For Teachers

CLASSROOM BOOK OF THE WEEK–Click here for more teaching ideas!

“This profound novel addresses many historically significant themes that can be incorporated in social studies discussions.”–Elizabeth D. Schafer, Children’s Literature

Teaching 8th grade about the Holocaust is a challenge, but with your book, the students that have already read it say it will be much easier. Thank you for writing a piece of literature bringing history to life.–B. Shostak, De Mars, Iowa

Discussion/Essay Questions

(Click here to download a PDF version of these discussion questions.)

(1) In chapter 1, Halina says, “I was tired of pretending not to care when the guards hit someone with their rifles, tired of pretending not to notice when I heard gunshots in the streets. Wasn’t thirteen the age when you were supposed to stop pretending?” How does Halina grow from “pretending” to accepting her reality? How do other characters in the book pretend in order to escape or deal with their reality?

(2) Discuss Halina’s relationships with the various adults in the book: her mother, her father, Georg, and Tante Rosa. What do each of these relationships signify to Halina? How does her relationship to each of these people change as Halina changes?

(3) The three main characters in the book, Halina, Reuven, and Batya, all have differing notions of faith. Discuss how each of them integrates their faith (or lack thereof) in relationship to the history of the Holocaust and what is happening to them.

(4) One of the positive aspects of Halina’s experience is her relationship with nature and love of the woods. Yet many people who escaped to the forest, like Mrs. Fiozmann, chose to go back to the ghetto because they couldn’t take the harsh living conditions? What would you do? How well do you think you would be able to survive in the forest?

(5) Mr. Moskin says, “There are times to fight and other times where the only thing we can do is to pray?” Do you agree, or not?

(6) Tante Rosa tells Halina, “We don’t talk about the past … we must live for the present, for each day. At night sometimes, after the girls are asleep, I think about my husband and the time before the forest. But I can’t speak of these things. When I see the sun rise in the morning, I put my hand on the trunk of a tree and think only about what I have to do to stay alive for one more day.” Why do you think she would say this?

(7) Was there sexism in the forest? How were the girls and women treated differently from the men? Do you believe this was acceptable? Why or why not?

(8) Before the food expedition, Batya raises questions about ethics. Do you believe it was ethical for the group to take food and supplies from the surrounding peasant villages? Why or why not?

(9) Several characters in Escaping into the Night do come back, yet others never do. What do you think of Reuven’s insistence on first trying to find his brothers, and later waiting for Halina, after she and Batya don’t return from the food expedition?

(10) Just before Halina and Reuven set off to rescue Batya, Reuven says, “My brothers were brave but they were unlucky…if I’m not unlucky, then I have to make myself brave enough to help others, even if I’m not brave.” Halina responds by thinking that she wasn’t sure she could believe in God, but she could believe in luck. How are bravery, faith, and luck related?

(11) Do you think Halina and Reuven should feel remorse about the German soldier? Why or why not?

(12) What is the significance of the possessions that Halina has with her in the forest? At the end of the book she says, “Dayenu. It would have to be enough.” Is it enough?

In addition to general activities related to teaching the history of the Holocaust, Escaping Into the Night lends itself to an integrated curriculum in the following ways:


— Note how all the senses are evoked in the story of Halina’s escape through the tunnels.

Ask students to write about a difficult journey, evoking all the senses.

Escaping Into the Night is told in first person, from Halina’s point of view. Ask students how might the story be different if Batya or Reuven told it, or if it were told by an adult. Have students write a small section of the story from a different character’s point of view.

Escaping Into the Night contains many Yiddish and Hebrew phrases. (A glossary is available on this web site.) Research the history of Yiddish, the language most widely spoken by the Jews in eastern Europe, and the cornerstone of a large cultural Students might learn the Yiddish alphabet, Yiddish music, or read the “Chelm Stories” or other works by Yiddish writers.


–The society of the forest settlements functioned differently from society outside the forest settlements. One notable difference was that the people capable of doing hard physical work had the most status, while those who were educated and had held high positions before had lower status because they didn’t have the skills needed to survive in the forests. Students can research the structure of how different societies function in terms of daily living, social status, and how people treat each other.

–In the actual forest communities, women and girls were not sent on food expeditions. However, the author created a situation that would enable Halina and Batya, as heroines of the story, to go. As we know, roles of women and girls have changed significantly since the 1940s. Have students research some of these changes. Are they true in all societies? Are there any societies where women have a totally equal or a dominant role?


–Is it wrong to “steal” from others, as was done in the food expeditions? Organize a debate on this issue..


–Build a model of a ziemlanka and study the engineering required to build one.

–Research the topography of the forests in eastern Poland to determine how people survived. What wild plants grow there that supplemented food sources? What animals might have posed a threat? Would the swamp land pose more danger or offer additional protection?


Two pieces of music are mentioned throughout Escaping Into the Night, The Aria of the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and a Yiddish song, commonly known as The Russian Waltz, or the Expectation Waltz. Students can listen to and discuss these pieces, and research the history of these pieces and styles of music.


(Click here to download a PDF version of these Teaching Resources.)

A short history of the Bielski partisan movement can on the following websites:

The Florida Holocaust Museum

East Renfrewshire Holocaust website

Novogrodek: The History of a Jewish Shtetl

Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation
*They also offer pictures of a ziemlanka

Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, Oxford University Press, 1994
Peter Duffy, The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Built a Village in the Forest, and Saved 1200 Jews, Harper, 2004.

(Click here to download a PDF version of the Glossary.)

Baruch HaShem (Hebrew)—literally, “Blessed be The Name”, or “Praise God.”

Brukhim Haboim (Yiddish)—Welcome. Literally, “Blessed be they who come.”

Daven (Yiddish)—to pray, Daven Ma’ariv—To pray the evening service

Dayenu (Hebrew)—A key word in a chant sung at Passover, which means, “It would have been enough for us”

Ich hab moyre (Yiddish)—An expression meaning I’m worried, or “I have fear.”

Kaddish (Hebrew)—the Jewish prayer for the dead

Malbushim (Hebrew)—People from urban areas who didn’t have good forest survival skills.

Meshugge (Yiddish)—crazy

MeynTakhter (Yiddish)—my daughter

Mir Zaynen ale brider (Yiddish)—”We’re all brothers”

Mishpokhe (Yiddish)—family

Sheyne Medele (Yiddish)—pretty girl

Shechinah (Hebrew)—the feminine form of God

Tallis (Hebrew)—A shawl worn during prayer

T’fillin (Hebrew)—Boxes with prayers in them that religious Jews attach to their head and arms with leather straps during prayer.

Treyf (Yiddish)—Not kosher, that is, not in accordance with Jewish dietary laws

Vilde Chaya—A wild woman

Was ist das (German) “What is this?”

Yahrzeit (Hebrew)—A memorial candle lit for the dead

Ziemlanka—A dugout shelter built in the forest

Zwei Frauleinen (German)—”Two young ladies”

Discussion Questions

1. Gus’s dad believed that all villians have heart—that there are two sides to every person. Do you agree? If so, what makes a “villain” hide his/her heart?

2. What do you think about Paganini’s blanket? How does this relate to Gus?

3. What is the role of music in Playing Dad’s Song?

4. How does Mr. M’s philosophy about the scratches on his records relate to Gus’s life? How does Gus eventually come to terms with the “scratches” in his own life?

5. How do you think Gus’s mother deals with her grief? How is her way different from Gus’s?

6. What is Gus’s relationship with Mr. M like? Can you find any parallels between Gus’s life and Mr. M’s life? How are they similar and different?

7. Gus originally tries out for the school play to feel closer to his actor father. How is this a natural response to his father’s death? What makes Gus realize he doesn’t have to imitate his father to feel close to him? Is it a gradual process or the result of a specific event?

8. What is Gus’s relationship with his mother like? What do you think of the author’s decision to have Gus’s parents be divorced? How does this add to the story?

9. Do Gus’s juggling balls symbolize anything? If so, what do they symbolize?

10. What about the dog? Why does Gus want to think his name is Bob?

11. If you could “compose your own life,” the way Gus wanted to, what would you change and what would you keep the same?

Leave a Reply

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