The Holocaust | Facing History & Ourselves
A memorial at Auschwitz of shoes taken from prisoners of the camp.

The Holocaust

Confront the history of the Holocaust, and reflect on the human behavior revealed in the choices of perpetrators, bystanders, resisters, and rescuers.


At a Glance

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English — US


  • History


  • The Holocaust


About this Chapter

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.

  • What is the Holocaust? How did the earlier choices of individuals, groups, and entire nations help to make it possible? 
  • What choices did individuals and nations make during the Holocaust? What factors shaped their universes of obligation?
  • 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?

This chapter is from the The Holocaust section of Holocaust and Human Behavior and includes:

  • 32 readings 
  • Connection Questions

Step By Step: Phases of the Holocaust

Scholar Doris Bergen describes the phases of events that led to the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivor Sonia Weitz begins her poem “For Yom Ha’Shoah” with these lines: “Come, take this giant leap with me / into the other world . . . the other place / where language fails and imagery defies, / denies man’s consciousness . . . and dies / upon the altar of insanity.” 1 To study the history in this chapter is to take Weitz’s “giant leap.” Learning about the Holocaust requires us to examine events in history and examples of human behavior that both unsettle us and elude our attempts to explain them. The previous chapter examined the brutality of the war for “race and space” that Nazi Germany began in 1939. This chapter delves even further into the shocking violence and mass murder of the Holocaust, as well as the choices made by perpetrators, bystanders, resisters, and rescuers as the Nazis carried out their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” 

Although the Nazis’ program of mass murder was horrifying and the small number of people who tried to resist it or rescue those who were targeted is disturbing, this is a history that needs to be confronted. The accounts in this chapter force us to consider the full range of human behavior, the worst and the best that we are capable of as human beings. And the choices described in these accounts force us to think deeply about what leads one person and not another to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. The accounts in this chapter also show the importance of honoring human dignity by showing us what can happen when it is taken away and what can be prevented when it is preserved. 

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, its goal was to claim “living space” for the “Aryan” race that the Nazis had long wanted. But in order for Germans to settle in the territory of eastern Europe conquered from the Soviet Union in 1941 and 1942, they would have to empty it of so-called inferior races, including the millions of Jews who lived there. Early in the war, the Germans had forced Jews from the territories they conquered into ghettos and concentration camps and killed scores of Jews in mass shootings by mobile killing units. They had also considered plans to move the populations of Jews and other “non-Aryans” to far-off places like Madagascar or Siberia. Eventually, however, the Nazi leadership decided that these plans would be too impractical or expensive; they chose instead a policy to annihilate all of the Jews of Europe. Historians believe this decision was made by Hitler and his advisors toward the end of 1941. As mobile killing units continued to operate throughout eastern Europe, the Nazis began to establish death camps—camps designed for the purpose of murdering large numbers of victims, primarily in gas chambers, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The readings in this chapter show the evolution of Nazi methods of mass murder, and they rely on the troubling and provocative testimony of many who witnessed or were targeted by those methods. These stories reveal a range of human behavior in response to the Holocaust. The Nazis persuaded or forced thousands to participate in the mass murder of millions of people. Many others participated willingly; they did not need to be persuaded. This chapter includes the testimonies of people who murdered as members of mobile killing units, coordinated trains to transport victims to their deaths in death camps, and, as Jewish prisoners in the camps, were forced to help operate the gas chambers.

This chapter also includes the stories of individuals who, in spite of the danger, violence, and suffering around them, resisted the Nazis’ program of dehumanization and murder. Some individuals imprisoned in the concentration camps made enormous efforts to preserve human dignity for themselves and others. A small percentage of prisoners in camps and ghettos found ways to carry out armed resistance. At the same time, some individuals, groups, towns, and even entire nations risked their own safety to protect, hide, or evacuate Jews and members of other targeted groups from the Nazis and their collaborators. However, opportunities to resist or rescue were not available to everyone, and among those who had such opportunities, many did not seize them. These efforts, therefore, were the exception rather than the rule. Historian Peter Hayes explains: 

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. 2

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 organization . . . concealed and sustained them.” 3 In the end, the Nazis succeeded in murdering 6 million of the estimated 9 million Jews who lived in Europe in 1939. 

  • 1Sonia Schreiber Weitz, I Promised I Would Tell (Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves, Inc., 2012), 66
  • 2Peter Hayes, “Rescuing Jews—Means and Obstacles: Introduction,” in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. Peter Hayes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 647.
  • 3Peter Hayes, “Rescuing Jews—Means and Obstacles: Introduction,” in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. Peter Hayes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 645.

Facing History Scholar Reflections: The Holocaust

In this video, Dr. Paul Bookbinder gives a short overview of the Holocaust.

While the stories and testimonies of perpetrators, bystanders, resisters, and rescuers are woven throughout this chapter, the readings are loosely grouped according to theme and chronology. After Sonia Weitz's poem “For Yom Ha'Shoah,” Readings 2 through 5 confront the mass shootings perpetrated by the mobile killing units in eastern Europe. The next seven readings, Readings 6 through 12, provide an account of the Nazis' shift toward “industrializing” murder through the creation of gas chambers and death camps. The rest of the readings unfold in a loose chronology, describing the dilemmas and choices that individuals, groups, and nations faced in response to the knowledge of German atrocities against Jews and other targeted groups. The chapter’s final three readings look at the end of the war and the last efforts of the Nazis to murder their victims and conceal their crimes. 

Because of the disturbing violence described in many of the readings in this chapter, teachers should take special care to select readings that are appropriate for their students. They should also offer students frequent opportunities to process their responses privately, perhaps in a journal, and together as a class. See Teaching Emotionally Challenging Content in the Get Started section for further guidance on confronting this history with students. 

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Inside this Chapter

Analysis & Reflection

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

  1. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said about the Holocaust: “The experience lies beyond our reach. Ask any survivor, he will tell you: he who has not lived the event will never know it. And he who went through it will not reveal it, not really, not entirely. Between his memory and its reflection there is a wall and it cannot be pierced.” 1 ​​How does the quote connect to your experience of studying this history so far? What things do you think are most important to share or to remember? What questions do you still have?
  2. What is the meaning of human dignity? How did the Nazis seek to deprive their victims of basic human dignity? What examples did you find in this chapter of people attempting to preserve or reclaim human dignity? 
  3. In writing about the changes in Germany in the 1930s, historian Richard Evans points to the process of “rationalization and moral editing” that many Germans must have undertaken in order to justify the ways they participated in Nazi society (see reading, Can a National Socialist Have Jewish Friends? in Chapter 6). In this chapter, what examples did you find of individuals engaging in “rationalization and moral editing” to explain their actions during the Holocaust?
  4. What did it mean to resist the Nazis? What kinds of resistance were people (both Jews and non-Jews) able to carry out, according to the readings in this chapter? What made each form of resistance possible? How did the possibilities of resistance change as the war progressed?
  5. What circumstances and opportunities made acts of rescue possible? What did it take for individuals to be willing and ready to take advantage of those opportunities and circumstances?
  6. This chapter describes a range of choices that individuals made during the Holocaust. Were such choices available to all people who were part of this history? How does thinking about that range of choices give us insight into the particular history of the Holocaust? In what ways does thinking about the range of choices illuminate universal characteristics of human behavior?
  • 1Elie Wiesel and Elliot Lefkovitz, Dimensions of the Holocaust: Lectures at Northwestern University, 2nd ed. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1990), 7.

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