Holocaust Teacher Resource Center

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Incorporating a Study of the Holocaust into Existing Courses

The Holocaust can be effectively integrated into various existing courses within the school curriculum. This section presents sample rationale statements and methodological approaches for incorporating a study of the Holocaust in seven different courses. Each course synopsis constitutes a mere fraction of the various rationales and approaches currently used by educators. Often, the rationales and methods listed under one course can be applied as well to other courses.

United States History

Although the history of the United States is introduced at various grade levels throughout most school curricula, all states require students to take a course in United States history at the high school level. Including a study of the Holocaust into U.S. History courses can encourage students to:

  • examine the dilemmas that arise when foreign policy goals are narrowly defined, as solely in terms of the national interest, thus denying the validity of universal moral and human priorities;
  • understand what happens when parliamentary democratic institutions fail;
  • examine the responses of governmental and non-governmental organizations in the United States to the plight of Holocaust victims (e.g., the Evian Conference, the debate over the Wagner-Rogers bill to assist refugee children, the ill-fated voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, the Emergency Rescue Committee, the rallies and efforts of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the decision by the U.S. not to bomb the railroad lines leading into Auschwitz);
  • explore the role of American and Allied soldiers in liberating victims from Nazi concentration camps and killing centers, using, for example, first-person accounts of liberators to ascertain their initial responses to, and subsequent reflections about, what they witnessed; and
  • examine the key role played by the U.S. in bringing Nazi perpetrators to trial at Nuremberg and in other war crimes trials.

Since most history and social studies teachers in the United States rely upon standard textbooks, they can incorporate the Holocaust into regular units of study such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Questions which introduce Holocaust studies into these subject areas include:

The Great Depression:
How did the U.S. respond to the Depression? How were U.S. electorial politics influenced by the Depression? What were the immediate consequences of the Depression on the European economic and political system established by the Versailles Treaty of 1919? What was the impact of the Depression upon the electoral strength of the Nazi party in Germany? Was the Depression a contributing factor to the Nazis’ rise to power?

World War II:
What was the relationship between the U.S. and Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939? How did the actions of Nazi Germany influence U.S. foreign policy? What was the response of the U.S. Government and non-governmental organizations to the unfolding events of the Holocaust? What was the role of the U.S. in the war crimes trials?

The Cold War:
How did the rivalries between the World War II allies influence American attitudes toward former Nazis? What was the position of America’s European allies toward members of the former Nazi regime?

World History

Although various aspects of world history are incorporated throughout school curricula, most students are not required to take World History courses. It is in the context of World History courses, however, that the Holocaust is generally taught. Inclusion of the Holocaust in a World History course helps students to:

  • examine events, deeds, and ideas in European history that contributed to the Holocaust, such as the history of antisemitism in Europe, 19th century race science, the rise of German nationalism, the defeat of Germany in World War I, and the failure of the Weimar Republic to govern successfully;
  • reflect upon the idea that civilization has been progressing [one possible exercise might be to have students develop a definition of “civilization” in class, and then have them compare and contrast Nazi claims for the “1000 Year Reich” with the actual policies they employed to realize that vision; the dissonance raised in such a lesson helps students to see that government policies can encompass evil, particularly when terror and brute force crush dissent];
  • explore how the various policies of the Nazi regime were interrelated (e.g., the connections between establishing a totalitarian government, carrying out racial policies, and waging war); and
  • reflect upon the moral and ethical implications of the Nazi era as a watershed in world history (e.g., the systematic planning and implementation of a government policy to kill millions of people; the use of technological advances to carry out mass slaughter; the role of Nazi collaborators, and the role of bystanders around the world who chose not to intervene in the persecution and murder of Jews and other victims).

Once again, since most teachers of European history rely upon standard textbooks and a chronological approach, teachers may wish to incorporate the Holocaust into the following, standardized units of study in European History: the Aftermath of World War I; the Rise of Dictators; the World at War, 1939-45, and the Consequences of War. Questions which introduce Holocaust studies into these subject areas include:

The Aftermath of World War I:
What role did the Versailles Treaty play in the restructuring of European and world politics? How did the reconfiguration of Europe following World War I influence German national politics in the period 1919-33?

The Rise of the Dictators:
What factors led to the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe in the period between the two world wars? How was antisemitism used by the Nazis and other regimes (Hungary, Romania, U.S.S.R.) to justify totalitarian measures?

The World at War, 1939-45:
Why has the Holocaust often been called a “war within the war?” How did the Holocaust affect Nazi military decisions? Why might it be “easier” to commit genocidal acts during wartime than during a period of relative peace?

The Consequences of War:
What was the connection between World War II and the formation of the State of Israel? Was a new strain of international morality introduced with the convening of the Nuremberg Tribunals? How did the Cold War impact the fate of former Nazis?

World Cultures

A course on World Cultures incorporates knowledge from both the humanities and the social sciences into a study of cultural patterns and social institutions of various societies. A study of the Holocaust in a World Cultures course helps students:

  • examine conflicts arising between majority and minority groups in a specific cultural sphere (Europe between 1933-45);
  • further their understanding of how a government can use concepts such as culture, ethnicity, race, diversity, and nationality as weapons to persecute, murder, and annihilate people;
  • analyze the extent to which cultures are able to survive and maintain their traditions and institutions, when faced with threats to their very existence (e.g., retaining religious practices, recording eyewitness accounts, and hiding cultural symbols and artifacts); and
  • apply understandings gleaned from an examination of the Holocaust to genocides which have occurred in other cultural spheres.


Government courses at the high school level usually focus on understanding the U.S. political system, comparative studies of various governments, and the international relationship of nations. The Holocaust can be incorporated into a study of government in order to demonstrate how the development of public policy can become directed to genocidal ends when dissent and debate are silenced. Inclusion of Holocaust studies in Government courses helps students:

  • compare governmental systems (e.g., by investigating how the Weimar Constitution in Germany prior to the Nazi seizure of power was similar to, or different from, the Constitution of the United States; by comparing the Nazi system of governance with that of the United States);
  • study the process of how a state can degenerate from a (parliamentary) democracy into a totalitarian state (e.g., by examining the processes by which the Nazis gained absolute control of the German government and how the Nazi government then controlled virtually all segments of German society);
  • examine how the development of public policy can lead to genocidal ends, especially when people remain silent in face of discriminatory practices (e.g., the development of Nazi racial and genocide policies towards Jews and other victim groups beginning with the philosophical platform elaborated in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, continuing through the state-imposed Nuremberg Laws, and culminating with governmental policies of murder and extermination after 1941);
  • examine the role of Nazi bureaucracy in implementing policies of murder and annihilation (e.g., the development and maintenance of a system to identify, isolate, deport, enslave, and kill targeted people, and then redistribute their remaining belongings);
  • examine the role of various individuals in the rise and fall of a totalitarian government (e.g., those who supported Nazi Germany, those who were passive, and those who resisted both internally, such as partisans and others who carried out revolts, and externally, such as the Allies; and
  • recognize that among the legacies of the Holocaust have been the creation of the United Nations in 1945, and its ongoing efforts to develop and adopt numerous, significant human rights bills (e.g., the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the U.N. Convention on Genocide).

Contemporary World Problems

Many schools include a Contemporary World Problems course at the senior high level which allows students to conduct an in-depth study of a topic such as genocide. The focus is usually on what constitutes genocide, and areas of investigation include various preconditions, patterns, consequences, and methods of intervention and prevention of genocide. A study of the Holocaust in Contemporary World Problems curricula can help students to:

  • comprehend the similarities and differences between governmental policies during the Holocaust and contemporary policies that create the potential for ethnocide or genocide (e.g., comparing and contrasting the philosophy and/or policies of the Nazi regime with that of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia);
  • compare and contrast the world response of governments and non-governmental organizations to the Holocaust with the responses of governments and non-governmental organizations to mass killings today (e.g., comparing the decisions made at the Evian Conference in 1938, to the U.S. response to the Cambodian genocide between 1974-1979, or the response of non-governmental organizations like the International Red Cross to the Nazi genocide of Jews during the Holocaust with that of Amnesty International to political killings in Argentina, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Cambodia in contemporary times; and
  • analyze the relationship of the Holocaust and its legacy to the formation of the State of Israel.


Literature is read in English classes across grade levels and is also used to enhance and strengthen social studies and science courses. The literature curriculum is generally organized thematically or around categories such as American Literature, British Literature, European Literature, and World Literature. Literature, is capable of providing thought-provoking perspectives on a myriad of subjects and concerns which can engage students in ways that standard textbooks and essays do not.

Holocaust literature encompasses a variety of literary genres including novels, short stories, drama, poetry, diaries, and memoirs. This broad spectrum gives teachers a wide range of curriculum choices. Because Holocaust literature derives from a true-to-life epic in human history, its stories reveal basic truths about human nature, and provide adolescent readers with credible models of heroism and dignity. At the same time, it compels them to confront the reality of the human capacity for evil.

Because so many of the stories intersect with issues in students’ own lives, Holocaust literature can inspire a commitment to reject indifference to human suffering, and can instruct them about relevant social issues such as the effects of intolerance and elitism. Studying literary responses to the Holocaust helps students:

  • develop a deeper respect for human decency by asking them to confront the moral depravity and the extent of Nazi evil (e.g., the abject cruelty of the Nazi treatment of victims even prior to the round-ups and deportations; the event of Kristallnacht; the deportations in boxcars; the mass killings; and the so-called medical experiments of Nazi doctors);
  • recognize the deeds of heroism demonstrated by teenagers and adults in ghettos and concentration camps (e.g., the couriers who smuggled messages, goods, and weapons in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto; the partisans who used arms to resist the Nazis; the uprisings and revolts in various ghettos including Warsaw and in killing centers such as Treblinka);
  • explore the spiritual resistance evidenced in literary responses which portray the irrepressible dignity of people who transcended the evil of their murderers, as found, for example, in the clandestine writing of diaries, poetry, and plays;
  • recognize the different roles which were assumed or thrust upon people during the Holocaust, such as victim, oppressor, bystander, and rescuer;
  • examine the moral choices, or absence of choices, which were confronted by both young and old, victim and perpetrator; and
  • analyze the corruption of language cultivated by the Nazis, particularly in the use of euphemisms to mask their evil intent (e.g., their use of the terms “emigration” for expulsion, “evacuation” for deportation, “deportation” for transportation to concentration camps and killing centers, “police actions” for round-ups that typically led to mass murder, and “Final Solution” for the planned annihilation of every Jew in Europe).

Art and Art History

One of the goals for studying art history is to enable students to understand the role of art in society. The Holocaust can be incorporated into a study of art and art history to illuminate how the Nazis used art for propagandistic purposes, and how victims used artistic expression to communicate their protest, despair, and/or hope. A study of art during the Holocaust helps students:

  • analyze the motivations for, and implications of, the Nazi’s censorship activities in the fine and literary arts, theater, and music (e.g., the banning of books and certain styles of painting; the May 1933 book burnings);
  • examine the values and beliefs of the Nazis and how the regime perceived the world, by, for example, examining Nazi symbols of power, Nazi propaganda posters, paintings, and drawings deemed “acceptable” rather than “degenerate”;
  • study how people living under Nazi control used art as a form of resistance (e.g., examining the extent to which the victims created art; the dangers they faced in doing so; the various forms of art that were created and the settings in which they were created, and the diversity of themes and content in this artistic expression);
  • examine art created by Holocaust victims and survivors and explore its capacity to document diverse experiences including life prior to the Holocaust, life inside the ghettos, the deportations, and the myriad of experiences in the concentration camp system; and examine interpretations of the Holocaust as expressed in contemporary art, art exhibitions, and memorials.