High School Historical Inquiry: The Holocaust & Man’s Search for Meaning

concentration camp

For many teachers, inquiry-based learning plays a special role in the elementary classroom. It’s a type of learning that is redefining schools in the 21st century and changing the way we view education. While inquiry-based learning is becoming more popular within the elementary classroom, it is not implemented as often in the secondary classroom. This can be for a variety of reasons, ranging from class times, course content, and sometimes because we think students move away from hands-on, explorative learning as they get older. Recently, I read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning with my grade 11 and 12 English students. It got me thinking about how teachers can deliver a unit on this book using inquiry-based learning at the high-school level.


About Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book by Viktor Frankl that chronicles his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. The first part of the book details his experiences in the concentration camps he was put into. These experiences include memories of conversations he had with other inmates, reflections on daily life in the camps, and detailed descriptions of situations he and the other inmates found themselves in. It is a harrowing read, but one I would recommend to all educators (especially history teachers). It would be an excellent complement to a social studies or history unit, and can inspire some interesting questions about how people are treated, and the impacts of events like these on the human psyche.


Curriculum Connections

As I used this novel with grade 11 and 12 students, I consulted the Ontario English curriculum and weaved the reading expectations throughout the unit:

  • read a variety of student- and teacher-selected texts from diverse cultures and historical periods, identifying specific purposes for reading
  • select and use, with increasing facility, the most appropriate reading comprehension strategies to understand texts, including complex and challenging texts
  • identify the most important ideas and supporting details in texts, including complex and challenging texts
  • make and explain inferences of increasing subtlety and insight about texts, including complex and challenging texts, supporting their explanations with well-chosen stated and implied ideas from the texts
  • extend understanding of texts, including complex and challenging texts, by making rich and increasingly insightful connections between the ideas in them and personal knowledge, experience, and insights; other texts; and the world around them
  • analyse texts in terms of the information, ideas, issues, or themes they explore, examining how various aspects of the texts contribute to the presentation or development of these elements
  • evaluate the effectiveness of texts, including complex and challenging texts, using evidence from the text insightfully to support their opinions
  • identify and analyse the perspectives and/or biases evident in texts, including complex and challenging texts, commenting with understanding and increasing insight on any questions they may raise about beliefs, values, identity, and power

We covered some other expectations as well, but the focal point of this novel was to explore perspective, implied ideas, personal connections to the text, making inferences, and analyzing themes such as power and identity.


Using Critical Analysis

Before diving into Man’s Search for Meaning, we spent some time understanding what is meant by “critical analysis”. In a nutshell, critical analysis is the process through which we examine and evaluate texts. For example, if we focus on the inclusion of class structures and examine the ways that the rich and the poor are portrayed in a novel, we would be using a Marxist lens. In doing this, we are examining a particular aspect of a novel and critiquing it through that specific lens. There are several critical lenses through which we interpret literature:

  • Marxist lens
  • Gender-based lens
  • Psychoanalytic lens
  • Structuralist lens
  • Historical lens

While reading Man’s Search for Meaning, we used a few of these lenses, but focused mostly on using a historical lens. In the first few classes, students reflected on what they knew about the Holocaust and World War II. We dove deeper to understand the early life of Viktor Frankl, and the impact that Nazi laws had on him and his family. Finally, we were ready to start. I laid out some goals for the unit and shared them with students:

We discussed ways that we could approach the book, and the importance of utilizing a critical lens while reading. In addition, we addressed and located the definition of some words and terms that were new to students; terms like “barbed wire sickness” and “psychopathology of the masses”. To uncover the meaning, students dissected the terms and inferred meaning from the words they did know. In hindsight, a mini structured word inquiry might have been useful to use here!


Progressing Through the Man’s Search for Meaning

As we read the book, we paused to address questions that arose. Some students felt a connection with what Frankl had experienced, and many found meaning in his reflections. Students made some excellent reflections, and asked great questions to better understand the content of the book. The majority of students felt empathy for Frankl and the prisoners, and this made for an emotionally challenging read. However, there were some students who did not seem entirely affected by the book. It can take time before students are ready to make sense of the Holocaust. It takes time for students to process their understanding and emotions. Throughout the unit, I encouraged students to write reflection notes and to ask questions to clarify their understanding. An amazing and comprehensive lesson can be found on Facing History’s website – the lesson is titled “The Holocaust: Bearing Witness” and is a tremendously helpful inquiry resource.

Although my students did not complete all of the inquiry activities listed below, they did have a chance to investigate their own questions about the book. The ideas I’ve listed can be used in English, History, or Social Science classes at the high school level, particularly in grade 11 and 12.


English Inquiry Ideas

Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from formal writing assignments and allow students to show their understanding creatively. Instead of asking my students to write an analysis on the book, I encouraged them to design posters. These posters needed to show how a historical, psychoanalytic, and reader response lens was useful while reading the book. 

Another idea could be for students to generate questions about the importance of using a critical lens while reading. Here are some examples:

  • What are the benefits of using a critical lens while reading?
  • How might your interpretation of a text change if you considered it from a different perspective?
  • Why is it helpful to consider multiple viewpoints when reading a text?
  • Which critical lens reveals more about the essence of a book?
  • How might critical lenses be useful when examining laws and rules?
  • In what ways can we explain critical lenses to younger students?
  • How are the goals of critical lens theories different?
  • What is the fundamental goal of literature? Is it about imagination and originality? Is it about the human psyche and what it reveals or hides with words? Or is it about responding to and reshaping history?

Students could also contrast the same text using two different critical analysis, and reflect on how the point of the text changes depending on the lens it is being viewed through. For example, they could compare Man’s Search for Meaning through a historical lens and through a psychoanalytic lens. In doing so, students learn the underlying ideas that make Man’s Search for Meaning a powerful and influential read. They have the added bonus considering the book’s place in history as well as the role that consciousness plays in it.

Smaller Inquiry Activities

Some other activities to supplement your students’ inquiries include:

1) Diary or letter-writing:

In my experience, students enjoy getting to put themselves in the shoes of people from the past. Writing diary entries or letters from prisoners in a concentration camp is a great way to let students empathize with the prisoners and gain a sense of understanding. While this is not strictly an inquiry activity in itself, it can open the door to further inquiry questions such as “How might the concentration camp experience have affected people differently?” or “In what ways did dehumanization impact males as opposed to females?”

2) Examining Perspective:

This inquiry activity has students reading excerpts from the Nuremberg trials and distinguishing perspectives. In order to understand the motives and logic of Nazi officers, students might benefit from reading primary source documents from the trials or from other sources to get into the headspace of Nazis. Other documents can be found on the Library of Congress website. From here, they can create a presentation, scrapbook, or letter to highlight the “other side” of the Holocaust, from the perspective of a Nazi. The book “To Look a Nazi in the Eye” is an incredible story about a 19-year-old’s account of the trial of Oskar Groening (known as the bookkeeper of Auschwitz). 

3) Debate:

Debates are a classic component of English classes. They help students construct arguments and rebuttals, and teach the importance of listening. An interesting topic that pertains to Man’s Search for Meaning and the Holocaust in general is the bioethics of eugenics. Debating this topic requires students to consider and discuss the ethical aspects of sterilization, euthanasia, and medical testing. Great sensitivity and a review of debate etiquette are a must for this activity. Other topics could include the restriction of our freedom of speech or the use of the death penalty, depending on the maturity of students.

4) Novel Comparison:

Comparing accounts of the Holocaust can give students a glimpse into the perspectives of other prisoners. A great comparison book is Night – a book written by Elie Wiesel that is based on his experiences with his father in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are many similarities between this and Man’s Search for Meaning, but also many notable differences. Comparing the two is an excellent way for students to solidify their understanding and consider other prisoners’ perspectives. I’m sure there are plenty of other novels to do this with as well. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments!

Here are some other excellent student activities on the FCIT website to look into!


Historical Inquiry Ideas

Students have a lot of creative freedom when it comes to a historical inquiry. There are so many different paths student learning can take, especially through Man’s Search for Meaning. They can explore concepts and topics like:

  • The Holocaust
  • The role of the Nazi party
  • German laws and policies
  • Concentration camps
  • Genocide
  • Bystanders
  • Dictatorships
  • Prejudice, racism, and stereotyping
  • Abuses of power
  • Civil rights violations

Studying the Holocaust and creating branches of historical inquiry for students should be done carefully and respectfully. Students are challenged to expand their ideas about resistance, maintaining a sense of faith, culture, and dignity in the face of dehumanization; but it is important to recognize the sensitivity of the topic, and work at a pace your students feel comfortable with. At the end of the day, teachers know their students best, so it is vital that lessons are developed thoughtfully and with the needs of students considered. See our connections web at the bottom of the linked page for ideas on how to incorporate “carriers” into your students’ inquiries.

Sample Historical Inquiry Questions:

  • How does the study of a modern society contribute to our understanding of the past?
  • What can we learn from the study of this book about continuity, change, and causation in history?
  • What does learning about the choices people made during the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
  • How were people in the past influenced by different values, attitudes, and motives?
  • What structures were in place that allowed the Holocaust to occur?
  • What is the meaning of human dignity, and how does this emerge in Man’s Search for Meaning?
  • Examine the most significant lessons we can learn from studying the Holocaust

Related Reading:

Download a set of 50 historical inquiry questions here!

Incorporating concepts of historical thinking into an inquiry project

It is important to remember that there may be no clear-cut answers to the questions they explore. Students who are taught inquiry skills and practice using them move beyond surface-level conclusions to a deeper understanding of the issues they are exploring. However, this doesn’t mean they will find all the answers to their questions; nor does it mean that the answers they find will suffice. For example, understanding that the Holocaust was not an accident, and that it occured because of the choices people, organizations, and governments made in legalizing discrimination and allowing these acts to occur might anger some students. It might make them feel despondent or upset. In these cases, it is important that students understand that this is a normal part of inquiry learning – sometimes the answers we expect are not the answers we uncover.

Inquiry Pathways to Complement Man’s Search for Meaning

Perhaps students have developed some interesting questions and are ready to get researching. To complement Man’s Search for Meaning, here are some inquiry pathways students can take to weave a historical perspective into their inquiries:

1) Important Lessons TED Talk:

This inquiry pathway is for students who ask questions such as “What are the most significant lessons we can learn from studying the Holocaust?” or “How can we learn from historical tragedies like the Holocaust?” With a focus on the human experience, these questions delve into the reasons why students should care; why they should bother studying the Holocaust and other historical events at all. During the inquiry process, students might benefit from interviewing family members, museum directors, historians, or relatives of Holocaust survivors to hear their stories. Librarians are also excellent sources of information, both at the school and in the community. This is a wonderful opportunity for students to speak of the importance of studying the Holocaust, and reflect on the lessons from Man’s Search for Meaning while doing so.

2) Our Current World:

If students are interested in pursuing the question “What does learning about the choices people made during the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?”, or “How does the study of a modern society contribute to our understanding of the past?”, then this is an excellent inquiry option. Learning lessons about the past and applying them in the present is an important skill called interconnection; the ability to make mutual connections between topics. Furthermore, this option is great for students who are interested in political decisions, leadership qualities, and the state of world affairs. By examining the links between the Holocaust and our current world, students gain an understanding of things like crowd psychology, dehumanization, and the abuse of power. Here is an excellent resource for this inquiry pathway: Interview with David Livingstone Smith.

3) Portrait of a Nazi:

The question “What makes a Nazi?” is an interesting one, and opens the door to many creative options for students. In this inquiry, students investigate the qualities of a Nazi, including research into prominent Nazi’s backgrounds, upbringings, and ideologies. An interesting spin would be for students to compare the qualities of Nazi’s to prominent, modern-day figures to juxtapose them. Students could communicate their research by creating a modern-day portrait of a Nazi, and writing a fictional, biographical account of this new character, combining their research of the lives of Nazi’s in the past. Through this inquiry, students learn the common characteristics and upbringings of people who became disillusioned by Nazi ideology, and communicate these commonalities with their classmates.


Have you taught this book to your class? Do you have any suggestions for implementing a historical inquiry at the secondary level? Let me know in the comments, or join the conversation on Instagram!


Further Reading:

Using Inquiry to Teach Social Justice in the Classroom

50 Examples of Deep, Meaningful History Questions

Unpacking the Difference Between Inquiry and PBL

Helping Students Form Rich, High-Quality Inquiry Questions

Leave a Reply

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