Teacher Guide to the Holocaust
Holocaust is the term used to describe the systematic extermination of Jews and some other ethnic communities such as the Romani in Nazi Germany which happened in the period around World War II. Adolf Hitler came to power and promoted an atmosphere of anti-Semitism and set out to exterminate all Jews claiming that they were a threat to Aryan supremacy. This period saw the genocide of six million European Jews and the total number of Holocaust victims is estimated anywhere from 11 to 17 million.
The Holocaust is a period in human history that shows the extreme levels to which people can act on racial prejudice. Germany had not quite fully recovered from its loss in World War I and was still making economic reparations to the Allies who had won that war. There was also a global economic Depression which was impacting the job market in Germany. So, the mood in the country was not very hopeful or optimistic. In this context, Hitler rose to power by talking about Jews as the cause of all the trouble and making it seem like there was a global conspiracy of Jewish people. People seemed willing to listen to this even though there was no proof or evidence.
The shocking thing about the Holocaust is the number of average Germans who were willing to believe and act on Hitler's extreme anti-Semitism. He introduced policies which gradually marginalized Jews; a history of Germany in that period shows that right from 1933 Hitler passed laws which reduced the status of Jews in German society. Jews were not allowed to own land, they lost their businesses, they could not pursue higher education and they had to wear identifying badges. They were not treated as deserving of any rights as citizens of Germany.
The war officially started in 1939. Then came the period when there were concentration camps where the conditions were inhumane and the idea was to exterminate prisoners by over-working and under-feeding them. The targets were all political prisoners and dissenters and the Nazis set up these camps in occupied countries such as Poland also.
The Nazi officials also created ghettos which were also prisons in some ways. These were segregated areas in a city where very large numbers of Jews were confined and this was usually the stage before they were shipped off to death camps. These ghettos were traditionally run by a council of Jewish elders who managed day-to-day details such as food and clothing and tried to make arrangements for medicine and other necessities. The Nazis in power made these council members come up with lists of people to be shipped to the death camps and this caused the Jewish leaders untold grief. Some tried to think of helping the healthy members survive, while others committed suicide rather than give any name up for the death camps.
The death camps were places like Auschwitz and Birkenau where the prisoners were transported for the sole purpose of being killed. The Nazis used methods such as gassing to exterminate large numbers of people and showed no mercy even toward children.
The Holocaust ended with the end of World War II in 1945. Hitler committed suicide as the Allies were marching on Germany. Many of the senior SS officers, who helped carry out the horrific acts of mass murder, were captured and tried in the Nuremberg trials following the end of the war. Holocaust is a period that is almost impossible to understand in some ways because of the extent of human cruelty on a large scale. Yet, it is important for all of us to know about it so that such inhumane acts are never allowed to happen ever again.
Related Teacher Resources That Are Worth A Look:
- Cybrary of the Holocaust
- Holocaust Education in the Classroom
- Holocaust Memorial Center
- Teaching the Holocaust: Grades 4-12
- The Holocaust: A Webquest
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum