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place/state: Berlin
SCHOOL: Friedrich-Engels-Gymnasium
TEACHER: Sabine Hillebrecht
age group: 14 years and older
subject: History

learning activities
Analyzing a film
Creating local historical references
Field trip to a memorial site
Interpreting eyewitness reports
Interpreting historical texts

Children in ghettos
Concentration camps
Mass murder
Wannsee Conference

To learn about the deportation of Jews from Berlin to Lodz and Auschwitz, students read eyewitness reports and local history. These studies also allowed the students to become aware of individual suffering. A trip to the Auschwitz memorial filled in gaps in the students' knowledge. In the last section, a Danish student told his German classmates about the rescue of Danish Jews.


Preparing a teaching unit on Nazi mass murder is not an easy task. The unavoidable discussion of monstrous events and circumstances is especially difficult. It was my concern to demonstrate the preconditions of Nazi extermination policy, its practical implementation, and its "technical" organization, while constantly focusing on the consequences of these policies for the victims. Wherever possible, individual lives, behavior patterns and specific occurrences serve as examples. The victims are therefore elevated beyond being an anonymous mass. The depiction of individual fates through personal accounts, as well as descriptions of localized events in Berlin, Lodz, and Auschwitz also aim to overcome the problems of anonymity. It is only possible to convey an understanding of the tremendous suffering of those persecuted under National Socialist rule by surmounting the problem of describing the fate of large groups. The students will then be able to question the broader context and relate this history to the present.

Structure of the Teaching Unit

The unit consists of seven lessons and a field trip to Auschwitz. The fall of 1941 is used as the starting point since this was the beginning of the deportations from Germany. These were referred to as "evacuations" or "resettlement to the east" of Jews living in Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg, and Düsseldorf. This lesson assumes that the history of the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany until 1941 has been discussed in previous classroom instruction, in order to integrate the events after 1941.

First Lesson

To provide an introduction to the teaching unit, the first lesson uses eyewitness reports from two individuals who either observed the deportations in Berlin or were involved in organizing the deportations [see Documents]. In order to emphasize the local dimensions of these events, the lesson focuses on areas within the city of Berlin that played an important role in the deportations.

Second Lesson

The second lesson concentrates on providing a micro-historical perspective, which not only allows students to understand the organization and procedural aspects of the deportation, but also challenges them to emotional involvement [see Documents]. This lesson will examine the deportation of citizens of Berlin who were taken "east" in one of the first transports. This deportation convoy went to the ghetto in Lodz, which was then called "Litzmannstadt." There, approximately 230,000 Jews were crammed into a small residential area. The Nazis provided the ghetto occupants few food deliveries, making constant hunger their greatest problem. Many inhabitants died from malnutrition and enfeeblement, or from debilitating diseases that could not be treated for lack of medical supplies. After January 1942, the murder of the ghetto inhabitants became more systematic. They were taken to Chelmno (formerly Kulmhof) on the pretext of being sent to Polish villages for agricultural work, although in reality they were gassed with the exhaust fumes (carbon monoxide) from trucks.

Third Lesson

The third lesson places the specific events of Lodz and Chelmo into the broader context of the policies of the "final solution of the Jewish question." Excerpts from the Protocol of the Wannsee Conference are used to develop this topic [see Documents]. The implementation of the decisions reached at Wannsee brings us back to the events at Chelmno. Using a report that reconstructs events, the gruesome mass murders in Auschwitz are discussed. These descriptions aim to prepare the students by providing the content as well as background for the next lesson.

Fourth Lesson

During the fourth lesson, excerpts of the film "Eyewitnesses: Mass Destruction under Nazi Rule" are presented and discussed. This film is based on an exchange of recollections of five former prisoners, who were in Nazi concentration and extermination camps for different reasons. The film deals with specific themes such as "Prisoners and the SS," "Medical Experimentation," and "Resistance." The first twenty-five to thirty minutes of the film prepare the students for the field trip to Auschwitz, because former prisoners discuss daily routines in the camp, focusing on
essential issues such as prisoner housing, daily schedules, food allocation, work commandos, and personal survival strategies.

Fifth Lesson

The fifth lesson uses textual sources to focus on perpetrators [see Documents]. Rudolf Höss, the commander of the Auschwitz extermination camp, is used to represent the perpetrator's perspective. His autobiography presents his views of how everyday routine, a sense of order, duty, and mass killings are linked. The students recognize through diary excerpts that perpetrators such as Höss were not insane, but were conscious and politically aware careerists, convinced that their behavior was justified. Discussion of four excerpts is initially done in small groups, which then present their findings to the entire class. An alternative or supplementary option is the discussion of the protocol credited to the Central Office for Reich Security (RSHA) in Berlin dated June 5, 1942. This note is a part of the correspondence with Gaubschat, the firm that manufactured the trucks used to gas victims. This document makes it clear that the murder of Jews was only possible with the collaboration and involvement of bureaucrats and German industrial companies.

Sixth Lesson

The sixth lesson is aimed at providing emotional support for the students as they deal with the materials that prepare them for the upcoming field trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is important to convey to the students what they should expect during their visit to the concentration and extermination camp. Maps, plans of the camps, and the report by Jiri Steiner help achieve this objective.

Field Trip

It is beneficial for the students to participate in both guided group tours through Auschwitz-Birkenau [see Photos] and to have the opportunity to involve themselves actively in self-directed investigative learning. It is advisable to register in advance with the Archives at Auschwitz. While only some of the documents are available to the public, the archives still provide important materials about daily life and suffering at Auschwitz. The documents available include individual case files, death registers, criminal records, obituaries, and admission records. Individual case studies assist students by decreasing the anonymity of individuals in the history of mass murder.

Review Sessions

It is advisable to organize small group review sessions based on the daily events. The size of the groups is based on the number of chaperons on the trip. The review sessions should allow students to discuss their impressions, which at this point may still be vivid and possibly depressing for them. Discussion can help clarify their experiences and relieve any psychological distress.

Seventh Lesson

The seventh lesson, which concludes the unit, introduces Denmark's history as a country whose history contrasts with Germany. In the fall of 1943, Danish citizens organized a rescue effort for Jewish citizens in their country [see Maps]. Private individuals, doctors, teachers, housewives, students, business people and taxi drivers, all came together to arrange the rescue operation. Support came from all over the country -- even from the Danish police -- so that most Jews were smuggled to safety in Sweden. The Danish Jews were therefore one of the few groups able to escape deportation to Auschwitz because of the collective effort to secure their safety. The basis of the material for this lesson is a student paper based on the publications of Raul Hilberg.


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