Concentration Camp Inmate
In this lesson, students reflect on the Holocaust from the point of view of those who actively resisted Nazi persecution. After reviewing the history of the Holocaust, in order to understand the legal and bureaucratic authority with which the Nazis systematically enforced their policies, students debate the options for resistance and the likely outcomes. Working with the archives of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and library resources, they gather facts about resistance activities during the Holocaust, preparing reports on incidents of rebellion at the Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz death camps and in the Warsaw Ghetto. Then, writing as relatives or friends of those involved in these incidents, students consider the value and significance of such actions in the context of the Holocaust and of the larger war against Nazi domination. Finally, students gather facts about non-violent forms of resistance to Nazi persecution, and reflect in a journal format on their own role in keeping this spirit of resistance alive today.
What kinds of actions constituted resistance, and what were the components of the decision to implement those actions during the Holocaust?
Familiarize yourself with the key events in Hitler's rise to power in 1933 through the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945. For background information on these events read the Introduction to the Holocaust available from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website. The accompanying document, Frequently Asked Questions About the Holocaust, summarizes key historical issues. You can learn more about the Holocaust by viewing the online exhibit tracing the history of the Holocaust, Beyond the Pale: The History of Jews in Russia, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website the Bucknell Russian Program. The Nazism and the Holocaust section of this exhibit presents a broad picture of the period, and includes images which should be reviewed in advance for their potential impact on students.
Review the Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust available from the EDSITEment-reviewed website, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This document addresses questions about why it is important to teach Holocaust history and provides a number of straightforward teaching recommendations. For example:
Before beginning this lesson students should have a basic understanding of the Holocaust and the trajectory of events from the 1930s through to the end of World War II. You may wish to review the sections in your textbook on the Holocaust, or review and discuss the timeline of events from Hitler's rise to power in 1933 through the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945, available as a PDF here.
Among the many incomprehensible aspects of the Holocaust, students may find it most difficult to understand that, under Nazi law, the systematic persecution and killing of Jews and other "inferior" peoples was legal. Stress that while deep-seated prejudice was at the root of the Holocaust, it was the translation of prejudice into official policy, the organization of prejudice into a set of laws, and the enforcement of prejudice by judicial and bureaucratic authorities that made the Holocaust truly horrific and made resistance all but futile.
In this activity students will begin to explore the moral dilemmas implicit in resistance to the Holocaust through a class debate. Divide the class into three groups, then assign one set of questions to each group. Students in each group should discuss the following questions:
Each group should present the questions they were assigned and the findings of their discussions to the rest of the class. Students should be careful to weigh all sides of the issues in their discussions.
In this assignment students will use the interactive archives at the EDSITEment reviewed website the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to provide them with evidence that the impulse to resist remained alive during the Holocaust. You can access the museum's collections, including the archive, here. Students can use the online note-taker and outline tool to record their findings. Ask students to complete the following task:
Divide the class into groups and assign each group the archival records of one incident. Have them supplement the archival record with library resources in order to prepare a report on the event and its consequences, both for those involved and those whom they fought to protect. Some books they might consult include:
When each group has completed their report on the incident, combining archival and library resources, they should present their findings to the rest of the class.
Students have already researched the archival and library resources on some of the more well-known and organized incidents of resistance, but are these the only forms of resistance? The authors of the Guidelines for Teaching about the Holocaust point out that resistance took many forms during the years of Nazi genocide:
Resistance...usually refers to a physical act of armed revolt. During the Holocaust, it also meant partisan activism that ranged from smuggling messages, food, and weapons to actual military engagement. But resistance also embraced willful disobedience: continuing to practice religious and cultural traditions in defiance of the rules; creating fine art, music, and poetry inside ghettos and concentration camps. For many, simply maintaining the will to remain alive in the face of abject brutality was the surest act of spiritual resistance."
Have students search the archives of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website for examples of such non-violent resistance, using religious observance, art, music, and poetry as keywords. They will be able to find another example of such non-violent resistance is the Piesn Obozowa "Camp Song" featured on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
When students have finished their research ask them to explain how actions like these can be regarded as resistance. Encourage them to recognize that, within a system of organized prejudice like that created by the Nazis, almost any affirmation of one's humanity—saying a prayer, whistling a tune, saying hello to a friend, standing up after one has fallen—springs in some measure from that impulse to resist, to strike out against the denial of human rights.
Conclude this activity by having students reflect in a journal entry on their part in keeping this spirit of resistance alive. Their journal entries should include discussions of the following questions:
Have the class return to the questions raised by violent resistance. Have each student imagine that he or she is a family member or friend of a resistance fighter during the Holocaust. They have learned about preparations for a violent attack against the Nazi authorities and have an opportunity to send a letter to the resistance fighter expressing their feelings about the upcoming attack. Have students write letters weighing their feelings for their relative or friend against their feelings about the value and significance of such an act of resistance in the context of the Holocaust and in the larger context of the war against Nazi domination. Students might suggest alternative forms of resistance, such as those discussed in Activity 4.
As an alternative to this exercise, have students write parallel memoirs of a resistance action from the point of view, first, of a Holocaust survivor who supported the action, then from that of a survivor who opposed it.
Study of the Holocaust often leads to questions about worldwide reaction to the Nazi program of extermination, especially reaction in the United States. One starting-point for examining this issue can be the EDSITEment-reviewed website, the New Deal Network website, which includes in its archives articles on Hitler's policies that were written prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. To find relevant articles click on Search NDN on the website's homepage and use the keywords anti-semitism, fascism, Germany, Hitler, and Jews.
2 class periods