Teaching The Holocaust




All teachers know that the last 5 weeks of the school year can be trying.  The weather gets warmer, and students begin dreaming of summer vacation.  Classroom lessons in these 5 weeks must be more creative in order to keep the students engaged.  For this reason, I teach my Holocaust unit as the final unit of the year.  Yes, the Holocaust is dark and the discussions can be too; however, students are so entranced in the topic because they just can’t wrap their brains around such hatred.

The 6th grade teachers in my building teach the Holocaust novel, Yellow Star.  This unique book is written in verse and really sets the stage for me as an 8th grade teacher.

In 8th grade, I teach Night by Elie Wiesel.   Throughout this unit, I incorporate quotes by infamous Nazi leaders, short stories, picture books, and even music.

The more we study about the Holocaust, the more my students want to learn.  Even though we read Night as a whole-class text, I encourage students to read other Holocaust novels for their independent choice novels.

Other Holocaust titles:

Parallel Journeys by Eleanor H. Ayer.  In this novel, Ayer shares the stories of Holcaust survivor Helen Waterford and Hitler Youth member, Alfons Heck.

-The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.  In this novel, a young boy, Bruno, moves from his family home in Germany to Poland.  While out exploring the surroundings of his new home, he finds a boy behind a fence who looks sad and a bit dirty.  Not understanding that this boy is in a concentration camp, they become friends.  It is a story about innocence and acceptance.

-The Devil’s Arithmatic by Jane Yolen is a historical fiction novel in which Hannah, a teenage girl in New York, is transported back in time to WWII Germany.  Hannah learns to respect her Jewish heritage as she is sent to a death camp.  While “transported” sounds a little far-fetched, Yolen makes it believable.

-Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli  is another historical fiction novel set in WWII Poland.  An orphaned boy must learn to navigate the streets while avoiding capture by the Nazis.  The narrator of the story is the boy, now an adult, living in America.

-Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.  Sepetys might just be my favorite author…EVER!  In Between Shades of Gray, 15-year-old Lina is taken from her home in Lithuania and put on a cattle car bound for Siberia.  Lina must learn how to survive in frigid conditions and maintain hope in spite of devastating losses.  Good luck putting this book down because every line is written with such intense beauty.

-Salt to the Sea  is another historical fiction novel by Ruta Sepetys.  Not surprisingly, Sepetys nails it.  Each chapter tells the story of a person (often children) caught in the midst of WWII.  As the story progresses, each character becomes intertwined with the others.  Can they escape Germany unharmed?

-A Night Divided (Holocaust is a stretch but the right time period) is a historical fiction novel in which a young girl who must escape to freedom after the Berlin Wall falls and separates her family between East and West.

-The Berlin Boxing Club by by Robert Sharenow shows how 14-year-old Karl survives being Jewish in Nazi-era Berlin.  In order to prove his worth to his peers, Karl receives boxing lessons from champion Max Schmeling.  Karl learns to take care of his family and show courage when all odds are against him.


In this Holocaust unit, I incorporate many other texts and genres in order to expose the students to as much material as possible.  Some of the stories, articles, picture books, and music I use are below.  I hope you can use them in your Holocaust studies as well.

Picture books:

Hidden by Loic Dauvillier is a lovely poetic graphic novel in which Dounia, a grandmother, tells her granddaughter about her experiences hiding from Nazis in Paris.

Terrible Things:  An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting — In this story, forest animals live together peacefully until one day “terrible things” arrive and clear out all animals with feathers.  One by one, the “terrible things” cleared out all the animals that weren’t perfect.  Eventually, the remaining animals team up and take on the “terrible things” despite the fear involved.

The Harmonica by Tony Johnston tells the story of Holocaust survivor whose family was separated when the Nazis invaded Poland.  Miraculously, only his father’s gift, a harmonica, keeps the boy’s hopes alive.

The Four Butterflies by Itzik Kipnis four young butterflies are under siege of a beetle.  Each of the butterflies seeks a place to hide — all except the black butterfly who cannot find camouflage.  Sad and alone, a bumblebee comes to the rescue.  A beautiful story of hope and friendship will touch all who read it.


“The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel.

Each year, I am amazed by the engagement that this topic generates from my students.  I am constantly revising and adding new components to this unit.  As such, I am always looking for new ideas.

Please share Holocaust ideas/texts/lessons.  Together we can generate endless lesson ideas.




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