Museum Fellowship Lesson Plans

  wedding prewar
Wedding portrait of Jewish couple in Lodz.
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.

Introduction to the Rich European Jewish Culture
Margie Potash
Shrewsbury Public Schools
Shrewsbury, Massachusetts 



For over two thousand years, Jewish people have lived in Europe. Life was often difficult and Jews were subjected to persecutions, expulsions and pogroms. Despite trying circumstances, Jewish culture thrived and flourished. Jews made important contributions to European society. This lesson lets students explore various aspects of daily living, music and language among European Jews prior to the Holocaust.

Grade Level

Middle School or High School

Curriculum Fit

Social Studies or Language Arts

Student Instructions


  1. You will be looking at photographs of people just like yourselves who lived in European countries in the years prior to the Holocaust.
  2. From the websites suggested below, select two photos that you would like to use. For each photo, right click on it, save it as a graphic image to your computer. Go back to the photo on the website and record any identifying information such as title, source, date and caption. You may copy and paste this information into a Microsoft word document.
  3. Study the photos and respond to the questions asked on the Photograph Analysis Guide. These responses and copies of your two selected photos will be turned into your teacher.   
  4. Suggested websites for photos and images:


Search help

USHMM Jewish Life in Europe before the Holocaust

Photographs, artifacts, and biographical sketches are given in this introductory section.

USHMM Photo archives

Search by keyword such as Eisiskes shetl or Families (Prewar Jewish). Some lengthy annotations are given. Access to some 10,000 historical photographs from the Museum's collection of over 80,000 images.

Educational Program on Yiddish Culture (EPYC) The EPYC presents the Yiddish-speaking Jewish culture that flourished throughout Eastern Europe in the last 500 years.
Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance. And I Still See Their Faces In this exhibit, subtitled Images of Polish Jews, the people pictured are unaware of the impending crisis that will overtake their lives.


  1. Prior to the Holocaust, the rich European Jewish culture included a lot of music. Most people enjoyed classical music, folk songs, theater songs and a traditional type of music found at weddings and religious functions known as Klezmer. The "Klezmer Pioneers" combined the music of many different countries. This type of music has made a come back even today. Have you ever heard of it?
  2. Your assignment is to listen to music from one of the websites suggested below. Once you have found this music and listened to it, please write about why you think this music was popular prior to the Holocaust? Why might this music have evoked happy thoughts and feelings for people?
  3. Please comment on which website gave the best or the most material? Is this music something you would recommend to a friend? To your parents? Grandparents? Teachers? Why or why not? Your honest thoughts are encouraged.


Search help

The Klezmatics

This band was founded in New York Cityís East Village in 1986 but revives the rhythms and melodies of traditional Klezmer. The Recordings link provides musical excerpts.

Tara Publications

Follow the link to the Audio Library. Select Klezmer, Holocaust, or other music of the time.

Jewish Music World Web Center

Online links are provided to Klezmer sites such as HaGalil OnLine and to A Collection of Chabad Niggunim (Melodies).

 Yiddish Language

  1. Yiddish was the language spoken by Eastern European and Russian Jews. It uses the same alphabet as Hebrew but is a blend of Hebrew and several European languages, primarily German. Although few people who still speak the language today, a renewed interest in Yiddish has emerged on college campuses. My grandparents spoke Yiddish. I remember hearing them talk and trying to figure out some of the words that they were speaking. Of course, in order to be assimilated in the United States very few people continued to speak this as their primary language. Can you think of any other languages that have followed similar patterns?
  2. You will explore some websites to learn about the Yiddish language and then respond to the questions found on the Yiddish Language Introduction.

Basic Yiddish Lessons

My Grandmotherís Yiddish

Yiddish Links

Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture

Shetl, Yiddish Language and Culture

Yiddish Online Dictionaries

Photograph Analysis Guide
  1. What is the title, identification or caption of the photograph?
  2. When and where was it produced?
  3. What organization or Web site is responsible for making the photograph available to us?
  4. Who created this photograph?
  5. Identify and describe any people or objects appearing in the photograph.
  6. Is any action taking place in this picture? Explain your response.
  7. Can you determine what may have happened immediately before the photograph was produced or afterwards?
  8. What unique aspect of Jewish life before the Holocaust does this photograph capture?
  9. What further questions are suggested by this photograph?

Yiddish Language Introduction

  1. Explain in what geographic regions Yiddish was spoken and list one example of a Yiddish dialect. (Hint: See My Grandmotherís Yiddish)
  2. Give a translation for the following Yiddish proverb: A sheyn punym kost gelt.
  3. Listen to some Yiddish radio on Dora Teitelboim's website. Describe this experience in a few sentences.
  4. Use the Websites listed above to find definitions for the following words:
  1. in trouble - begins with the letter (a)
  2. coffee cake (b)
  3. please (b)
  4. Life (c)
  5. take it easy (c)
  6. Don't bother me (d)
  7. something (e)
  8. Land of Israel (e)
  9. eat in good health (e)
  1. Browse through the above Websites. Mention several words with which you are familiar.
  2. From what direction do you read Yiddish? What other languages do this?
  3. Approximately how many people speak Yiddish today and in what locales?
  4. Listen to the song Oyfn Pripetshik which means "on the Hearth of the Fireplace." It tells of a rabbi or a teacher who is teaching the alphabet to young children in a safe and warm place. Who wrote this song? When was it written?


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