A Primer on Teaching the Holocaust

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, or Yom HaShoah. It’s a day to remember those lost in the Holocaust, and sits between the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Israel Independence Day on the Jewish calendar.

teaching holocaust header copy

For many school administrators, their state requires that students learn about the Holocaust in some capacity. New Jersey, for example, has an entire Commission on Holocaust Education, which develops “curriculum guidelines” and has the “overall goal to remember the victims of genocide and reduce the evils of bias, bullying, bigotry and prejudice in schools.”

But even for school administrators who don’t have strict state guidelines, teaching the Holocaust continues to be an important part of American teaching tradition. With bullying ever-present in the news cycle and a new emphasis on social-emotional intelligence, teachers need to have access to the best Holocaust guidelines available.

Why Teach the Holocaust?

“Never Again” is often what comes to mind as the goal of teaching the Holocaust. But there are so many more lessons to be learned. Consider the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s guide to why learning about the Holocaust is important. They distill the important lessons down to four points:

  • Democracy isn’t a given; it must be appreciated and protected.
  • Indifference to societal problems only propagates those problems.
  • Lots of moving parts—organizations, individuals, and governments—allowed and encouraged the Holocaust to happen.
  • The Holocaust was a turning point for human history.

The Holocaust Museum Houston adds that teaching the Holocaust necessitates that students learn to avoid the promotion of nationalism, to discard prejudice, and to protect civil rights for all, not just for the majority.

What is Age Appropriate?

Experts disagree on the right time to teach the Holocaust. For example, Nelly Benedek of The Jewish Museum in New York says, “From my experience, the best age to introduce students to the topic of the Holocaust is in high school.” Yet Michal Sternin of the International School for Holocaust Studies contends, “The materials presented to children should be appropriate to their mental and cognitive skills. We think that the subject can be taught to younger children.”

And just as experts disagree, different states have different regulations on what parts of the Holocaust should be taught and to which children. Overwhelmingly, in the United States, there are tiers of lesson plans associated with each age group:

K-5: Larger lessons about the importance and appreciation for diversity, the hurtfulness of stereotypes and prejudice, and why bullying is wrong.

5-6: A basic introduction to European history and the context of the Holocaust. Explain what genocide is and consider reading the following books:

7-8: Explain the eight stages of genocide and introduce students to genocide around the world (including in Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia, etc). Some recommended reading:

9-12: Dive into the nuances of the Holocaust. Begin to answer questions like: Why didn’t the Jews just leave? How did Hitler systemically orchestrate killing millions of people?  Why didn’t the Jews arm themselves and fight back? Most importantly, tie the unit together with the implications for the future of genocide intervention and prevention. Books include:

What are some alternative resources used to teach the Holocaust?

There are a host of online and offline resources to help you create lesson plans for your students. Beyond the traditional listing of books and lesson plans, consider these four unconventional resources for teaching the holocaust.

Attend Anne Frank’s Traveling Exhibit, Multiple Locations

The Anne Frank Center USA offers four traveling exhibits, each dedicated to shining light on Anne Frank’s life. Each exhibit includes student workshops, a bookstore, and docent-led tours. Many exhibits also feature speeches from veterans and survivors.

Complement Literature with Survivors’ Audio and Video

The Shoah Foundation through the University of Southern California along with HolocaustSurvivors.org have dedicated their sites to collecting stories from Holocaust survivors. These first-hand accounts provide perspective to the personal loss suffered by so many survivors.

Plan a Trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, or USHMM, considers itself a “living memorial” and a resource to inspire “citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.” The museum has tours that can be tailored to each grade level, ensuring that each experience with the museum is age appropriate.

Use The New York Times’s Archives

The New York Times offers its Holocaust archives for free. Use these primary sources to encourage original research and spark discussion on how sentiment at the time allowed the Nazi party to rise.


There are so many resources available to teach on the Holocaust—what are some that I haven’t addressed? What do you think is age appropriate? Leave your thoughts and comments below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *