The Holocaust - The Range of Responses (UK) | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst in June 1942.

The Holocaust - The Range of Responses (UK)

Students deepen their examination of human behaviour during the Holocaust by analysing and discussing the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In the last lesson, students learnt about the atrocities the Nazis committed during the Holocaust and the experiences of many who were targeted for murder. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by deepening their examination of human behaviour during the Holocaust and considering the range of choices available to individuals, communities, and nations in the midst of war and genocide. Students will read accounts in which perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers described their choices during this period and reflected on both the reasons behind their actions and the consequences. Students will grapple with questions about how circumstances of time and place played a role in the choices available to people, and they will reflect on why some people decided to help – in both dramatic and subtle ways – while others stood by or even participated in the atrocities that occurred.

What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

  • What choices did individuals, groups, and nations make in response to the events of the Holocaust? 
  • What factors influenced their choices to act as perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, or rescuers?

Students will analyse and explain the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations during the Holocaust and explore the factors that influenced these choices and decisions.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 1 suggested homework 
  • 1 video
  • 1 handout
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 2 extension activities

The history of the Holocaust reveals the range of behaviour of which people are capable when confronted with extreme brutality towards their fellow human beings. While the Nazis carried out their plans to murder millions of Jews and other supposedly inferior groups, individuals, groups, towns, and even entire nations risked their own safety to protect, hide, or evacuate those in danger. However, opportunities to resist or rescue were not available to everyone, and among those who had such opportunities, many did not seize them. Indeed, thousands participated actively in the Nazi plan of annihilation, while many more knew what was happening and did nothing. The efforts of rescuers and resisters, therefore, were the exception rather than the rule, and the Nazis largely succeeded in their plan to annihilate European Jews. Historian Peter Hayes writes:

A few diplomats rose to the occasion, but most did not. More clergy accepted the challenge, but a majority did not. Minority group members expressed solidarity with Jews more frequently than the surrounding population, but not reliably or uniformly. Cosmopolitan residents of Warsaw may have been more inclined to aid Jews than Poles in the countryside, but not dependably so. Rescue was always the choice of the relatively few. 1

Hayes adds that ‘at most, 5 to 10% of the Jews who survived the Holocaust in Europe did so because a non-Jew or non-Jewish organisation ... concealed and sustained them’. 2 In the end, the Nazis succeeded in murdering 6 million of the estimated 9 million Jews who lived in Europe in 1939.

Due to the magnitude of the tragedy of the Holocaust, it is necessary to confront the reasons why so many participated as perpetrators or looked the other way as bystanders. The Nazis persuaded or coerced thousands to participate. Many others participated willingly; they were true believers in Nazi ideology and did not need to be persuaded. By doing nothing, one could also indicate tacit approval of the persecution and killing of certain groups, or at least the belief that the victims’ lives were not worth risking one’s own life or livelihood to stand up for. Some people cooperated in the Nazi programme of mass murder, or at least looked the other way despite the evidence that millions were dying, because they stood to gain personally by taking the homes and possessions of Nazi victims. Many people did nothing in response to what they knew because they feared punishment for interfering or were consumed by their own wartime difficulties.

If the action and inaction of perpetrators and bystanders represents some of the worst of which human beings are capable, the courage of resisters and rescuers represents the best. Nearly all Jews who went into hiding relied on others to help them, and they often felt that they were totally dependent on their helpers – for food and water, for news from the outside world, and especially for a willingness to continue to keep their secret. Sometimes Jews were hidden by neighbours or former employees, and sometimes they were helped by strangers. Sometimes entire communities provided shelter, food, and fake documents for dozens of families, actively taking part in the rescue or choosing to remain silent and not report their neighbours’ activities. Some diplomats created false papers and exit or transit visas, saving the lives of thousands of Jews at great risk to their own safety. On an even larger scale, one nation, Denmark, evacuated nearly all of its Jewish residents to safety after hearing that the Germans were planning to deport its entire Jewish population.

Sometimes rescuers acted after great deliberation, or after having taken smaller measures of resistance against the Nazi regime before accepting greater amounts of responsibility for the fate of others. In his study of rescuers, psychologist Ervin Staub states, ‘Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren’t born. Very often the rescuers made only a small commitment at the start – to hide someone for a day or two. But once they had taken that step, they began to see themselves differently, as someone who helps. What starts as mere willingness becomes intense involvement.’ 3

Other rescuers say that the decision to act was neither gradual nor complicated. Magda Trocmé, who helped hide thousands of Jews in the French village of Le Chambon, explains:

We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, “How did you make a decision?” There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help! 4

By examining the stories and choices of perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers during the Holocaust, we are not only better able to understand what happened during this crucial period of the twentieth century but can reach a deeper understanding of the range of human behaviour in any time of crisis. By examining what led some to limit their universe of obligation and see the lives of others as not worth protecting, we can gain insight into the forces in our own lives that might encourage us to act cruelly or inhumanely, or to ignore such actions by others. By hearing and honouring the stories of those who took risks, large and small, on behalf of others, we might better find within ourselves the desire to be ‘someone who helps’ and to act with caring towards others when circumstances require.

  • 1P. Hayes, ‘Rescuing Jews—Means and Obstacles: Introduction’, in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. P. Hayes (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 647.
  • 2Ibid., 645.
  • 3Quoted in D. Goleman, ‘Great Altruists: Science Ponders Soul of Goodness’, New York Times, 5 March 1985, accessed 25 May 2016.
  • 4C. Rittner and S. Myers, The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 102.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts.

  • The readings in the The Holocaust: The Range of Responses handout differ in length and difficulty. Keep this in mind when you are creating the ‘expert’ groups. You might choose to group readers according to ability, so that they all finish reading the texts at the same time, or have mixed-ability groups. Please also note that some of the texts are emotionally difficult to read (particularly ‘Bystanders at Hartheim Castle’). Please review all of the readings beforehand to decide if they are appropriate for your students to read. You know the needs of your class best.
  • It is important to remind students that as discussed in Lesson 10: Kristallnacht the terms perpetrator, victim, bystander, upstander, and now rescuer refer not to fixed identities, but to the behaviour of individuals, groups, or even nations at specific moments in time. The same person may act as a bystander in one situation and then as a rescuer or perpetrator in another situation. It is not these categories themselves, as words, that matter; it is the way we – and our students – think and talk about the actions (or inactions) of others that helps us both understand history and make connections to the choices we all make in the present.

As with the previous lesson, the content of this lesson can be emotionally challenging for many students. It is important to be responsive to how students are processing this material and to give them time to reflect and write quietly in their journals when they need it, even if it is not explicitly specified in the lesson.

When discussing the choices of perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers during the Holocaust, invite students to reconsider the choices they analysed in readings from previous lessons in their discussion contributions. This exercise provides the opportunity for students to review past material in a new context, thus deepening their understanding of agency at different times within this historical period. You might ask students to consider both what they now perceive to be the consequences of some of the choices made in earlier years and how the range of available choices narrowed after the Nazis went to war and began to carry out mass murder.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  1. Rescuer
  2. Intervene

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide the necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales, context, and detailed activity instructions that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plan


  • Explain to students that they will continue their study of the Holocaust by learning about the stories of people who were perpetrators and bystanders as well as those of people who took risks to help and rescue those targeted by the Nazis. Begin by having students respond to the following questions in their journals:
    • What does it take to intervene to try to save someone from violence and injustice? 
    • When do you think it is necessary to do so? 
    • When might it be dangerous or unwise? Explain your thinking.
  • Students can respond in an activity based on the Think, Pair, Share strategy, or you can facilitate a whole-group discussion.
  • In the short video Facing History Scholar Reflections: Bystanders and Resisters (5:11), Dr Paul Bookbinder discusses the range of choices people made during the Holocaust. In the next activity, students will be reading about some of the individuals he highlights in this video.
  • Share the 3-2-1 analysis prompts below with students, and then show the video. Students will listen for information that addresses the prompts and then respond to them after viewing the video.
    • Identify three acts of rescue or resistance you learnt about from watching the video.
    • Identify two debates among scholars that Bookbinder mentions about the choices groups made in response to the Holocaust.
    • Think of one question the video raises for you about perpetrators, rescuers, or resisters.
  • Review the possible answers to the first two 3-2-1 prompts, and ask students to share some of the questions they wrote in response to the third prompt. Based on your assessment of lesson timing, you could record their questions on the board or a flipchart so that you can refer back to them over the course of the lesson to see which ones get answered and if any need to be added. 
  • Remind students of some of the dilemmas and choices they have analysed in past lessons, including the following:
    • The choices Germans made during the Weimar Republic that either strengthened or weakened democracy.
    • The choices young people made about participating in Nazi youth groups.
    • The range of responses by individuals and groups to the violence and destruction of Kristallnacht.
  • Take a moment to reflect with students on how the circumstances of each of these situations were different and how the range of possible choices (and the associated consequences) may have been different in each instance.
  • Explain to students that in this lesson, they are going to read the stories of individuals, groups, and nations that faced difficult, often life-altering decisions under even more intense circumstances: war, the mass imprisonment and murder of Jews and other groups, and violent retribution for dissent. Remind students about your classroom norms and tell them that they can use their journals at any point in the lesson.
  • Before distributing the readings for this next activity, ask students to review the definitions of perpetrator, bystander, and upstander and add rescuer, a subcategory of upstander, to the list. Explain to students that while ‘upstanding’ included a wide range of actions to oppose Nazi injustice, some upstanders took action to directly save people from the Nazis by hiding them, taking their children into their homes, helping them get visas to flee to safe countries, and helping in other critical ways. We refer to these upstanders as rescuers.
  • For this next activity, you will be using the Jigsaw teaching strategy. Explain to students that they will be divided into groups to read stories of Holocaust perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers and will answer questions based on their reading before being divided into ‘teaching’ groups where they will have to summarise what their ‘expert’ group learnt. 
  • Begin by dividing the class into ‘expert’ groups and assign each group one of the readings from the handout The Holocaust: The Range of Responses (depending on your class size, you might need to have more than one group with the same reading or you may not need to use them all – please see Notes to Teacher above).
  • Ask students to read the story out loud together in their groups, pausing at the end of each one- to two-paragraph section to annotate choices, consequences, and questions. There will be sections of the text with no choices or consequences, so every paragraph won’t necessarily have an annotation. 
  • Project these prompts to assist them on the board:
    • Write ‘choice’ in the margin alongside any moments where the individual, group, or nation faced a decision and made a significant choice. 
    • Underline information in the text that helps you understand what might have led the individual, group, or nation to make those choices. 
    • Write ‘consequence’ in the margin alongside any moments where the story discusses the possible or actual consequences for the individual, group, or nation’s choices. 
  • Give students ten minutes to read the handout and to complete the choice and consequences exercise.
  • Next, project the following questions on the board and give students a further ten minutes to answer the questions in their ‘expert’ groups.
    • Where does your reading take place? 
    • What are the significant choices discussed in your reading? Who made them? 
    • What reasons or explanations did each individual, group, or nation give for their choices? 
    • What were the possible (or actual) consequences of these choices for the individual, group, or nation? In other words, what did the individual(s) know could happen if they made this choice, and/or what actually did happen to them as a consequence of making the choice? 
    • What were the impacts of the choices? 
    • How do you think the individual, group, or nation in this reading defined its universe of obligation? 
    • Where on the range of behavioural categories – perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, rescuers or resisters – does your reading’s individual, group, or nation fall, and why? (Remember that they could fall into more than one category.) What makes you say that?
  • Then divide the class into new ‘teaching’ groups. All of the members of each ‘teaching’ group should have read a different reading in their ‘expert’ groups. Each of these has one member of each ‘expert’ group. Each ‘expert’ will then give feedback to their ‘teaching’ group about the text they read. 
  • If desired, use the following format: Each student speaks for one minute, during which time the others cannot interrupt or ask questions. This is followed by ten seconds of silence. This is repeated until all the students have fed back to their group. They can then have three minutes of discussion time. 
  • If there is time, lead a short class discussion using the following questions as prompts: 
    • When looking at these readings as a whole, what similarities and differences do you notice when considering the circumstances under which people chose to perpetuate violence, stand by, or take action? 
    • What factors influenced their choices to act as perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, or rescuers?

Before moving to the next phase of Facing History & Ourselves’ scope and sequence, ‘Judgement, Memory and Legacy’, it is important that students have time and space to reflect quietly in their journals about what they have learnt so far in this unit. You might simply give students a few minutes to write in their journals about the experience of learning about the Holocaust in the previous few lessons. Or you can ask them to respond to one of the following prompts:

  1. Describe what you thought about and what you felt while learning about people’s experiences and choices during the Holocaust. What did you learn about human behaviour? What did you learn about yourself?
  2. What information, stories, ideas, or questions from your study of the Holocaust do you think are most important to share or for you to remember?
  3. What questions about the Holocaust or individual and group choices during this time of crisis do you still have?

Suggested Homework 

This is an opportunity for students to produce a piece of extended writing that you can mark according to your school marking policy.

This question requires the same skills as the Edexcel GCSE ‘Explain why…’ question and the Eduqas ‘Explain why...’  question. Therefore, in keeping with the question style, you may wish to give students two points that they could include. It can also be adapted to support the ‘How far do you agree with the statement?’ essay question that features on GCSE History exams across the exam boards, by choosing one reason to identify in the statement.  

If you are setting this for homework, you may wish to give some discussion time in the lesson to make sure that all students have three reasons about which they can write.

Extension Activities

Consider pairing the reading Reserve Police Battalion 101 with an examination of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments about circumstances under which individuals are willing and able to inflict pain on other people. Together, these resources provide a powerful way to discuss the behaviour of perpetrators, as well as the conditions in which each of us might be drawn into harming others.

Use the connection questions following the reading to discuss the content with students, and then deepen their exploration of human behaviour by introducing the Milgram experiment. Use the reading A Matter of Obedience? to provide background information on the experiments, and then show a clip from the film Obedience: The Milgram Experiment (21:55–39:15).

Preview these resources to ensure that they are appropriate for your students. Watching the clip of the experiments is a powerful and often uncomfortable experience for many students. Sometimes students show that discomfort by laughing. Instead of disciplining students for such responses, you might use them as an entry point for a discussion about why the video elicits such discomfort and what it suggests about the potential of any individual to be willing to harm another under the right circumstances.

For an even deeper exploration of perpetrator behaviour, consider showing students the video The Psychology of Genocidal Behavior.

The Facing History website offers a variety of additional resources to support an extended focus on rescuers during the Holocaust. If you decide to extend this lesson to provide a more in-depth focus on rescue, begin by asking students to consider the question: How did people make the choice to rescue? You might also share this statement from psychologist Ervin Staub: ‘Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren’t born.’ 5 Then share one or more of the following videos to help students consider the qualities and motivations that enable one to be a rescuer and look for evidence to support Staub’s statement:

  • The Courage to Care (28:40) profiles both Jews who were rescued during the Holocaust and rescuers from France, Holland, and Poland, and it raises questions about the moral and ethical dilemmas that rescuers confronted.
  • Life or Death in the Netherlands (5:12) features Marion Pritchard describing her decision to murder a Dutch Nazi policeman in order to protect a Jewish family hiding in her home. (This is the same story told in the reading Deciding to Act.)
  • Finding Safety in Italy (5:47) features the testimony of Holocaust survivor Esther Bem and her description of the people in northern Italy who protected her and her family during the Second World War.
  • Weapons of the Spirit (35:07) provides an in-depth profile of the French town of Le Chambon and the beliefs that motivated its residents to save 5,000 Jews during the Second World War. (This is the same story told in the reading Le Chambon: A Village Takes a Stand.)

You can extend your study of rescuers even further with additional Facing History resources, including Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War and other readings from Chapters 7, 8, and 9 of Holocaust and Human Behaviour.

  • 5Quoted in D. Goldman, ‘Is Altruism Inherited?’, Baltimore Jewish Times, 12 April 1985, 70.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

This is the handout that students use throughout The Holocaust - The Range of Responses (UK)  lesson plan.

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