Museum Fellowship Lesson Plans

 
  quarried stones
Quarried stones at Mauthausen camp.
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.



Ethical Dilemmas in Teaching the Holocaust 
Linda Robinson
Country Day School of the Sacred Heart
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 

 

 
 

Overview

This lesson is most effective as the closing activity of a unit on the Holocaust. It presupposes that the class has been exposed to a variety of readings, both fictional and factual, about the Nazi regime, the concentration camp system, and the deprivations visited upon the inmates. The point of the lesson is to demonstrate the complexity of the moral issues all of us face as students of Holocaust history. The above photograph was purposefully chosen to accompany this lesson. In the film Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, when Wiesenthal is plucked out of the camp to visit the wounded Nazi soldier, he is shown working in this quarry at Mauthausen. It is a very memorable scene in the film.  

Objectives

  • To challenge the students to make their own ethical choices and to articulate their decisions 
  • To encourage the notion that there are no easy answers, but that all of us must work together to combat bigotry and hatred in our own lives
  • For teachers in religious-based schools, to use the ethical underpinnings of the school's religious teachings as guides to dealing with Holocaust issues 

Time Required

From two to three class periods of 45 minutes each

Grade Level

High School, Grades 10-12

Curriculum Fit

English, History, Religion or any combination of these

Procedure / Strategy

  1. Teacher shows the first twenty minutes of the video Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story. Before running the tape, prepare the class for the opening scene which depicts the U.S. army liberating Buchenwald at the end of WWII. Explain that Wiesenthal, a trained architect, used his artistic ability to keep a pictorial journal of the events he witnessed. Avoid telling students that he subsequently devoted his life to bringing Nazi perpetrators to justice. Stop the tape just when the dying Nazi soldier asks Wiesenthal to grant him forgiveness in the name of all of the Jews being murdered. 
  2. For the next twenty minutes, ask the students to write a one-page response to this question: “If you were Simon Wiesenthal standing in that hospital room at that moment, would you have forgiven the soldier? You must adopt a stance here - no fence-sitting allowed! Support your answer with the ethical lessons you have been taught at home and in school." 
  3. Collect the responses at the end of the class. Read them that evening and keep "score." How many students would have denied forgiveness; how many would have granted it? Surprisingly, regardless of the students' religious or non-religious traditions, their opinions tend to be equally divided.
  4. The next day, share the results of your poll. Return the papers, but do not reveal Wiesenthal’s decision. This usually generates a lively discussion. Then, show the next five minutes of the tape where students learn that Wiesenthal withheld forgiveness to the soldier, but grappled with his decision for years afterward. This is a good time to describe Wiesenthal's ultimate involvement in the capture of Adolf Eichmann.
  5. If you wish to continue this topic for a third class period, introduce some excerpts from Wiesenthal's book, The Sunflower, in which contemporary thinkers from every religion offer their responses. The variety of responses of the scholars in the text echo the responses of the students, thus validating the students' own reactions and reinforcing the concept of just how difficult these issues are, not just for high school students, but for highly educated, experienced adults. 

Materials / Resources

  • Doneson, Judith. "For Better or Worse: Using Film in a study of the Holocaust." Totten, Samuel and Stephen Feinberg. Teaching and Studying the Holocaust. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001. 
  • Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story. New York, NY : HBO Video, 1989. 
  • Wiesenthal, Simon et al. The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York: Schocken Books, 1997.  

Evaluation / Assessment

There are, of course, no right or wrong answers to this question, but I grade the in-class essays for the validity of the arguments and the eloquence of the writing.

Examples of Student Work

Excerpted portions of student essays written in class are given below. The students' immediate reactions were sought so no opportunity was given for revision. After viewing the first 20 minutes of the Simon Wiesenthal film, students responded to the question: “If you were Simon Wiesenthal standing in that hospital room at that moment, would you have forgiven the soldier?"

  1. As a Catholic, I have always been taught to forgive whoever genuinely asks for it even before they do. The Catholic Church and my parents have taught me that to carry a grudge around with me would be a very heavy weight. For these reasons, if I were Simon and the SS man asked me to forgive him for his atrocities, I would have known that I should forgive him; yet, I couldn’t or wouldn’t have.

    Catholic or Jewish, if I had experienced the Holocaust – the killing of my family, mass executions, cattle car deportations and more – I would know that the SS were the ones responsible for all of these things. The SS would have been the reason that I no longer had a business, a home or a family. They would be the ones beating, starving and torturing me to the point that I wanted to give up on life.

    The SS broke the laws of human relationships. Any forgiveness I had in me would go to fellow prisoners who stole from me or betrayed me to save their own lives; victims, not the SS. Why would I extend a positive quality like forgiveness, that comes from the depths of my humanity, to the very person(s) who tried to murder my humanity?

    Any church or synagogue teachings on forgiveness echoing through my mind would be drowned out by the gunshot sounds and pained moans of my fellow victims, drifting across the camp. Perhaps I should have forgiven: but what is should? The Nazis should not have done all they did. My life should not be in a concentration camp. There would no longer be any should.

    I hope that Simon forgave the SS man. It might have given him a sense of integrity and self-control that strengthened him. However, I know that I, put in that on-the-spot decision within the concentration camp, could not have done so.
    - Betsy Dougert
  1. It is almost impossible and beyond human nature to find the courage and strength to be able to forgive someone like the Nazi soldier; however, there is something unique about the situation and the Holocaust, something extraordinary about Jews and their history.

    I have come to the conclusion that the Jews are nothing less than God’s chosen people. They have endured the most horrific treatment but somehow it has not destroyed the Jewish religion. If I were in the Holocaust, I would not be able to think about forgiving God, let alone a Nazi soldier such as the one in the film. For some unknown reason, I feel as if Simon would forgive him because he is part of the extraordinary brotherhood of mankind called Judaism that has survived throughout persecution.

    In researching my Holocaust paper, I came across a quote from a survivor. He stated that never had he thought of revenge or a grudge because then he would be acting less than human. I could not believe what I read. After being treated like a disease and brought to the point of death by the Nazis, he still found it unfathomable to give the slightest bit of retaliation. This response must be from a higher power and a sacred energy that binds this group of people. With God’s help and the foundation of his morals, Jews, such as Simon, had it in them to forgive and to continue on to our present day.
    - Megan Clary
  1. If I were Simon Wiesenthal, I would forgive the SS man. After completing research and understanding what life was like for Germans under the Third Reich, I see that the people of Germany were treated miserably after the loss of World War I. Inflation, paired with political instability, made life very harsh. Hitler took advantage of a nation full of bitterness in its heart.

    Hitler manipulated the daily life of every citizen to reach his goals. There is no excuse for the Germans' failure to stand up for their fellow Germans; however, it would have been very difficult to do so. A frightening fact is that the German people loved Hitler. With his magnetic image and booming, encouraging voice, Hitler had a way to make people believe him.

    Hitler may have intoxicated the young SS man to the point where he viciously murdered his fellow men; yet, during this man’s final moments of life, his humanity comes back. It is wrong to kill. That knowledge of right and wrong is instilled upon us before we are born. This man saw the folly of his ways. Who am I not to forgive him?
    - Alice Ann Robinson

 

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