A crowd of women and children, some with Stars of David patches on their clothing.
Lesson

The Holocaust: Bearing Witness

Students are introduced to the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust and look closely at stories of a few individuals who were targeted by Nazi brutality.

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At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–8

Duration

Two 50-min class periods
  • The Holocaust

Overview

About This Lesson

The purpose of this lesson is to introduce students to the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust and to help them bear witness to the experiences of those targeted by the Nazis. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by learning about four phases of the Holocaust and then looking closely at stories of a few individuals who were targeted by Nazi brutality. Students will also examine firsthand accounts of individuals who worked to preserve their human dignity in the face of dehumanization, and they will use those stories to help them think about the meaning and purpose of resistance during the Holocaust.

The next lesson focuses on the role of perpetrators and bystanders, as well as acts of resistance and courage by upstanders and rescuers during the Holocaust. The material in these two lessons reminds students of the importance of living in a democracy whose institutions safeguard civil and human rights and whose citizens are capable of making informed judgments, not only on behalf of themselves but on behalf of a larger community.

Unit Essential Question: 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 was the Holocaust? Why is it important to confront the brutality of this history?
  • What did it mean to resist the Nazis? What kinds of resistance were those targeted by the Nazis able to carry out?
  • What is the meaning of human dignity? How did the Nazis seek to deprive their victims of basic human dignity, and how did those targeted attempt to preserve or reclaim their dignity?
  • Students will be able to explain the range of Nazi methods of mass murder, including the establishment of Jewish ghettos, mobile killing units, concentration camps, and killing centers.
  • Students will bear witness to the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, as well as extraordinary acts of resistance and efforts to preserve human dignity on the part of victims and survivors.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 7 activities
  • 6 teaching strategies
  • 2 videos
  • 6 handouts
  • 2 readings
  • 1 assessment
  • 3 extension activities

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 lesson 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.

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 they had 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 them 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 killing centers—camps designed for the purpose of murdering large numbers of victims, primarily in gas chambers, as quickly and efficiently as possible. By the end of the war in 1945, more than 6 million Jews and millions of other civilians—including Roma and Sinti, Slavs (Poles, Russians, and others), the disabled, and many of the Nazis’ political enemies—were murdered by the Third Reich.

To gain an understanding of the Holocaust, it is important to look not only at the acts of perpetrators but also at the experiences of victims and survivors. Yet it is impossible to truly understand their experiences. Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel explains, “Ask any survivor and he will tell you, and his children will tell you. He or she who did not live through the event will never know it. And he or she who did live through the event will never reveal it. Not entirely. Not really. Between our memory and its reflection there stands a wall that cannot be pierced.” 2

Still, even though it is impossible to truly understand the victims’ experiences, and even though nothing can prepare us to encounter the horror of this crime, it is still important to take stock of the scope of this genocide—to appreciate how humanity was stripped from millions of people. This lesson helps students bear witness to the stories of some of the people who suffered under Nazi brutality.

This lesson 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.

This lesson challenges students to expand their ideas about resistance to include forms of “spiritual resistance,” or the struggle to maintain a sense of identity, dignity, faith, and culture in the degrading and dehumanizing systems of the ghettos and camps. While perhaps less perceptible, acts of spiritual resistance such as secretly providing education for children in concentration camps (A Basic Feeling of Human Dignity) or creating a secret archive representing the individual lives lost (Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto) are equally powerful.

It is important to recognize the incredible challenges that confronted Jews trying to resist Nazi oppression and violence. For some victims it was impossible to believe what lay ahead. Even once Jews recognized the gravity of their situation, during the war it was difficult for anyone, and especially Jews, to gain the resources or arms to resist the Nazis. Resistance was not possible for many other Jews who were confronted with what scholar Lawrence Langer has labeled choiceless choices. For example, consider the circumstances of the Sonderkommandos—Jewish prisoners who were kept alive and forced to help German guards murder other prisoners. According to Langer, there are no moral equivalents in the “normal” world for these experiences, no way to understand or judge their actions. Answering the question, asked by some, of why more Jews did not resist, Elie Wiesel explains, “The question is not why all the Jews did not fight, but how so many of them did. Tormented, beaten, starved, where did they find the strength—spiritual and physical—to resist?” 3

The history and the stories that students encounter in this lesson are disturbing and difficult to fathom yet necessary to confront. They 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.

  • 1Sonia Schreiber Weitz, I Promised I Would Tell (Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves, Inc., 2012), 66.
  • 2Elie Wiesel, “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration,” as quoted in Dimensions of the Holocaust (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1977), 7.
  • 3Elie Wiesel, The New Leader 46, (August 5, 1963): 21.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

In this lesson, students will encounter emotionally challenging content. Carefully consider each of these suggestions before engaging with this material with your students:

  • Teachers know their students best. Preview each resource in this lesson before you share it with your students. Let students know in advance when they are about to encounter material that some may find upsetting. If necessary, omit resources that you believe will be too disturbing for your students.
  • Briefly review the class contract with students before beginning the lesson. This will help reinforce the norms you have established and reinforce the idea of the classroom as a safe space for students to voice concerns, questions, or emotions that may arise.
  • Be prepared for a variety of responses from students. Students often react to the Holocaust with sadness, anger, or frustration, yet it is also the case that many students do not have an immediate public response to learning about the Holocaust. Many teachers have been surprised by some students’ lack of emotion during a lesson on the Holocaust. Experience has taught us that it can take time before students are able and ready to make sense of this material. In the meantime, many students report that their journals provide a safe space where they can begin to process their emotions and ideas. Therefore, we recommend that students are invited to write in their journals at many points throughout this lesson.
  • The resources in this lesson refer to ghettos, concentration camps, and killing centers. It may be helpful to post simple definitions of each of these words in the room to help students understand and distinguish between them:
    • Ghetto: a specific area of a city or town in which Jews were forced to live (and often not permitted to leave). Ghettos were overcrowded and deprived of sufficient food and other basic supplies.
    • Concentration camp: a camp created to confine large numbers of prisoners (including political opponents and those deemed racially inferior) in harsh and unhealthy conditions.
    • Killing center: a camp designed for the purpose of murdering large numbers of victims, primarily in gas chambers, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
  • The reality of the Nazi ghetto and camp system is quite complex, as the Nazis operated more than 40,000 ghettos and camps that served a variety of purposes and varied in size and operation. But for this lesson, these three definitions will suffice.

In addition to ghetto, concentration camp, and killing center, the following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Holocaust
  • Shoah
  • Resistance
  • Spiritual resistance
  • Dignity
  • Genocide

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

The first day’s activities in this lesson include a gallery walk and a graffiti board. Prepare in advance by placing the gallery walk resources around the room and setting up a whiteboard or large paper to use as a graffiti wall. We recommend leaving up the graffiti wall for a few days, so make sure it does not occupy space you anticipate needing.

 

Graffiti boards can offer the richest opportunity for reflection and written discussion when students can revisit them over time to observe new contributions from classmates. You might help to make this a more rewarding activity, and save some class time in the process, if you are able to find time outside of the normal class period (such as homeroom or study hall time) when students are able to visit your room and work on the graffiti wall.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1

Activities

  • Project the poem “For Yom Ha’Shoah,” from the reading Take This Giant Leap, by Sonia Weitz, a Holocaust survivor. We suggest having students read the poem aloud at least two times. After reading, ask students to respond to the following questions in their journals:
    • What does this poem mean to you?
    • What does this poem suggest it is like to learn about the Holocaust?
    • What questions does the poem raise for you?
  • Then ask students to share their responses to these prompts. Their questions about the poem can be recorded on the board so that they can be revisited at the end of the lesson, when students have greater familiarity with the Holocaust.
  • While the primary goal of this lesson is to provide students with the opportunity bear witness to some specific stories and experiences of individuals who lived or died during the Holocaust, it is first necessary to briefly give students a framework to understand what happened.
  • In the video Step by Step: Phases of the Holocaust (06:47), historian Doris Bergen divides the history of the Holocaust into four phases, described on the handout Phases of the Holocaust.  Pass out the handout and give students a few moments to read through the information. Then show the video so that students can hear Bergen’s description of the four phases.
  • In this activity, students will have the opportunity to work independently to reflect on and bear witness to a variety of stories and experiences during the Holocaust.
  • First, students will watch a short video with testimony from a Holocaust survivor from the city of Vilna, Lithuania. The Jews of Vilna were forced into ghettos after the German invasion in 1941, and tens of thousands of them were then murdered either in mass shootings or at the Sobibór killing center. Show the class the video The Nazis in Vilna (05:06). After the clip is over, give students a few minutes to write in their journals in response to the following questions:
    • What about Jack Arnel’s testimony is most striking to you? What does it make you think about or feel?
    • What is the value of hearing this kind of firsthand account? How does it change how you understand the Holocaust?
  • Tell students that in order to bear witness to the many ways that people experienced and responded to the brutality of the Holocaust, they will be looking at images from the period and reading the words of people who were there. They will also view two maps to get a sense of the scope of the Nazi atrocities.
  • Set up a gallery walk by placing the following resources on tables or hanging them around the room:
  • Ask students to silently “tour” the gallery. Give them eight minutes (or longer if you have more time) to view or read as many of the resources as they can. For each one they view, ask them to do the following in their journals:
    • Record the name of the resource.
    • If it is a text-based resource: Record a sentence, phrase, or detail you think is striking or significant.
    • If it is an image: Describe a part of the image that provokes a question, observation, or emotional response from you.
  • When students are finished, rather than return to their desks, ask them to visit the graffiti board you have set up in advance and write a response to the resources they encountered. They might add one or more of the notes they took during the gallery walk to the graffiti board, or they might write a new thought, observation, or feeling they are experiencing after viewing the resources.
  • Give students five minutes to finish their silent writing, but leave the graffiti board up in the classroom for the next day or longer so that students have additional time to reflect on the activity, view their peers’ responses, and add new comments.

Day 2

Activities

Begin class by encouraging students to continue interacting with the graffiti board. You might read aloud a few responses from the board so that students can hear each other’s thoughts. If you have the time, you might also give students a few minutes to go up to the graffiti board, read comments from yesterday (especially if other classes added to the same graffiti board since you last met), and add new thoughts and observations.

  • Explain to students that it is crucial in a study of the Holocaust to acknowledge the various ways that Jews and others targeted by the Nazis resisted.
  • Students will often associate the idea of resistance with violent or armed rebellion. It is important to acknowledge that such actions did occur, such as the efforts of Jewish partisan groups, the sabotage of the crematoria by Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz, or the Warsaw ghetto uprising (see the extension Explore Additional Examples of Jewish Resistance below). Tell students that scholar Michael Berenbaum writes that for those who resisted violently, “Death was a given.” Ask students to consider the question: If death was a given, why might Jews resist anyway?
  • Then explain to students that there are other types of resistance for them to consider. Pass out the reading A Basic Feeling of Human Dignity and read it aloud with the class.
  • After reading, ask students to respond in their journals to the following questions:
    • What is dignity? What do you think Lévy-Hass means by the phrase “a basic feeling of human dignity”? How did the Germans try to deprive Lévy-Hass and her fellow prisoners of this feeling?
    • How did Lévy-Hass attempt to restore dignity for some of those imprisoned in her camp? Were her efforts an act of resistance?
  • Lead a class discussion in response to these questions, using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Then introduce students to the idea of spiritual resistance by providing them with the following definition: 
    Spiritual resistance: the struggle to maintain a sense of identity, dignity, faith, and culture in the degrading and dehumanizing systems of the ghettos and camps.
  • Students will finish this lesson by returning to the words of Hannah Lévy-Hass to create a found poem.
  • Read aloud A Basic Feeling of Human Dignity once more. This time, as students read along, they will highlight or copy down words and phrases from the diary entry that they find especially powerful. Their goal is to eventually narrow down their list of words and phrases to 15 or 20.
  • Then pass out the handout Creating a Found Poem and go over the instructions with students. Students might want to copy the words and phrases they selected onto notecards or separate scraps of paper so that they can easily rearrange them. Tell students to try to arrange the words in a way that captures the essence of Lévy-Hass’s testimony, as well as their experience of hearing it.
  • When students are satisfied with their poems, tell them to add titles. Ask them to turn in their poems or complete them for homework. At the beginning of the next class period, you might ask a few students to share their poems aloud with the class.

End this lesson by having students complete an exit card to give you a sense of how they are responding to this emotionally challenging content. Have students read the poem “For Yom Ha’Shoah” again, and then ask them to write on their cards about what this poem means to them after learning more about the Holocaust.

Assessment

This lesson prioritizes emotional engagement over ethical reflection and intellectual rigor. While it is important for students to know what happened during the Holocaust, it is crucial that they have the opportunity to confront the brutality of this history and to process individually and together the emotions and questions this history evokes. Therefore, it is most important for you to look at student contributions to the graffiti wall, their found poems, and their exit cards for evidence of how they are processing what they have encountered in this lesson. If necessary, follow up with individual students to offer support, or set aside additional class time for students to talk through and articulate their thoughts and feelings about this challenging history.

Extension Activities

Many Facing History teachers arrange to have a Holocaust survivor visit their classroom to tell their story. Hearing a survivor’s story in person is an extraordinary experience that often changes the way students feel about history and themselves. Because the Holocaust occurred more than seven decades ago, however, the number of survivors alive and available to speak to students is shrinking. In some cases, children of survivors are also visiting classrooms and sharing their families’ powerful stories with students. Contact us to learn more.


If you are unable to schedule an in-person visit with a survivor, Facing History has produced a collection of films of survivor testimony.  The videos are divided into three sections: “The Nazis in Power: Voices from Europe,” “The Holocaust,” and “After the Holocaust.” Consult the lesson Using Testimony to Teach for suggestions and strategies for viewing testimony and facilitating purposeful reflection with students.

Throughout this unit, we have focused on examining the choices people made throughout the history of Nazi Germany as a way of reflecting more deeply on the choices we make in our own lives. However, there are some choices and some situations in this history for which analysis and judgment of individuals’ actions is not appropriate or useful. Scholar Lawrence Langer labels the circumstances many victims were confronted with as choiceless choices. These are situations in which no meaningful choices are available. For instance, Langer argues that the circumstances of Sonderkommandos—Jewish prisoners who were kept alive and forced to help German guards murder other prisoners—are unimaginable to us, and “surviving in extremity meant an existence that had no relation to our system of time and space.” Therefore, it is not possible to judge their actions according the standards we might use to judge people’s actions under more normal circumstances.


The concept of choiceless choices is abstract and difficult for younger students to grasp. But if you teach older students, consider sharing the reading Choiceless Choices with them. You can use the connection questions that follow the reading to begin a discussion, and you might ask students how Langer’s concept connects to the “giant leap” Sonia Weitz describes in her poem “For Yom Ha’Shoah.”

Chapters 8 and 9 of Holocaust and Human Behavior include a variety of additional resources about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Among these are examples of both spiritual (reading Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto) and armed resistance (reading The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising) in the Warsaw ghetto. Facing History also offers the unit Resistance during the Holocaust: An Exploration of the Jewish Partisans. All of these resources can help deepen students’ understanding of resistance by those who were targeted by the Nazis.

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