The Holocaust: Range of Responses | Facing History & Ourselves
Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst in June 1942.

The Holocaust: Range of Responses

Students deepen their examination of human behavior during the Holocaust by analyzing and discussing the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




Two 50-min class periods
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In the last lesson, students learned about the atrocities the Nazis committed during the Holocaust, the experiences of many who were targeted for murder, and some of the ways those imprisoned in the ghettos and camps resisted. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by deepening their examination of human behavior during the Holocaust and considering the range of choices available to individuals, communities, and nations in the midst of war and genocide. Students will read firsthand accounts in which perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers describe their choices during this period of time and reflect on both the reasons behind their actions and the consequences. Students will grapple with questions about how circumstances of time and place played a role in the choices available to people, and they will reflect on why some people decided to help—in both dramatic and subtle ways—while others stood by or even participated in the atrocities that occurred.

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

  • What choices did individuals, groups, and nations make in response to the events of the Holocaust?
  • What factors influenced their choices to act as perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, or rescuers?
  • Students will analyze, discuss, and explain the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations during the Holocaust and explore the possible motivations and reasons for decision-making in this time of crisis.
  • Students will recognize that the range of choices available in the 1940s was not as wide as the range available in the decades before the outbreak of war, but that despite these constraints, many upstanders and rescuers still chose to take action and help people targeted by the Nazis.

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

  • 7 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 1 video , available in English and in Spanish Subtitles
  • 2 handouts , available in English and in Spanish
  • 6 readings , available in English and in Spanish
  • 1 assessment 
  • 3 extensions

The history of the Holocaust reveals a range of behavior of which people are capable when confronted with extreme brutality toward their fellow human beings. While the Nazis carried out their plans to murder millions of Jews and other supposedly inferior groups, individuals, groups, towns, and even entire nations risked their own safety to protect, hide, or evacuate those in danger. However, opportunities to resist or rescue were not available to everyone, and among those who had such opportunities, many did not seize them. Indeed, thousands participated actively in the Nazi plan of annihilation, while many more knew what was happening and did nothing. The efforts of rescuers and resisters, therefore, were the exception rather than the rule, and the Nazis largely succeeded in their plan to annihilate European Jews. Historian Peter Hayes writes:

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. 1

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.” In the end, the Nazis succeeded in murdering 6 million of the estimated 9 million Jews who lived in Europe in 1939.

Because of the magnitude of the tragedy of the Holocaust, it is necessary to confront the reasons why so many participated as perpetrators or looked the other way as bystanders. The Nazis persuaded or coerced thousands to participate. Many others participated willingly; they were true believers in Nazi ideology and did not need to be persuaded. By doing nothing, one could also indicate tacit approval of the persecution and killing of certain groups, or at least the belief that the victims’ lives were not worth risking one’s own life or livelihood to stand up for. Some people cooperated in the Nazi program of mass murder, or at least looked the other way despite the evidence that millions were perishing, because they stood to gain personally by taking the homes and possessions of Nazi victims. Many people did nothing in response to what they knew because they feared punishment for interfering or were consumed by their own wartime difficulties.

If the action and inaction of perpetrators and bystanders represents some of the worst of which human beings are capable, the courage of resisters and rescuers represents the best. Nearly all Jews who went into hiding relied on others to help them, and they often felt that they were totally dependent on their helpers—for food and water, for news from the outside world, and especially for a willingness to continue to keep their secret. Sometimes Jews were hidden by neighbors or former employees whom they knew, and sometimes they were helped by strangers. Sometimes entire communities provided shelter, food, and fake documents for dozens of families, actively taking part in the rescue or choosing to remain silent and not report their neighbors’ activities. Some diplomats created false papers and exit or transit visas, saving the lives of thousands of Jews at great risk to their own safety. On an even larger scale, one nation, Denmark, evacuated nearly all of its Jewish residents to safety after hearing that the Germans were planning to deport its entire Jewish population.

Sometimes rescuers acted after great deliberation, or after having taken smaller measures of resistance against the Nazi regime before accepting greater amounts of responsibility for the fate of others. In his study of rescuers, psychologist Ervin Staub states, “Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren’t born. Very often the rescuers made 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.” 2

Other rescuers say that the decision to act was neither gradual nor complicated. Magda Trocmé, who helped hide thousands of Jews in the French village of Le Chambon, explains:

We had no time to think. When a problem came, we had to solve it immediately. Sometimes people ask me, “How did you make a decision?” There was no decision to make. The issue was: Do you think we are all brothers or not? Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not? Then let us try to help! 3

By examining the stories and choices of perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers during the Holocaust, we are not only better able to understand what happened during this crucial period of the twentieth century but can reach a deeper understanding of the range of human behavior in any time of crisis. By examining what led some to limit their universes of obligation and see the lives of others as not worth protecting, we can gain insight into the forces in our own lives that might encourage us to act cruelly or inhumanely, or to ignore such actions by others. By hearing and honoring the stories of those who took risks, large and small, on behalf of others, we might better find within ourselves the desire to be “someone who helps” and to act with caring toward others when circumstances require.

  • 1 Peter 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.
  • 2Quoted in Daniel Goleman, “Great Altruists: Science Ponders Soul of Goodness,” New York Times, March 5, 1985, accessed May 25, 2016.
  • 3 Carol Rittner and Sondra Myers, The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 102.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

It is important to remind students, as discussed in Lesson 17: Kristallnacht, that the terms perpetrator, victim, bystander, upstander, and now rescuer refer not to fixed identities but to the behavior of individuals, groups, or even nations at specific moments in time. The same person may act as a bystander in one situation and then as a rescuer or perpetrator in another situation. You might reread the final paragraphs of the Context section in Lesson 17 before teaching this lesson. It is not these categories themselves, as words, that matter; it is the way we—and our students—think and talk about the actions (or inactions) of others that helps us both understand history and make connections to the choices we all make in the present.

  • Like the previous lesson, the content of this lesson can be emotionally challenging for many students. It is important to be responsive to how students are processing this material and to give them time to reflect and write quietly in their journals when they need it, even if it is not explicitly specified in the lesson.
  • It is important that students have time to complete the final journal response activity on Day 2 of this lesson so that they can synthesize the material from the Holocaust lessons and make connections between what they have read, seen, and discussed and their own understanding of human behavior and decision-making. If you are concerned about having enough time, please consult Abbreviating the Poster Activity below for suggestions about shortening that activity. Students’ emotional well-being is more important than completing all of the activities in the lesson.

When discussing the choices of perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers during the Holocaust, invite students to reconsider the choices they analyzed in readings from previous lessons in their discussion contributions. This exercise provides the opportunity for students to review past material in a new context, thus deepening their understanding of agency at different times within this historical period. You might ask students to consider both what they now perceive to be the consequences of some of the choices made in earlier years and how the range of available choices narrowed after the Nazis went to war and began to carry out mass murder.

If you would like to devote more class time on Day 2 to the discussion and journal entry, students can forgo making the posters, which can be a time-consuming process. To help the class follow the oral presentations, you or a member of each group could record key information on the board while the students are speaking. Alternatively, if you have access to a document camera, you might project one copy of each group’s completed handout Perpetrators, Bystanders, Upstanders, and Rescuers on the board during each

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Rescuer
  • Intervene

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.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1 Activities

  • Explain to students that they will continue their study of the Holocaust by learning about stories of people who were perpetrators and bystanders as well as those of people who took risks to help and rescue those targeted by the Nazis. Begin by having students respond to the following question in their journals:
    What does it take to intervene to try to save someone from violence and injustice? When do you think it is necessary to do so? When might it be dangerous or unwise? Explain your thinking.
  • Students can respond in an activity based on the Think, Pair, Share strategy, or you can facilitate a whole-group discussion.
  • In the short video Facing History Scholar Reflections: Bystanders and Resisters (05:11), Paul Bookbinder discusses the range of choices people made during the Holocaust. In the next activity, students will be reading about some of the individuals he highlights in this video.
  • Share the 3-2-1 analysis prompts below with students, and then show the video. Students will listen for information that addresses the prompts and then respond to them after viewing the video.
    • Identify three acts of rescue or resistance you learned about from watching the video.
    • Identify two debates among scholars that Bookbinder mentions about the choices groups made in response to the Holocaust.
    • Think of one question the video raises for you about perpetrators, rescuers, or resisters.
  • Review the possible answers to the first two 3-2-1 prompts, and then ask students to share some of the questions they wrote in response to the third prompt. If you record their questions on chart paper, you can refer back to them over the course of this two-day lesson to see which ones get answered and if any need to be added.
  • Remind students of some of the dilemmas and choices they have analyzed in past lessons, including the following:
    • The choices Germans made during the Weimar Republic that either strengthened or weakened democracy
    • The decision of the German worker (in the reading Do You Take the Oath?) about whether or not to take the oath to Hitler
    • The choices young people made about participating in Nazi youth groups
    • The range of responses by individuals and groups to the violence and destruction of Kristallnacht
  • Take a moment to reflect with students on how the circumstances of each of these situations were different and how the range of possible choices (and the associated consequences) may have been different in each instance.
  • Explain to students that in this lesson, they are going to read the stories of individuals, groups, and nations that faced difficult, often life-altering decisions under even more intense circumstances: war, the mass imprisonment and murder of Jews and other groups, and violent retribution for dissent.
  • Before distributing the readings for this next activity, ask students to take out the handout The Range of Human Behavior Vocabulary Terms from Lesson 17 to review the definitions of perpetrator, bystander, and upstander. To this list, you can add rescuer, a subcategory of upstander. Explain to students that while “upstanding” included a wide range of actions to oppose Nazi injustice, some upstanders took action to directly save people from the Nazis by hiding them, taking their children into their homes, helping them get visas to flee to safe countries, and helping in other critical ways. We refer to these upstanders as rescuers.
  • Divide the class into six groups, and assign each group one of the following readings:
  • Explain to the class that today they will be collaborating with their group members to read stories of Holocaust perpetrators, bystanders, upstanders, and rescuers and then answering questions. Each group will make a presentation about its reading in the next class period.
  • Distribute one of the readings to each group, along with the handout Perpetrators, Bystanders, Upstanders, and Rescuers for each student. Read the instructions on the handout aloud so the groups are clear about the steps for reading, annotating, and discussing the questions together.
  • Tell students that they will have time to prepare their presentation at the start of the next lesson. If any groups did not finish responding to their reading’s questions, they should do so outside of class for homework.

Day 2 Activities

  • Tell students that they will be presenting their readings to the class, focusing on the choices, motivations, and consequences of the decisions that were made. So they can be mindful of time, let students know at the outset of the activity at what time they will begin their presentations.
  • Each group should prepare a poster that draws from the information they collected yesterday on the handout Perpetrators, Bystanders, Upstanders, and Rescuers and includes the following information:
    • The setting of the reading
    • One significant choice that individuals, groups, or nations made in the reading
    • A motivation, reason, or explanation for this choice
    • The possible or actual consequences of this choice
    • A sentence describing how the individuals, groups, or nations in the reading define their universe of obligation
    • A significant quotation from the reading
  • After the groups have finished preparing their posters, ask them to select two people to provide a brief summary of their reading and present the information on their poster to the class. Alternatively, you might ask each group to present, with each student sharing one or more aspects of the poster.
  • Pass out the handout Choices and Consequences for students to record notes during the group presentations, and have one pair from each group present their information to the class.
  • Students in the class should record notes on the handout as they listen to their peers. There is space at the bottom of the handout for students to add their own questions.

To help students synthesize the material presented in this lesson, lead a class discussion about decision-making in times of crisis. While you might not have time to address all of the questions, consider selecting one or more of the following to explore with the class:

  • When looking at these readings as a whole, what similarities and differences do you notice when considering the circumstances under which people chose to perpetuate violence, stand by, or take action?
  • How did circumstances of time, place, and opportunity factor into the choices that individuals, groups, and nations made in the 1940s?
  • Reflect back on recent lessons to compare the choices that might have been open to individuals, groups, and nations in the 1920s and 1930s with those choices available in the 1940s.
    • Which choices were no longer possible?
    • Which choices seemed riskier than they might have been in previous years of Nazi rule?
  • The two Holocaust lessons (Lesson 20 and this lesson) expose students to a range of choices that individuals made during the Holocaust. You might want to start the discussion of this topic by making a list of choices on the board to visually capture the range for students and asking questions such as these:
    • Were such choices available to all people who were part of this history?
    • How does thinking about the range of choices extend or challenge your thinking about the Holocaust?
    • How does thinking about the range of choices extend or challenge your understanding of human behavior?
  • Before moving to the next phase of Facing History’s scope and sequence—“Judgment, Memory, and Legacy”—it is important that students have time and space to reflect quietly in their journals about what they have learned so far in this unit. You might simply give students a few minutes to freewrite in their journals about the experience of learning about the Holocaust in the past several class periods. Or you can have them respond to one of the following prompts:
    • Describe what you thought about and what you felt while learning about people’s experiences and choices during the Holocaust. What did you learn about human behavior? What did you learn about yourself?
    • What information, stories, ideas, or questions from your study of the Holocaust do you think are most important to share or for you to remember?
    • What questions about the Holocaust or individual and group choices during this time of crisis do you still have?
  • You might collect students’ journals to get a sense of what they are thinking and their questions at this point in the unit. If you do collect the journals, it is important to inform students of this before they write, or have them write their response on a separate sheet of paper to collect if you have established in your class that student journals are private.


  • Evaluate the group posters and presentations, looking for evidence of students’ deep thinking about the dilemmas people faced in determining how to respond to the events of the Holocaust and the factors that influenced them to make the choices they did. Even before the presentations, listen carefully to the groups’ conversations as they read, annotate, and respond to questions about this lesson’s core readings to gauge students’ individual contributions and the evolution of their thinking.
  • Collect this lesson’s Perpetrators, Bystanders, Upstanders, and Rescuers and Choices and Consequences handouts to check for understanding and observe students’ ethical reflections on the choices they learned about in this lesson.

Extension Activities

  • Consider pairing the reading Reserve Police Battalion 101 with an examination of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments about circumstances under which individuals are willing and able to inflict pain on other people. Together, these resources provide a powerful way to discuss the behavior of perpetrators, as well as the conditions in which each of us might be drawn into harming others.
  • Use the connection questions following the reading to discuss the content with students, and then deepen their exploration of human behavior by introducing the Milgram experiments. Use the reading A Matter of Obedience? to provide background information on the experiments, and then show a clip from the film Obedience: The Milgram Experiment (21:55–39:15).
  • Preview these resources to ensure that they are appropriate for your students. Watching the clip of the experiments is a powerful and often uncomfortable experience for many students. Sometimes students show that discomfort by laughing. Instead of disciplining students for such responses, you might use them as an entry point for a discussion about why the video elicits such discomfort and what it suggests about the potential of any individual to be willing to harm another under the right circumstances.
  • For a still deeper exploration of perpetrator behavior, consider showing students the video The Psychology of Genocidal Behavior.

Our website offers a variety of additional resources to support an extended focus on rescuers during the Holocaust. If you decide to extend this lesson to provide a more in-depth focus on rescue, begin by asking students to consider the question: How did people make the choice to rescue? You might also share this statement from psychologist Ervin Staub: “Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren’t born.” Then share one or more of the following videos to help students consider the qualities and motivations that enable one to be a rescuer, and look for evidence to support Staub’s statement:

  • The Courage to Care (28:40) profiles both Jews who were rescued during the Holocaust and rescuers from France, Holland, and Poland, and it raises questions about the moral and ethical dilemmas that rescuers confronted.
  • Life or Death in the Netherlands (05:12) features Marion Pritchard describing her decision to murder a Dutch policeman in order to protect a Jewish family hiding in her home. (This is the same story told in the reading Deciding to Act.)
  • Finding Safety in Italy (05:47) features the testimony of Holocaust survivor Esther Bem and her description of the people in northern Italy who protected her and her family during World War II.
  • Weapons of the Spirit (35:07) provides an in-depth profile of the French town of Le Chambon and the beliefs that motivated its residents to save 5,000 Jews during World War II. (This is the same story told in the reading Le Chambon: A Village Takes a Stand.)

You can extend your study of rescuers even further with additional Facing History resources, including Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, The Rescuers, and other readings from Chapter 7, Chapter 8, and Chapter 9 of Holocaust and Human Behavior.

In Lesson 7: Genocide under the Cover of War, students examined the international response to the deportations and massacres of the Armenian population during World War I. In this extension, students learn about Armin Wegner, a German who witnessed and photographed atrocities during the Armenian Genocide while serving in the German army as a young man. Read aloud the reading The Legacy of a Witness (Crimes Against Humanity and Civilization, pages 170–173) and choose some of the discussion questions to help students process the text. Consider asking students to work in groups and assign each group one question to discuss and present to the class, or choose one or two questions for a discussion based on the Socratic Seminar or Fishbowl strategy. Encourage students to use vocabulary terms from this lesson and to consider Wegner’s motivations, his choices, and the consequences of his choices when discussing the reading.

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