Pre-WWII European Jewish Life Photo Project


  • Students will locate and examine pre-WWII Jewish religious, cultural and communal life in Europe through photographs from that time.
  • Students will interpret what pre-WWII Jewish life in Europe may have been like and relate that to their own lives.
  • Students will research information about the locales of photographs collected to discover different aspects of Jewish life before and after Nazi occupation.
  • Students will analyze photographs collected and the research gathered on different Jewish communities.
  • Students will assess what Jewish life prior to WWII in Europe was like through a follow-up writing assignment.
  • Students will synthesize the goals of the project through class discussion at the end of the lesson to process the individuality of Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust.

Materials Needed: 

  1. Copies of Instructions & Handouts, one for each student
  2. Computers with Internet access
  3. Access to photo archives and learning center
  4. Access to the Museum of Tolerance Online Multimedia Learning Center, “The Jews” and “Places”
  5. Large classroom map of WWII Europe

The focus of this project is to engage students in understanding the individuality of Jewish lives affected by or lost in the Holocaust, as well as how their communities were affected. It concentrates on the normalcy (religious, cultural and communal) of Jewish life through the finding and analysis of family photographs before the Nazi occupation or invasion of that community and how it changed drastically, followed by researching those communities.

In order to be successful in this project, students need basic computer skills and prior background in Internet usage and research. In addition, students need to be familiar with a very basic timeline of the Holocaust (specifically when different countries came under Nazi control, though teachers may choose to provide this information for students), as well as European geography.

Days 1-4: Finding photos, analysis, and town research
In class, students brainstorm a list of words they associate with 'typical' or 'normal' daily life, as they know it, and then share those lists in class. Project instructions are handed out and explained, and students are asked to transfer the 'brainstormed' list of words (to use as keywords in searching the archives) to the back of that paper to have at their fingertips.

Students now spend four days during class time using computers to access and research two photos of pre-WWII Jewish life in Europe, as well as information about one of the communities of the photos. It's important to note the locales of photos and years during which photos were taken to decide whether life was prior to the Nazi occupation of that country, and if then, life was therefore 'normal'. Most students will ask the teacher to help with this aspect, but they can also find out on their own.

Additionally, students will search through the photo archives until they find 'just the right one' for themselves. Students are to then copy and paste each photo, its date taken, and the locale of it (not the caption, however) onto a new word document and print. After students have found and analyzed the photos using the handout provided, they should begin researching the town or city of one of the photos they collected by answering the following questions. Research is due on Day 5. (Most students will need one-two days for photo collection, and two-three days for community research.)

  • 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?

For homework on the first or second day (after pre-war photos have been gathered), students are to look through their own family photos to find at least one to share with the class that relates in some way to one of the photos they have researched. (I do not tell them that they will be bringing in their own when they begin searching for photos, so that they choose photos that strike them in some way, rather than ones they know a match may be found for at home.) Also as part of their homework, students are to write an organized response to the following questions concerning their photos:

  • Identify evidence in your researched photos that suggests that life was normal for Jews prior to the Nazis.
  • What did you discover as you looked through your own family's photos in comparison to those that you had researched? Which photo of your family did you choose that relates and why?
  • How do the photos show the similarities between you, your family, or your community to those in European Jewish life prior to WWII?

Day 5: All work due, in-class discussion
The entire project is due, but in stages. Usually I give the following directions, and then 15-20 minutes of class time for completion, prior to our final processing/discussion. First, students are to attach their own family photo to the pre-war one it relates to so that both can be seen. (I have also had students put their photos on one board and the Jewish life photos on a separate board to compare/contrast.) Either way, students are to hang the collected photos (including their own) on a chalkboard or bulletin board so that it will be one large visual collection. Third, students are to mark with a pushpin on the classroom map posted the location researched during this project. Fourth, students are to staple together and turn in the remaining photo analysis sheets (two, one for each photo), writing assignment, and locale research.

After those tasks are completed, a final project synthesis takes place: first, students gather around the boards, and we look at the class photographs together and discuss the similarities and differences we notice. Then, students take their seats so that we may continue our discussion. The focus of the discussion should be on how the students and people pictured are similar to each other, and how the community of the students and those pictured are similar, as well. Discussion questions include but are not limited to:

  • 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 both sets 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?

After assessing students' understanding of the project through the previous questions, discussion should then focus on the magnitude of six million lives lost through the visual on the wall of the people in the photos. Students have already counted them for their analysis sheets, so involving the entire class by adding up the numbers then dividing into six million can be powerful; however, it can also be confusing. Try to make a 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.

Finally, as happens, 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-Nazis, how normal it was, and what was ultimately lost.

Students are assessed several ways: through demonstrating the ability to choose photos according to the provided criteria concerning places and dates of Nazi control; through completing photo analysis sheets (two); through associating/seeing the parallel of their current life with their own photo that relates as evident in choice of photo(s) brought into class; through answering the questions posed in their writing assignment in an organized, thoughtful piece; and through explaining what happened to the Jewish community researched in answering the questions given.

Students are also informally evaluated on this project through class discussion generated to see if they are participating, and if obvious connections were made between the photos researched, their own lives, and what the communities have in common.

Aimee Young, the 2004 DisneyHAND Teacher Awards Honoree, teaches 12th grade English and Holocaust studies at Loudonville High School in Loudonville, Ohio. This lesson can also be found in elongated form at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

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 small shtetl of Eisysky's pre-Nazi life.