Teaching the Holocaust

    The mission of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center (SBHEC) is to provide RI schools with historically accurate, high quality resources and information. 

    In addition to textual resources and films, the SBHEC’s most important source is witness testimony. While there are still survivors who are willing and able to travel to schools to share their experiences with Rhode Island’s school children, the SBHEC also has an extensive video/DVD catalogue of witness testimony. SBHEC encourages educators to explore the web site. All of the materials are here for you to use. We also encourage you to contact us with any questions you may have, and to invite us into your classrooms.

    This Resource Page provides information to help educators enhance their instruction with this difficult but necessary subject. Resources for instruction include our archival materials. In addition to these resources, we offer lesson plans written by some of the top Holocaust educators in the state.

    Why Teach the Holocaust?

    Teachers who are new to teaching about the Holocaust, and even veteran teachers, may be asked, “Why teach about the Holocaust?”  Sometimes that answer may be easy. “So it never happens again!” However, sometimes it may be a difficult question to answer.

    According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), “Students in grades six and above demonstrate the ability to empathize with individual eyewitness accounts and to attempt to understand the complexities of Holocaust history, including the scope and scale of the events. While elementary age students are able to empathize with individual accounts, they often have difficulty placing them in a larger historical context.

    Such developmental differences have traditionally shaped social studies curricula throughout the country. In most states, students are not introduced to European history and geography—the context of the Holocaust—before middle school. Elementary school can be an ideal place to begin discussing the value of diversity and the danger of bias and prejudice. These critical themes can be addressed through local and national historical events and can be reinforced during later study of the Holocaust.”

    How to teach the Holocaust

    When teaching genocide studies, educators need to keep one thing top of mind: bring your students safely in and safely out. Bringing your students safely in is most easily accomplished with an activity that addresses the Holocaust with a wide lens. Consider a video or Ted Talk (feel free to peruse our Instructor Resources) to provide context.

    This subject matter can be disturbing or traumatic for some students. When bringing your students safely out, it’s important to remind them of humanity’s triumph during dark times. We like to show films about rescuers (such as Nicholas Winton, who rescued over 600 Czech Jewish children), or read stories of loving reunions.

    You can always take your studies one step further by collaborating with other educators in your school and integrating art, music and other disciplines into your unit. In fact, the SBHEC offers an arts education program.

    The celebration of life, the happiness of finding a loved one, the resilience of humanity, and our own connection to such joy will help students to appreciate their own lives and to understand that they play a significant role in a future world absent of genocide, hate, bigotry, and intolerance. They can explore further contemporary applications of what they’ve learned by exploring the Genocide Education Project.

    Rhode Island’s History of Holocaust Education

    In the summer of 2016, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo signed a bill approved by the legislature to require Holocaust and Genocide education in Rhode Island’s secondary schools, both public and private, commencing with the school year September 2017.

    According to the legislation, “Given the importance of the issue of genocide to the political affairs of the United States, as well as the responsibility of the state to educate its citizens, it is a fundamental responsibility of the state of Rhode Island to ensure that the critical subject of genocide is included as part of the curriculum in all public school.” Furthermore: “It is the judgment of the Rhode Island general assembly that the board of education in the state shall include instruction on the subjects of holocaust and and genocide studies where appropriate in the curriculum, for all middle and high schools students.”

    Rhode Island Gov. Raimondo signing Holocaust and genocide education into law.
    Rhode Island Gov. Raimondo signing Holocaust and Genocide Education into law.

    Middle School Curriculum Ideas

    Traditionally, middle school students are introduced to the Holocaust when they read The Diary of Anne Frank. While some teachers may have their students read this book in isolation, simply for its literary value, they should consider also introducing some level of historical and cultural context to their teaching of Anne Frank in relation to the Holocaust.  For instance,

    • Using the USC Shoah Foundation web teaching tool, IWitness, and having students explore the meaning of anti-Semitism and how the Nazis were able to carry out their reign of terror using the IWitness Activity “A Thing of the Past? Anti-Semitism Past and Present.”
    • Accessing IWitness further, teach about how the role of Jewish cultural activities gave meaning to people in the camps and ghettos, and also gave them the hope and strength to survive. This activity is entitled “Cultural Acts as Resilience During the Holocaust.”
    • Anne Frank is considered a child in hiding. There were many other children who wrote about their own unique experiences during this time–children in the ghettos and even children on the run.  In her book, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, Alexandra Zapruder provides us with a collection of these voices that step right off the page and into our lives, as these children share their immediate experiences of their day to day existence during this harrowing time.
    • Read the poetry and examine the art of children in the Terezin (Teresienstadt) Concentration Camp by reading I Never Saw Another Butterfly, as well as a companion text Fireflies in the Dark, by Susan Goldman Rubin, which is the backstory of how I Never Saw Another Butterfly was created. Have your students write their own poetry, exploring their own feelings as they study the Holocaust, and read the words of these children.
    • Use film as a mean of teaching. There are a few good films that are not overly violent, and help children to understand the fear, pain and suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust.  The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is one such film.  Not only does this film discuss the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, it also allows students to see that there were people who were not willing to be bystanders, and became rescuers of the Jews.  Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker, saved hundreds of children from being deported from the ghetto, and being killed.

    These are just a few ideas we can offer to educators.  There are so many ways you can build your own curriculum or unit based on the extensive resources available to you on our web site, as well as the web sites we recommend that you access.

    Click Here to Download More Instructor Resources

    High School Curriculum Ideas

    Traditionally, high school students revisit studies in the Holocaust, either during 9th or 10th grade, when they read Elie Wiesel’s Night. If they read about Anne Frank in middle school, they may have studied some aspect of the Holocaust.  However, if they did not, it behooves teachers to provide the same cultural and historical context for students before, during and after reading Night.  Some suggestions are similar to those teaching The Diary of Anne Frank. In addition, teachers should consider:

    • Accessing IWitness to teach about Auschwitz as a pre-reading activity using the activities “Arrival at Auschwitz-Images and Individual Experiences” and “Auschwitz-Inner Strength, Outward Resistance.” These activities will provide students with a historical context, as well as allow them to visualize Elie Wiesel’s experience in the camps.
    • Broaden your students’ understanding of the Holocaust by using film as a teaching tool in your classroom. There are a number of excellent documentaries that will provide your students with a sense of what the Holocaust was and how the Nazis perpetrated the Final Solution.
    • Read additional texts to give students different perspectives of individual experiences. Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, by Alexandra Zapruder, and the diary of Dawid Sierakowiak (which can be found in Yad Vashem’s curriculum Echoes and Reflections, are invaluable resources.
    • Poetry, art and photography are other forms of text to expand your students’ experiences of learning. Certainly consider using I Never Saw Another Butterfly, or To Tell the Story: Poems of the Holocaust by Yala Korwin focus on the different experiences of children and adults.  Artwork or photography that captures the images of the Holocaust help students to visualize those experiences.  Having your students also compose their own poetry reinforces their own feelings about learning about the Holocaust.
    • If you are a history educator teaching American History (usually 10th or 11th grade), introduce your students to the role of America during the Holocaust. The USHMM is just one resource that provides a comprehensive explanation of how little America did to help in an effort to save the Jewish people of Europe from the Nazis.

    These are just a few ideas we can offer to educators.  There are so many ways you can build your own curriculum or unit based on the extensive resources available to you on our web site, as well as the web sites we recommend that you access.


    Whether in everyday conversation or in school, here are a list of links that can help anyone respond to incidents of antisemitism:

    Interrupting Antisemitism in Everyday Conversations

    Antisemitism Uncovered: A Guide to Old Myths In a New Era

    For Parents: Talking to Young Children About Bias and Prejudice

    BINAH: Building Insights to Navigate Antisemitism & Hate 

    Guide to responding to Bias incidents in schools

    Guide for Synagogues to respond to BIas incidents