Teaching The Holocaust and the Destruction of our Humanity

2 Apr
This is a great visual image of the survivors vs. those who entered the camp system.

This is a great visual image of the survivors vs. those who entered the camp system.

Every once in a while, I have a lesson in class that goes over very well.  Today was one of those days.  I have been teaching the book Night and needed a lesson to get my students to better understand the process in which the Nazi’s dehumanized the Jews and eventually deported them to work camps and the death camps.  You only need a few supplies for this one: post it notes and poster paper (or a white board).  On the poster paper, label the headings Activities, Material Possessions, Labor Camp, or Death Camp.  I like this activity because it connected the students to the event on a very personal level.

To start, I gave each student ten Post-it notes.  In my class, to conserve resources, I cut the Post-it notes in half.  On five of the notes, I asked the kids to write down a name of one person who was important to them.  A few of the “smarter” kids tried to put my name, but I said it had to be a family member or close friend.  Also, I said no pets, at least for now.  The students would list out the person as “Mom, Fran, 35”  This way, I would know the age of the person which will come in handy later.

Next, I had the kids list out three personal items, each one on it’s own note.  For example, they could write down “Xbox,” “iPod,” “Wii,” “Computer,” “Dog,” or “Make-up.”  I encouraged them not to write down every day stuff like “Eat” or “Sleep” which were popular as well.

Lastly, they took the last two post-its and wrote down two of their favorite activities, like going to the movies, driving, partying, playing soccer, or playing video games.

When this was done, I announced to the class “You have just been taken over by the Nazis, I am your Gestapo, Mr. …”  Then, I began to impose certain rules and restrictions on the students.  As I imposed the restrictions, I had the kids come and place their Post-it notes on the appropriate poster: Activities, Material Possessions, Labor Camp, or Death Camp.

Kids get to see and feel what it is like to lose every day rights - electronics really hurt.

Kids get to see and feel what it is like to lose every day rights – electronics really hurt.

1. We are going to impose a new curfew, any of your activities that take place before Eight AM or after Six PM are now off limits.

2.  In order to prevent the traffic of contraband, all students are no longer allowed in public venues: movies, restaurants, malls, stores, shops, or parks.

3.  We will not be conducting a house by house search looking for anything of value like Jewelry, gold, silver, platinum, money, and any electronics. (I would walk around and scan notes, take stuff away if people were hiding “contraband”).

4.  Any activities you put down that require the use of the restricted materials must be placed on the board.

5.  The labor camps need workers, any personal belongings you have left need to have your name on them and then placed on the board.  The items will follow you to your location.

6.  Take the names you wrote down, anyone under 16 and over 40 to the right.  Anyone between 16 and 40 to the left (to the right was the death camp, to the left the labor camp).

Next, I set my timer for 30 seconds.  I began debriefing by going through the process that everything was taken away.  As the time goes off, I head over, announce it is time for a “selection” and grab about 10 or 15 names, calling them off as I do so each kid will raise their hand if they know the person followed by “they just died of dysentery” or “he/she went to the gas chamber.”

I again continue to debrief, when the buzzer goes off again I hold another “selection.”  By the end, there are about 150 names in the death camp and 15 – 20 who are “liberated.” I ask the kids questions:

How did it feel to have you possessions taken away?

How did it feel when you had to go to the camps with your family?

When you heard a family member was selected, what was your reaction?

Then, I make the connection that the people who died in the Holocaust were friends, family members, people we knew in our every day life.  I connect it back to a beginning lesson we did looking at how many Jews were located in Poland before WWII and then after WWII.

Visually, this is a powerful lesson as the kids can see how many people died.  At the same time, knowing that it could have been one of their relatives, it becomes more than a history lesson, but allows the students to connect to the incident on a personal level.  Many of the students indicated this activity left them feeling sad, which is when I knew it had worked, because they could connect to the text as well as the historical event it depicted.

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