Museum Fellowship Lesson Plans

Sighet ghetto street following deportation.
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Night: A Study in Compassion and Courage
Bernard Gordon
New York City Public Schools (retired)
Brooklyn, New York



This unit consists of ten lessons on Elie Wiesel's Night. In order to meet the requirements made by different school systems, each lesson has a performance objective and two aims (one for a discussion of the content material and the other for the literary technique being covered). To to be consistent, each lesson employs two different performance objectives, one dedicated to each type of aim. Copies of handouts to be used in this unit are provided, but teachers who use them should be aware that they have been copyrighted.

Grade Level

Grades 10-12 

Curriculum Fit

English, Holocaust Studies

Procedure / Strategy

Lesson I: Literary Genre

CONTENT AIM: Why do people read autobiographies? 
LITERARY AIM: What are the differences between a historical novel and an autobiography?

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to

  • distinguish between fictional and non-fictional literature.
  • gain insights into upcoming reading experience through some preliminary analysis.

MOTIVATION (teacher asks): What do you think Mark Twain meant when he said that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to be believable but truth does not? 

METHODOLOGY: In discussing the answer to the motivational question, lead the class to a consideration first of autobiographical writing and then to Holocaust literature. After a brief discussion as to what the class should expect to find in the book, distribute copies of Night, and assign the class to read it for the next session. A sense of good timing would have the assignment given before a three-day weekend or on a Friday.

Lesson II: Introduction to the Discussion

CONTENT AIM: Why does the author name his book Night
LITERARY AIM: How does descriptive language deepen our understanding and appreciation of a book? 

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to

  • discuss the negativity and bleakness associated with the language of the book.
  • find metaphors and explain how they affect the tone of the book.

MOTIVATION (teacher asks): How do our concepts of the word "night" and what we have read in the book lead us to one of its major themes?

METHODOLOGY: Discuss metaphorical language and its effect on the tone of a work of literature. Give examples and have students find their own. A good example is on the last page of the book: “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse stared back at me." Follow up this discussion with one on the negative images suggested by the nighttime, such as dread, grim, foreboding, unending bleakness, evil, fright, etc.

EVALUATION: Lead a discussion with the class on the following statement that Wiesel made at another time in explicating the themes of Night: "The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing." (Legends of Our Time. New York: Avon, 1968.) Raise the implications concerning the use of metaphorical language to make the abominable fathomable. 

Lesson III: Introduction to the Author

CONTENT AIM: How do the actions of the people around the author affect him?
LITERARY AIM: What effect does the first-person narration have on us? 

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to

  • evaluate the character of the author by determining his positive and negative attributes as a narrator.
  • identify and describe the factors that resulted in the author's predicament.

MOTIVATION (teacher asks): Writing about Holocaust literature, Lawrence Langer said, "The reader is temporarily an insider and permanently an outsider." (The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.) How does that apply to this book? 

METHODOLOGY: Lead class to see that there is a distinction between every person's perception of the truth and the absolute truth itself, for example, the conflicting sworn statements of impartial eyewitnesses to a crime. Guide the class to see that the discrepancy is not always the result of honesty versus dishonesty, but sometimes of a difference in the point of view. (Be prepared with pictures and other audiovisual aids dealing with the Holocaust to aid students' understanding.) 

EVALUATION: Have the students determine how Elie reacts to his situation and to those about him, and what this tells us about his personality. Let the class speculate about what other characters in the book (e.g., his father, Moshe the Beadle, etc.) would say about him.

Lesson IV: The Holocaust 

CONTENT AIM: Why did the members of Sighet's Jewish community refuse to believe their horrible situation?
LITERARY AIM: How does foreshadowing affect our appreciation of a book? 

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to

  • explain the influence of historical events on the anonymous people who are caught up in them.
  • identify and explain examples of foreshadowing in the book. 

MOTIVATION (teacher asks): What clues can you find early on that the experience the Jews of Sighet will face will be much worse than they think?

METHODOLOGY: Lead class in a discussion (with explanations, if necessary) that the Jews of Sighet (and elsewhere) refused to believe what was going to happen to them for the following reasons, among others: there was no precedent for such a horrible tragedy; the Germans were cultivated, educated people who would gain nothing by such actions; and Jewish history is filled with so many examples of suffering experienced at the hands of non-Jews, that Jews often developed a fatalistic attitude about their condition in a world filled with bigotry. Discuss the roles played by Moshe the Beadle and Madame Schachter in portending the horrors that were to come. Develop the concept of foreshadowing and lead students to see the part it plays in the book. Have them find and explain their own examples. 

EVALUATION: Have the class read the following statement from Wiesel’s Legends of Our Time (already cited in Lesson II). "At Auschwitz, not only man died, but also the idea of man. To live in a world where there is nothing anymore, where the executioner acts as god, as judge - many wanted no part of it. It was its own heart the world incinerated at Auschwitz." Lead the students to an understanding of the results of an unchecked progression of evil.

Lesson V: Relationships 

CONTENT AIM: How do the stressful circumstances of the Holocaust affect the relationships between and among the prisoners of the concentration camps? 
LITERARY AIM: How is the relationship between Elie and his father in the concentration camp ironic?

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to 

  • identify common problems adolescents have with their elders and explain how these problems are intensified by stressful situations.
  • identify and explain the use of irony in the book. 

MOTIVATION (teacher asks): How does the relationship between Elie and his father change from what it was in Sighet to what it becomes in the concentration camps? Is such change believable? Why or why not?

METHODOLOGY: Lead a discussion with the students on the relationship Elie has with his father, concentrating especially on how they related to each other before and after their deportation, and have the students find their own examples to indicate the change that is taking place. Have the students comment upon the change and speculate as to whether that degree of change is unavoidable or even believable in such circumstances.

EVALUATION: Have the students discuss the reasons why and how life in the concentration camps during the Holocaust affected relationships.

Lesson VI: The Dehumanization Caused by War

CONTENT AIM: What did life in the concentration camp do to its victims? 
LITERARY AIM: In a first-person narrative, how does the author let us know what characters other than the narrator are thinking? 

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to

  • describe how war dehumanizes people.
  • describe and explain the "war” going on within the concentration camp. 

MOTIVATION (teacher asks):  Some writers described Auschwitz as if it were a different world, where all rules of right and wrong were discarded, where accepted moral values and standards of behavior were not applicable, and where personalities seemed to change to match the environment. "At Auschwitz," they wrote, "anything was possible." (Life Unworthy of Life, by Sidney M. Bolkosky, Betty Rotberg Ellias, and David Harris. Farmington Hills, MI: The Center for the Study of the Child, 1987.) How would you justify or disagree with this opinion? 

METHODOLOGY: Lead the class in a discussion of the moral underpinnings of our society (e.g., the concepts of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, honest vs. dishonest)  which contrast with those of the concentration camp world as described in Night. Let the students see that life in the camp is maintained by avoiding death and that the brutality and deprivation the prisoners face on a regular basis create a world that seems to be normal and usual for them. The students should understand that in order to even have a chance at survival, the prisoners had to recognize early on that morality and logic did not exist in their world and the only law was to stay alive.

EVALUATION: Lead the students to see that the refusal to let one's spirit be broken helped prevent dehumanization. This was often manifested in acts of resistance which might have seemed so insignificant to the reader but important to the prisoner, as keeping one's stability, maintaining normal routines as much as possible, helping those in need, and so on.

Lesson VII: Escape 

CONTENT AIM: How does Elie “escape” from Auschwitz? 
LITERARY AIM: How does the use of symbolism give us deeper meanings of a story? 

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to

  • explain how Elie was able to "escape" from the horrors of the camp into his own thoughts and analyses.
  • examine the efficacy of their own methods of escaping reality by evaluating the methods which Elie used.

MOTIVATION (teacher asks): When you "want to get away from it all," how do you do it? How did Elie Wiesel "get away from it all"? 

METHODOLOGY: Discuss with the class the methods of escape they have raised. Ask the students if such methods ever work and whether escape from all situations is really possible. Have the students explain why people try to "get away from it all," and why it was so necessary to do so at Auschwitz. 

EVALUATION: Lead the class to see that even if escape from Auschwitz was not possible, it was crucial for the prisoners to develop strategies to prevent their experiences from destroying themselves. 

Lesson VIII: Fears 

CONTENT AIM: What are our deepest fears? 
LITERARY AIM: How do descriptive words help us gain greater insight into an author's meaning? 

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to 

  • compare and contrast their own fears with the ones that Elie had.
  • explain that the most serious fears center around a person's fear for survival or fear of rejection. 

MOTIVATION: Divide the class into groups of four or five. Have each group select a recorder/reporter. (Teacher asks):  Make a list of all of the things that the members of your group are most afraid of. Add to your list the fears that Elie Wiesel had in the concentration camp. How are his fears similar to yours? How are they different from yours? 

METHODOLOGY: Allow about fifteen minutes for this exercise, circulating around the room, providing help and hints where necessary. Have the recorders report and develop lists of the students' and Elie's fears on the chalkboard. (If no one mentions the fears of rejection and criticism, use the following questions to elicit these: Why do we sometimes avoid approaching a new person who seems interesting and whom we would like to meet and get to know? Why do we sometimes tear up compositions and test papers when they are returned? Why does being criticized often hurt our feelings?) Lead the students to see that criticism and rejection are seen as an attack on our self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Just as war attacks us physically, we can perceive criticism and rejection as attacking us emotionally. The less confidence we have in ourselves, the more sensitive we are to criticism. Let the students find examples of Elie's fears and compare and contrast them with those of their own.

EVALUATION: Let the class decide whether or not Elie's methods of dealing with his fears were good and effective.

Lesson IX: Identity and Ideals

CONTENT AIM: What changes did life in the concentration camp make in Elie? 
LITERARY AIM: How do authors prepare us for the fact that their characters are undergoing change?

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to

  • identify with Elie in his search for identity and in his struggle to maintain his ideals in a hostile world.
  • gain insight into the everyday "wars" of life to understand that one's growth as an individual depends upon successfully maintaining one's identity in the face of opposition. 

MOTIVATION (Teacher asks):  In what ways would you characterize the Elie who survived the Holocaust?

METHODOLOGY: Lead the class in a discussion as to how Elie was changed by his experience in the concentration camp, generalizing from his circumstances so as to learn about survivors of the Holocaust. Have the students review descriptions of Elie as he was before he was deported and then the experiences that changed him (e.g., the hanging of the child).

EVALUATION: Have the students speculate as to how Elie was able to keep his identity and his ideals while immersed in such a horrendous environment. 

Lesson Plan X: Fixing the Blame

CONTENT AIM: What were the people like who made Auschwitz work? 
LITERARY AIM: How do authors use understatement to produce a dramatic effect? 

PERFORMANCE OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to

  • reflect upon and discuss the positive and negative qualities of the past actions of themselves and others.
  • identify and explain examples of understatement given for effect. 

MOTIVATION: Distribute copies of "All There Is to Know about Adolph Eichmann," by Leonard Cohen, “'Letter to a Survivor," by Haim Ginott and the statement by Martin Niemöeller.  (Teacher asks): Read these three selections. What do they tell us about the people who made Auschwitz and the Holocaust work? 

METHODOLOGY: Read and discuss each selection separately with the class. If necessary, identify Eichmann. The discussion of the selections should lead the students to the realization that the people who enabled the Holocaust to accomplish its purpose were in most cases plain, ordinary people, just like the rest of us, who by acts of omission or commission were lulled or gulled into supporting it. Similarly, the students should come to see that when people do nothing in the face of evil, they become unwitting accomplices to it. The students should also find examples of understatement in the writing and explain how it works as a literary device to sharpen the author's point. 

EVALUATION: Present Edmund Burke's well-known quotation to the class: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." The students should discuss the implications of that statement not only to this lesson but also to the entire unit. 


All There Is to Know about Adolph Eichmann by Leonard Cohen 

Eyes: Medium
Hair: Medium
Weight: Medium
Height: Medium
Distinguishing Features: None 
Number of Fingers: Ten
Number of Toes: Ten
Intelligence: Medium 

What did you expect?
Oversize incisors?
Green saliva?

Letter to a Survivor by Haim Ginott

Dear Teacher, 

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:

Gas chambers built by LEARNED engineers 
Children poisoned by EDUCATED physicians
Infants killed by TRAINED nurses 
Women and babies shot and burned by HIGH SCHOOL and COLLEGE graduates. 

So I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.

Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.

Statement by Martin Niemöeller 

First they came for the Communists 
and I did not speak out--because I was not a Communist. 
Then they came for the Social Democrats 
and I did not speak out--because I was not a Social Democrat. 
Then they came for the trade unionists 
and I did not speak out--because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews 
and I did not speak out--because I was not a Jew.  
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me.


Return to Museum Fellowship Teaching Resources