Lesson for Holocaust Memorial Day (27 Jan)

Levels: strong intermediate to advanced.
Ages: older teens; young adults.
Type: using a photo and class tableau to create stories inspired by a real event.
Skills: listening; speaking; writing; pronunciation (conveying atmosphere and emotion through pauses and intonation patterns).
Language focus: vocab and grammar as it arises.

Note: This is a very tricky subject for all teachers to broach – but perhaps especially EFL teachers. I feel it’s important to acknowledge this event with your class, but there are twin dangers of trivialising it with a focus on pedantic language points, or of over-sentimentalising it, so that the real lives and personalities of those involved get lost in a fog of emotion. I hope I’ve been successful in avoiding these problems, and that the students can engage with the issues involved in a clear-eyed way. PS – in case you missed it, I’ve added a Dogme-style lesson on this subject for lower-level learners here.

one copy of this photograph, possibly enlarged to A3 size, and with the logo at the top removed;
copies of this text for each of your students.

Other materials:
a whiteboard;
blu-tak or some tape to stick the photo to the board;
paper and pens.


  1. Stick the photo to the board and stand to one side. Wait for students to make any comments about it.
  2. Encourage more comments by asking these questions in turn, and seeing what answers your students give:-
    • why are all these people gathered together?
    • where are they?
    • what are they doing?
    • what do they have with them?
    • they have suitcases and bags at their feet, so are they going on a journey?
    • where are they going to?
    • why don’t they look happy or excited?
    • Why are there no men in this photo?
  3. If necessary (and only if necessary), board any unknown vocabulary, or words they are finding tricky.
  4. Explain that you have a short text about this picture. Say that you will read it aloud, and ask your students to listen. Ask them not to write any notes for now.
  5. Read this text aloud, at a normal pace:

    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.

  6. Board these questions, or dictate them (twice, if necessary):

    • 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?
  7. Put the students in pairs, and ask them to share their answers with each other.
  8. If necessary, hand the text out, so they can check their understanding. Then go through the answers with the class (the photo was taken in March 1944; Lia is Fani Heim’s grand-daughter; Fani Heim is the woman in the centre of the picture; the women were taken to concentration camps in Germany; most of them would have died; Fani’s family were murdered by the Nazis; after the war, she returned to Athens, married a Christian and had children).
  9. Clear a space in the centre of your classroom. Tell your students that the class will recreate this photo in the classroom. Explain that this can be a good way to imagine what it would have been like to be there at that time. Allocate characters to your students (some of them women in the photograph, some as the Nazi soldiers and ordinary townspeople outside it) and ask them to stand up and come into the central space.
  10. Give them time to get into position for the photograph and then ask them to freeze in that position.
  11. Ask the students to think about how their character feels. Ask them what their characters had been doing earlier that morning. Ask them what their characters think will happen next.
  12. If the atmosphere feels right, “unfreeze” a couple of students with different characters, one at a time, and invite them to walk around the tableau and look at it from different places.
  13. Ask your students to relax and return to their seats. Get some reactions from different students: what was their character thinking about? What were they feeling? What had they been doing earlier that day? What did they think would happen next?
  14. Tell your students that you want them to remember all they can about the character they played in the photograph.
  15. Tell them you would like them to write two short texts from the point of view of their character. The first should be about the time the picture was taken: what was your character doing before? What was it like in the square? How was this person feeling? Board these questions under the heading “Before.” Fortunately, your character survives the war. The second short text should tell us what he or she did next, and how they felt about their past experiences.
  16. Hand out paper if necessary, then let the students get on with it. Circulate and monitor, and help with any grammar or vocabulary difficulties as they arise.
  17. If you have a larger class, put your students into groups of four or five; if your class is quite small, you might like to make this next part a whole-class activity.
  18. Invite your students, either in their groups or as a class, to take it in turns to read out their stories. Listeners should feel free to ask questions and get more information at the end of each story.
  19. Get some content feedback from the class: find out from a couple of different students what had happened to their characters, and how they had changed because of the war.
  20. Ask your students if they have ever felt anything like the characters they wrote about, even in a small way. Invite them to share these experiences (if they are happy to) with each other in groups, or as a whole class.
  21. Explain that today is Holocaust Memorial Day. Ask the class if they think it is important to remember the Holocaust these days and, if so, why. Ask them if they think anything like it has happened recently, and if they think anything like it could happen again.
  22. Ask your students if they know anyone who was involved in the Second World War. Find out a couple of details about these people if you can.
  23. If you like, you can collect in their written work for marking.

Homework: if any of your students know someone who was involved in World War II and if they can (and are happy to) interview them, they can do this for homework, and write it up. Otherwise, you can ask your students to visit this website (which has the words of several Holocaust survivors), choose one of the stories and write a short summary of it. You can ask your students to prepare to give a one-minute presentation about the person they interviewed, or the person they wrote about, in the following week.

Acknowledgements: the picture and original text adapted for this lesson come from this section of the Holocaust Memorial Trust – Educational Resources 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.