Target Group: Students aged 14 and up
What is this unit about?
This unit focuses on a very special aspect of the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany and their accomplices systematically persecuted and killed Europe's Jews: The Righteous Among the Nations – non-Jews, who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.
In addition to the policies implemented by the perpetrators and their collaborators, the attitude of the non-Jewish population towards their Jewish neighbors, or towards the Jewish refugees who tried to escape persecution desperately looking for shelter, was a crucial factor in the fate of the Jews.
Overall, the response of the majority of non-Jewish Europeans ranged from indifference to blind hatred. Only a tiny number of Europe's non-Jewish citizens stood up in the face of the devastating wave of contempt, hatred, betrayal, and violence that was enacted towards Jews, and offered them help. We call these people the Righteous Among the Nations.
Since 1963, Israel's national Holocaust Remembrance Authority, Yad Vashem, has honored these courageous people for their humane deeds. A person can be considered for the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" when survivor testimony or other documentation clearly demonstrates that the non-Jewish person risked his or her life, freedom, and safety, in order to rescue one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation, without receiving monetary compensation or other rewards. As of January 2021, Yad Vashem has recognized a total of 27,921 people from more than 50 European countries as Righteous Among the Nations. It can be assumed that there are many more cases of rescue (or rescue attempts) that remain undocumented for different reasons.
This unit presents four rescue stories. The stories were carefully chosen to highlight different characteristics of the persons involved, various methods of rescue, and diversity with regards to surrounding circumstances. The rescue stories were also selected to spotlight different locations: Germany, Poland and the Netherlands. These three countries encountered three fundamentally different forms of Nazi rule, indicating that the courageous men and women who decided to protect, and even rescue persecuted Jews, did so under very different conditions.
Why teach about Righteous Among the Nations?
The tiny minority of non-Jewish citizens who provided help to Jews during the Holocaust is not representative of the history of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, this teaching unit focuses solely on this group, for the following reasons:
- Challenging a deterministic interpretation of history:
Despite the terror of Nazi occupation and dictatorship, the individual citizen still needed to make personal decisions. Most decided to act to their own advantage, e.g.: to protect themselves and their families as much as possible, to avoid problems, or to try to gain some personal profit. Being subjected to suppression, occupation, and the hardships of war, it was not too difficult to legitimize the kind of behavior associated with the general statement of "we had no choice." The minority Righteous Among the Nations, however, saw options of action where others claimed that there were none. By refusing to accept Nazi ideology, namely the shift from universal laws to the Nazi laws of racial hierarchy, the Righteous Among the Nations were able to offer support to their Jewish neighbors, seeing them as human beings deserving of help.
- Analyzing decision-making processes:
The study of the individual rescue stories reveals in detail how the “Righteous” were challenged on a daily basis with regard to their commitment to protect persecuted Jews. While attempting to cope personally with a highly complicated wartime reality, the additional life-threatening decision to help Jews led to countless smaller decisions that surfaced daily in order maintain their rescue work. Day after day, the "Righteous" were faced with the decision of continuing to assist the victimized Jews, or of abandoning them, leaving them to their fate.
- Understanding the impact of individual decisions on the way history unfolds:
The courageous actions of the "Righteous" should not conjure an image of lofty and morally superior heroes. Rather, it should be shown that the "Righteous" were ordinary citizens who came from all walks of life; they were sewer workers, nannies, office staff etc. Yet their decisions had a huge impact on the way events unfolded. History should be seen as a result of various human actions, omissions and decisions. This message can also be found in its most condensed form on the medal that the “Righteous Among the Nations” receive as an award. Each is engraved with the Jewish tenet: "He who saves a single life saves a whole world."
Reflecting upon the significance of the Righteous' acts and decisions:
Within the unprecedented collapse of collective moral consciousness and individual civil morality, the acts and decisions of the "Righteous" represent the triumph of good over evil.
- Gain insight into the society and conditions that existed in each country before the war, and learn how prewar attitudes and patterns impacted the decisions of rescuers and rescued during the period of intense persecution.
- Use the specific context of individual stories to understand that circumstances of rescue (motivation, risk) differed from country to country.
- Study decision-making in the context of war, occupation, persecution, and genocide in order to appreciate that the decisions of individuals have a powerful impact on events in the course of history
- Understand the importance of recognition and preservation of memory as embodied by Yad Vashem's Righteous Among the Nations Program.
- Reflect on history not only as a chain of events but also as a human story.
- 4 computers/tablets
- projector or printed historical photo
- printed unit work assignments
- 20 sheets of copy paper (5 each of 4 different colors)
- Poster Paper/Board
- adhesive tape
- pens and markers
Four work stations and poster papers hanging on the wall
ca. 90 min.
- Prepare a projector for screening the historical photograph. Alternatively, print copies of the photo (one per student)
- Prepare the computers/tablets for each work group. Each computer should be loaded with a separate story so that all four are represented.
- Prepare the four work stations with 1 computer/tablet, 1 copy of the student handouts (assignments), 5 pieces of single-colored copy paper numbered 1-5, adhesive tape, pens and markers.
- Prepare five posters (chart paper): Write on each poster one of the five numbered questions below. Fix the posters next to each other on a wall of the classroom.
Techniques and Skills:
Large-group discussion, small-group work, analysis of primary and secondary source materials, interpretation of oral history (testimony), comparison of personal stories and contexts, contextualization of historical events, narration of historical events under certain aspects, presentation in plenum.
 For more information about Yad Vashem's Righteous' Program visit: https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/about-the-righteous.html
1. Introduction (15 min)
Classroom procedure: Moderated plenum discussion
Open the unit with a moderated discussion about the significance of individual behavior. Ask the students to study in detail the following photograph. Provide key historical information then moderate a discussion using the questions below.
This photograph shows the L. Hertz Sohn textile shop, in Heilbronn, Germany, on the day of the public boycott of Jewish businesses, April 1, 1933. In front of the shop, two uniformed SA members hold up a banner with the slogan "The Jews are our misfortune". The gate on the door of the shop was apparently only half raised by the shopkeeper, which might testify to the confusion of Jewish shopkeepers in dealing with this boycott. It is interesting to note that the people passing by show a variety of reactions. The moment the photo is taken, a woman steps out of the shop into the open air, she seems to have disregarded the call for the boycott. A mother tries to drag her child on. Other passers-by stop, establish eye contact with the photographer, wait to see what will happen, display curiosity, some also laugh.
In general, the boycott was met with a variety of reactions by German civil society. Some Germans were happy to support the boycott, while many others were skeptical of such actions and refused to support them, often simply because they did not want the regime that had been in power for only two months to dictate their shopping habits. Even if the boycott was, therefore, not a complete success from the perspective of the Nazi regime, it marked the first officially organized antisemitic attack on the Jews in Nazi Germany. For the German civil society, this can be seen as an early test of personal moral courage: every individual - whether Jewish or not - was faced with the necessity of a personal decision.
The discussion should raise awareness of the diversity of human reactions towards distinctive events – in this case the first publicly organized attack on the Jewish citizens of Germany. When describing the different forms of reactions of the people in the photograph, it is important not to deduce their inner moral attitudes based on what is seen in the photograph. The educational aim is not to judge the depicted people morally, but to sensitize the students to the openness of a given situation. Looking at historical events retroactively often leads to the assumption that "it had to happen this way." Alternative forms of behavior are not even considered, simply because they did not manifest in the course of the event/s. The aim of this discussion is to reconsider historical events as crossroads, and the potential decisions of the players involved as possible gamechangers.
Suggested key questions for discussion:
1. What are significant details in the scene captured in the photo?
2. What actions / reactions of the depicted people can be identified?
3. What alternate forms of reaction and action are possible?
2. Study of the stories (30-45 min)
Classroom Procedure: Small work groups
Divide class into four groups. Assign one group to each of the prepared work stations.
Each work station provides one presentation (Genially) about Righteous Among the Nations who decided to help Jews. Before beginning the Genially presentations, it is recommended to read the group assignments out loud with the class. The work groups are asked to explore the story, and then answer questions 1-5.At the end of this work phase, each group posts their answers on the posters that show the questions 1-5 as headlines.
See the example for the poster:
- Describe what you have learned about the pre-war relationship between the rescuer and the rescued Jew(s): Did they know each other? If yes, what was their connection?
- Describe how the decision to help Jew(s) changed the everyday life of the rescuer. What risk/s did he or she take upon him- or herself.
- Why did the rescuer(s) decide to help the Jew(s)? Do we always know the reason?
- Describe what it meant for the Jew(s) to receive help: What was their everyday life like?
- What happened after the war to the rescued Jew(s) and to their rescuers. Refer also to the recognition as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
The questions to print:
3. Evaluation (15 min)
Classroom Procedure: moderated plenum
The teacher invites the students to view the posters. After the students have seen the results of their work, the teacher moderates a classroom discussion.
The purpose of the discussion is to:
- Present the main aspects of each story to the students (this hopefully encourages the students to explore the other stories)
- oint out common elements between the stories, as well as differences
- Correct misunderstandings, adding important (historical) information
- Make sure that the questions are answered in a way that inspires thought about human behavior, universal values etc.
4. Closing Activity
Classroom Procedure: Small work groups or individual work
In preparation, five statements (see appendix) are printed out in large size and hung in the room on a poster. Each student needs a piece of paper and colored markers, pens, etc. As an option, students may use a computer.
The students work independently or in small groups. The teacher is always available for questions and support.
The students discuss one of the five statements highlighting certain, often universal, characteristics of Righteous Among the Nations. The students are invited to design a button (much like a campaign button) that reflects the message they understand from the statement or, in general, from the entire learning experience. Possible themes include courage, responsibility, solidarity, empathy, action, etc. The activity allows students to reflect on the actions of the Righteous and possible messages that can be learned from their actions.
After finishing this activity, the students post their button next to the statement that they were working on. In conclusion, the teacher conducts a classroom discussion in which students view and discuss the work of their peers.
Statements (available for download in appendix)
1."At that time there was darkness everywhere…. The murderer murdered, the Jews died, and the world joined in or pretended indifference. Only a few had the courage to intervene. Let us remember what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the unmoved bystanders."
The Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, author, philosopher and humanist, wrote in his book "Between Memory and Hope" about the people who decided to help Jews.
2."I think it's really thanks to Lorenzo that I'm alive today - not primarily because of his material help, but because by his presence he constantly reminded me...that outside of ours there was still a just world, things and people that were still pure and intact.... that were worth surviving for."
The Holocaust survivor, partisan, chemist and writer Primo Levi describes his rescuer Lorenzo Perrone in "Is This a Man?"
3."I'm afraid that if people think that I'm a very special person, they might doubt that they would do what I did at the time. Not many people consider themselves to be very courageous, so they would refrain from helping those in danger. That is why I would like to say to everyone that I am a very ordinary and careful woman and certainly not a genius or daredevil.… It was necessary and so I helped. Helping people in danger is not a matter of courage but of a choice that every person in his life has to make as a distinction between good and evil."
Miep Gies, one of the Dutch citizens who helped hiding Anne Frank, her family and four other Dutch Jews from the Nazis.
4."These people have come here for help and protection. I am their shepherd. A shepherd does not leave his flock ... I don't know what a Jew is. I only know people."
The French pastor André Trocmé, when asked by French policemen in the summer of 1942 to reveal the hiding place of Jewish refugees.
5."I don't understand your question: surely it is a duty to save the life of a small innocent child."
Jeanne Roger (France), when asked about her motivation to hide a Jewish child in her home.