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Holocaust Literature

The Holocaust through the lens of literature and film.

The Holocaust. It's hard to imagine so much suffering, and it's even harder to imagine why it happened. Maybe that's why writers and filmmakers have been fascinated by it ever since it went down. What went so horribly wrong in Germany in the 1930s? What was it like for the people who were there? And is there anything we can learn from it?

There are lots of ways to try to answer these questions, and this course will do it through books and films, zeroing in on what the Holocaust meant for the people who lived through it. In this standards-aligned course, packed with nonfiction, memoir, literature, primary and secondary sources, and visuals, we'll look at everything from poetry to survivor testimonies to Hollywood blockbusters, all from a personal perspective.

It's admittedly a heavy course, but there are a huge variety of activities, readings, and topics that appeal to any Shmooper. That being said, its chief goal is to start to answer the Big Questions. In this semester-long course, we'll not only learn what happened, but why and how—and speaking of hows, how the Holocaust is discussed, seen, and depicted today. 

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. A Very Brief History of the Holocaust

The Holocaust conjures up a boatload of feelings and images, and in this unit, we're going to ground those feelings and images in concrete information and facts about this dreadful time in history. Before we dive into the literature and film of the Holocaust, we'll take a look at the context surrounding it—which, of course, will help you out down the road.

Unit 2. Survivor Memoirs

In this unit, we'll be looking at survivor memoirs: accounts of the Holocaust written by people who lived in the camps. We'll be tackling Night, Survival in Auschwitz, Maus, and The Sunflower. (Full disclosure: Maus wasn't written by a survivor, but the author based it on conversations he had with his [very cranky] father, who did live through the Holocaust.)

Unit 3. Holocaust Fiction

This unit is all about historical fiction, and one of the main questions we'll ask is whether there should even be such a thing as Holocaust fiction. To help us answer this question, we're going to tackle four very different novels about the Holocaust: Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated.

Unit 4. Holocaust Film

Directors and screenwriters are just as interested as fiction writers in the stories—both heroic and tragic—of the Holocaust. In this unit, we're going to watch (and analyze, duh) three movies about the Holocaust: Everything Is Illuminated, Schindler's List, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 2: Onwards into the Night

Eliezer and his father have arrived at Auschwitz, he's been separated from his mother and sisters, and his faith in God—which was incredibly important to him in Sighet—is pretty much in shambles.

Train tracks leading into a brick gateway.
The front gates of Birkenau. This is what Eliezer and his family would have seen as their train pulled in.

And we're just getting warmed up.

Life in the camp is only going to get worse as Eliezer watches the camp break his father's spirit and witnesses horrors that were unimaginable to him before his deportation.

While you read, keep your eye out for some of the historical details that you researched in past lessons. You're an expert on Auschwitz, but Night will add to your knowledge—not only by giving you more detail but also by letting you see the camp through Eliezer's eyes. One of the great things about literature is that it can help us understand what history meant to the people living it; we can't experience it ourselves, but we can get an inkling of understanding about what it means.

Our question to you, then, is what did the Holocaust mean for Eliezer and his family?