Beyond Anne Frank: A Holocaust Timeline - and America's Response

Erin Goldman: Elk Grove High School

Subject Area: U.S. History
Grade Level: 11th

Overview: Through a series of timeline activities, students will gain an understanding of the complex social and political factors that shaped America's response to the Holocaust, from Kristallnacht in 1938 through the liberation of the death camps in 1945. The lesson will also provide the historical context to accompany Ellie Wiesel's Night or The Diary of Anne Frank.

Note: This lesson stems from a 2010 workshop discussion hosted by the Central Valley Holocaust Educators Network. The Central Valley Holocaust Educators Network (cvhen) is "dedicated to supporting teachers in effectively implementing a Holocaust curriculum that meets California Social Studies and Language Arts Standards." Their workshops, follow-up activities, and resources are in recognition that "teaching the full content and broad implications of a Holocaust curriculum requires teachers to adjust their pedagogy to the needs of their students and the realities of their classrooms."

The lesson is also draws on resources and support from the National Writing Project's Holocaust Educators Network and The Memorial Library, with the recognition that: “ There is no teacher’s guide for this journey: the road to understanding is rocky and full of pitfalls. But in times of war when dialogue seems impossible and children are being taught to hate their neighbors, there is no more pressing need than to discover what it takes to see beyond our own narrow frames of reference.” (Sondra Perl, On Austrian Soil)


  • Using primary sources, students will discuss, analyze, and write reflective pieces to explain the United States' construction of a "paper wall," a bureaucratic maze that prevented all but a few Jewish refugees from entering the country.
  • Students will develop interview questions for a Holocaust survivor ( Hannie Voyles) that will help document the war years in Amsterdam through the lived experiences of a child.

Pre-lesson Activity: Thanks to our videoconferencing capability and the Magpi organization and the California K-12 High Speed Network (K12HSN), we were able to begin this unit by joining Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein for the interactive Stand Up, Speak Out, Take a Stand project.

The video below will provide you with some of the highlights of the videoconference:

Introduction: The cards you will find attached to this lesson (see Materials section - Timeline of WWII Events) can be used in this lesson in a variety of ways based on your individual class and time that you have to teach this lesson. For the lesson, the 64 cards that I used were pasted onto color-coded large note cards that will be described below. I divided the cards into time themed “chunks” based on different time periods of the war and the Holocaust. You will see these “chunks” divided by color code and explained below.

After the Warm-up Activity, I handed out the cards to my students – most received 2 cards, but if you have a smaller or larger class you may hand out more or less per student. Have each student read their own cards silently and summarize their information (they may have questions, so be available to answer them as they are doing this portion of the activity). Next, announce that all students with cards from 1933-1938 should come up to the board (or wherever you have placed your timeline that should range from 1933-1945). The students need to line themselves up in order of their cards. Then have them read their summaries of their information, and, after they are done with their reading, tape their cards under the appropriate year on the timeline. Do this for all 4 sections; and by the end you will have a large detailed timeline of the war and the Holocaust.

Below you will find a list of the different thematic chunks that I used. You may modify these to whatever best fits your curriculum and class. I do not explain every card, but instead give some information about the importance of each chunk and what I emphasized and wanted my students to get out of the timeline. I also ask them lots of questions as we go through the material. This portion of the lesson will probably take about 90 minutes.

Week 1 (amount of time needed will vary depending on students' background knowledge and class scheduling):

  • Warm-up: Have students read copies of two poems from Wislawa Szymborska, published in How Was It Humanly Possible. (Note: The World Must Know and Salvaged Pages are also excellent resources from poetry written by Holocaust survivors.) Following the reading, ask students to respond to the following questions:
    • What do you know about the Holocaust? What would you specifically be interested in learning more about the Holocaust?
    • What surprised you about Hitler’s excerpt from Mein Kamf? What does this tell you about Hitler’s motivations during his reign of Germany?
    • What do you think Szymborska meant by her poem? How does her poem relate to WWII? How might it connect to the Holocaust?
  • After students have had sufficient time to respond on their own, begin a class discussion about the poems. This activity will help you to gauge students' prior knowledge on the subject. By eleventh grade, students have already taken world history, but their background and knowledge will be varied. Survey the students to see what they remember from previous discussions/lessons about the Holocaust and find out what ideas/people/events they would like to know more. Also, display the table of Estimated Number of Jews Killed in the Final Solution to go along with the readings.
  • Introduce Time "Chunks" - color-coded, thematic pieces, that allow students to see progression of Holocaust. To make your thematic cards, refer to Jennifer Norton's Timeline of WWII Events document. Cut out each section and glue to a color-coded card. Choose the cards that best fit your lesson:
    • Thematic Chunk 1: 1933-1939 - General theme = Hitler comes to power through Kristallnacht. (For my lesson these cards were yellow). Below are some notes to help guide you through this section:

      #1: 1936/1937: There will be a blank space with no cards on the time line for the years of 1936 & 1937. After the cards are up for this section, ask students why they believe there were no cards for those years? Why would this gap exist? Tap into prior knowledge… what was going on in Germany and/or the world during the years. Explain that it is not because there was nothing going in Germany but instead because in 1936 the Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany. Hitler and the Nazi’s took down all of the anti-Jewish propaganda so that the world wouldn’t take notice to what Hitler was doing in Germany. 1937 represents a year where Hitler was more focused on building up Germany's morale and the military; therefore, he was not as focused on the Holocaust.

      #2: September 15th 1935: Nuremberg Laws are instituted. Discuss the importance/impact of these laws. They effectively take away Jewish civil rights, property, education, civil service jobs. They also outlaw Jewish people from having “relations” with Germans and define Jewish people as a race instead of a religion. Further, the laws define a Jewish person as anyone with 3 or 4 grandparents of Jewish descent. Even those who have not practiced Judaism for years (or ever in their lives) or who have converted to another religion are still considered Jewish under Hitler’s Nuremberg laws.

      #3: 1938: Evian Conference: 32 countries meet in Evian, France to discuss the “refugee” issue. FDR does not attend, but sends a close friend and businessman. In the end America goes along with all of the other countries in attendance (with the exception of the Dominican Republic) and refuses to allow any refugees to enter the country. Later, in the United States, the Wagner-Roger’s bill does not pass through the US Congress, a bill that would have allowed for thousands of Jewish German children to enter the USA. This would be a good time to talk about what students know about the U.S. during the 1930s (Great Depression, people worried about their own survival) and how those issues play a role in the decision being made by politicians.
    • Thematic Chunk #2: 1939 through June of 1941 (pink cards for my lesson) : This section represents the start of WWII by the Nazis through the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

      #1: 1939: Cards will make reference to Hitler’s aggression and the start of WWII. Also take note of what happens to Polish Jews when Hitler invades Poland and takes over. The Nazis force Polish Jews to wear the Star of David immediately. However, in Germany, Jews are not made to wear the stars until 1942, and in Denmark Jews are never forced to wear the Star. Ask students why they believe this might be. Explain that Hitler saw the Danish as racially superior, just like the Germans. Also the Danish were very important for the goods they provided to Germany – specifically their dairy products, so he didn’t want to cause any problems with that relationship.

      #2: June 1941: The Nazi’s break their non-aggression pact with Stalin and invade the Soviet Union. This act leads to the ghettoization of Polish Jews and begins what is known as the “Holocaust by gun.” This period of 6 months represents a period of time where the majority of the mass killings by the Gestapo and SS soldiers were being done using guns. This will change, look at next item…

      #3: 1941/1942: Wannsee Conference is held in 1942 to put into place the decision Hitler made in 1941. This was the approval for the scheme to mass murder all European Jews – also known as the Final Solution. The decision to start killing using Zyclon B and gas chambers was made at this time because it was found to be “too psychologically difficult” on the German soldiers to continue mass slaughtering people using guns. We now turn to the portion of the Holocaust referred to as “Holocaust by gas.”
    • Thematic Chunk #3: Post June 1941 – 1945 (green and/or blue cards): This is a large chunk that could easily be separated into two. These cards represent the horrifying years of death by gassing that exterminated the majority of Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners. These cards go into great detail about the labor camps, deportations, death camps and gassings.
    • Thematic Chunk #4: All years included (purple cards): The purple cards can be found throughout the years of 1933-1945. They represent the theme of resisters and tell the stories of people who resisted either as prisoners or as people trying to help those being persecuted during the Holocaust. It is very important to discuss these stories because many students are not aware of the incidents of resistance that took place during the Holocaust.
  • Make sure to keep the following groups in mind that were affected by the Holocaust:
    1. Victims
    2. Perpetrators
    3. Bystanders
    4. Rescuers
  • Begin activity on timeline. Tell students that they will each be receiving 3 or 4 cards about events or individuals during the Holocaust. The timeline will span from 1933-1945. Students need to read through their cards and think about the events and/or people. They will then be coming up to place the cards on the timeline based on different themes and/or chunks of time during the Holocaust.

Week 2: America and the Holocaust film

  • As part of PBS's outstanding American Experience series, America and the Holocaust provides the background for understanding the "complex social and political factors shaped America's response to the Holocaust, from Kristallnacht in 1938 through the liberation of the death camps in 1945. For a short time, the US had an opportunity to open its doors, but instead erected a "paper wall," a bureaucratic maze that prevented all but a few Jewish refugees from entering the country. It was not until 1944, that a small band of Treasury Department employees forced the government to respond."

    Before watching America and the Holocaust,provide the Film Guide handout (see Resources) that will ask them to define the following terms: anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, Holocaust, refugee, immigrant quotas, red tape, melting pot

    Explain to students that these words are related to the program they are about to watch. Ask them what they think these terms mean, and what they think the film will be about. They will also need to pay attention to the sources of information made available to government officials and the public, and how these were used to influence public opinion.
  • After the film, introduce the following discussion questions:
    1. What image do you most remember from the film? Why? What makes that image an important visual symbol for the story the film tells?
    2. How was the film different from what you expected? How did it change or expand your understanding of the terms you discussed before the film? How did it change or expand your understanding of the Holocaust, and of the role of the United States in World War II?
    3. U.S. government knew about the persecution of European Jews long before the genocide began. What sources of information did the U.S. government have about this persecution and subsequent mass murders? How was this information treated and why? When do you think the government should have become involved in helping the Jews, and what should it have done? Why do you think the government finally decided to set up the War Refugee Board?
    4. During the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, Roosevelt spoke with the French resident general at Rabat, Morocco, about postwar independence and the Jewish immigrants in North America. Roosevelt argued that the number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions (law, medicine, etc.) should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population.... [T]his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over 50 percent of the lawyers, doctors, schoolteachers, college professors, etc., in Germany were Jews. What do you think about Roosevelt's suggestion? How do his comments reflect the anti-Semitism of the times? How do they help explain his inaction?
    5. In the preface to the book The Abandonment of the Jews (Pantheon Books, 1984), David Wyman recounts the inaction of the U.S. government and much of the public to the news of Hitler's Final Solution and asks, "Would the reaction be different today? Would Americans be more sensitive, less self-centered, more willing to make sacrifices, less afraid of differences now than they were then?" What do you think? Consider our current attitudes towards minorities and immigrants in light of the crises in Bosnia and Rwanda. What responsibilities do we have to help people who are being persecuted in the world?
    6. Think about how the sources used to inform and/or influence public opinion were different during World War II and the Gulf War. How has the role of the media changed? How has this been a change for the better? For the worse?


Extension Activities: The pre-lesson activity could also be done as an extension activity.

Student Products: Coming soon - Class wiki with videoclips from interview with Holocaust survivor/witness Hannie Voyles .



  • Creativity and Innovation: Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
  • Communication and Collaboration: Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.
  • Research and Information Retrieval: Students apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information.
  • Critical Thinking, Problem-Solving, and Decision-Making: Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems and make informed decisions using appropriate technology tools.
  • Digital Citizenship: Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.

Common Core Standards:

  • Key Ideas and Details
    • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
    • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • Craft and Structure
    • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.
    • Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
    • Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
    • Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.
    • Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

California Content Standards:

  • History/Social Studies - Grade 11
    • 11.7 Students analyze America's participation in World War II: Discuss the constitutional issues and impact of events on the U.S. home front, including the internment of Japanese Americans (e.g., Fred Korematsu v. United States of America) and the restrictions on German and Italian resident aliens; the response of the administration to Hitler's atrocities against Jews and other groups; the roles of women in military production; and the roles and growing political demands of African Americans.