Pre-WWII European Jewish Life Photo Project

This set of lessons — comprised of five 45-minute sessions — will engage students in researching and understanding how individual Jewish communities and lives were affected by the Holocaust. By researching and analyzing family photographs, students will gain insight into the relative normalcy of Jewish life (religious, cultural, and business) before the Nazis assumed power — and then discover how Jewish lives changed drastically after the Nazi invasion. Note: Students should be familiar with a basic timeline of the Holocaust (specifically when Hitler took control of different countries). Teachers should provide, or review, this information and provide a map of European geography. Students will spend four periods of class time using computers to access and research two photos of pre-WWII Jewish life in Europe. They will find information about one of the communities shown in a photo. They will seek to identify the location and year of the photos to learn if it was taken was prior to the Nazi occupation of that country, when life was considered normal. Note: The project will be done in stages. Some students may require assistance from the school media specialist.
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • examine and discuss pre-WWII Jewish religious, cultural and communal life in Europe through photographs from that time—and compare those lives to their own lives.
  • research, analyze, and write about the photographs collected to discover and assess aspects of Jewish life before and after Nazi occupation.
  • synthesize all parts of the project through class discussion to describe and portray information about Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust.
Essential Questions
  • What was life like for Jewish people in Europe before World War II?
  • How did life change for the Jewish people in Europe after the Nazis and Hitler gained power?
  • Enduring Understandings
    • Before World War II, Jewish people were socially integrated in the economic and cultural world of many European countries. Some 9.5 million Jews made up about 1.7% of the total European population.
    • Starting in 1933, Nazis gained power while Germany was experiencing great economic and social hardship. Hitler blamed the Jewish people for Germany's problems, and took action to systematically persecute Jews.
  1. Copies of Instructions & Handouts, one for each student
  2. Access to the photo archives and learning center of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
  3. Large classroom map of pre WWII and Post WW II Europe
  4. Offer students copies of this compare and contrast chart to use when comparing their photos


anti-Semitism [an-tee-sem-i-tiz-uh m] (noun) discrimination against or prejudice or hostility toward Jews

Aryan [air-ee-uh n] (adjective) in Nazi ideology, relating to people of Caucasian race not of Jewish descent.

genocide [jen-uh-sahyd] (noun) the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group

Holocaust (noun) the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and annihilation of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their followers in Europe between the years 1933-1945

Nazi [naht-see] (noun) a member of a German political party that controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945 under Adolf Hitler. The Nazi party advocated anti-Semitism, and its actions led to World War II and the Holocaust


Suggested Procedure


Share the following background information with students.

In 1933, approximately 500,000 Jews lived in Germany: 80 percent were German citizens and 20 percent were immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many were descendants of Jews who had settled in Germany for more than 1,000 years. They participated in German political and social life, but were seldom fully accepted as equals in Germany.

When Adolf Hitler was appointed German chancellor on January 30, 1933, he abolished the German democratic system. The Nazi state (also known as the Third Reich) became a regime in which citizens had no guaranteed basic rights. The regime began to kill Jewish people. By May 1945, the Germans and their collaborators had murdered six million European Jews as part of a systematic plan of genocide—known as the Holocaust. The term “genocide” did not exist prior to 1944. It is a specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against a group with the intent to destroy the existence of the group.

From 1933 to 1939, the Nazis systematically excluded Jews from participation in German life. Jews lost their jobs, their citizenship, and their civic rights. They were isolated and cut off from society. Although the world knew the plight of the German Jews, most countries did not offer refuge. In a continuing effort against Jewish residents of Germany, laws were passed in 1938 limiting their rights. These laws denied Jewish communities the right to own property, the rights of doctors to treat “Aryan” patients, and rights of lawyers to practice law. The laws also required Jewish businesses to be registered and encouraged the transfer of those businesses at artificially low prices to non-Jewish owners.



(Research, identify, analyze, and reflect)

Assignment #1, Photo selection and collection

Lead students in brainstorming words they associate with typical or normal daily life. List the words on an easel pad. Distribute handout with project instructions and ask students to search for photos on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website and other appropriate sites, using both the words they listed and others as keywords. Give students time to conduct a thorough search. Review their findings, as needed, before they copy and paste their photos onto a word document. The document should include the date of the photo and the location (but not the caption) as well as a citation. Note: Completed research is due on Day 5. Most students will need 1-2 days for photo collection, and 2-3 days for research.


Assignment #2, Research location of photo

Ask students to research and find answers to the questions below related to the city or town in their photo from Assignment #1.

  • How large was the town's/city's Jewish population and how long had Jews been living there?
  • What was Jewish life/culture in that town/city like prior to the Nazi invasion?
  • Where is or was that town/city located?
  • When and how did the town/city come under Nazi rule (timeline)?
  • What was the fate of this particular town's/city's Jews during the Holocaust?


Assignment #3, Write captions for each photo

Explain that a caption is a short description or explanation of a photograph or picture. Say, “Captions often include information about what is happening in a picture, where and when the picture was taken, and who is shown. Using the information you have gathered, write a caption for your photo.”


Assignment #4, Reflect and write about photo

After the pre-war photos have been gathered. Ask students to look through their own family photos to find at least one picture that relates in some way to the photo they found. (Note: When they begin researching photos, do not tell students that they will be bringing in their own, to avoid their selecting a historical photo that may be a match for family photos of their own.)

Ask students to respond to the following questions based on their photos:

  • What evidence in your researched photos suggests life was normal for Jews prior to the Nazis?
  • As you looked through your family's photos, what did you discover that compares to the photos you researched? Which photo of your family did you choose to compare and why?
  • What are the similarities and/or differences between your family and your community and those in European Jewish life prior to WWII?


Assignment # 5: Final collaboration and discussion of work

Ask students to attach their family photo next to the pre-war photo onto a board side-by side to be compared. Work with students to display the collected photos on a wall or bulletin board to create one large collection. Have students place pushpins on a classroom map to show the locations researched during the project. Finally, have students compile the photo analysis sheets (two, one for each photo), writing assignment and research.



Invite students to gather around the boards and discuss the photographs noting the similarities and differences using their written work to facilitate conversation. Guide students to focus on how the photos are similar to each other and how they are different.

Discussion questions might include the following:

  • What did you find out?
  • What were you surprised by?
  • What was Jewish life like before the Nazis?
  • What are the similarities and differences of life in each set of photos?
  • Which European Jewish communities were affected?
  • How were European Jewish communities affected?
  • How did the Nazis gain control?
  • What happened to these communities?


Reflecting and Connecting

After assessing students' understanding of the project through the previous questions, focus discussion on the magnitude of 6 million lives lost. Mention that the display of work represents only a fraction of that number. Involve the whole class in adding up the number of people in the pre-War photos and dividing into 6 million. Point out the connection between the individual lives lost and the statistic of six million by gauging the space filled by the photos and number of people there, and then approximately how many walls that would be, and then rooms, floors, and so on. Emphasis in the discussion should move toward the respect of individual lives lost in the Holocaust as a way of renewing those lives, recognizing them. Focus should also be placed on the recognition of Jewish cultural/communal life in Europe pre-Nazi control, how normal it was, and what was ultimately lost. For further exploration, share the documentary, Paper Clips.

See a complete lesson at www.oneclipatatime.org/paper-clips-project/paper-clips-film/. You may also want to read the article Wings of Witness about a teacher who illustrates the extermination of Jewish people by collecting the tab tops of cans.

 Alignment to Common Core State Standards/ College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards CCSS R.1, R.7, W.1, W.2, W.6, W.7, W.8, W.9, SL.1, SL.2, SL.4, SL.5


Extension Activity

Following this lesson, watch the video There Once Was a Town, which references the Tower of Faces at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the pre-Nazi life of the shtetl (village) of Eishyshok (now known as Eišiške, Lithuania).

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