Holocaust Memorial Day lesson for lower-level learners

Levels: beginner to low pre-intermediate.
Ages: teens; adults.
Type: listening for gist and detail; speaking (sharing information).
Skills: listening; speaking; pronunciation (intonation patterns and individual sounds).
Language focus: vocab re family relationships & personal feelings; any other grammar and vocab that arises.

Notes: as with the lesson aimed at strong intermediate- to advanced-level students, I have tried to steer a course between trivialising the subject through linguistic pedantry and over-sentimentalising it by encouraging pity and stereo-typing amongst students.

one copy of this photograph, taken in March 1944;
one copy of this photograph, taken in 2009;
copies of this text for your students, if they are pre-intermediate or elementary;
a whiteboard;
blu-tak or sellotape to attach the photos to the board;
paper and pens.


  1. Stick the 1944 photograph up in the middle of the board, so that all of your students can see it. Draw a line down the middle of the board, below the picture.
  2. Indicate to one of your more confident students that they should come to the board. Give this student a pen. Indicate they should write any English words they hear in the left-hand column (if you’re right-handed), or the right-hand column if you’re left-handed (this is so that you don’t obscure any text when you’re writing!).
  3. Sit at the back of the room – or better, leave – and let them discuss the photo, and let the student at the board write down any words or phrases. If you leave the room, come back in 8 or 10 minutes.
  4. After about 10 minutes, return to the board. Now you can write in the blank column, helping the students rewrite the words and phrases they put on the board, using lots of elicitation. Try to write whole sentences (albeit simple ones) if you can. Encourage your students to copy down these sentences.
  5. Board “1944”. Elicit more details from the class about what this picture might represent (they might also notice the “Holocaust Memorial Trust” logo above it – if they do, good; if they don’t, don’t worry about it).
  6. Write down any more vocabulary as it emerges. Encourage any discussion. If you have a strong elementary or a pre-intermediate class, you could ask them questions such as those below to stimulate discussion:
    • why are all the people there?
    • where are they?
    • what are they doing?
    • what do they have with them?
    • Are they going on holiday?
    • where are they going to?
    • why don’t they look happy or excited?
    • Why are there no men in this photo?
  7. When your students have finished copying the sentences, and the discussion has petered out, rub out all the words on the board, but leave the photo.
  8. Attach the 2009 photograph next to the one from 1944. Again, elicit discussion and board vocabulary. If necessary, board “mother” and “daughter” next to this second picture.
  9. Encourage and elicit words about the relationships and feelings between the people in these two pictures. Encourage talk about the differences between them. Encourage your students to copy the vocabulary as you board it.
  10. If your class is pre-intermediate or elementary level, you might like to read them the text below, and then ask them questions about it. The text is about the 1944 photo.

    This photo was taken in March 1944. The women are members of the Greek-Jewish community of Ioaninna. There are no men in the picture because they had already become prisoners of the Nazis. In March, 1944, these women were ordered to pack a bag and leave their homes. THe Nazis made them gather together in an open space and here we see them waiting for the trucks that will take them away from Greece and across Europe to camps in Poland, where many of them will be murdered. Of course, as this picture is being taken, they don’t know that they will be murdered. They only know that they are leaving their homes and community and they have no idea when they will be allowed back home. That is why they are all looking cold and sad and why some of them are crying. They are facing a long journey into the unknown and there is no-one to help them.

    This picture was found four years ago. It is now on display in a small museum in New York, a museum which tries to make sure that the Jews of Greece are not forgotten. The staff of the museum called this picture The Crying Woman, after the woman in the foreground, because nobody knew who anybody in the picture was.

    The museum staff put the picture on their website and asked anyone who could identify the woman to contact them. Then they waited and waited. One day they received a message. A woman called Lia, who lived in Athens, recognised the crying woman. It was her grandmother.

    So now we know that The Crying Woman was Fani (pronounced Far-nee) Heim. She was 19 years old at the time of this picture. Fani’s grand-daughter Lia told the museum that Fani returned to Greece after the war. She settled in Athens, married a Christian man and had children and grandchildren. She did not hide the fact that she was Jewish and had survived the camps, but said very little about what had happened to her and how the lives of her grandmother, her father, her mother, her younger sister and two little brothers had all been taken by the Nazis.

    The questions, which you could dictate or board, could be:

    • when was the picture taken?
    • who is Lia?
    • Who is Fani Heim?
    • Where were these women taken?
    • What happened to them?
    • What happened to Fani’s family?
    • What did she do after the war?

    You could then read the text again, then pair the students and ask them to share their answers. You could then distribute copies of the text (above) and ask them to check their answers, then elicit (and board) the answers with the whole class.

    Also explain that the second picture shows a different holocaust survivor, Irene Furst, with her daughter, Linda Hurwitz, and that the photo was taken in April 2009, when Mrs Furst came to a college in the USA to share her story.

  11. Put your students in pairs. Ask them to tell each other about these two pictures. Monitor language while they do this, then get content feedback from the class.
  12. Board (corrected) versions of some of their sentences, with a gap for a grammar word in each line. Ask your students to decide together what the missing words are, then go through with the class.

Homework: ask them to bring in two photos to the next class: one of them and one of their mother/father. Ask them to prepare to speak about these photos for a minute to another student. Say they can use some of the vocabulary they wrote down to help them.

Acknowledgements: much of the inspiration for this lesson comes from an idea I found in Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury. The 1944 photo and original text adapted for this lesson come from this section of the Holocaust Memorial Trust – Educational Resources website. The 2009 photo comes from this page on the Cornell College website. I also learnt a lot about the dangers of stereo-type and pity in the classroom from this discussion in the Times Educational Supplement fora.

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