Teaching Kristallnacht

After using Echoes and Reflections for many years with students, I was telling a friend of mine about a particular primary source from Lesson One: Studying the Holocaust that has always struck me. In it, the director of an orphanage describes his experience during Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” and the way he struggled to protect the kids under his care. As the night went on, children from all parts of the city came seeking safety until there were 90 with him being sheltered from the destruction happening around them.

My friend said that the story sounded incredibly familiar and I learned that her father was a child in that orphanage. He was there the night that Kristallnacht occurred. Her father survived because an American family adopted him just before emigration was no longer possible from Germany. This experience makes using these materials in my classroom even more meaningful.

Lesson One: Studying the Holocaust is one of my favorite sections of the Echoes and Reflections Teacher Resource Guide.  I’ve used components of this lesson many times since I was first introduced to Echoes in 2005; first as part of a quarter-long “Introduction to the Holocaust” while teaching at a high school in Pennsylvania, and more recently, as part of a semester-long “Holocaust and Genocide” elective for eleventh and twelfth graders at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, Virginia.  Although I use various aspects of Lesson One in other areas of my course, I love to share the components I use in my lesson on Kristallnacht with other teachers.

Kristallnacht is one of the most studied aspects of the Holocaust in American high schools.  Nearly every American History textbook section that mentions the Holocaust makes note of this turning point on November 9-10, 1938.  The “Night of the Broken Glass” was the first major public display of antisemitic violence against Jews in Germany and annexed Austria.   

In talking about Kristallnacht, my class examines primary sources, like the one in which the orphanage director accounts his experiences. As we discuss these documents and photos I fill in other aspects of the history of Kristallnacht.  I provide background, describe the unfolding of events on the night itself and we discuss the seizure of Jewish property that followed.  Students are challenged to consider some of the most complex aspects of studying the Holocaust including, collaboration and complicity.

Following this document analysis, we then watch the testimony of Kurt Messerschmidt.  Kurt was a young teacher at the time of Kristallnacht and his powerful description of events challenge my students to further consider what it means to be a bystander.  His testimony is one of my favorites from the entire resource guide and I find that it also becomes a favorite of my students.  I also make an effort to include the testimony of Esther Clifford, featured in Lesson Two: Antisemitism, at this point because her description of Kristallnacht adds another special layer.

I spend one ninety-minute block scheduled class on this material. In the days that follow I then introduce students to iWitness where their first task, is to take part in a lesson that I built specifically to examine a variety of experiences on Kristallnacht.  As my students explore and respond to content in IWitness they gain an added dimension of understanding. They enjoy working with both the traditional resources and the new technology. I’ve been told that for many students, this one of their favorite lessons all semester.

Jennifer Goss is a Social Studies teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, VA where she has taught since 2012. She currently teaches a Holocaust & Genocide elective in addition to Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics and US/VA History.

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