Friends  |  Press Room  |  Contact Us

The International School for Holocaust Studies

"What Came Before" - Teaching About Jewish Life Before the Holocaust

By Yael G. Weinstock


The thriving life of European Jewry prior to World War II cannot be overlooked when embarking on a Holocaust curriculum. This article presents several aspects of Prewar Jewish Life in Europe, central to Holocaust education.

While the rich tapestry of Jewish culture goes far beyond the scope of this article, specific elements of Jewish culture, present at the beginning of the twentieth century, are worth studying and teaching in order to contextualize the Holocaust. While the Holocaust is primarily associated with death and destruction, learning about how Jews lived gives a glance into a rich tapestry of culture that existed before European Jewry was destroyed.

In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, Jews were living in practically every country of Europe. A total of approximately nine million Jews lived in the twenty-one countries that were later occupied by Germany during World War II. The largest Jewish populations were concentrated in Eastern Europe, including Poland, the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Romania. They spoke their own language, Yiddish, which is a combination of German and Hebrew. They read Yiddish books, and frequented Yiddish theater and films. Many Jews in these countries lived in small villages and towns (shtetls) where the population was predominantly Jewish. These communities were largely traditional, in terms of dress for both men and women.

Jews in Eastern Europe differed greatly from Jews in western European countries such as Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Belgium. These Jews were far more assimilated into western culture. They dressed and spoke the same language as their non-Jewish neighbors, and traditional religious practices and Yiddish culture generally played a less important role in their lives.

Jews in all parts of Europe worked as farmers, tailors, seamstresses, factory hands, accountants, doctors, teachers, professors in top universities, and small-business owners. Regardless of the status and financial standing of Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century, Jewish culture thrived in two ways. First, there were those Jews who excelled in the secular worlds of literature, theater, music, and art. Second, culture that was specifically Jewish developed during these years in the very same arts, mainly in Eastern Europe.

Teaching About Jewish Culture in Prewar Eastern Europe

There are several directions which a lesson on this topic can take. Provided below are a few suggestions that may be used in their entirety or partially, as you deem fit for your students. We always recommend using personal stories that help students identify with the subjects, so that they can imagine life before the Holocaust.

We will divide this topic into categories.

Using literature with your students can be a powerful way to help them learn about and discuss aspects of Jewish life that existed in prewar Eastern Europe. I will present three sources, each with a different approach and perspective.

  • Noah and the Water Carrier and Other Short Stories, by Joe Lumer
    In his historical fiction book of short stories, Lumer gives us a glimpse into the lives of several individuals living in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. In doing so, he allows us to peer through a window of time into the early twentieth century, when Jews lived like anyone else, had families, a religious life, and hopes for the future.
    His stories titled The Journey and The Gambler may also be accessed via the Yad Vashem website with an accompanying lesson plan.

  • Stolen Youth, published by Yad Vashem, 2005
    This memoir recounts the testimonies of five young women who survived the Holocaust. In contrast to Lumer’s book, this is nonfiction told through the voices of those who experienced the Holocaust. While most of the stories recount these women’s lives during the Holocaust, the beginning chapter gives a glimpse into their lives that were destroyed, thereby enabling your students to learn not only about the events during the Holocaust, but why they were so devastating. Not only were people destroyed, but also their culture and everything they knew to be “normal.”

    Chapter 1 of Stolen Youth is accessible on the Yad Vashem website.
The Arts

Throughout Western Europe, but especially in Germany, most Jews could not be distinguished from their non-Jewish neighbors. They participated in all aspects of life, and excelled academically and in the arts and sciences. In Eastern Europe, there was less assimilation and Jewish life thrived. There were writers, political activists, artists, musicians, actors, and teachers.

Teaching about the Bund, Yiddish theater, the great Jewish playwright Y.L. Peretz, and others, is an effective way of teaching about the rich Jewish culture that existed in Eastern Europe before World War II. It makes the stories more personal, and it also allows you to tap into your particular students’ interests whether it be art, politics, or theater.

The story of Maurycy Gottlieb[1] (1856-1879) is one that can be used in the classroom. An artist from Galicia who painted long before the Holocaust, Gottlieb expressed his identity conflicts as a Jew raised in Austria-Hungary through his artwork. In the classroom, educators can use Gottlieb as an example of Jewish art and culture in the 19th century, when Jewish life thrived in Europe. Students can also use his paintings to understand a bit more about this life and widen their understanding of prewar Europe.

Children and Teenagers

Like children and teenagers today, Jewish youth in prewar Poland went to both public and Jewish schools, were involved in youth movements, and loved leaving home for the summer. Many children kept diaries and we have selections of these journals that survived the Holocaust.

The Yad Vashem publication Through Our Eyes is an excellent core resource for the classroom, as it collects quotes from children and teenagers about their life in prewar Europe, covering their own real-time experiencing of notable stages on the way to the "Final Solution". As these quotes and diary entries are arranged by common theme - regular life before the war, the school laws, public burnings of Jewish books and synagogues, the Yellow Star, etc. - we get a first-hand view of these developments as children actually experienced them. (Additional materials relating to children in the prewar period appear in the right-hand column on this page.)

It is crucial to contextualize the Holocaust and to give your students a more interesting and attainable lesson by helping them relate personally to those who lived through it. The Holocaust did not only destroy lives of individuals; it destroyed communities, structured life, and a rich culture that has never been recreated. Teaching the Holocaust from this perspective will make any student-body view the loss and tragedy as more profound and may interest them in learning about how these Jews lived and not only how they died.

[1] See Ezra Mendelsohn, Painting a People: Maurycy Gottlieb and Jewish Art, Brandeis University Press, 2002.
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest
  • Blog