html#nobodys.

Using the song's lyrics, discuss how individuals can be made second class citizens in society due to differences in lifestyle.


Discussion/writing prompt: The Quotation of Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984):

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.

Niemoeller quotation located on the World Wide Web: http://www.iowa-city.k12.ia.us/District/SharedDecision/SpeakUp.html

Have students answer the question orally or in writing: According to Niemoeller, why do you think it is important to speak up when injustice is being done? What are the risks of speaking up? What are the benefits?

Discussion Questions:

Should groups that are unpopular or seen as immoral be protected by the American Constitution? At what point should a certain group not receive constitutional protection? Should hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party receive protection to exist and speak out under the First Amendment? Support your answer with examples from history and from court cases that have commented on these topics.

List some groups in our national or global society today that have suffered or are suffering injustice at the hands of authority. Outline steps that you believe should be taken to correct the injustice you describe.

Ernest spend much of the war in hiding or in the care of the Dutch resistance. Visit the following web site, A Forgotten Chapter: Holland Under the Third Reich at http://www-lib.usc.edu/~anthonya/war/main.htm, to learn what it was like to live in the Netherlands during Nazi occupation and how the Dutch mounted resistance against their Nazi occupiers.

Have students answer the question orally or in writing: Imagine that you had been a non-Jewish Dutch citizen during the occupation period. What plan could you have developed to protect you and your family from the Nazis during the occupation? How might you have protected your Jewish neighbors?

Activity: You Are the Playwright

Write a short play or dialogue that illustrates any of the situations Ernest experienced during the war years. Include characters in his life such as his fiancee, Hetty, his parents (Isaac and Caroline), and his older brother Max and his younger brother George. You can create your own fictional versions of other actual characters such as the Dutch policeman who helped him escape and the Nazi captors at the Rotterdam prison. Act out your dramatic skit in front of the class. Discuss the historical and dramatic elements of your play when completed. The drama activity can also be implemented for the story of Elisabeth Rodrigues, which follows below.

Elisabeth Rodrigues Cassutto: Anne Frank With a Happy Ending (http://www.cyberlearning-world.com/memorial/mom.htm):

Have the students read the story of Elly Rodrigues either on the World Wide Web or by printing the web pages and reproducing them for the students.

You will want to review the key ideas contained in the story of Anne Frank as they are described in her diary. If a careful reading of the diary is not possible, have students view web pages (listed below), movies, or documentaries that describe her experiences. Information on a documentary on Anne Frank for middle school students can be found at http://www.ushmm.org/misc-bin/add_goback/education/anne.html.

Activity: Comparing Experiences

Have students create a chart comparing the experiences of Elly with those of Anne Frank. The chart may include but need not be limited to the following elements:

  • Factors that led up to the decision to go into hiding.
  • Place of hiding: Circumstances, conditions, activities.
  • Keeping in touch with the outside world: How was it done?.
  • The Rescuers: Who hid Jews and why?
  • Staying sane: what coping mechanisms did the hidden children use?
  • Outcome: what was the result on the family by the end of the war?
The best site on the Internet to study Anne's experiences may be Anne Frank On-Line. The Anne Frank story begins at http://www.annefrank.com/anne/anne.html.

Activity: Art And the Holocaust

Visit and review the web site entitled "A Student's Forum for Studying the Holocaust" at http://www.remember.org/imagine/index.html. This web site contains numerous examples of student visual art and poetry that illustrates the feeling of young people who have studied the Holocaust. After reading the stories of Ernest Cassutto, Elisabeth Rodrigues Cassutto and Anne Frank, create your own artistic expression of some topic relating to the Holocaust. Your artwork might want to capture some aspect of living through the Holocaust such as living in an occupied land, living in a hiding place, deportation to the camps, loss of family members, or being reunited with them. It should be noted that it may be impossible for us to understand fully what being a survivor of the Holocaust was like because we were not physically present when these events took place. But we can can develop appropriate and special ways to express our emotions as we learn about the experiences of others. Allow the students to have the chance to tell the world what they have learned about humanity, in both positive and negative terms, through the exploration of this dark period in human history.

Activity: Using Poetry To Understand The Holocaust

For another look at a poetic expression of Holocaust-related ideas, print and discuss the following poems:

Poem by George Cassutto: To The Fuhrer
 Poem: For My Parents: May 10, 1940

A list of children who were victims of the Holocaust can be found at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's web site at http://www.wiesenthal.com/children/prvchild.htm. Students can review these biographies and share their contents with the class. Have students identify common elements with each other and with the Cassutto and Anne Frank stories.

Have students research the life of the Nobel Prize winning writer Elie Wiesel. Using passages from his book Night, compare the descriptions of the camps with the elements of the first poem.

More information on Elie Wiesel can be found at:

Biographical Information: http://www.almaz.com/nobel/peace/1986a.html
Wiesel's Nobel prize acceptance speech: http://home.sn.no/~solhanse/wiesel.htm

Other Individuals To learn About and Discuss Relating to the Holocaust:

Oskar Schindler: The Teaching Guide for the Movie Schindler's List http://www.tulane.edu/~so-inst/slguide.html

Raoul Wallenberg: http://www.algonet.se/~hatikva/wallenberg/

Activity: Using Popular Music To Understand The Holocaust

Play the song entitled This Train Revised by The Indigo Girls (found on their CD Swamp Ophelia). Lyrics can be located at the web site http://www.hidwater.com/lifeblood/lyrics/train.html.

Have the students compare the experiences described in the song with those found elsewhere in these activities. Identify historical and symbolic elements in the song's lyrics. Have the students discuss the title of the song.

Activity: The Holocaust As Oral History

If the teacher or student knows a Holocaust survivor who is willing to discuss their experiences, invite the individual to class to share their perspective on the Holocaust. The teacher should prepare the students well before the presentation, and the presenter should be made aware of the educational level of the student audience. Students can also conduct oral history interviews by way of tape recorder and play these for the class. Additionally, students can locate survivors who have shared their stories on the Internet and request an e-mail interview. Students would then report their findings to the class as the basis for class discussion.

Note: Publishing Student Work On The Internet

If a teacher or school has electronic publishing capabilities, teachers may want to consider having their students who produce artwork, poetry, prose or fiction on the Holocaust place their work on the Internet for all to learn from. Teachers will need to have an Internet account that allows for web documents to be placed on a web-based server. Digitizing student artwork requires a scanner or digital camera, and designing web pages may take some knowledge of how web documents are designed. To learn more about this process, visit the author's guide to school web design at Setting Up A Web Site For Your School: An On-line Presentation.

Materials Needed

Access to the Internet, preferably through a graphical account that allows for the use of a graphical browser such as Internet Explorer 3.0 or later. The Encarta CD ROM.

Suggested Resources For Teaching The Holocaust:

Ansen, David. "Spielberg's Obsession." Newsweek, Dec. 20, 1993

Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Boston: Little, Brown and Company., 1993

Gilbert, Martin. Atlas of the Holocaust. New York: Pergamon Press., 1988

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: And Here My Troubles Began. New York: Random House Inc., 1991

Spiegelman, Art. Maus: My Father Bleeds History. New York: Random House Inc., 1986

Ten Boom, Corrie. The Hiding Place. New York: Chosen Books, 1974

Willis, Aaron. Teaching Holocaust Studies with the Internet. Lancaster: Classroom Connect, 1997

For additional relevant information, visit the following Web sites:

Anne Frank Online: http://www.annefrank.com/




The Holocaust: Understanding and Prevention: http://haven.ios.com/~kimel19/

Yad Vashem: The Israeli Monument To the Victims: http://yad-vashem.org.il/

Paintings by Children On the Holocaust http://www.remember.org/imagine/index.html

Children and the Holocaust: http://www.ushmm.org/misc-bin/add_goback/education/children.html

Holocaust Curriculum: http://remember.org/hist.root.holo.html

Assessment and rationale:

Students can demonstrate what they have learned in a number of ways. Tests that use recall (short answer) or recognition (multiple choice) can be used to assess whether students have mastered the factual information on these topics. Short quizzes of this sort may be excellent tools to determine if students have grasped historical context and activities within the lives of such individuals as Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, or Ernest and Elisabeth Cassutto. To ascertain whether or not students have achieved a higher level of thinking (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation), the teacher must lead the students to create a new product from the data they have gathered. This new creation can take the form of a new perspective in class discussion, a written essay or piece of poetry or drama, or it can take the form of a physical product such as a scale model or a sculpture. Students working in cooperative groups might also want to evaluate each other in terms of group cohesion and teamwork skills.

The Holocaust is a difficult topic to teach, and it can be a life-altering experience when learning the material for the first time. These activities may have a profound effect on a young person's life and on their world view. By helping students to recognize that the factors that led to the Holocaust are at work within our own society and within the relationships we conduct on a daily basis, we help students learn how to make positive decisions that prevent such prejudices from surfacing. This goal is the prime directive of Holocaust education as a methodology.

Encarta CD-ROM Encyclopedia contains articles on the following topics:

The Holocaust, World War II, Jews, Germany, Adolph Hitler, National Socialism (Nazism), Concentration Camp, Anti-Semitism, Anne Frank, Martin Niemoller.

The Music Central CD-ROM and Music Central On-line (http://musiccentral.msn.com/Default/Home) both contain information on Rush and the Indigo Girls.

The pedagogical basis of this lesson:

The following web addresses contain standards and benchmarks for world history that relate to the contents of this lesson:

On the impact of World War II on civilian populations of Europe: http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/benchmarks/world/37.3.4.html

On the influence of Nazism on Jewish culture: http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/benchmarks/world/37.3.5.html

On the rise of Nazism: http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/benchmarks/world/37.4.1.html

On the Holocaust and its impact on Jewish society: http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/benchmarks/world/37.4.6.html

Teachers: Visit our sponsor for Social Studies materials:
Visit socialstudies.com

George Cassutto's Cyberlearning World: http://www.cyberlearning-world.com

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