Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Holocaust and Resistance

Created September 26, 2010


The Lesson


Holocaust: Concentration Camp Inmate

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.

Guiding Questions

What kinds of actions constituted resistance, and what were the components of the decision to implement those actions during the Holocaust?

Learning Objectives

  • Recount the historical outline of the Holocaust
  • Analyze and discuss the evidence of resistance to the Holocaust preserved in archival documents and in oral traditions
  • Discuss the moral questions and dilemmas inherent in confrontation with and resistance to the Nazi regime


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.

Preparation Instructions

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:

  • Define the meaning of "Holocaust," including in your definition all who were victims of the Nazi policies.
  • Avoid comparisons of pain among the victims of the Nazi regime.
  • Try to avoid stereotypical descriptions of those on all sides of this historical event—ethnic groups, political groups, nations, etc.
  • Do not romanticize history to engage students' interest; focusing primarily on tales of heroic rescue, for example, may impart an unbalanced view of the period.
  • Be sensitive to appropriate written and audio-visual content; present the events of the Holocaust in ways that do not exploit the students' emotional vulnerability.
  • Select appropriate learning activities, avoiding simplistic word puzzles and model-building projects as well as simulation and role-playing exercises which imply that students can "experience" what the Holocaust was like.
  • Bookmark the pages you will be using in class and prepare printouts, such as the Timeline of Holocaust Events, for distribution in class.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The History of the Holocaust

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.

Activity 2. Moral Dilemmas: Risk and Resistance

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:

Group 1

  • In a society where all the forces of law and order are directed against one, what can be accomplished by violent resistance? What are the likely outcomes of violent resistance, for the fighter and for those whom he or she intends to protect?

Group 2

  • It was common during the Holocaust for a group, even a whole community, to be punished for a single individual's violation of the rules. Is it right to risk bringing such retribution down on one's relatives and friends by challenging the forces of law and order? And what hope would one have of significantly weakening those forces in any case?

Group 3

  • Guide discussion on these questions toward a recognition of the absolute desperation faced by those persecuted in the Holocaust and a realization within the students that the impulse to resist is not extinguished even in such desperate conditions.

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.

Activity 3. The Faces of Resistance

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:

  • Search the archives for information on the following incidents, using the place name as your keyword:

    • the April 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising:
    • the August 1943 revolt at the Treblinka death camp;
    • the October 1943 break out at the Sobibor death camp,
    • the October 1944 bombing of a crematorium at the Auschwitz death camp.
    You can also conduct a "subject" search using the keywords resistance and resistance fighter. In addition to archival photographs, your search will provide summaries of many survivor accounts of these incidents.

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:

  • Yehuda Bauer, They Chose Life: Jewish Resistance in the Holocaust (1973).
  • Israel Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943 (1982).
  • Chaim Kaplan, The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan (1973).
  • Ben Mark, Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto (1979).
  • Adina Blady Szwajger, I Remember Nothing More (1990).

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.

Activity 4. The Range of Resistance

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:

  • In what sense is remembering the Holocaust and preserving it as an historical event an act of resistance against the forces that brought it about?
  • How does memory, and the sharing of memories through study and discussion, affirm our humanity?


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.

Extending The Lesson

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.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Modern World (1500 CE-Present)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Map Skills
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources