The film was stark and unpleasant. There were pictures of Jewish families marching into cattle cars, mounds of human hair that was collected to fill mattresses, lines of naked people filing into gas chambers, heaps of bodies being buried by bulldozers.

After it was shown to 11th graders last spring at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax County, teacher Ronald Axelrod said his students wrote out their own questions about the Nazi killings of 6 million Jews during World War II.

"How could people be so cruel?

"Why did it happen?

"Why were Jews chosen?

"Why wasn't there more resistance?

"Could it happen again?

"What did the United States do?"

For the next two weeks Axelrod and the 75 students in his American Civilization classes read and talked about the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews.

"Before we started there was almost a total lack of knowledge," Axelrod said. "The textbooks don't have much on it. The school has a very, very small Jewish population. Nobody knew. But the response was tremendous. There was a tremendous amount of thought by students about what happened and on where they were now."

Axelrod's classes, which he expects to expand to six weeks this year, are part of a growing spurt of interest in schools throughout the country in teaching about the Holocaust, in which the Nazis systematically killed 6 million Jews and 5 million other civilians.

"For a long time there just wasn't much about the Holocaust in the curriculum," said Paul Purta, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, whose 17,000 members are mostly high school teachers. "But in the last few years there's been a high degree of interest in teaching about it and more and more is happening."

School systems with formal units on the Holocaust now range from Brookline, Mass., to Baltimore, from Dekalb County, Ga., to Los Angeles.

One "immense catalyst for them," Purta said, was the week-long NBC television series, "Holocaust," which was first broadcast in 1977 and repeated last month. The subject has also been strongly pushed by Jewish organizations, particularly the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

"It's part of a general rising of ethnic consciousness which started with Black Studies [in the late 1960s]." Purta said. "But there is a problem: Where is all of this going to fit in the curriculum? Everybody to know where to put it all."

Yesterday and Monday, Purta's social studies group and the Anti-Defamation League sponsored a two-day national conference on teaching about the Holocaust. it drew about 200 teachers, professors and school officials to the Hospitality House Motor Inn in Arlington.

Most participants said adding material on Nazis and the Jews to history courses has stirred little controversy. But Leonard Rubin, director of development for the Chicago public schools, said a proposed unit on the topic in his school system has aroused fears that there would be "a lack of balance and that victims of other holocausts, such as the Armenians (during World War One) and the American Indians would be left out."

"The board of education wanted to know what we would be doing for the blacks," Rubin said, "what we were doing for the Irish and the Chicanos and the Armenians."

Rubin said a staff committee now is preparing a new proposed curriculum with a long list of episodes of "man's inhumanity to man." He said it includes black Americans in the 20th century, Catholics in Northern Ireland, and the internment of Japanese in america during World War Two, as well as the Nazi effort to exterminate Jews.

"There's some fear," Rubin added, "that the [Jewish] Holocaust may be subsumed in all of man's inhumanity to man."

Harriet Steinhorn, of Beltsville, a teacher of Hebrew who survived five Nazi concentration camps during World War II, said she now speaks to many junior and senior school classes in public schools about her experiences.

"They all listen," Steinhorn said, "and the questions just pour out of them. . . . There was one group with black children who were so amazed that it happened to Jewish people because they believed they were the ones who were the most persecuted and they couldn't imagine someone could be persecuted even more. But they wanted to know."