©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Diminishing the Complexity and Horror of the Holocaust: Using Simulations in an Attempt to Convey Historical Experiences


Samuel Totten

In an effort to provide students with a “real sense” as to what Jews went through during the Holocaust, some teachers (including university professors) latch on to the use of simulations. Others, including many long-time Holocaust educators and concerned Holocaust survivors, look askance at the use of simulations, arguing that they provide an unrealistic view of tortuously complex and horrific situations and serve to minimize the significance of what victims experienced.

The focus of this essay is twofold: first, it delineates why and how some educators have used simulations to teach their students about various aspects of the Holocaust; second, it argues that the use of such simulations constitutes poor pedagogy as a result of its drastic over-simplification of Holocaust history.


Why and How Teachers Use Simulations of the Holocaust

“The truth of the matter is that we need to use anything we can find to allow students to make connections between their lessons and their life.”1 This sentiment expressed by one teacher with regard to Holocaust education is, unfortunately, shared by many others at the elementary through university levels.

Some teachers believe that simulations are desirable pedagogical devices for capturing student interest. First, they argue that simulations are a powerful way to provide students with a sense as to what people have experienced in different historical situations. Second, they insist that through simulations, students are able to glean insights into aspects of history that they would not necessarily gain via more traditional methods, such as reading the history of the period. Third, they argue that because simulations tap into the affective domain and are so radically different from other classroom activities, they thoroughly engage student interest and are capable of leaving lasting impressions on students.

None of these arguments stand up under close scrutiny when applied to teaching about the Holocaust. As for the first point, to suggest that one can approximate even a scintilla of what its victims went through is sheer folly. Addressing the second and third points, there are ample resources available—such as primary documents, first-person accounts of survivors and liberators, very readable secondary resources, and powerful and accurate documentaries—that are highly engaging, thought-provoking, and memorable. If none of these materials engage students then it is incumbent upon teachers to reevaluate whether their students are mature enough to study this history.

Stephen Feinberg, a noted Holocaust educator who taught history at the middle school level for eighteen years and is now employed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, comments as follows about the use of simulations to attempt to convey to students what the victims lived through (e.g., in the ghettos, during the deportations, and in the concentration and death camps):


I am very leery about using simulations to teach any aspect of the Holocaust. While it may be appealing to some educators to use simulations when addressing certain issues raised by the Holocaust, I believe the result would be more negative than positive. According to William A. Nesbitt, the author of Simulation Games for the Social Studies Classroom, “the reality represented [in a simulation] is reduced in size so that it is manageable. Only selected aspects of the real situation are included in a simulation. Developers of simulations reduce and simplify reality so students can focus on selected aspects of reality.” This simplification of reality can, when applied to a study of the Holocaust, lead to a facile understanding of complex issues and, worse still, a trivialization of the Holocaust.2


This author is in total agreement with Feinberg’s position.

The following are examples of simulations that some teachers use to “recreate” aspects of Holocaust history in order to “place students in the shoes of the victims.” They were gleaned from various sources: Holocaust curricula, articles in which teachers describe their use of simulations, descriptions of simulations that teachers have shared over the Internet on the Holocaust.listserve, and examples that teachers shared with my colleagues and me as we presented sessions at conferences on Holocaust education.

Prior to class, a 7th grade social studies teacher clears all the desks from the middle of the room and draws a long, broad rectangle in chalk on the floor. After the students enter, she explains that today they are going to gain an understanding of what it was like for the Jews to be deported to concentration camps in cattle cars. After lining the kids up, she swiftly marches them into the imaginary boxcar. As the space becomes increasingly crowded, she urges them to squeeze tighter together; and as they do so, she keeps feeding more students into the space. When the last student is in, she pretends to slam the imaginary door closed. Then, as they stand there, giggling, complaining about their feet being stepped on, gently pushing and shoving each other, she orders them quiet and then reads them a selection from a first-person account that describes the cattle cars. At the end of the simulation, she announces, “Now you have some idea as to what the Jews went through. You should never forget it!”3


My students and I [Hilve Fierek] spent...two weeks exploring Hitler’s war against the Jews and other “undesirables”: the historical events, the facts and figures, the personal accounts. We watched videos and read poem after poem, story after story. I was certain my students were learning. I mean, I had brought in all this stuff; surely now my ninth graders recognized the importance of our study.

To test my theory, I once again asked my students to take out a sheet of paper. “Imagine this is Germany during World War II,” I instructed. “Decide whether you’d rather be a Nazi soldier or a Jew and explain why.” Most started writing, but one young man raised his hand. With sincere curiosity, he asked, “Now which ones got beaten up again?”

My first impulse was to run from the room crying...I had failed, and failed miserably....Thinking quickly, I told students to clear their desks and give me their absolute, undivided attention. “This mobile unit is now Germany in 1943,” I told them with every bit of total authority I could muster. “I am Adolf Eichmann, a chief administrator for the Final Solution. Decide now whether you are a Nazi or a Jew. If you choose to be a Nazi, line up along the right wall. If you choose to be a Jew, assemble in the left corner. You may not choose to be an ‘innocent’ bystander. And I want silence.”

I was surprised at how quickly and easily I assumed the role of dictator. I was equally surprised at how quickly and easily my students assumed their chosen roles....I instructed those students who had congregated in the corner to remain silent while I took the five students who had elected to be Nazis outside. I assigned each one rank, naming one young woman my second-in-command. They were to follow my orders to the letter, with no questions asked. They readily agreed.

Back in the room, I told one Nazi commander to select three Jews for immediate extermination. “But how...” he began. “Do it,” I commanded. He chose three students randomly and took them to the other side of the room. I told the selected students they were now dead and could not participate in the rest of the activities. There were a few giggles, giggles that I immediately stifled with my newly found dictator glare.

For the next 15 minutes my mobile unit was, for us, World War II Germany. The tension became so thick that several times I considered stopping the activity. For instance, when I told one girl who had elected to be a Jew to select two of her classmates for medical experimentation, she at first refused. “Choose now, or I take six,” I barked. The girl, a Jehovah’s Witness, replied with tears in her eyes, “Take me.”4


When I [Ginger Moore] was a sophomore in college, in a three-week Winter term course on the Holocaust, the professors wanted us to understand at least a little bit what trips in cattle cars were like (most of us never having been inside a cattle car in our lives). So they had us squeeze into the approximate space on the floor, try sitting (not possible), try moving (not possible), and then try to imagine having to go to the bathroom (horrifying). They also gave us other qualifiers; we were indoors, not out with the weather and temperature, it was light, we had had breakfast, and so forth. I know I came away from it with a much clearer idea than words or even pictures could have provided. While I’m sure it didn’t even come close to what the victims experienced, it did make a connection with most of the students which we otherwise would not have had. It was a way to avoid numbing. So we came away not with the feeling that we really felt what the victims had felt, but with a much clearer idea than we had had before.5

The Auschwitz Platform: to allow students to consider the arbitrary decisions made at Auschwitz and the effects on the survivors who are aware that death has only been postponed, a. The teacher should prepare a supply of blue cards and white cards; b. As each student enters the class, give him/her a white card or a blue card; c. All students holding blue cards should sit on the teacher’s left; all those holding white cards should sit on the teacher’s right; d. After all of the students have been seated, inform those with blue cards that they are to be exterminated and their bodies burned in the gas chambers. Those holding white cards will be allowed to live one more day at least; e. Explain what happened on the notorious platform at Auschwitz when the railroad cards delivered the prisoners to the camp and life-and-death decisions were made, depending on sex, age, strength, and the intended use of the prisoners; f. Allow the students to express their feelings about the Auschwitz platform through classroom discussion and/or writings.6

You are a member of the Judenrat [Jewish Council] in the Warsaw Ghetto. With the other members of that Council, you must select five of your people in the ghetto to be removed from the transport to a death camp. The Judenrat has been called into session to discuss the people who are listed below as “possible candidates” for removal and eventual extermination. ...In your Council, decide on five people who you as the Judenrat will remove from the ghetto and send to the extermination camp tomorrow morning.7


Simulations such as these are vastly different from the typical classroom fare that most students in the United States face in their courses on a daily basis.8 That is, such simulations move students from passive to active, literally involve student movement, and are interactive. Yet, are such activities pedagogically sound? Do they truly involve students in a solid study of the history? Do they truly provide students with accurate and deep insights into what the victims experienced? Are students left with anything more than a sense that they had “fun” during the class period? And, do such simulations avoid adding insult to the horrific injury already suffered by the survivors of the Holocaust?

Some teachers would answer with a resounding “Yes!” Hilve Fierek, who implemented one of the aforementioned simulations and is currently a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, offers the following argument in favor of using simulations:


...in some small way, I had engaged my students in actual learning...For a brief second, [I] helped my ninth graders find relevance in historical material they considered as removed from them as the Trojan War. If nothing else, I had them search their souls to consider if, given a choice, they would rather kill than be killed...I have heard much too often that what we teachers do in the classroom is not worthwhile. Most teachers I know who address the issues surrounding the Holocaust are doing the best they can to help students discover more about themselves and about the nature of human existence itself. Without an understanding of humanity, the Holocaust becomes just another footnote in history to be memorized and regurgitated on some standardized test. I choose instead to explore, with my students, why we, as human beings, make the decisions we do.9


Such arguments are common but, in my view, naive. They set up straw men in their unspoken assumption that the only way to engage students in an exploration of what it means to be human, and personally and socially responsible, is through game-like activities. This is not only anti-intellectual but disingenuous. As Sidney Bolkosky, a historian and co-author of the Holocaust curriculum entitled Life Unworthy of Life, asserts: “Nothing about the Holocaust needs dramatization.”10


The Problems in Using Holocaust Simulations

For many scholars, educators, and survivors, there are a host of problems inherent in the use of simulations to teach about the Holocaust. These include, but are not limited to, the following: they are invariably simplistic; they frequently convey both skewed and incorrect information vis-a-vis the Holocaust; and more often than not, they are ahistorical. The simple fact is, no matter what a teacher and his/her students do in a simulation, they will never, ever, even begin to approximate or simulate the horror that the victims suffered at the hands of the Nazis. What is of critical importance here is that the use of such simulations often results in students believing that—at least to some extent—they do.

As for the problematic nature of using simulations to study complex human behavior for the purpose of helping students to “experience” unfamiliar situations, Totten and Feinberg argue:

It needs to be understood that helping students in the course of a discussion or in a writing activity to explore a different perspective or to “walk in someone else’s shoes” is different from involving a class in a simulation game. Likewise, conducting a simulation in order to thoroughly engage in the study of a concept is vastly different from conducting a simulation in order to have students “experience” what it was like for a victim to be jammed into a boxcar en route to a concentration camp or killing center or to experience what it was like to live day-in and day-out under the threat of abject brutality and death.

...Students who use simulations only end up being exposed to an [absurdly] watered-down version of the actual situation. When applied to a study of the Holocaust, this inevitably leads to a facile oversimplification. It presents a skewed view of the history, and often serves to reinforce negative stereotypes. Indeed, in more cases than not, such simulations lead to a
trivialization of the Holocaust. Such situations can also degenerate into a time of “play” that is bereft of real thinking. In the end, students often remember the excitement of the game to the exclusion of the intended meaning of the exercises or its relationship to the history under examination.11

In a related line of criticism about the use of simulations in teaching about the Holocaust, the authors (including this writer) of the Guidelines for Teaching About the Holocaust, developed under the auspices of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, note:


Holocaust survivors and eyewitnesses are among the first to indicate the grave difficulty of finding words to describe their experiences. Even more revealing, they argue the virtual impossibility of trying to simulate accurately what it was like to live on a daily basis with fear, hunger, disease, unfathomable loss, and the unrelenting threat of abject brutality and death.

...Since there are numerous primary source accounts, both written and visual, as well as survivors and eyewitnesses who can describe actual choices faced and made by individuals groups, and nations during this period, teachers should draw upon these resources and refrain from simulations that lead to a trivialization of the subject matter.12


In her discussion of the use of classroom simulations to teach about the Holocaust, historian and Holocaust scholar Lucy Dawidowicz asserts:


Besides lectures, readings, films, and discussions, most of the curricula [on the Holocaust] use simulation games or role-playing to teach their moral lessons. Students play Gestapo, Concentration Camp, and Nuremberg Trial. They act out the roles of murderers, victims, judges....The Jews who lived under Hitler’s rule were confronted with cruel dilemmas, forced to make difficult, even impossible, choices about matters of life and death for which conscience could offer no direction and the past could give no guidance. Yet many high-school curricula frivolously suggest role-playing exercises in which students imagine how they would behave if confronted with such dilemmas. What kind of answers can come from American children who think of the Gestapo as the name of a game?13

Curriculum developers and teachers at all levels need to face the simple but profound fact that there is absolutely no way anyone, let alone secondary level students, will ever be able to experience the catastrophic nature of what millions went through as they were humiliated and brutalized by the Nazis. Indeed, no one can even begin to approximate, through simulations or roleplays, what it was like to be forced from one’s home, crammed into a ghetto where people were literally dying in the street from disease and starvation, or be forced to undress at the lip of a ditch full of dead and direly wounded people and stand and wait until they were shot. Likewise, no one can experience the horror of being crammed into a boxcar that was either suffocatingly hot or literally freezing cold for days on end, without food or water, in which people were defecating, dying, and going mad.

As horrible as these images are, they do not even begin to approximate what the victims experienced. To illustrate the stark fact of this point, it is worth going to the victims themselves for descriptions of what they and their loved ones were subjected to during the Holocaust period.


The Power of Letting Victims and Survivors Speak for Themselves

Yitskhok Rudashevski, a fourteen year old Lithuanian Jew who kept a diary while incarcerated in the Vilna Ghetto from June 1941 through April 1943, recorded the following on April 6, 1943:


The situation is an oppressive one. We now know all the horrible details. Instead of Kovno, 5000 Jews were taken to Ponar where they were shot to death. Like wild
animals before dying, the people began in mortal despair to break the railroad cars, they broke the little windows reinforced by strong wire. Hundreds were shot to death while running away. The railroad line over a great distance is covered with corpses.14


In early October of 1943, Rudashevski and some family members were discovered by the Nazis in their hideout and taken to Ponar, where they were all murdered.

Survivor Elie Wiesel tells this heartrending story of a mother and her two children:


And in the city, the grand, ancient city of Kiev, that mother and her two children in front of some German soldiers who are laughing... they take one child from her and kill it before her eyes...then, they seize the second and kill it too...She wants to die; the killers prefer her to remain alive but inhabited by death...Then, she takes the two little bodies, hugs them against their chest and begins to dance...how can one describe that mother? How can one tell of her dance? In this tragedy, there is something that hurts beyond hurting—and I do not know what it is.15


Speaking about the nature and impact of the deportations on people, Sonja Fritz, a survivor of Auschwitz, relates the following:


I remember very well the transports that came from Greece. Some of the staff of Block 10 had to go to the ramp to shave the hair of the new arrivals. The poor Greek girls had spent a long time in cattle cars and their hair was full of lice and so infested that we got blisters on our hands.16


In this recollection of arrival at a camp, a young girl speaks of her shock, horror and dismay:


A fat S.S. woman said, “Take off everything.” I think of my mother and all these strange people naked, and the German soldiers watching, and I cry. I had long, black, beautiful hair and they cut it, not even. Then into the shower, many under one shower, very little water, and so cold. Everything happened so fast, no dress, no hair, nothing, wet and cold like an animal.17


Upon his arrival at Auschwitz as a thirteen year old boy and prisoner, Elie Wiesel was confronted with this scene:



Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load—little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it—saw it with my own eyes...those children in the flames.18

Speaking about a death march, survivor Reska Weiss recalls:


Urine and excreta poured down the prisoners’ legs, and by nightfall the excrement, which had frozen to our limbs, gave off its stench. We were really no longer human beings in the accepted sense. Not even animals, but putrefying corpses moving on two legs.19

To take something so profoundly disturbing, and so overwhelming to those who lived through it, and to turn it into something that becomes for many, though certainly not all, “fun and games,” is to make a mockery of what the victims lived through. No matter what teachers say in regard to the supposed efficacy of such simulations, students know full well that the simulation is an activity that will last for one class period with no harm or danger to them.

For students to walk away thinking that they have either experienced what a victim went through or have a greater understanding of what the victims suffered is shocking in its naiveté. Even more galling is for teachers to think that they have provided their students with a real sense of what the victims lived through, and/or to think they have at least approximated the sense of horror that the victims experienced.

When one really thinks about it, Holocaust simulations are a waste of precious classroom time. This is especially true since so little time is given over to this history in our nation’s classrooms. In light of the fact that teachers at all levels are constantly battling the clock and calendar in order to “cover” an overpacked curriculum, it is imperative that they use their time as wisely as possible. Thus, to attempt to teach the Holocaust over several days (which is all the time most teachers
dedicate to this history), and then to do so with such simplistic devices as simulations that leave students with a skewed view of this history, simply does not make sense.

Over and above the pedagogical inappropriateness of using simulations to teach this history, there is the issue of being respectful and sensitive to both the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Although the following comments by Elie Wiesel are directed at certain films of the Holocaust, they are equally apropos vis-a-vis the use of simulations to teach about it:


How can one “stage” a convoy of uprooted deportees being sent into the unknown, or the liquidation of thousands of men, women, and children? How can one “produce” the machine-gunned, the gassed, the mutilated corpses, when the viewer knows that they are all actors, and that after the filming they will return to the hotel for a well-deserved bath and a meal? Sure, this is true of all subject and of all film, but that is also the point: the Holocaust is not a subject like all the others. It imposes certain limits…in order not to betray the dead and humiliate the living, this particular subject demands a special sensibility, a different approach, a rigor, strengthened by respect and reverence and, above all, faithfulness to memory.20


Still addressing the production of films on the Holocaust, Wiesel asks, “How can one explain such obscenity? How can anyone justify such insensitivity?”He goes on to state: “Newcomers to this history appoint themselves experts…They give the impression of knowing better than the victims or the survivors how to name what Samuel Beckett called the unnameable…[T]he temptation is generally reductionist, shrinking personalities to stereotypes and dialogue to cliches. All is trivial and superficial, even death itself.”21

He concludes by asserting:


But then, the “experts” will ask, how do we transmit the message? There are other ways to do it, better ways to keep the memory alive. Today the question is not what to transmit but how. Study the texts—such as the diaries of Emanuel Ringelblum and Chaim Kaplan; the works by the historians Raul Hilberg, Lucy Dawidowicz, Martin Gilbert, Michael Marrus. Watch the documentaries, such as… Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Haim Gouri’s 81st Blow. Listen to the survivors and respect their wounded sensibility. Open yourselves to their scarred memories, and mingle your tears with theirs. And stop insulting the dead.22


In Conclusion

Whether teachers like to admit it or not, by using simulations to try to provide students with a sense of what the victims of the Nazis were subjected to, they are minimizing, simplifying, distorting, and, possibly even, “denying” the complexity and horror of the Holocaust. These are strong words and accusations, but they are carefully chosen. By leaving students with even a minimal notion that they possess some sense as to what the victims went through, teachers may be inadvertently playing into the hands of those Holocaust deniers who absurdly and falsely assert that “things were not as bad as the Jews and other victims purport them to have been.”

The best advice in regard to simulations intended to provide students with a sense of Holocaust history, including what the victims lived through and/or the choices that both perpetrators and victims made, is to avoid them. Instead, teachers and students should focus on examining the primary documents, the first-person accounts, the accurate and well written histories, and the best films on this subject.

At this juncture in time, when survivors of the Holocaust and liberators of the concentration and death camps are still living, a teacher could hardly do better than to provide his/her students with an opportunity to listen to and engage in discussion with one of these people. The next best avenue is to view videotapes in which survivors and liberators tell about their experiences and/or to read their accounts available in print. Such accounts, if carefully chosen, will leave students with something they will never forget.


1. Holocaust.listserve, July 26, 1995.

2. Stephen Feinberg, Personal Correspondence, July 17, 1991.

3. Shared by a teacher at a workshop on Holocaust education, Washington, D. C., July 1995.

4. Hilve Fierek, “By Fifth Bell, There Were No Nazis,” Inquiry in Social Studies: Curriculum, Research, and Instruction. The Journal of the North Carolina Council for the Social Studies, 10-11.

5. Ginger K. More, Holocaust.listserve, July 26, 1995.

6. B.J. Brewer, P.A. Bijwaard, and L.P. Payne, Teaching the Past Describes Today…Tomorrow, Human Rights Education, Focus: The Holocaust (Richmond, VA: Virginia Department of Education, 1987), 46-47.

7. New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, Unit IV (Trenton, NJ: New Jersey Department of Education, 1995), 49.

8. John Goodlad, A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future (New York: McGraw Hill, 1984).

9. Fierek, 11-12.

10. Holocaust.listserve, July 27, 1995.

11. Samuel Totten and Stephen Feinberg, “Teaching About the Holocaust: Rationale, Content, Methodology and Resources,” Social Education 59, no. 6 (October 1995), 331-332.

12. William S. Parsons and Samuel Totten, Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust (Washington, DC: United States Holocause Memorial Museum, 1994).

13. Lucy Dawidowicz, “How They Teach the Holocaust” in What Is the Use of Jewish History? (New York: Schocken Books, 1992) 71, 80.

14. Laurel Holliday, ed., “Yitskhok Rudashevski” in Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries. (New York: Pocket Books, 1995), 183.

15. Elie Wiesel, “Trivializing Memory,” in Elie Wiesel, ed., From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences (New York: Schocken Books, 1990), 186.

16. Quoted in Lore Shelley, Criminal Experiments on Human Beings in Auschwitz and War Research Laboratories: Twenty Women Prisoners’ Accounts (San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1991).

17. Rhoda G. Lewin, ed., Witnesses to the Holocaust: An Oral History (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990), 46.

18. Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Avon Books, 1969), 42.

19. Reska Weiss, Journey Through Hell (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1961), 211.

20. Wiesel, From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences, 167-168.

21. Ibid., 170-171.

22. Ibid., 171-172.


Samuel Totten is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. His latest book, Teaching the Holocaust, co-edited with Stephen Feinberg, will be published by Allyn & Bacon in Fall 2000.