Skip to main content

As one of the most terrifying and significant events of modern history, the Holocaust is a period that should never be forgotten. With an ethnic cleansing of millions of Jews in the concentration camps and battlefields across German-occupied Europe, the Holocaust can be unfathomable to young people today, which is why it is important to properly prepare students for the reality of what truly occurred during this event.

In preparation for your student tour at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, teachers and school administrators should make a point to situate students in a mindset where they can thoroughly understand and absorb what occurred. Only with sufficient background and explanation of 20th century history can students fully appreciate the tragedy of the Holocaust.

Bring the Past to the Forefront

Make Them See and Feel It as a Tragedy of Today

Holocaust Museum insideWhen teaching history to children and young adults, the greatest hurdle that teachers have to overcome is bridging the past to the present. It can be easy for students to space out whenever we start discussing acts that happened decades before they were born, as they have no personal way to relate to a time so alien to the lives they know.

The goal of your teaching preparation should be to bring the past to the forefront – give your students the tools to imagine and visualize the Holocaust in its correct context, and how those situations can be transposed to the world they know today. This can be done in three steps.

Step 1: Lay Down the Chronology from Then to Now

The gap between the past and the present is the biggest issue standing in the way of students understanding an event for what it really is, rather than ignoring it because it’s “something that happened a long time ago so who cares.”

Think of it like two islands – the deeds of World War II are one island, and the present is the island you and your students are standing on. Your students currently have difficulty caring about learning about the first island, because they’ve never been there and they don’t see a way to get there.

So build the bridge – lay down the chronology as a bridge from the first island to the second island, or the past to the present. Write a horizontal line on the board with a mark for every 5 years between 1935 and 2019. Then – as either an in-class project or an assignment studies – assign each student to collect 5 significant global and cultural events and their assigned year.

When everyone has their information, have the class write their chosen historical milestones on their designated year – 1940, 1945, 1950, 1955, 1960, 1965, 1970, and so on, until the present.

Then ask each student to stand in front of class and explain their assigned year, starting from 2019 and working your way back to 1935. Remember to remind your class to include moments that they are already familiar with – the release of a hit song or movie, the year their parents were born, and so on.

The purpose of this activity is to give students a visualization of modern history from a perspective they can understand. While they probably already know the significant parts of American modern history – the assassination of JFK, the moon landing, Woodstock – they haven’t had a chance to piece it together, step by step.

You want them to start saying, “Those two people lived at the same time?!”, or, “That was only five years before that?” Slowly but surely, they will realize that the atrocities of the Holocaust aren’t so far away as they thought.

Step 2: Explore the Era Before It Happened

After building a bridge back to the past, allowing students to visualize how then evolved into now, you want to further humanize an event that is completely alien to our modern sensibilities.

A major difficulty in teaching the Holocaust to teens and young adults is that students think of it more as a dark work of fiction rather than a real piece of history, and the reason for this is the absolute inhumanity of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party. Because of the gravity and immensity of the tragedy, it can be easier to compare Hitler to Thanos rather than a modern-day politician.

And this is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, students must understand that the purpose of learning history and remembering tragedies such as the Holocaust is not simply to honor the lives of the victims, but to ensure that similar situations do not happen again. If they cannot see the tragedy as a real part of history, then they cannot internalize the need to fear of it possibly repeating itself.

Secondly, when students start imagining the Holocaust, World War II, and the Nazi party as series of fictional events, then they don’t find themselves asking – how did this happen, and what was the rest of the world doing to let this happen?

Students must be given a general breakdown of the acts that happened in the decades before the first victim was gassed in a German concentration camp. While some may suggest recounting the timeline of the 1930s, other experts believe that it is important to go back as far as the 1800s, beginning with the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (which partly inspired Hitler and the Nazi party).

From Nietzsche and the übermensch, to World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, to personal accounts of Germans and Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, and ideally including The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.

It is important to reach far back, to teach students that even innocuous acts that happen decades apart can have significant underpinnings on major historical movements. This lesson teaches them to look more closely at their world today, and realize that just because there are no major tragedies directly affecting them right now, doesn’t mean the foundations of a future movement aren’t already being set up.

Step 3: Review What is Happening Today

The tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, will give your students a complete and detailed exploration of the events of World War II and the German Holocaust. Your students will receive no better explanation and understanding of the Holocaust than during your museum visit.

As their teacher, it is your responsibility to ensure that they are prepared to process the immensity of the Holocaust at the museum, and secondly, to ensure that they can use this knowledge proactively for their present and future.

It is no secret that we live in tense times, and whatever the personal politics of your students, it is crucial that you teach them to challenge what they believe in, challenge what others tell them is right, and, if necessary, challenge the possible foundations being set up for tragedies of tomorrow.

To do this, you want your students to think of historical moments as puzzles. This means teaching them about all the factors that contributed to the road to the Holocaust, and thinking of those factors as conceptualized pieces rather than historical events. It means identifying the ingredients that are required to create a society that falls into the madness of ethnic cleansing. Ingredients such as:

  • The unfairness felt by the Germans caused by the Treaty of Versailles
  • The conceptual twisting of philosophical concepts by the Nazi party
  • The gradual acceptance of anti-immigrant tendencies
  • The appeasement of other countries to Hitler and the Nazi party

And more. Once these are broken down to their core, apolitical ingredients, students should then be asked: what is going on today, in our own country and around the world? How can these concepts be applied to the modern world studies, and how are they different and yet still the same with the modern challenge?

Students should walk away from their experience not only grieving the victims of the Holocaust, but thinking of the signs that they can see today.

Prepare for the Museum Tour: Activities and Resources

In addition to our three-step learning process described above, we would like to share the museum activities and resources recommended by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC for students preparing to visit, specifically the permanent exhibition museum.

Students should be familiar with the general outline of the tour so they know what to expect from the tour experience. Before any tour, it is important that teachers assign group leaders to better organize the museum tour and distribute notes and information.

Identification Cards

When visiting the Permanent Exhibition at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, museum visitors are given identification cards to help further situate the acts of the Holocaust. The identification cards detail the life and experience of a victim of the Holocaust.

As an activity, teachers are encouraged to ask students to share the information of their individual identification cards, which should list the age, occupation, family background, religion, and other history of the person.

Students can also be encouraged to research the daily existence in the concentration or death camps, as well as the few resistance groups that existed independent of the opposing armies. Encourage them to include video clips, maps, news articles, and photographs in their research.

Teachers may download a sample set of identification cards for study prior to their visit on the official museum website.

Exhibition Narrative

For teachers that want their students to be absolutely ready for the tour, the permanent exhibition narrative is also available for download on the official museum website.

We recommend distributing copies of this outline to your class prior to your museum trip, and asking them to bring their copy along so they can follow more closely during the tour and make notes if desired.

Historical Image Interpretation

The memorial museum is home to a collection of nearly a thousand artifacts, including objects, documents, films, photographs, and more items relevant to and involved in the Holocaust. To give your students a complete understanding of what life was like during these times, it can help to prepare them with some examples of historical images prior to your museum visit.

In this official museum activity sheet, students are supplied with historical photographs involving the Nazi party and the Holocaust, and reflective questions to help them interpret and understand what was going on. These questions include:

  •     Who are they and what are they doing?
  •     What do you think might be happening outside the frame of the photograph?
  •     How are the individuals in the photograph using the objects?

Frequently Asked Student Questions

Holocaust Memorial Museum insideTo further prepare your students for the program, we have compiled some of the most common museum questions that students ask at the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum followed by their appropriate answers.

Why did the Nazis single out the Jews?

The Nazis’ believed that racial struggle was one of the biggest issues facing human history. Their widespread antisemitism was fueled by their belief that Jews had a genetically-passed down desire for world domination, which would cause the destruction of the German-Aryan race.

They also saw the Jews as an inferior race, who had control over worldwide mass media and finances and would use these to support inferior races and Communist uprisings.

What happened if you were a Nazi or German who disobeyed the Nazi Party?

While Germans who disobeyed the commands of the Nazi party were not outwardly punished, they were socially punished by their peers and colleagues. This would put them at a personal disadvantage in their career and their social life. If a soldier refused to participate in the death camps, they could be demoted and moved to lesser responsibilities, such as crowd control and guard duty.

Why didn’t the Jews leave before they were rounded up in camps?

A common misconception today is that the Jews were immigrants in Germany, but this is not the case. Many of the Jews in Germany at the time considered themselves German – they had German citizenship, their families had lived in Germany for centuries, and over 10,000 German Jews died for Germany fighting in the First World War. Up until it was too late, most German Jews believed that German politics would change positively.

Secondly, German Jews who decided to leave the country had much difficulty finding a new place to settle their family. Too many obstacles – including money, collection of paperwork, and time – prevented most German Jews from even considering leaving. Only a Jew with a high-achieving career such as a professor or a scientist could find easy ways to leave.

Plan Your Next Tour With Junior Tours Today

If you are a teacher, university professor, or school administrator looking to plan a student trip to United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington DC or other museums and places around the United States and abroad, then Junior Tours is the partner you need to make it happen.

Junior Tours has helped thousands of student groups over the years plan educational and exciting trips all over the US and abroad. We handle everything – from booking your tickets online to making sure every minute of your trip is packed with activities and learning experiences.

Contact us online or call us today and see how we can help you with your next student trip!