Life Before the Holocaust: "We Were Children Just Like You"
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Life Before the Holocaust: "We Were Children Just Like You"

Categories Holocaust 
grades:  Middle School (6-8) 

Lesson Summary:

Children of the Holocaust, The World of the Persecuted, Jewish Life in Europe Before the Holocaust

The poem, “We Were Children Just Like You” by Yaffa Eliach,” is a poignant reminder that the children of the Holocaust were like children everywhere. They had similar childhood games, went to school and “sang and danced and dreamed,” until their childhoods were stolen and their lives forever changed. The author, Yaffa Eliach is a foremost scholar in Holocaust studies and a professor of history and literature in the department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College. Her books, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (1982) and There Once Was a World are international bestselling classics.

Enduring Understandings:

  • Of the six million murdered during the Holocaust, one and half million were children.
  • The words of the survivors allow us to learn about their reality before, during, and after the Holocaust. It is this testimony that must be understood to help guide us as we move forward in our own lives with a respect for life. 
  • Each individual can make a difference in the world.

Be Inspired:The ideas included are offered as starting points as you and your students explore, discover and live the lessons. Be sure to elicit and encourage student and parent participation, consistently reinforcing the value being addressed. Allow lessons to authentically develop and change based on engagement and interests.

Lesson Plan Components

For the educatorJewish Thought, Text, and Traditionsmore

Background information: Into the Darkness

Of the six million Jewish people murdered during the Holocaust in the Nazis’ systematic plan to annihilate an entire group of people, one and a half million of them were children, Who were these children? What happened to them? What might they have accomplished had their lives not been cut short or their childhoods stolen? What roads might they have traveled and what dreams might have come true?

Before delving into the moral and ethical issues associated with the Holocaust, before attempting to strip away the layers of what was to help guide us through what is and perhaps might be, it is important to become acquainted with the victims of the Holocaust, Through their words, their testimony, survivors take us “into the darkness” and allow us to enter the world of the persecuted. Their words remind us the despair, the terror, and the suffering that human beings were forced to endure. Their words are a testament to hope, courage, and the indomitable human spirit. In the end, it is the words of the survivors of the Holocaust that must inspire us--their words that remind us what it means to be human, to respect life and hold it sacred.

Jewish every dayIncorporate Jewish Valuesmore

Materials and resourcesmore


Note to Teachers:

One of the primary concerns of educators teaching the history of the Holocaust is how to present horrific images in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson. You should remind yourself that each student and each class is different and that what seems appropriate for one may not be appropriate for all.

Students are essentially a "captive audience." When you assault them with images of hor­ror for which they are unprepared, you violate a basic trust: the obligation of a teacher to provide a "safe" learning environment.Try to select images and texts that do not exploit the students' emotional vulnerability or that might be construed as disrespectful of the victims themselves. (Studying the Holocaust Through Film and Memoir: Human Rights and Social Responsibility , Kassenoff and Meinbach, page xxiv.)

Discuss the fundamental ways in which all children, the world over, are alike. In what ways might they differ?
Depending upon student knowledge of the Holocaust, share with them some of the background information included in “For the Educator” section.

During: Read the poem aloud, stopping when appropriate to address comments, clarify, predict and guide students’ understanding.
  • Introduce students to the poem, “We Were Children Just Like You,” written by Holocaust survivor, author, scholar, and professor, Yaffa Eliach.
  • Read the poem aloud.
  • Discuss the following:
    • In what ways were the children of the Holocaust just like you? In what ways were they different? Explain.
    • In the second stanza of the poem, the author writes, “We never grew up.” Describe how this supports the testimony of the child survivors who said they never had a childhood?
    • In the poem, the author writes, “Just like you we wanted to live.” What did the children do to fight back, both physically and spiritually? 
  • Choral read --involve the entire class in reading the poem together or divide into groups, each reading aloud a different stanza.
“We Are Children Just Like You”:
Have students create their own stanza to add to the poem, beginning with the words, “We are children just like you.” Combine these to form an original version dedicated to the children of the Holocaust. You may wish to create a video and share it. Include the lines and verses of the poem with background music or illustrations to accompany it.


Explore, Discover, and More Extension and Reinforcement Activitiesmore

Reflections in Writing: Add students ideas to those listed below and involved them in one or more of the following:

Journal Writing: Consider the lines and verses in the poem. Which one(s) make(s) you most uncomfortable, Sad? Hopeful? Have students write three journal entries in which they react to the lines selected.

Poetry Writing: The poem ends with the verse, “a million and a half promises never filled.” Create a poem, that continues with this thought--how an act of hatred can change the world. Give specific references from not only the Holocaust but in terms of national and international events. Illustrate and display.

Researching the History: Fill your room with appropriate maps, news articles, encyclopedias, and reference books to help stu­dents in their research. For example:

Heritage: Civilization and the Jews
The Longest Hatred
There Once Was a Town
Historical text:
The World Must Know by Michael Berenbaum (1993)
A History of the Holocaust by Yehuda Bauer and Nili Keren (1982)
Holocaust: A History by Deborah Dwork and Robert Van Pelt (2002)
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:  comprehensive summary of the Holocaust, timelines, maps, photographs, glossary, and survivor testimony 
The History Place: Includes a comprehensive timeline of the Holocaust and and historical information
The Holocaust Chronicle : Includes more than 800 pages of Holocaust history 

Much is know about the Holocaust years and those following the Holocaust. But, what was life like for the Jewish children living in Eastern Europe in the years before 1930? How did they live with their non-Jewish neighbors? (Explore both rural and urban life.) What generalizations can students make concerning their assimilation into the general population? Have students identify photographs and writing that support the knowledge they have gained. Have them create and share a visual aid to describe the “world that was.”

What contributions did the Jewish people of the time (before the Nazi Party came into power in 1933) make to society in areas of the humanities such as music, art, literature, and fields such as science, medicine, law? 
  • Involve groups of students in the research of one of these areas and the way it was impacted by the Jewish people. 
  • Have students present their findings.
  • Discuss, “How does this add to your understanding of the Holocaust and the loss of six million Jewish people --1 ½ million of them children.

Lessons for Today
The poem ends with the line “ a million and a half promises never filled. Remember us!” Create a mural dedicated to the children of the Holocaust and all children killed in the name of hatred and prejudice. The mural can include photos, pictures, material, words to express what the world has lost. You can also include their poems (see “Reflections in Writing activity).

Music Connectionsmore

Evidence of Learningmore

  • Student discussion and writing reflect an understanding of “the life that was” for Jewish children before the Holocaust.
  • Student discussion, writing and research findings reflect an understanding and sensitivity to how much was lost not just as a result of the Holocaust, but as a result of all “hate” related events in our world today.


Lesson Contributors

Dr. Miriam Klein Kassonoff and Dr. Anita Meyer Meinbach from their book, with permission): Studying the Holocaust Through Film and Literature: Human Rights and Social Responsibility (2004 ). Christopher-Gordon, Publishers, Inc. Norwood, A.