Overview

As the Third Reich reached the height of its power in Europe, the Nazis began to murder unfathomable numbers of Jews and others of so-called inferior races. This chapter examines events and human behavior that both unsettle us and elude our attempts to explain them. The readings force us to confront the shocking violence of the Holocaust and reflect on the range of human behavior revealed in the choices of perpetrators, bystanders, resisters, and rescuers.

Essential Questions

  1. What is the Holocaust? How did the earlier choices of individuals, groups, and entire nations help to make it possible? 
  2. What choices did individuals and nations make during the Holocaust? What factors shaped their universes of obligation?
  3. What can we learn about human behavior from confronting this history? What can we learn about ourselves? What new questions does this history raise for us in the twenty-first century?

Introduction
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Introduction

Before you explore our readings on the Holocaust, get famliar with the historical context and central themes.

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Take This Giant Leap

Begin your study of the Holocaust with a poem by Holocaust survivor Sonia Weitz.

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Mobile Killing Units

Learn about the mass shootings and massacres of Jews by German forces at Babi Yar, Kiev, and other Baltic territories. 

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Reserve Police Battalion 101

Investigate perpetrator behavior with historian Christopher Browning’s study of the men of a police unit that killed Jews during World War II.

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A Matter of Obedience?

Learn about psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and the insight they offer into the motives of Nazi perpetrators.

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"Proving Oneself" in the East

Read a German woman's account of her decision to murder several Jews under Nazi orders while living in occupied Poland.

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The Wannsee Conference

Learn about the meeting of German officials in 1942 to coordinate the "Final Solution," Nazi Germany's plan to annihilate the Jews of Europe.

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Establishing the Killing Centers

Learn about the Nazis’ creation of death camps designed exclusively to carry out mass murder.

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The "Special Trains"

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Auschwitz

Read eyewitness accounts of the killing process at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

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Choiceless Choices

Consider the experiences of Jewish prisoners who were forced to help German guards murder other prisoners. 

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A Commandant’s View

Get insight into how a commander at a Nazi death camp viewed his victims and coped with his actions. 

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Identity in the Camps

Holocaust survivor Primo Levi describes his first day as a prisoner in Auschwitz, and the harrowing experience of losing his loved ones, possessions, and even his name.

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Seizing Property

Learn about Nazi Germany’s system of collecting, cataloging, and redistributing the possessions of prisoners in ghettos and camps.

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What Did Jews in the Ghettos Know?

Consider how Jews living in the ghettos got information about the outside world, and how much they knew about the mass murders occurring across Europe. 

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Survival in Hiding

Gain insight into the experiences of Jews in hiding during the Holocaust by reading entries from the diary of teenager Otto Wolf.

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Difficult Choices in Poland

Consider how two people in occupied-Poland responded to the persecution and murder of Jews in their community. 

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Speaking Out “In the Face of Murder”

Read a secretly-published 1942 pamphlet entitled “Protest" that condemned the deportation and murder of Jews.

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We May Not Have Another Chance

Holocaust survivor Sonia Weitz processes an experience she had in a slave labor camp through a poem and writing.

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A Basic Feeling of Human Dignity

Diary entries from a Jewish woman imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen shed light on how prisoners in camps and ghettos were deprived of dignity.

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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Learn about the largest act of resistance by Jews against the Nazis, mounted by prisoners of the Warsaw ghetto.

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Protests in Germany

Investigate different examples of protest and resistance by Germans against the Nazi regime in the 1940s, including the White Rose resistance group.

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Deciding to Act

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Le Chambon: A Village Takes a Stand

Explore rescue during the Holocaust with the story of a community in Southern France that sheltered and hid thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

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Diplomats and the Choice to Rescue

Read the stories of two diplomats who chose to use their status to rescue Jews from the Nazis during World War II.

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Denmark: A Nation Takes Action

Learn about the people of Denmark’s collective effort to hide and rescue Jews from deportation during the Holocaust.

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Terezín: A Site for Deception

Discover how the Nazis used the ghetto-camp Terezín as a propaganda tool to hide what they were really doing to the Jews of Europe. 

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A Transport to Bergen-Belsen

Hanna Lévy-Hass, a Jewish woman from Yugoslavia, describes her treacherous journey between camps as Germany retreated from Eastern Europe.

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What Did the World Know?

Consider what people around the world knew about the mass murder occurring during World War II, and the role of journalism in the spread of information. 

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The Difference between Knowing and Believing

Consider why some world leaders responded with disbelief to testimonies of the mass killings the Nazis were carrying out in Europe during World War II.

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A Report on the Murder of Jews

Learn about the memo that urged President Roosevelt to step up US efforts to rescue Jews from the Nazis, and led him to establish the War Refugee Board.

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The Death Marches

Learn how the Germans tried to hide evidence of their mass murder toward the end of World War II by evacuating prisoners from camps.

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As the War Ended

Eisenhower, a general during World War II, describes his shock and horror at touring a Nazi concentration camp liberated by US troops.

Reflection & Analysis
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Analysis & Reflection

Enhance your students’ understanding of our readings on the Holocaust with these follow-up questions and prompts.

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