Letter to Bialystok Assignment

Lesson Name: Letter to Bialystok Assignment

Primary Museum Pedagogy: Narrativity

Course Title and Description: History 208, Exploring Global History, Theme: New York Immigration and the Modern World

  • “This course will introduce students to global history by exploring a particular theme or issue in its historical context. Sections will address a given topic in detail and consider its global legacy.”

Lesson Overview: This lesson asks students to put themselves in the shoes of a teenager who recently immigrated from the city of Bialystok, Poland to either Argentina or Palestine, and is writing a letter home to a friend back in Bialystok about their new life. The homework leading up to this in-class assignment is to answer a series of directed questions based on chapter 2 of Rebecca Kobrin’s Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora. The answers to those questions give the information that students are now asked to apply to imagining a first-person narrative.


  • Creative Writing
  • Empathy
  • Synthesizing secondary source material

Pedagogical Considerations

  • This assignment is scaffolded. The initial reading questions helps students to take notes on the most important information in this chapter. Then the in-class assignment asks them to synthesize and apply that information by using it as the background that informs a letter. Often, students realize that their notes were too vague or didn’t include crucial information like dates. This becomes a useful learning experience for them to improve as note-takers.
  • The format forces students to practice several stages of pre-writing. First, they have to review their notes and use that information to choose a particular time in which to set their letter. Then, they need to come up with a character and scenario. Only then can they begin writing the letter.
  • I ask students to work in pairs to craft these letters. It’s sometimes challenging for them to engage in this creative process together. But by in large, students benefit from having two sets of notes to pull from, and the letters are more fun to write and read when it’s a collaborative project.
  • Students tend to take this assignment quite seriously and also have a lot of fun with it. Some of the details and “old timey” word choice they throw in make it really enjoyable.

Content Objectives:

  • To learn the history of Jewish emigration from Bialystok to Argentina and Palestine
  • To learn to pay attention to dates and chronology when reading and writing history
  • To continue to explore the immigrant letter as a complex type of primary source. (We read historic immigrant letters from Irish immigrants in America in and earlier unit in this course, and discuss why they do/do not tell stories that are consistent with the histories our secondary readings teach.)


  • Chapter 2, Kobrin, Rebecca, Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora and completed reading questions for Chapter 2;
    • What were the pull factors drawing Bialystok Jews to Argentina/Palestine?
    • What was different about a Bialystoker Jew’s life in Argentina/Palestine vs. in Bialystok?
    • What are two specific organizations that cropped up to help the Bialystoker Jewish community in their new home? What did these organizations provide?
    • Describe the relationship between Bialystoker Jews living in Argentina/Palestine and Jews living in Bialystok. What about with other Bialystoker Jews around the world?
  • Black lined paper, pens



Use your notes from Bialystok and its Diaspora to write a letter from a Bialystoker Jew in Argentina/Palestine to a high school friend back in Bialystok. The letter should be set at a particular time (date your letter and be aware of that date in composing it), describe the changes in your life and lifestyle as a result of your emigration, and reflect your (evolving) sense of identity.

Please be specific. Get into character! Tell your friend about your new life including (but not limited to):

  • What your new home looks like
  • Your religious practices
  • The Jewish community there
  • The organizations you’ve joined
  • How you feel about the choice you made to emigrate, your new lifestyle, new community, new government

Have fun with this!! Consider these questions to help you set up a character and scenario (both partners should use the character and scenario you decide upon):

  1. How old are you? (Between the ages of 13-63, please.)
  2. Who are you writing to?
  3. How long have your been living in Argentina/Palestine?
  4. Come up with a story to explain why you Be specific. Were you sent to this new place by a parent? Did you want to go? Do you have a strong ideological perspective on your immigration? Did you get in trouble with the tsarist authorities for your political activism? You don’t need to fully explain this story in your letter, but your letter should reflect a particular perspective.
  5. What is your sense of connection/what do you want to know about Bialystok and the folks still there?

Submit one letter per pair.