Lesson 15 of 17
Two 50-minute class periods

The Holocaust: Bystanders and Upstanders

From the Unit:

This material will retire in July 2018. Visit our new unit Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior for updated lesson plans and new offerings.

Learning Objectives

The purpose of this lesson is to help students:

Reflect on these guiding questions:

  • How did individuals, groups, and nations respond to information about persecution of the Jews and others by the Nazis? What were the consequences for action? For inaction?
  • What is a bystander? What is an upstander?
  • Why do some people stand by during times of injustice while others try to do something to stop or prevent injustice?
  • What can be learned from this unit that can help guide decision-making in times of conflict?

Practice these interdisciplinary skills:

  • Interpreting primary and secondary source documents
  • Sharing ideas through an oral presentation
  • Drawing distinctions between the past and today
  • Synthesizing material from several sources to draw conclusions
  • Applying concepts about human behavior and decision-making to our own lives

Deepen understanding of these key terms:

  • Bystander
  • Upstander
  • Universe of responsibility 
  • Rescuer
  • Consequences
  • Historical context


To deepen your understanding of the ideas in this lesson, read Chapters 8 and 9 of Holocaust and Human Behavior.

In Lesson 14, students learned about the horrors of the Holocaust. After confronting these crimes of incredible proportion, students often ask, “How could this have happened? Why didn’t anyone stop the Nazis?” Students started to address this question in the previous lesson. In this lesson, students will explore stories of individuals, groups, and nations who made choices to resist the Nazis and rescue Jews and other victims of persecution. They will also explore stories of bystanders—individuals, groups, and nations who knew about the persecution of Jews and others but decided to remain silent. These stories raise profound moral and civic questions for students: Under what circumstances do we stand up to injustice and violence? Under what circumstances do we stand by while injustice continues? To whom are we responsible? What are the consequences of our choices— for ourselves, our families, and our communities? Activities in this lesson are designed to help students reflect on their own decision-making process as individuals living in a larger society.


The history of the Holocaust is not one of only perpetrators and victims. Historian Raul Hilberg argues that most of the people who had an impact on the Holocaust (and were impacted by the Holocaust) “were neither perpetrators nor victims.” He explains:

Many people...saw or heard something of the event. Those of them who lived in Adolf Hitler’s Europe would have described themselves, with few exceptions, as bystanders. They were not “involved,” not willing to hurt the victims and not wishing to be hurt by the perpetrators....The Dutch were worried about their bicycles, the French about shortages, the Ukrainians about food, the Germans about air raids. All of these people thought of themselves as victims, be it of war, or oppression, or "fate." 1

Professor Ervin Staub would agree. Himself a survivor of the Holocaust, he believes that bystanders play a far more critical role in society than people realize: “Bystanders, people who witness but are not directly affected by the actions of perpetrators, help shape society by their reactions....Bystanders can exert powerful influences. They can define the meaning of events and move others toward empathy or indifference. They can promote values and norms of caring, or by their passivity of participation in the system, they can affirm the perpetrators.”2 There are different degrees of bystander behavior. For example, historian Paul Bookbinder distinguishes between collaborators and bystanders. Collaborators are those that were not directly involved in the round-up and murder of Holocaust victims, but who may have assisted the Nazis by providing them with information or supplies. On the other hand, he points out that bystanders neither directly cooperated with the Nazis or helped the Jews, and should therefore be judged differently than collaborators.

Many bystanders to the Holocaust claim that they were not aware of the horrible atrocities being committed by the Nazis. When asked about this, Holocaust survivor Primo Levi has replied with a question of his own. “How is it possible that the extermination of millions of human beings could have been carried out in the heart of Europe without anyone’s knowledge?”3 In The Destruction of European Jews, Raul Hilberg proved that many had the opportunity to know about the killings:

Organizing the transportation of victims from all over Europe to the concentration camps involved a countless number of railroad employees and clerical workers who had to work the trains and maintain the records. National Railroad tickets were marked for a one-way trip. Currency exchange at the borders had to be handled. Finance ministers of Germany moved to seize the pensions of victims from banks, yet the banks requested proof of death. Many building contracts and patents for ovens and gas chambers were required. . . . The railroads were an independent corporation which was fully aware of the consequences of its decisions. The civilian railroad workers involved in operating rails to Auschwitz were simply performing their daily tasks. These were individual people making individual decisions. They were not ordered or even assigned. Orders from the SS to the railroads were not even stamped “secret” because that would admit guilt of something abnormal in the bureaucracy. The many clerical workers who handled these orders were fully aware of the purpose of Auschwitz.4

Testimonies of soldiers and townspeople support Hilberg’s claim. Herbert Mochalski, a German soldier, shares, “It’s nonsense when a German soldier says that he never saw anything, that the soldiers didn’t know anything. It’s all simply not true.”5 And villagers who lived near concentration camps recall the horrible stench of burning flesh in the air and seeing ashes, tufts of hair, and bone fragments falling onto their streets.6 Additionally, news reports of the atrocities made headlines in international newspapers. As early as summer of 1941, the Chicago Tribune covered a story about hundreds of Jews being deported from Berlin on obviously trumped-up charges.7 By the fall of 1942, the New York Times published this headline: Slain Polish Jews Put at a Million.8

Thus, ample evidence points to the conclusion that people around the world had access to information about the deportations, concentration camps, and death camps. Yet, Primo Levi presents another obstacle to action—the idea that some people may not have wanted to acknowledge the horrible crimes that were being committed. He writes:

In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know....In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.9

The Germans were not the only people who avoided facing the truth around them. During the war, Jan Karski, a courier for the Polish Resistance, tried to alert people to the mass murder of European Jews. He later recalled:

The extermination of the Jews was without precedent in the history of mankind. No one was prepared to grasp what was going on. It is not true, as sometimes has been written, that I was the first one to present to the West the whole truth of the fate of the Jews in occupied Poland. There were others....The tragedy was that these testimonies were not believed. Not because of ill will, but simply because the facts were beyond human imagination. I experienced this myself. When I was in the United States and told [Supreme Court] Justice Felix Frankfurter the story of the Polish Jews, he said, at the end of our conversation, “I cannot believe you.” We were with the Polish ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski. Hearing the justice’s comments, he was indignant. “Lieutenant Karski is on an official mission. My government’s authority stands behind him. You cannot say to his face that he is lying.” Frankfurter’s answer was, “I am not saying that he is lying. I only said that I cannot believe him, and there is a difference.”10

This story of Justice Frankfurter, himself a non-practicing Jew, exemplifies how even some American Jews found it difficult to acknowledge the horrors that were occurring in Europe.

By the end of 1942, it was impossible for the international community to deny the fact that millions of innocent Jews and other victims were being murdered by the Nazis. The governments of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union even made a joint statement acknowledging the mass murders for the first time. Yet, they continued to do nothing to stop or prevent more innocent deaths. Why was this the case? President Roosevelt worried that because of antisemitic sentiment in the United States, he would not be able to get public and congressional support to help European Jews escape the Nazis.11 Jewish organizations asked U.S. officials if the military could bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz in order to prevent the arrival of more victims to this extermination camp. Officials responded that all air power was needed to fight the war against Germany, that bombing the tracks “might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans,” and that “the most effective relief which can be given victims of enemy persecution is to ensure speedy defeat of the Axis.”12 Still, Americans dropped bombs near Auschwitz on ten different occasions. And, the British refused to allow more European Jews to emigrate to British-controlled Palestine. Golda Meir, who later became prime minister of Israel, describes how the British were worried about angering Arab leaders in Palestine and, therefore, “remained adamant” in their decision to keep Jews out of Palestine, even if it meant they would die in gas chambers in Europe.13 Thus, when faced with what they saw as difficult choices, Allied nations typically chose not to actively help Jews escape Nazi persecution.

As news of Nazi atrocities spread, people throughout Europe confronted difficult choices. They were asked to hide Jews or to take in Jewish children as their own; they were asked to forge documents or to shuttle Jews to safety in neutral countries such as Switzerland or Sweden. Often, these requests were denied. People had their own survival and their own families to worry about. Stories of bystanders included in this lesson, like the residents of Mauthausen or Christabel Beilenberg, indicate that individuals did not act to prevent violence against Jews and others out of fear for their own safety or the safety of their family. Some individuals who acknowledged the violence and persecution against Jews did not know what to do when confronted with this information. Father John S. was a Jesuit seminarian in Hungarian-occupied Czechoslovakia at the time Jews were being deported to Auschwitz. He recalls looking through a hole in a fence and seeing a Nazi guard brutally attack a Jew. “I just didn’t know what to do. At that time I was immobilized....It was beyond my experience—I was totally unprepared,” he shared, reflecting a response shared by others during the Holocaust.14 Thus, there are many reasons to explain why so few people in Nazi-occupied Europe were involved in resistance movements, protest marches, or plots to assassinate Hitler. Denial, self-preservation, lack of preparation, antisemitism, opportunism, and fear all played a role in shaping decisions to act, or not to act, when faced with knowledge of Nazi atrocities.

Decisions to help Jews were also influenced  by political context and geography. In Denmark, nearly the entire nation took part in rescuing Jews and very few Danes were punished for their efforts. In Germany, however, the government imprisoned anyone caught sheltering a Jew, and in Poland the penalty was death. Also, rescuers faced greater challenges in areas with histories of fervent antisemitism, such as parts of Poland, because they not only had to worry about being found out by the Nazis, but they had to fear being reported by one of their neighbors. In Italy and France the civilian population was more sympathetic to the Jews (and more resentful of the Nazis). Thus, rescuers in some areas, such as France or Italy, were more likely to confront benign indifference, or even assistance, than their counterparts in other regions, such as Poland, Ukraine, and Austria.

Even under the most challenging conditions and in regions with long histories of antisemitism, individuals took extreme personal risks to rescue Jews. About two percent of the Polish Christian population chose to hide Jews. In Lithuania, Senpo Sugihara, the Japanese consul, provided visas to 3,500 Jews. Those visas not only protected Jews from deportation but also allowed them to emigrate to Shanghai, China—then under Japanese rule. Le Chambon, a small French community, sheltered thousands of Jews, and nearly all of Denmark’s Jews were saved because of the efforts of an entire population. According to historian Johannes Tuchel, head of the German Resistance Memorial Center, between 20,000 and 30,000 non-Jewish Germans played a role in helping 1,700 of Berlin’s Jews escape Nazi persecution. There are hundreds of stories of individuals such as Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, and Marion Pritchard who sacrificed wealth and risked their lives to save Jews and other victims.

Facing History uses the term “upstander” to describe individuals, groups, or nations who, when bearing witness to injustice, decide to do something to stop or prevent these acts from continuing. Ervin Staub is alive today because of upstanders. As a six-year-old in Budapest, Hungary, he was hidden from the Nazis, and then he and other family members survived with the protective passes created by Raoul Wallenberg (and then some other embassies in Budapest). Later, in his writings as a psychologist he wrote:

Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren’t born. Very often the rescuers make 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.15

Nechama Tec and Ervin Staub discussed the sociology and motivations of rescuers at the Second Annual Facing History Conference. Both agreed that the decision to rescue Jews had little to do with the rescuer’s religion, nationality, schooling, class, or ethnic heritage. Most rescuers were independent individuals who refused to follow the crowd. They also had a history of performing good deeds and did not perceive rescue work as anything out of the ordinary. Guido Calabresi, former dean of the Yale School of Law, believes that many Italians chose to hide Jews and others fleeing persecution because of a sense of shared humanity. He explains:

An awful lot of people didn’t worry about law, didn’t worry about politics, didn’t worry about rules which told them to turn people in, but just looked at the individual in need, the mothers’ and fathers’ sons and daughters before them, and this led them to hide and protect that person at the risk of their own lives.16

While every upstander had their own reasons for risking their own well-being to rescue children, women, and men fleeing persecution by the Nazis, one trait shared by most of these individuals and communities is a feeling of responsibility or caring for others, even for strangers. A study of the Holocaust would be incomplete without learning about the acts of rescue and resistance because these stories provide evidence of the capacity to act with courage and compassion out of respect for human dignity. In the preface to the film The Courage to Care, which documents the efforts of rescuers in France, the Netherlands, and Poland, Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel remarked:

Let us not forget, after all, that there is always a moment when the moral choice is made. Often because of one story or one book or one person, we are able to make a different choice, a choice for humanity, for life. And so we must know these good people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. We must learn from them, and in gratitude and hope, we must remember them.17

At the same time, we must be careful not to simplify our understanding of human behavior to one of good versus evil, or upstanders versus bystanders and perpetrators. Through his experience writing the book The Courage to Care about rescuers during the Holocaust, Phillip Hallie shares, “I learned that ethics is not simply a matter of good and evil, true north and true south. It is a matter of mixtures, like most of the other points on the compass, and like the lives of most of us. We are not all called upon to be perfect, but we can make a little, real difference in a mainly cold and indifferent world.”18 The response of the United States to the Holocaust exemplifies Hallie’s sentiment. In January 1944, after years of ignoring the plight of the Jews, President Roosevelt set up the War Refugee Board. It saved about two hundred thousand Jews through diplomacy, bribery, and trickery. John Pehle, Jr., the man who headed the group, later remarked that “what we did was little enough. It was late. Late and little, I would say.”19 Thus, the actions of the United States during the Holocaust are neither all good nor all evil, but “a matter of mixtures,” as Hallie points out.20 Likewise, how does one judge the decision made by Marion Pritchard to kill a Dutch policeman in order to protect the Jews who were hiding in her home? In reflecting on her decision and the choices others made during the war, Pritchard is troubled by a “tendency to divide the general population during the war into the few ‘good guys’ and the large majority of ‘bad guys.’ That seems to me to be a dangerous oversimplification.” She explains:

The point I want to make is that there were indeed some people who behaved criminally by betraying their Jewish neighbors and thereby sentenced them to death. There were some people who dedicated themselves to actively rescuing as many people as possible. Somewhere in between was the majority, whose actions varied from the minimum decency of at least keeping quiet if they knew where Jews were hidden to finding a way to help them when they were asked.21

Ultimately, an awareness of the range of responses to the Holocaust reveals the significant consequences of choosing to act, or not to act, in the face of injustice. Through large and small acts of kindness, thousands of Jews and other victims were saved. At the same time, the inaction of the majority allowed millions of children, women, and men to suffer horrible deaths. Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize–winning scientist who emigrated from Germany because of his Jewish heritage, declared, “The world is too dangerous to live in—not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen.” As members of an increasingly global community, it is within all of our interests to gain a deeper understanding of the conditions that encourage individuals, groups, and nations to intervene in the face of injustice. In a commencement address to law students, Calabresi remarked on how the range of responses during the Holocaust provides a hope and a warning to all of us. He said:

We should remember that the capacity to do good...unexpectedly to do something which is profoundly right, even if profoundly dangerous, is always there. But more important, some good people made catastrophically bad decisions....All of us, I and you, are as subject to being careless, uncaring. We will all thoughtlessly applaud at times we shouldn’t. Or even dramatically at times...mislead ourselves into following what seem like good reasons...to a dreadful decision....I would like to leave with you the ease, the simplicity, of making mistakes. Not to dishearten you—far from it—but in the hope that it will both make you more careful, more full of care of others in need, and more understanding of those who do wrong because they can be, they are, you and me.... I emphasize this to remind you that the choices which reoccur, do make a difference. If not always or even often to the world, they will make a difference to the children of some mothers and fathers around us as we all struggle to live.22

The stories of upstanders highlight the “capacity to do good” that “is always there,” while the stories of bystanders, and perpetrators, suggest how easy it is for good people to make bad decisions. Calabresi’s words can be helpful in answering students who ask why they are learning about the Holocaust: “In the hope that it will make you more careful, more full of care of others in need, and more understanding of those who do wrong because they can be, they are, you and me.”23

Related readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior


  • 1 : Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933–1945 (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), xi.
  • 2 : Ervin Straub, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 87.
  • 3 : Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz and the Reawakening: Two Memoirs (New York: Summit Books, 1986), 377.
  • 4 : Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of European Jews (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985), 148–49.
  • 5 : Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 164.
  • 6 : Gordon J. Horwitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen (New York: The Free Press, 1990), 60.
  • 7 : Deborah Lipstadt, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933–1945 (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 172.
  • 8 : Ibid., 183.
  • 9 : Levi, Survival and Reawakening, 381.
  • 10 : Maciej Kozlowski, “The Mission that Failed: A Polish Courier Who Tried to Help the Jews,” as quoted in Antony Polonsky, My Brother’s Keeper? Recent Polish Debates on the Holocaust (Abingdon: Routledge, 1990), 87.
  • 11 : David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941–1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 97.
  • 12 : Ibid., 296–97.
  • 13 : Ibid.
  • 14 : Seeing, VHS (New Haven: Fortunoff, 1982).
  • 15 : Daniel Goldman, “Is Altruism Inherited?” Baltimore Jewish Times, April 12, 1985.
  • 16 : Guido Calabresi, “Choices,” Williams Alumni Review (Summer 1991).
  • 17 : The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, ed. Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers (New York: New York University Press), x.
  • 18 : Ibid., 115.
  • 19 : Wyman, The Abandonment of Jews, 287.
  • 20 : The Courage to Care, 115.
  • 21 : Ibid., 31–33.
  • 22 : Calabresi, “Choices.”
  • 23 : Ibid.



Suggestion for how to divide this lesson over two class periods: During the first day, students can interpret one story together as a class and then receive their assigned text. Before the end of class, groups might have a few minutes to begin reading the text together. For homework, students can finish reading and interpreting their assigned bystander or upstander story. Day two can begin with students meeting in groups to review their reading before they present this story to the class.


To prepare students to look at these stories of upstanders and bystanders, students can respond to the following prompt in their journals:

  • Identify a time when you went out of your way to help somebody else—a friend, a family member, a neighbor, or a complete stranger. What were the consequences of your actions for you and for others?
  • Identify a situation when you knew something was wrong or unfair, but you did not intervene to improve the situation. What were the consequences of your actions for you and for others?
  • Compare these two situations. What led you to act in one situation but not to intervene in the other?

The purpose of having students respond to this prompt is not to make them feel badly about themselves that they acted as bystanders. Rather, the purpose is for students to begin to develop a deeper understanding of their own decision-making process. Because these stories might be embarrassing or private, before students begin writing you might want to inform them that they will not be required to publicly share what they write. You can also reassure students that many people choose to act as bystanders, and that there are sometimes very good reasons for choosing not to intervene in a particular situation. Another way to help students feel more comfortable writing honestly is to share your own answer to this journal prompt.

Focus a discussion of this prompt on the third question—the reasons why students acted in some situations, but not in others. You can record their reasons on a two-column chart, where one column is labeled “reasons for bystander behavior” and the other column is labeled “reasons for upstander behavior."

Main Activities

Lesson 14 focused on the experiences of perpetrators and victims during the Holocaust. Explain to students that not everyone involved in this event fell into one of these two categories. Indeed, most of the individuals in Europe and around the world acted as bystanders—people who are aware of injustice but choose to “stand by” while it occurs. And, a small group of individuals acted as upstanders—people who act in ways to prevent or stop injustice. 

Divide the class into small groups of 3–4 students. Give each group one reading from Chapter 8 of Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior, “Bystanders and Rescuers.” Handout 1 includes excerpts of ten of these readings. You can use the readings directly from the resource book or select from these excerpts. Students will present the main ideas in their readings to the rest of the class, including answers to questions such as:

  • Identify the significant choices made in this story.
  • How do you think this individual, group, or nation would explain their decisions?
  • What might have been the consequences of their actions given their specific context?
  • To whom did he/she/they feel responsible?

Connecting images to ideas helps many students retain information. Therefore, we suggest that each group designs a symbol that represents the choices made in this story. For example, the image of a boat could represent how the Danes were able to rescue nearly all of their Jewish citizens by shuttling them on fishing boats to Sweden. Students can display this symbol on a poster that can accompany their presentation. The poster might include the name of the reading, the symbol that represents the choices made in this story, and one thought-provoking quotation selected from the reading. You might also
ask students to point out where the story took place on a world map. This will help illustrate how individuals, groups, and nations from all over the world were in the position to act as bystanders or upstanders during the Holocaust. Identifying the location of these stories will also help students consider how the context, especially where the situation took place, might have influenced the choices that were made and the consequences of these choices. Handout 2 is a graphic organizer students can use to prepare for their presentations.

Before students are assigned texts and begin their group work, we suggest you model the process of interpreting these readings by going over reading 1, “The Courage of Le Chambon,” as a whole class. Here is a process you can use to review this text (this process can be posted on the board as a reminder when students are working in small groups):

  1. Have a student volunteer (or volunteers) read the passage aloud.
  2. Read the questions on handout 2 aloud.
  3. While one member of the group reads the passage aloud, the rest of the group marks specific text that helps answer the questions.
  4. Identify any confusing parts of the story. As a class, try to answer any questions you have about the reading.
  5. Once everyone understands the story, begin answering the questions.
  6. Prepare for your presentation. You might assign roles such as presenter, symbol drawer, and quotation finder.

Handout 3 provides one example of how a student might answer questions about “The Courage of Le Chambon.” Other questions raised by this story include:

  • Why do you think all of the members of Le Chambon made the same choice to protect the Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution?
  • What does this story reveal about community, conformity, and peer pressure?
  • What did the phrase “It was the human thing to do” mean to the people of Le Chambon? What might this phrase have meant to perpetrators during the Holocaust, such as head officers at Auschwitz? What does this phrase mean to you?

These questions could be prompts for journal writing and for large or small group discussion.

Once students are familiar with the process of interpreting stories of bystanders and upstanders, they can repeat this process in small groups with their assigned reading. This lesson is designed to run over two class periods. An appropriate time to end the first part of the lesson would be during the group work time. Any work that was not finished during class time can be completed for homework. Day two of this lesson can begin with group members preparing for their presentations of their upstander or bystander story.

During the presentations, students can record notes about the factors that encouraged bystander behavior and upstander behavior (see handout 4). This activity provides the opportunity to help students understand the concept of the universal and the particular—that some themes, such as self-preservation, resonate for people all over the world throughout history, but that these themes look different when played out in their unique situation. For example, obedience for a German transportation officer who arranges for millions of Jews to be shipped to concentration camps carried much more significant consequences than obedience for an American teenager in California during the Third Wave experiment. Encourage students not to draw direct parallels between their own decisions to act (and not to act) and those of bystanders and upstanders during the Holocaust. Help them understand how the specific historical context for individuals, groups, and nations during World War II meant that, especially after 1939, almost every choice carried life and death consequences. At the same time, the readings reveal that different contexts presented distinct opportunities and consequences for action. By referring to where events took place on a map, students can see how the particular geography of a place (i.e., Denmark’s location on the water across from Sweden) helped them to pursue acts of rescue. And, while it is true that many Europeans could have faced imprisonment in concentration camps and possible death if they were caught rescuing Jews, American officials who tried to help Jews escape Europe, or who took action to prevent people from being transported to Auschwitz, would not have faced these same consequences.

Also, when discussing the choices of bystanders and upstanders during the Holocaust, invite students to draw from material they explored earlier in this unit. For example, in the reading “Do You Take the Oath?” (from Lesson 9) a German worker in a defense plant chooses to take the oath because if he doesn’t, he will lose his job and it would be difficult to find another. Likewise, in the reading “No Time to Think” (from Lesson 14), a university professor mentions  his fear of being ostracized by his peers for refusing to go along with Nazi beliefs. From the material in Lesson 12 about the lives of German youth during the 1930s, students can imagine how teenagers would have faced ridicule from peers and teachers, as well as poor grades in school, for any signs of resistance to Nazi ideology. Additionally, given the context of widespread antisemitic and pro-Nazi propaganda, it is possible that many bystanders did not act to stop or prevent the persecution of Jews and others because they believed the lies they had been taught in school or read in the newspapers; in other words, some bystanders may have actually thought it was acceptable to mistreat Jews because Jews were believed to be dangerous and less than human.

Follow Through (in class or at home)

The purpose of this lesson, and of this unit as a whole, is to help students think about the ethical consequences of decisions. As 8th graders and beyond, they will likely have to confront some tough choices. We all do. Facing History has found that studying the rise of the Nazis and the steps leading up to the Holocaust helps students confront questions and define concepts that can be applied to their own role as individuals living in a community. Given these goals, as a follow-through activity, we suggest ending the lesson with an activity that requires students to reflect on the range of choices in their own lives.

One way you might accomplish this goal is to have students re-interpret the Ostracism Case Study they read during Lesson 2. Handout 5 includes a paragraph description of this event from a middle school classroom. A student can read this story aloud and then students can answer questions such as: Why do you think this event turned out this way? How can you explain the actions of the girls and boys in this situation? Do you agree with the choices made by the students in this classroom? Why or why not? After this discussion, you might ask students to reflect on how their interpretation of this event has changed since the beginning of the unit. (Note: To answer this question, students might need to review what they wrote during Lesson 2.)

As a final class activity or homework assignment, you can ask students to write a letter to themselves reflecting on their own ideas about decision-making. Prompts that might help students write these letters include the following:

  • Whom do you feel you have a responsibility to care for and protect? How can your answer to this question help you make decisions about how to act and how to treat others?
  • What have you learned from this unit that could help you make decisions in the future?
  • Under what circumstances do you think it is appropriate to stand by while conflict or injustice occurs?
  • Under what circumstances do you think it is especially important to stand up to injustice?
  • What is your responsibility as an individual who lives and works in larger communities—in a school, a family, a neighborhood, a nation, a world?
  • What advice can you give to friends and/or family about their role as individuals living in a larger community?


Students’ presentations, as well as responses on handout 2, will provide evidence about students’ ability to identify factors that influenced the choices made by individuals, groups, and nations during the Holocaust. In their journal writing and their participation in class discussions, should students be able to synthesize ideas from several of the readings in order to draw some conclusions about the conditions that encourage upstander and bystander behavior. Students’ interpretation of the Ostracism Case Study can reveal the extent to which they are able to apply what they learned about human behavior and choice-making through a study of the history of the Holocaust to an event closer to their own lives. Their interpretations might include references to conformity, consequences, responsibility, fear, peer pressure, inclusion, exclusion, membership, and belonging.


Another resource that helps students explore the concept of bystander behavior is Maurice Ogden’s poem “The Hangman." The poem tells the story of a community in which the people are hanged, one by one, by a mysterious stranger who erects a gallows in the center of the town. For each hanging the remaining townspeople find a rationale, until the hangman comes for the last survivor, who finds no one left to speak up for him as the final stanza describes:

Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
None had stood as alone as I–
And the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there
Cried “Stay!” for me in the empty square.24

Students could demonstrate what they have learned in this lesson by analyzing how the ideas in this poem relate to events in Nazi Germany.

The video The Hangman is available from the Facing History library and on our website. Teachers who have used the film indicated a need to show it several times to allow their students the opportunity to identify and analyze the many symbols. After viewing the film, students might discuss the filmmaker’s artistic decisions, such as why he turned the animated people into paper dolls.

Instead of using the reading “The Courage of Le Chambon,” you might want to show an excerpt from Weapons of the Spirit, a documentary about Le Chambon. The film was written, produced, and directed by Pierre Sauvage, one of the many children rescued by the residents of this special town. You could also use the film The Courage to Care and the book that accompanies it. This film features the work of five rescuers in France, the Netherlands, and Poland. Among those profiled are Marion Pritchard and the Trocmes, whose stories are included in this lesson. The accompanying book includes many more rescuers from both Eastern and Western Europe.

Many teachers also use this famous quotation by Martin Niemoeller to help students understand the impact of bystander behavior:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.25

Niemoeller was a Protestant pastor in Germany who spent seven years in a concentration camp for speaking against Hitler during his sermons.


  • 24 : Maurice Ogden, Hangman (Tustin: Regina Publications, 1968).
  • 25 : “Martin Niemoeller,” Jewish Virtual Library website, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/niemoeller.html (accessed January 22, 2009).


Lesson 1 of 17

Decision-Making: Introduction to the Unit

Students practice what it means to create a safe, supportive, and productive classroom environment. Use this to prepare for a case study of Germany during the Holocaust.

Lesson 2 of 17

A Scene from a Middle School Classroom

Students explore social conflict in a familiar setting through a case study set in a 7th grade classroom.

Lesson 3 of 17

Identity and Place

Students take on the question "Who am I?" and develop a concept of identity that will enrich their study of individuals living Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

Lesson 4 of 17

Those Who Don't Know: Identity, Membership, and Stereotypes

Students prepare to study prejudice and stereotyping in Nazi-occupied Germany by considering the ways that people are defined by others.

Lesson 5 of 17

Us and Them: Confronting Labels and Lies

Students learn about the ways that people throughout history have created myths about race in order to justify discrimination and violence.

Lesson 6 of 17

The Nazi Party Platform

Students investigate membership by analyzing the Nazi party's definition of membership and reflecting on their own experiences with belonging.

Lesson 7 of 17

The Weimar Republic: Historical Context and Decision Making

Students consider how economic, political, and social conditions in the Weimar Republic impacted the Nazi party’s appeal to some Germans. 

Lesson 8 of 17

The Fragility of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power

Students examine how the choices made by German citizens, members of parliament, and other leaders contributed to Hitler’s rise to power.

Lesson 9 of 17


Students study the human tendency to obey authority through the question, "Why did so many Germans follow the policies dictated by the Nazi party?"

Lesson 10 of 17

The Nazis in Power: Discrimination, Obedience, and Opportunism

Students investigate the role of laws in Nazi Germany. They consider how laws influenced people living in Germany and how they ultimately laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.

Lesson 11 of 17

The Nazis in Power: Propaganda and Conformity

Students analyze several examples of Nazi propaganda and explore its impact on German society.

Lesson 12 of 17

Life for German Youth in the 1930s: Education, Propaganda, Conformity, and Obedience

Students read narratives from German youth in the 1930s and consider how pride, fear, obedience, and peer pressure influenced how young people responded to the Nazi's messages.

Lesson 13 of 17

Kristallnacht: Decision-Making in Times of Injustice

Students explore decision-making by reading a contemporary story about bullying and a historical story about a night of state-sanctioned violence against Jews.

Lesson 14 of 17

The Holocaust

Through an interactive lecture, students learn how incremental steps led to the horrendous crimes committed during the Holocaust.

Lesson 15 of 17

The Holocaust: Bystanders and Upstanders

Students explore the stories of individuals, groups, and nations who made choices to resist the Nazis, as well as the bystanders who decided to remain silent.

Lesson 16 of 17

Justice After the Holocaust

Students study the Nuremberg Trials and imagine what justice after a horrible event like the Holocaust looks like.

Lesson 17 of 17

Remembrance, Participation, and Reflection

Students investigate the purpose of monuments and craft their own monuments to commemorate their learning experiences.

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We've released a new digital edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior. We're working on updating all of our content to reflect the new resources and scholarship. For now, some content on this page may reference the previous edition.

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Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.