One 50-minute class period

Music as a Survival Tool

Essential Questions

  • What does it mean to resist?
  • In what sense was music a form of resistance for Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will become familiar with the concept of resistance.
  • Students will understand that resistance during the Holocaust took many forms, including both physical and spiritual resistance.
  • Students will explore the complex emotions involved with the use of music to survive, resist, and sustain the spirit during the Holocaust.


In the lesson Jewish Life before World War II, students began to look at the diversity and richness of Jewish culture in Europe before the war, including the importance of music in the lives of many Jews. In this lesson, students will focus more deeply on music as they discover how it continued to be a part of Jewish life even during Nazi oppression and under appalling conditions. As a result, students will be encouraged to think broadly about the idea of resistance: while some individuals and groups resisted Nazi tyranny by taking up arms, many others resisted using “weapons of the spirit,” including music.



  1. Provide a Brief Overview of the Holocaust
    Tell students that in this lesson, they will learn about the role that music played as a form of resistance during the Holocaust. First, it is important to make sure that students know about the historical events to which we are referring when we discuss the Holocaust. This is a complex and emotionally difficult period of history to learn about, and it deserves more attention than is possible in this short series of lessons. See the extensions below for suggested ways to help students explore this history more deeply, if sufficient class time is available. Otherwise, begin by sharing the following background information with students:

    Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis ruled Germany and targeted millions of children, women, and men for destruction solely because of their ancestry. Those murders are collectively known as the Holocaust, a Greek word that means “complete destruction by fire.” Auschwitz and other German death camps where the bodies of many of the victims were burned brought the word to mind. Historian Christopher Browning writes that “at the core of the Holocaust was an intense eleven-month wave of mass murder. The center of gravity of this mass murder was Poland, where in March 1942, despite two and a half years of terrible hardship, deprivation, and persecution, every major Jewish community was still intact; eleven months later, only remnants of Polish Jewry survived.” Jews were the primary targets of the Nazi program of discrimination, isolation, and mass murder, but other groups were targeted as well, including Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, communists, and Poles. In all, about 11 million people were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust, six million of whom were Jews.

  2. Explore the Concept of Resistance
    As a class, begin a concept map for the word resistance. Write the word on the board or a piece of chart paper, and add students’ answers to the following questions: 

    • What does the word mean? 
    • What are some examples of this word from your own experience, or from literature, movies, or history? 
    • What is the goal or purpose of resistance? 

    Use the concept map to summarize the ways in which we usually think about what it means to resist. Students might mention physical resistance, civil disobedience, and passive resistance. If necessary, remind the class that although we often think of resistance as a physical struggle (and while there were many examples of armed resistance by Jews during the Holocaust), the act of resistance can take many forms. 

    As a class, read the poem Resistance Is...  by the Israeli poets Haim Gouri and Monia Avrahami. Tell students to listen for the various forms that resistance could take during the Holocaust and to be ready, when the reading is finished, to share one that stands out to them in particular. 

    Variation: One effective way for students to read this poem together is to have them stand in a line. Each student then steps forward in turn and reads aloud the first half of a line of the poem (beginning with the first line, “To smuggle a loaf of bread”). As each student steps back, all students then say the second half of the poem’s line together as a refrain (“was to resist”). The reading continues in this format. If you have a large group, two students at a time can step forward and read the first half of a line together. This exercise will help to demonstrate that resistance was sometimes a solitary activity and sometimes a group activity, but it always depended on the cooperation of others. 

    After reading the poem, have students discuss or write in their journals about the line of the poem that stood out to them most strongly and why. Add to the class concept map any new ideas about resistance that arise from sharing these reflections. If it does not come out during the class discussion, it will be helpful as students progress through subsequent readings to point out to them that mere survival, as well as the survival of one’s culture, in the face of attempted extermination is a form of resistance. 

  3. Explore Examples of Resistance
    Tell students that they will look at four examples of resistance to the Holocaust that involved music. They will explore the following readings:


    Use the Jigsaw teaching strategy: Divide your class into four groups. Each group will receive one of the four readings. As they read, ask them to look for evidence of how people used music to survive, to sustain their spirits, and/or to resist Nazi oppression. Ask students to note the consequences, positive or negative, of this resistance. When they are finished, ask them to complete a written reflection describing what surprised them or troubled them about what they read. 
    Assemble students into four groups based on who had the same reading. (These groups will be large, so you might want to split each of these larger groups in two.) Together, group members should share their notes and reflections about their reading.

    After the larger groups have met, have students assemble into new groups of four so that each person in the group has read a different reading. Students in these new groups should then each share what they have learned in their readings and look for similarities and differences in these reflections across the four readings. 

  4. Introduce Violins of Hope
    Tell students that the film/performance/exhibit Violins of Hope features violins that were owned and played by European Jews before the Holocaust. Over the past 20 years, the violins have been recovered and restored by Israeli luthier (violin maker and repairer) Amnon Weinstein. If time permits, have students watch the Violins of Hope documentary in class or at home. Then ask them to reflect in their journals, or in a class discussion, on the following questions:

    • According to Weinstein, why is restoring the violins important?
    • What does Weinstein suggest was lost in the Holocaust, in addition to the lives of those targeted by the Nazis?
    • Is Weinstein’s work itself an act of resistance to the Nazis? If so, how?
    • How does the Violins of Hope project expand your thinking about resistance?

    If your time is limited, you may choose to share the following quotation from Weinstein with the class instead of viewing the documentary. Then proceed with the journal or discussion activity described above.

    Since the Shoah, when the Jewish cultural world was eradicated, I seek out the remaining sliver of culture: dusty violins in thousands of pieces, and I renew their lives as I repair and renovate them, piecing them together and cleaning them so that they may play their lively tunes once again. So I discover violins wearing the Star of David, engraved deeply within their wood, and immediately I hear the notes of childhood melodies. And even if the Jewish violinists have disappeared, I try to promise to them that their legacy will be born again as the notes are played.


  1. Confront the History of the Holocaust More Deeply

    The Holocaust is an important and challenging history that deserves to be explored in greater depth than is possible in this short series of lessons. Time permitting, consider devoting several additional days to helping your students confront this history. Our one-week unit outline provides a framework for exploring this history in more detail, using resources from Holocaust and Human Behavior.

  2. Respond to the Violins of Hope Exhibit, Performance, or Film

    If your class visits an exhibit of Weinstein’s violins, attends a symphony performance using some these instruments, or views the documentary Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust, follow up the experience by asking students to respond to and discuss these questions:

    • How did what you saw change or extend your thinking about the idea that music provided a form of resistance for Jews targeted by the Nazis?
    • How did this change or extend your thinking about the work of Weinstein and the musicians who play these violins today? Are these acts of resistance? How?
  3. Research Memorials and Monuments

    Have students research Holocaust memorials, or memorials to other events or people. The section Visual Essay: Holocaust Memorials and Monuments from Holocaust and Human Behavior can provide a starting point for their research. As they conduct their research, students might consider the following questions:

    • What is the purpose of the memorial?
    • Who is the audience, and what evidence from the memorial lets you know?
    • What emotional impact does the memorial have on you?
    • Then have students discuss whether or not they consider the Violins of Hope collection to be a memorial. In what ways does this collection of violins memorialize the victims and survivors of the Holocaust?
  4. Connect to Music Today

    In the lesson The Power of Music, students reflected on the role that music plays in their lives. Now, you might ask students to return to their ideas from that lesson. They can reflect on and discuss the following questions:

    • How do you use music to shape your world?
    • How do you use the power of music to affect people around you? To nurture yourself?
    • Can you connect your experience with music to something you saw, heard, or learned about as you explored the Violins of Hope project?

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