Islam Critical Thinking Questions About The Holocaust

Mehnaz Afridi on Motadel’s Islam and Nazi Germany’s War

The study of Muslims during World War II, Muslims and their role in the Holocaust and Muslim attitudes towards Jews during the Holocaust is a burgeoning academic field. Scholars from Jewish and Muslim backgrounds are developing new research on and approaches to teaching the Holocaust. In my own study of the Holocaust and the role of Muslims, I have experienced a keen interest from audiences, especially in light of the recent sensational denial and relativism of the Holocaust in certain Muslim sectors. But although interest in Jewish-Muslim relations has grown in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, there is still very little research on the relationship of Arabs, Muslims and Nazi Germany. In Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, however, David Motadel examines Germany’s engagement with the Muslim World during the Second World War and illuminates the many extensive efforts to use Islam as a tool of the war effort. This research and deep historical examination offers new insights for my own work on Jewish-Muslim relations during and after the Holocaust.

I am a Muslim woman who specializes in contemporary Islam and the Holocaust — two fields that have deep and significant connections for Jews and Muslims. The stories of Muslims’ roles during World War II, the concentration and labor camps in Arab lands, Muslim rescuers of Jews, Jews and Muslims who were persecuted together in camps, and Jewish-Muslim bonds during difficult times are just a few of the buried stories. The intersection of these two fields is additionally crucial today in teaching about the Holocaust, and in fighting antisemitism and anti-Muslim acts.

The momentousness of these two fields is publicly revealed in the extremist and terroristic “Islamic” movements that target freedom of speech as in the attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent attack on a kosher grocery store in Paris in January 2015. Recent political government rallies calling for “Death to Israel!” as well as the Holocaust cartoon contests run by the Iranian Maoud Shojaei-Tabatabaei at the House of Cartoon all trivialize the Holocaust.

Such incidents, and the general rise of antisemitism in Europe (described in Gunther Jikeli’s EuropeanMuslim Antisemitism: Why Young Urban Males Say They Don’t Like Jews) all raise some deep questions about how Jews are perceived in the imagination of Muslims and how the mutual history or deep-rooted mistrust between the two groups can be understood.

The intersections between Muslim and Arab history and the Holocaust in particular opens constructive conversations and links between Jews and Muslims that are not necessarily political in nature. Exploring these links creates a contextual ground upon which one can identify the varied positions of Muslims and Jews. For Jews, this context revisits the historical issues of antisemitism in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and how Jews were seen as the colonizers and the tactical policies of the Allies. For Muslims, it fills an important vacuum regarding what Muslim countries were undergoing at the time because of the policies and propaganda of other nations. The Holocaust has been viewed as a European event, and very few scholars have discussed the scope of the Holocaust in Arab-African Lands (Robert Satloff, Among the Righteous) or the propaganda that Nazi Germany disseminated before and during World War II (Jeffery Herf, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World).

David Motadel’s Islam and Nazi Germany’s War discusses how Nazi Germany manipulated and inscribed negative perceptions of Jews, the Allies, and the Bolsheviks. It describes the shrewd and detailed propaganda designed by top SS officials to disseminate to Muslims in war zones from North Africa to the Middle East and the Balkans, as well as the internal military propaganda designed to mobilize Muslim units for the benefit of Nazi Germany. The book is divided into three parts, which each describe Nazi Germany’s involvement in crafting volumes of propaganda material. Such material included Islamic translations of the Qur’an vilifying Jews, Islamic morality and codes that opposed Bolshevism, and Nazi ideology’s kinship with Islam.

The book provides some crucial material to scholars who are committed to comprehending relationships between the Jews and Muslims broader than focusing only on the contemporary (although not unrelated) Israeli and Palestinian crisis. Most historians focus on strategic and national interests when discussing the World War II. Motadel, however, follows the German troops fighting in regions as far apart as the Sahara and the Caucasus. He shows how Nazi officials saw Islam as a powerful force that shared the same enemies as Germany: the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Jews.

Drawing on archival research, he explains how German officials tried to promote the Third Reich as a patron of Islam not just during World War II but as early as 1914-1915 when the German military founded special camps in south Berlin for Muslim prisoners of war who were fighting with the allies.

They held several thousand soldiers from Africa, India and the tsarist empire who had fought in the British, French and Russian armies. From the outset, the Germans were at pains to win the prisoners over. To demonstrate their respect for Islam, they granted the Muslims various concessions and special religious rights. In the Wunsdorf camp the German’s even constructed a mosque, designed after the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem — it was the first functional Islamic house of worship ever built in Germany.

The role of Germans in Muslim lands was crucial, and they were seen as an ally. Meanwhile, Germans saw an opportunity to fuel anger and resentment against colonizers (Britain and France) and the last standing empire (the Ottomans). This is not to say that the Ottomans were not themselves corrupt or racist, but at this juncture Ottoman Palestine and the North Africa had been weakened by colonial expansion. Motadel explores some of this history, but for the interest of readers who are focused on how and why the propaganda worked or was even attempted, there was a parallel narrative that Muslims were creating centered on their own struggle for independence through nationalism and pan-Arabism, with the weighty fear of European colonization in the Middle East as a crucial backdrop. Most Muslim nations saw Germany as an ally at a time of severe loss of finances, spirituality, and independence. As Motadel observes, “It was the SS, however, which eventually took the lead in Germany’s Islamic mobilization campaign, most importantly from 1943 on. In the end, almost all parts of the regime were involved.”

One must note here that Jews were migrating in large numbers to Palestine, and the Ottoman Empire had already disintegrated. Many saw Palestine as a place that was already being imperialized by the Allies and European Zionist Jews since 1882. The migration of Jews to Palestine grew: in 1882 the Jewish population in Palestine was 24,000, and by 1914 it had grown to 85,000. This growth had a deep impact on Palestine and the surrounding countries like Syria.

Motadel presents archival letters and research that clarify the role of Amin-al-Husayni (Mufti of Jerusalem) in the Holocaust and in relationship to Hitler, and allows us to rethink the image of Arabs and Muslims conspiring with Nazi Germany. The recent statement by Benjamin Netanyahu at the Zionist Congress in October 2015, that the Mufti was the engine behind the Final Solution of Jews, is preemptively corrected by Motadel who recounts the precise nature of the meeting between Hitler and the Mufti as well as the minimal role of the Mufti in the Holocaust or extinction of all Jews. In my own lectures around the country, I am confronted with the image of the Mufti and Hitler sitting side by side, making alliances. The alliance is not a myth, but it is vital for readers to comprehend that Muslims or Arabs were not planning the extermination of Jews at any point but were aligned with Germany for strategic purposes.

The calls for the annihilation of Jews by some Muslim extremist rhetoric have fed the hatred towards Israel and its alliance with the Allies at the time that Israel was formed. Antisemitism as we know it today was and has been a European prejudice that has rooted itself in Muslim and Arab communities for very different reasons. I also would argue that the German Nazi propaganda took many verses of the Qur’an to convince Muslims (who had never read these verses as antisemitic) to mean that Jews should not be trusted. Motadel’s own thesis on the propaganda points to how religion was usurped in many of these cases because of the keen fascination of Islam and its strategic position in the eyes of Nazi officials.

Islam and Nazi Germany’s War describes the political and vulnerable position of the Mufti and Palestine, decades before it became the Israel-Palestine dispute we recognize today. Indeed, Motadel offers another narrative for the involvement of the Mufti and the Holocaust; it reconsiders the role of Muslims and their concessions about the Holocaust. According to Motadel, the Mufti was seen as a religious influential figure rather than a political mover, and he was used by the Nazi officials as a religious pawn for the purposes of recruiting Muslims and Arabs to their own ideology and even armed forces.

[Al-Hasayni] His proposals were successful only insofar as they coincided with the German interests. The most dramatic example, was his intervention to hinder the emigration of Jews from Germany’s southeastern European satellite states to Palestine. Instead of putting the mufti at the center of the narrative, it seems more reasonable to see him as a part of a more general German policy directed toward the Islamic world. German officials used him as a propaganda figure when circumstances necessitated. After all, he was paid well for his services. He received a monthly salary of no less than 90,000 reichsmarks and was provided with several residences for himself and his entourage.

In Part II, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War reveals how German troops on the ground in North Africa, the Balkans, and the Eastern front dealt with Muslim populations, including Muslim Roma and Jewish converts to Islam. For instance, Muslims in North Africa were under tremendous pressure because of the presence of the Italians, the French, and the British. Germany never controlled North Africa and Mussolini was in charge of Libya, but it is well-documented in Motadel’s research that German propaganda still reached these lands. For example, Der Islam, a sixty-four-page German handbook distributed to the military discussed how to behave properly toward Muslims and focused on Islamic foundations, culture, and rituals. This section discusses invaluable archival material that is crucial in understanding how detailed and committed the Nazi party was to keep Muslims as allies even under the Vichy government. Meanwhile, Muslims on the frontlines complained about the brutal treatment by German soldiers:

March 1942, written by Ahmed Biyoud, a North African exile in France who was working for the Germans and who tried to alert them to the problems North African prisoners of war were facing in their daily contact with the Wehrmacht guards…”Everywhere,” Biyoud claimed, “we are termed colored or even black; almost every German soldier gives us clearly to understand that he counts us to be one of the most despised races of the world. Even expressions like ‘Jew,’ ‘Nigger,’ ‘black scoundrels’ etc. are not uncommon. (130)

In my own work I have discussed Algerian National Resistance fighters who ended up in camps with Jews and how the treatment was similar and painfully racist towards both Jews and Muslims under the Vichy controlled by the German military. One of the most fascinating documents (fig 6.1, p.243) is a chart entitled: “Account of the Inmates of the Islamic Faith”:

…it listed all male and female Muslim prisoners in the camps Auschwitz (I-III), Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenburg, Gros-Rosen, Mauthuasen, Natzweiler, Neuengamme, Ravensbruck, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, and Bergen-Belsen. Altogether, 1,130 Muslim men and nineteen Muslim women were recorded. Most of them were from eastern and southeastern Europe and had presumably been interned as political prisoners. Still, the list was incomplete, as some groups, most notably Muslim prisoners from Arab countries, were not included.

This chart and more work on these aspects of the Nazi party might provide some deeper clues to Jewish-Muslim relations in the camps and where they were from before they were imprisoned.

The book also describes encounters with Muslims in the Soviet-controlled Caucasus. The Germans were regarded as rescuers for the many Muslims in the Caucasus, and especially in cities like Nalchik and Kislovodsk where “Next to the flag of the Reich waves the green banner with crescent and star, under which once Muhammad prevailed over the Jews.” Crimean Tartars were also seen in German uniforms in front of newly reopened mosques. Motadel delves deeper into the stories of lands where Muslims were severely persecuted for their religion and as Tartar minorities — places such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Belarus. He also explores the issues faced by Muslims who fought with the Red Army as nationalists versus the Muslims who were seduced by Nazi-inflected ideological Islam.

Motadel goes on to discuss the SS Handzar division, which was formed primarily through Imams and Bosnian soldiers who spread propaganda to parts of the Balkans. The SS Handzar division was to act as a vehicle to join the ideology of Islam and National Socialism, and while it was not a division that was reporting to concentration or death camps, the relationship between the SS Handzar and camps is still unclear in many of the sources. Further research is need to understand better the exact orders given to the SS Muslim division. Motadel’s purpose, however, is not to look at these sources for Jewish-Muslim relations, but more precisely to show how intricate the plan of the SS Party was to rally more recruitment from Muslims — and how unsuccessful the Nazi party was in many parts of the Muslim world. Motadel discusses this division as a propaganda military division headed by Imams, and he described the rigorous religious education and training as such: “According to al-Husayni, fifty imams graduated in Guben in two terms of four months each. In the final months of the war, the SS would indoctrinate Bosnian imams…In late autumn 1944, when the division was already dissolving; it organized a training course for sixty imams of Handzar near Budapest.”

In the final part of his book, Motadel illustrates the profound impact of World War II on Muslims around the world and provides a new understanding of the lives and recruitment of Muslims in the military. This section shows the extent of the war and how it touched the lives of Muslims from East Africa to Bulgaria. He argues that German efforts to mobilize and utilize Islam were consistent throughout, not only reflected in literary propaganda but also in mutual active interests and sometimes shared ideology. This was, as Motadel demonstrates, for purely military purposes in the areas where Muslims were weakened during the war.

Overall these attempts failed. In North Africa and the Middle East, the reception was mixed. In areas like the Balkans or the Eastern territories, where Muslims often lived under terrible conditions, German courtship initially sparked some hope. In the end, many thousands of Muslims from these areas fought in the German armies. Religious policies and propaganda certainly sent the right messages. Still, it remains open to question whether religious policies and propaganda were the major reasons for this; in many cases other motivations were stronger.

Motadel further expands the maneuvers of the SS by providing an analysis of how Muslims were recruited and taken care by the SS and Wehrmacht (1941) from East Africa to Bulgaria. The German efforts were to gain power, mobilize armies and gain allies in the lands where the war reached in 1941-42 in Muslim territories. Motadel also provides the context for why this worldview or as it was termed Weltmusselmanentum (idea of Islamic unity) failed because its reception in North Africa and the Middle East was ambiguous. He provides several examples that are important: first, Muslims were not interested in waging war in North Africa and the Middle East because they were not like the Eastern European Muslims who had been oppressed under communism and saw Germany as some hope; second, the Nazis had oversimplified Islam and possessed too many misconceptions about it; and third, the timing of their propaganda and mobilization was not thought through as they confronted the realities of war.

Motadel’s book analyzes material that is critically important for thinking about religion and ideology as part of World War II as well as today, especially in a historical moment in which the conversation about religion and politics tends too often toward the sensational.

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In this lesson, students learn about the steps taken by Germans and others that resulted in the murder of one-third of all of the Jews in the world, in addition to nearly five million members of other groups deemed unfit or dangerous by the Nazis, including Gypsies,1 homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. People have given this crime various names. Winston Churchill referred to it as “a crime without a name.”2 In the United States, it is referred to as the Holocaust, a word people have been using since ancient times. Historian Paul Bookbinder explains that the word holocaust means “complete destruction by burning.”3 The name Holocaust calls attention to the use of crematoria to burn the bodies of millions of victims of the Nazis’ gas chambers, and also symbolizes the Nazis’ goal to completely destroy an entire group of people, the Jews, solely because of their ancestry. Today, this crime is referred to as genocide—a word coined by Raphael Lemkin, himself a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis. Responding to his outrage over the Holocaust, as well as the mass murder of Armenians during World War I, Lemkin believed that the international legal community needed a word that described “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.”4 He thought that perhaps the world would be better at preventing and stopping the mass murder of innocent people if this crime had a name.

In January 1942, before Lemkin coined the word “genocide,” 15 top leaders of the Nazi Party met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee. At this conference, they created their own name for their plan to annihilate the Jewish community of Europe, calling it the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” The purpose of this meeting was to design a systematic way to rid Europe of 11 million European Jews. Due to the official nature of this conference, notes were taken and distributed to those who did not attend. From these notes, we learn of the Nazis’ plan to use and dispose of Jews as they saw fit. For example, the notes read, “Under proper guidance, in the course of the Final Solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes.” The notes also address how Jews will be identified, explaining “In the course of the Final Solution plans, the Nuremberg Laws should pro- vide a certain foundation.”5

The Wannsee conference did not mark the start of the Holocaust. Several years earlier, when Germany began invading neighboring territories, such as Poland and the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Jews perished at the hands of SS soldiers and local civilians collaborating with the Nazis. This was mostly accomplished through the use of special squads of German soldiers and police called Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing units. These units would follow the regular German army behind combat lines, with the purpose of massacring Jews, Gypsies, Communist officials, and anyone else deemed to be a racial or political enemy of Germany. While later during the Holocaust most of the victims were murdered in ghettos or in concentration camps (or on the way to the camps), the Einsatzgruppen killed victims in their villages, typically by mass shootings or by using mobile gas vans.

Even though over 1.5 million Jews were murdered at the hands of these mobile killing squads, Heinrich Himmler, director of the Einsatzgruppen, was not entirely satisfied. He noticed the psychological burden that mass shootings placed on his men, and he wanted a more economical way to murder vast numbers of Jews. At the Wannsee Conference he was able to develop a plan that addressed his concerns. Through planning an efficient, systemic method of “extermination,” the murder of Jews would now be carried out according to rules and regulations, by clerks, administrators, guards, and other employees. One administrator involved in assigning Jews to concentration camps described his role, and the role of other bureaucrats like him as, “just little cogs in a huge machine.”6

Thus, the Wannsee Conference was significant not because it started the Holocaust, but mainly because it transferred most of the responsibility of the “Final Solution” from the military over to the bureaucrats. In addition to the leadership of the Nazi Party, many “ordinary” workers were needed to make the system of mass murder function: train conductors, secretaries, guards, cooks, etc. Journalist Bernt Engelmann wrote, “girls like my cousin Gudrun, from solid middle class families...sat there with their chic hairdos and pretty white blouses and typed neat lists of the victims—an important service for Fuehrer, Volk, and Vaterland.”7 This statement reflects the mindset of many Germans who participated in this genocide. They did not see themselves as murderers; rather, they saw themselves as loyal, effective workers.

“How can we make sense of this intentional killing of millions of innocent people?” is one of the most important questions asked during a study of the Holocaust. Many scholars have attempted to answer this question. Philosopher and Holocaust scholar Hannah Arendt argued that the Germans who carried out unspeakable crimes were ordinary people who simply accepted the conditions of their context as normal and the way things are done.8 As explained above, the bureaucratization of the Final Solution—the fact that Germans had specific responsibilities to perform as part of their jobs—made the process of killing seem routine. Hitler and the Nazis were extremely skilled at using propaganda and a deliberatively gradual process to make the isolation, segregation, and ultimate killing of Jews seem rational or justifiable.

Raul Hilberg, a prominent Holocaust scholar, agrees with Arendt that the Holocaust was made possible because of small steps, or “stages.” He began studying the Holocaust in 1948 while stationed in Munich for the U.S. Army’s War Documentation Project. His intense study of German documents led to the development of a widely accepted theory that the Final Solution was a bureaucratic, strategically planned process. A list of steps taken by the Nazis to achieve the mass murder of Jews, called “The Stages of Mass Murder,” is one of the results of Hilberg’s research. The degree to which the Nazis planned each of these stages ahead of time is a matter of debate among historians, but there is consensus that the overall events unfolded in a way that followed this pattern. This kind of framework is helpful for a basic historical understanding of how the Nazis moved from legalized discrimination to mass murder.

Raul Hilberg's Stages of Mass Murder9

  1. Definition: Jews and other minorities are defined as the “other” through legalized discrimination.
  2. Isolation: Through the accumulation of hundreds of anti-Jewish laws, social practices, residential living restrictions, job displacements, and property expropriation, Jews are marginalized in German society.
  3. Emigration: Jews are encouraged through laws and terror to leave German territory.
  4. Ghettoization: Jews are forcibly removed to segregated sections of Eastern European cities and are made to endure terrible living conditions.
  5. Deportation: Jews are transported from ghettos to concentration and death camps.
  6. Mass murder: Mass murder occurs through shooting, gassing, and confinement in labor and death camps where Jews are overworked and/or murdered.

Another way to understand how these small steps played out in the life of ordinary Germans is through the work of an American college professor, Milton Mayer. Seven years after World War II, Professor Mayer interviewed German men from a cross-section of society. One of them, a college professor, told Mayer how he responded to the policies of the Nazis from 1933, when they first came to power, until their fall at the end of the war:

If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes millions, would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the “German Firm” stickers on the windows of non Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it hap- pens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.10

After describing his slow and steady process of moral decline, this professor admits that ultimately his decisions left him “compromised beyond repair.” By the end of the war, he was living “with new morals, new principles,” formed by years of living under Nazi propaganda and conforming to the socially-acceptable norms of Germany in the 1930s. He explains:

You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined. Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.11

Christopher Browning is another prominent Holocaust historian whose work has helped answer the question, “How can we explain why ordinary people participated in the mass murder of millions of innocent children, women, and men?” He studied interviews of over 200 men that served in Reserve Police Battalion 101, a group made up of mostly city-level police officers who were assigned to serve Hitler in Poland during World War II. Focusing on the events of one day, July 13, 1942, Browning discovered that the leader of the battalion, Captain Trapp, instructed his troops that they would be rounding up Jewish children, women, and men from the village of Jozefow and killing all but the young men who were fit for slave labor. Then, Trapp said that any man who did not want to participate in this task could receive a different assignment. Approximately 12 of the 210 men in the battalion stepped forward and handed in their weapons. The rest of the battalion proceeded to follow orders, shooting hundreds of Jewish women, older men, and children at point-blank range, although Browning noted that “they still shied away from shooting infants, despite their orders.”12 Browning explains the behavior of these ordinary working-class men, very few of whom were members of the Nazi Party, through the lens of peer pressure. Men he interviewed admitted that they did not want to be perceived as cowards by their comrades. According to Browning, “To break ranks and step out, to adopt overtly nonconformist behavior, was simply beyond most of the men. It was easier for them to shoot.”13 History professor Daniel Goldhagen disagrees with Browning’s interpretation that many followed Nazi orders out of a desire to fit in. Rather, he argues that many Germans willingly went along with Nazi policies because a history of virulent antisemitism led them to believe that killing Jews was justified.14

Clearly, there is no simple answer to questions such as, “What made the mass murder of millions of innocent children, women, and men possible? How could thousands of people participate in committing mass murder?” For example, when Rudolf Hoess was asked why he participated in the Holocaust, his answer reveals how propaganda, antisemitism, conformity, denial, and obedience affected the choices he made as Commandant at Auschwitz:

Don’t you see, we SS men were not supposed to think about these things: it never even occurred to us.—And besides, it was something already taken for granted that the Jews were to blame for everything....Well, we just never heard anything else. It was not just newspapers like the Stürmer but it was everything we ever heard. Even our military and ideological training took for granted that we had to protect Germany from the Jews....We were all so trained to obey orders without even thinking that the thought of disobeying an order would simply never have occurred to anybody and somebody else would have done just as well if I hadn’t....You can be sure that it was not always a pleasure to see those mountains of corpses and smell the continual burning.—But Himmler had ordered it and had even explained the necessity and I really never gave much thought to whether it was wrong. It just seemed a necessity.15

While Nazi propaganda, obedience, and antisemitism surely encouraged perpetrators, like Hoess, to commit terrible crimes against the Jewish community, it is important to note that the Holocaust took place under the cover of war. As Hoess explains, he was acting to protect Germany. Killing the Jews was seen as part of the war effort. And it was not only Germans who took part in the death of Jews. Most of the killing took place outside of Germany, often with the support of local residents from occupied countries, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. Although some civilians were alarmed by the brutality of the Nazis, others were sympathetic to the Germans’ cause. Centuries of antisemitism in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia had made the local population openly hostile to Jews. Villagers assisted the Nazis by reporting on the location of Jews and, sometimes, by killing or hurting Jews on their own. Opportunism (e.g., the prospect of gaining Jewish property) and the fear of Nazi brutality also played a role in turning many civilians into bystanders and perpetrators.

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 the experiences of victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Nobel Prize winner and survivor of the Holocaust 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.”16 And even if it were possible to understand the victim’s plight during the Holocaust, what could prepare us emotionally to deal with the enormity of this crime? Referring to his experience as a member of the U.S. Army that liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945, Leon Bass shares, “I wasn’t prepared for this. I was only nineteen. I had no frame of reference to cope with the kind of thing that I was witnessing.” He continues to explain the magnitude of the inhumanity that he observed:

And so I walked through the gates of Buchenwald, and I saw the dead and the dying. I saw people who had been so brutalized and were so maltreated. They had been starved and beaten. They had been worked almost to death, not fed enough, no medical care. One man came up and his fingers were webbed together, all of his fingers together, by sores and scabs. This was due to malnutrition, not eating the proper foods. There were others holding on to each other, trying to remain standing. They had on wooden shoes; they had on the pajama-type uniform; their heads had been shaved. Some had the tattoos with numbers on their arms. I saw this....I said, “My God, what is this insanity that I have come to? What are these people here for? What have they done? What was their crime that would cause people to treat them like this?”17

Still, even though it is impossible to truly understand the victim’s experience, and even though nothing can prepare us for 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 as they were treated like cattle, or even worse.

Professor Larry Langer suggests that one way we can understand the victims’ experience is through appreciating the many “choiceless choices” that they confronted on a daily basis.18 There are no moral equivalents in the “normal” world for these experiences, even in the combat of World War II. For example, is the decision to give one’s child to a stranger really a “choice” in this context? Rachel G., a Jewish girl from Belgium, recalls the day her father took her into hiding with a priest. “My mother could not take me to those people. Of course, I couldn’t understand. My mother crying and only my father could take and explain to me, ‘Don’t forget, you’re a Jewish little girl and we’re going to see you again. But you must do that, you must go away. We are doing this for your best.’”19 When you are asked to bury the corpses of your neighbors or be pushed into a pit yourself, is that really a choice? Langer asserts that when making sense of the choices Holocaust victims made, we must keep in mind that people’s choices were determined by survival in the grimmest of circumstances.

Another common question asked about victims of the Holocaust is, “Why didn’t they resist? Why didn’t they fight back?” Jews, and other victims, responded to their Nazi oppressors in a variety of ways, and, indeed, many did resist. Jews in Vilna, Warsaw, Kovno, Bialystok, Bedzin-Sosnowiec, Cracow, and 11 other cities organized armed rebellions against their Nazi oppressors. Jews, known as partisans, engaged in guerrilla warfare against the German army. In August 1943, inmates at Treblinka concentration camp duplicated the key to the camp armory. The plan was to take the weapons stored there, kill as many guards as possible, and then escape into the forest. All seven hundred Jews in the camp took part. There are countless examples of other efforts of resistance by Jews and non-Jews alike: laborers sabotaged weapons they were assigned to build, inmates organized clandestine schools for children, and some Jews used prayer as a means of defiance.

Yet, it is important to recognize the incredible challenges that confronted Jews trying to resist Nazi oppression. First, for some victims it was impossible to believe what lay ahead. They were easily deceived by the slivers of hope the Nazis offered their victims. Sometimes it was the possibility of a ghetto run entirely by Jews; at others it was the hope of resettlement in the east. Often people were willing to believe on the strength of little more than the need to buy a railroad ticket. Surely people being shipped to their deaths would not have to buy a ticket! Even once Jews recognized the gravity of their situation, during the war it was difficult for anyone, and especially Jews, to gain the arms and resources to resist the Nazis. In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi points out how difficult escape and rebellion were, writing:

For everyone else, the pariahs of the Nazi universe (among whom must be included Gypsies and Soviet prisoners, both military and civilian, who racially were considered not much superior to the Jews), the situation was quite different. For them escape was quite different and extremely dangerous; besides being demoralized, they had been weakened by hunger and maltreatment; they were and knew they were considered less than beasts of burden. . . . The particular (but numerically imposing) case of the Jews was the most tragic. Even admitting that they managed to get across the barbed wire barrier and electrical grill, elude the patrols, the surveillance of the sentinels armed with machine guns in the guard towers, the dogs trained for man hunts: In what direction could they flee? To whom could they turn for shelter? They were outside the world, men and women made of air. They no longer had a country.20

Levi helps us understand  how the “stateless” condition of the Jews coupled with the history of violent antisemitism in the area contributed to the nearly impossible task ahead of any Jew who dared escape or rebel. Furthermore, Jews faced a complicated ethical dilemma because acts of resistance by one individual were met by Nazi retaliation aimed at the entire community. In other words, an act of defiance by one individual could result in the deaths of many more. Furthermore, it is important to keep the issue of resistance in perspective. Expecting a defenseless, civilian population to mount an extensive challenge to their well-armed Nazi oppressors puts the burden on the victim and not on people and nations who were in a better position to help. Given this context, 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?”21

Finally, another question students often ask of teachers is, “Why are you having us study this horrible moment in history?” Many educators, scholars, and students agree that studying the Holocaust is important because of how it can help us prevent violence, prejudice, and injustice in our own communities—local, national, and global. As Catholic theologian Eva Fleischner declares, “The more we come to know about the Holocaust, how it came about, how it was carried out, etc., the greater the possibility that we will become sensitized to inhumanity and suffering wherever they occur.”22 This human tragedy illuminates the circumstances that can cause ordinary people to make horrible choices. To prevent future acts of violence, we must look at the circumstances in which these choices were made. We need to appreciate the role of factors such as obedience, conformity, peer pressure, membership, identity, prejudice, and propaganda in shaping the decisions made by Germans and others, for these same factors also impact the choices we make on a daily basis. A study of the steps leading up to the Holocaust also helps us identify the resources at our disposal that can be used to prevent future violence and genocide, including strong democratic institutions, citizens who are capable of informed judgment, and communities that respect difference.

Related readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior:

The lessons in this section mostly focus on events of the Holocaust that were occurring within Germany and German-occupied Europe. To help students understand the larger political and military context of World War II in which the Holocaust was situated, refer to the following readings:

Confronting the Holocaust with Students

  1. Review class norms about a safe, respectful learning community: In this lesson students will be confronted with evidence, through film and text, documenting the horrific violence of the Final Solution. Before presenting students with this material, inform them about the graphic violence to which they will bear witness. Learning about the crimes committed during the Holocaust can spark emotional reactions in students; thus it is critical that students have a safe place to process their feelings throughout this lesson. At the beginning of this lesson, you might want to review your classroom contract. You can also ask students to think about what it means to them to feel safe in the classroom, and what they need to do to help other students feel safe and supported.
  2. Provide frequent public and private opportunities to process this material: Students often react to the Holocaust with sadness, anger, or frustration, yet it is also the case that students do not have an immediate public response to learning about the Holocaust. Many teachers have been surprised by some students’ lack of emotions 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.
  3. Avoid having students hypothesize about what they would have done: It is natural for students to wonder what they would have done if they were in the position of the victims. Yet following this line of hypothetical decision-making does not yield an educationally constructive conversation; it is impossible for us to truly imagine what it was like for victims of the Holocaust.To even come close to putting students in the position of imagining the suffering and loss of victims would be highly unethical. The challenge for teaching this part of the unit is to allow students to confront the suffering and loss experienced by victims of the Holocaust without overwhelming students with horror.
  4. Preview materials in advance to make appropriate selections based on the maturity of your students: Viewing graphic images depicting the horrors of concentration camps and death camps can provoke strong emotional reactions in students. Some teachers assume that because students are surrounded by violent images in the media, they are desensitized to depictions of violence in any form. We have found that this is usually not the case. Most adolescents can distinguish between fictional acts of violence and authentic acts of inhumanity, and being confronted with the horrors humans can inflict on each other can be truly unsettling. Use your best judgment about the capacity of your students to be able to emotionally handle images depicting Holocaust victims. If you decide to show your students a few images of Holocaust victims, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has a wide collection of images from which to choose. For this lesson, we have selected images (Handout 3) that represent the violence of mass murder (i.e., a crematorium and a map of Auschwitz) without showing human remains.

Suggestion for how to divide this class over two class periods: An appropriate time to divide the lesson would be after part two of the main activity because students will need an entire class period to confront the final stage of the Holocaust.


Facing History teachers speak strongly about the importance of preparing students before having them confront the horrible crimes committed during the Holocaust. One way to accomplish this goal is to use the poem “Yom Ha’Shoah” by Sonia Weitz, a Holocaust survivor (handout 1). We suggest having students read the poem aloud, at least two times. After each reading, ask students to respond to the questions: What does this poem mean to you? What questions do you have? You can begin a discussion of the poem by having students 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.

Main Activities

Part 1: Defining terms

By this point in the unit, your students have probably already heard the term Holocaust, and many may be familiar with the word from its use in the media or from prior classes. Still, do not assume that students know what this term actually means or what the event entailed. Before beginning an interactive lecture about the Holocaust, write the word on the board and ask students to tell you what they already know about the Holocaust. You might also wish to write the word “genocide” on the board and then ask if any students can define it. Here are two basic definitions you can use to begin this lesson:

  • Holocaust: A period of 4 years (1941–1944) when the Nazis organized and carried out the murder of six million Jews, as well as millions of other innocent victims, such as Jehovah’s witnesses, Gypsies, and homosexuals.
  • Genocide: Acts committed with the intent to destroy an ethnic, racial, national, or religious group.

At the end of the lesson, you can give students the opportunity to add their own ideas to these definitions.

Part 2: Understanding the steps leading up to mass murder

We suggest helping students learn about the crimes committed during the Holocaust through an interactive lecture that incorporates video clips, images, and other documents. In this format, the whole class learns the same material at the same time, giving the teacher the ability to respond to questions and comments as they arise. The ability to respond to students “in the moment” is especially important when dealing with such sensitive material. Suggested talking points to guide you through this lecture are included in the appendix of this lesson. These talking points are framed by the work of Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg. He writes about the Holocaust not as one moment, but as a series of stages that led up to the genocide of millions. Students have already learned about three of these stages, so the early part of the lecture will serve as review. Students can take notes during the lecture on Handout 2 or in their journals.

We refer to this teaching strategy as an “interactive” lecture because we hope that students are active participants as the class develops an understanding of the Holocaust. As you present students with new information, they should have the opportunity to share their prior knowledge, ask questions, and write in their journals. We have structured the interactive lecture talking points to allow for this to happen. The lecture is divided into six parts, each part corresponding to one of Hilberg’s “stages leading up to the Holocaust.” Each part includes a main term, a key question, suggested resources (i.e., class notes from previous lessons, images, film clips, quotations, etc.), possible answers to the key question, and suggested journal prompts. We recommend that students have the opportunity to write in their journals throughout the lecture so that they can have frequent opportunities to process their ideas and their feelings. You might allow volunteers to share what they have written with the class, or you can ask them to discuss the journal prompts with a neighbor. Experienced Facing History teachers have stressed that it is very important to pay attention to students’ needs, questions, and misconceptions as they learn about the Holocaust. For that reason, we have designed this lesson to be implemented over two class periods. While the disturbing nature of this history causes many teachers to want to rush through this material, for students’ own intellectual and moral development it is important to proceed at a pace that allows them to safely process what they are learning about this specific history and what it may reveal about human behavior in general.

Part 3: Processing the horrors of mass murder

It is not possible to truly understand the horrors of genocide, nor would it be ethically responsible to put students in that position. Still, if students left a study of the Holocaust without confronting the scope of the crimes committed, their understanding of this event would be incomplete. The challenge for teachers is to find a safe, respectful, and historically accurate way to help students grasp the fact that thousands of ordinary people participated in unspeakable acts of inhumanity, while thousands more quietly stood by while millions of innocent children, women, and men were murdered.

One way to approach this pedagogical challenge is to have students bear witness to the testimony of a Holocaust survivor. We suggest showing students the 24-minute video Remembering the Past: Sonia Weitz’s History. Students will already be familiar with Sonia Weitz as the author of the poem “Yom Ha’Shoah.” In this video, she reads this poem, and several others, as she recounts her experience before and during the Holocaust. Listening to Sonia’s story provides an opportunity for students to learn about the horrors of the concentration camps, and it also provides a concrete, personal account of the other stages leading up to the Holocaust. [Note: The extension section provides examples of other survivor testimony you could also use during this part of the lesson. In the extension sections, you can also find suggestions for how to help students process the horror of mass murder through looking an images and reading the words of those involved in this tragic event.]

Sonia’s testimony provides evidence of horrible brutality and students will need a way to debrief what they have heard. To help students process the ideas in Sonia’s testimony, you can structure a silent conversation by using the Big Paper Strategy. In preparation for the silent conversation, ask students to write the following questions in the middle of a large piece of paper (large enough to allow for students to write plenty of questions and comments):

  • What made the Holocaust possible?
  • How can we explain why ordinary people participated in the mass murder of innocent people?
  • What could have prevented the Holocaust?

Small groups of two or three students can receive one of these “big papers.” Before beginning this activity, make sure each student has a pen or marker.

Follow Through (in class or at home)

Facing History teachers have remarked that many students are able to process and express their reaction to learning about the Holocaust through poetry. Poetry can be simultaneously personal and abstract. It can both evoke a specific experience and draw a universal conclusion. It helps us reflect and respond. You might decide to give students some time to write their own poems responding to the material in this lesson. Or, you can create a collaborative poem as a class. In a collaborative poem, each student contributes one line. This could be the question or comment that the student recorded after step four of the Silent Conversation. You can go around the room with each student reading their line. A shorter version of the collaborative poem simply asks students to respond with one word that comes to mind after learning about the Holocaust. Each student shares his/her word, without allowing questions or comments to break the flow of sharing. The collection of words shared by the class creates a poem of its own. Regardless of if students write poems on their own or whether they create a collaborative poem, the ideas represented in the poems provide fruitful material for a class discussion.

As a final activity for this lesson, you might have students read the poem “Yom Ha’Shoah” again and then ask them to write in their journals about what this poem means to them after learning more about the Holocaust. They can also try to answer the questions they wrote at the beginning of the lesson. 


The notes students take on handout 2, as well as their journal entries, will provide evidence about their understanding of the steps leading up to mass murder. You might also ask students to turn in an Exit Card before they leave class with their definition of the words Holocaust and genocide. Encourage them to have their definitions show both an intellectual and ethical understanding of these words. At this point, it is too soon to accurately assess students’ ability to grasp the horrors of the Holocaust; as explained above, it often takes students several days or weeks to come to grips with this information. But, you can give students the opportunity to share confusions they might have by asking them to record any questions on their exit card. This will give you an idea of material you might want to review in the next lesson.


In addition to listening to Sonia Weitz’s testimony, students might gain a deeper understanding of the Holocaust through looking at images and reading the words of those involved in this tragic event. Document 3 includes a collection of images and quotations that represent different stages of the Holocaust, but focus on the horror of mass murder. The Gallery Walk Teaching Strategy can be used to help students process these images. You might want to include several images of Jewish life before the war (from Lesson 5) to help students remember that before they were persecuted by the Nazis, Holocaust victims were ordinary children, women, and men who enjoyed family dinners and playing with friends. You could also include copies of Sonia’s poems as part of the gallery walk. So that students have the opportunity to process their reactions to these images and words, we suggest that students participate in the gallery walk before they begin the big paper activity.

Here are two alternate ways to structure the collaborative poem exercise:

  1. You can ask students to write their contribution to the class poem on a slip of paper. Place the slips into a hat or bowl. Drawing one at a time, read the slips in a dramatic fashion. For example, you can repeat some lines or words for dramatic effect.
  2. You can ask students to copy their one line or phrase contribution to the class poem on several slips of paper. Distribute 10–12 slips to small groups of students and allow them to arrange the slips any way they choose. Then have the groups present their arrangement to the class. This exercise is particularly interesting because students hear the same words used in distinct ways in the different poems crafted by their classmates.

Another way to help students debrief the Holocaust is by having them read No Time to Think. In this interview, a German professor describes his experiences living with Nazi policies from 1933 to 1945. His descriptions reveal how the Nazis were able to mold a citizenry with “new principles” through a gradual process of “hundreds of little steps,” where the crimes against Jews and others escalated in “imperceptible”  ways. In “No Time to Think,” this German man also touches on how concepts students have studied throughout this unit, such as fear, obedience, conformity, peer pressure, opportunism, and propaganda, influenced his behavior. Ultimately, he is left “compromised beyond repair.”  As a class, you can read “No Time to Think” aloud in its entirety, or you can select a few quotations from this text to read aloud. (See handout 4 for a list of suggested quotations.) A discussion after this reading might begin by allowing students to read off one word or phrase that stood out to them. You could also ask students to respond to the question, “When this professor was making his decisions about how to act (or not act), who do you think was most on his mind?” One interpretation of this reading suggests that the professor was mostly thinking of himself as the Nazis took steps to define, isolate, and eventually exterminate the Jews. In this light, “No Time to Think” reveals the implications of living in a society where the members only think about their own best interest. Other questions you might want to raise in a discussion of this text include: How do the ideas in this reading help explain why ordinary people participated in the mass murder of innocent people? What warnings does it include? To what extent are these warnings relevant today?

Drama can also be used to help students process and express their responses to learning about the Holocaust. In addition or instead of writing poems, you might ask small groups of students to create “tableaux” or scenes that represent their answer to the question, “How can we explain why so many people participated in the mass murder of innocent people?” Of course, there are many answers to this question, so you can inform students that their scene is only supposed to represent one way of answering this question. For example, a group might depict the concept of conformity or the idea of small steps.

Facing History teachers remark on the power of survivor testimony to help students process the horrors of the Holocaust. Sometimes, it is possible to have a Holocaust survivor speak to your students. Your local Facing History office may be able to help you arrange such a visit. Fortunately, many survivors have shared their stories on film. Facing History has produced a collection of films of survivor testimony. These testimonies can help students confront the horrors of the Holocaust in lieu of, or in addition to, the images and quotations included in handout 3. To make sure the content is appropriate  for your students, we recom- mend previewing any video before using it in the classroom.

In the video Remembering the Past: Sonia Weitz’s History, Sonia reads three poems in addition to “Yom Ha’Shoah.” Copies of these poems are included on handout 4. So that students can follow along with Sonia, you can distribute handout 5 to students before they watch the film. After she reads each poem, you can pause the film and spend some time interpreting the poem’s meaning and why Sonia might have decided to include this particular poem in her testimony. Students who are interested in learning more about Sonia Weitz’s story can read her memoir I Promised I Would Tell.

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