Faces of the Holocaust: The Upstander

Meet Elsa Holzer, one of 200 non-Jewish women who led the only open protest against the Holocaust in German history. While most intermarried couples divorced, these women protested to save their Jewish husbands from Auschwitz when Goebbels ordered the arrest of their husbands and children. The protest quickly grew to over 1,000 women, who refused to stand down in the face of insurmountable odds against the SS to save their husbands from death. After watching the video, the prompts below can be used to engage students in thought-provoking discussion about what they have learned.

  1. The Yad Vashem website describes how “bystanders were the rule. Rescuers were the exception.” Historical scholars have analyzed the common characteristics in the righteous to identify what made them different. One theory was Samuel Oliner and Pearl Oliner’s identification of the altruistic personality, in which rescuers felt empathy and connection to others. Another theory was offered by Nechama Tec, who said the righteous had a commitment to the helpless and a willingness to act independently despite external pressures. What are the character traits you identify among upstanders?
  2. A Biblical principle is “do not stand [idly] by your neighbor’s blood.” In which situations should you be an upstander? Are you ever obligated to be an upstander?
  3. Watch this Ted Talk on starting a movement. Are upstanders leaders or can they also be followers?
  1. Utilize our film guide about the Upstander video.
  2. Ethics of our Fathers 2:6 says, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Create a list of who in history or current events has exemplified the ideals of this quote and discuss how they were successful in making a difference.
  3. The Righteous Among the Nations must fit the following criteria: (1) active involvement of the rescuer in saving one or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation to death camps, (2) risk to the rescuer’s life, liberty, or position, (3) the initial motivation being the intention to help persecuted Jews: i.e. not for payment or any other reward such as religious conversion of the saved person, adoption of a child, etc., and (4) the existence of testimony of those who were helped or at least unequivocal documentation establishing the nature of the rescue and its circumstances. Students should read the FAQ page of the Yad VaShem website and this article on Jewish rescuers not being included as among the Righteous, and write a reflection on whether they think the criteria should be maintained or adjusted. Questions could include if Jews should be included, if people who resisted the Nazi Party but did not actively rescue Jews should be included, and if people who saved Jews during other periods of Jewish history should be included.
  4. In Exodus 12, Joshua and Caleb refuse to lie about Israel, despite the pressure of the other ten spies. Students should read this article about their actions as upstanders and write a dvar torah based on this story.
  5. Students should be split into groups. Groups should each be assigned one Righteous Among the Nations encyclopedia entry from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, including Raoul Wallenberg, Varian Fry, Gino Bartali, and Martha and Waitstill Sharp. Through a Jigsaw activity, students will be exposed to several Righteous Among the Nations and then be asked to discuss how their stories are similar and different.
  6. Students should read about the Asch Experiment, in which Solomon Asch observed how people often conform to the majority group. They should then write a letter to other students about the potential dangers of conformity and peer pressure.
  7. An upstander during the American civil rights movement was Rosa Parks. Imagine you had an opportunity to interview her. Write down what your conversation would look like and which questions you would ask her.
  1. On April 15, 1967 in New York City, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great conflict.” Why do you agree or disagree with his statement?
  2. The stories of upstanders during the Holocaust are inspiring. What are the lessons you want to incorporate into your life?
  3. Think about a time when you witnessed something bad happening. For example, you may have seen another student being bullied, a student cheating, or a student being rude to a teacher. How did you react? Would you still choose to react that way and why?
  4. Have you ever felt tempted to give in to pressure, even when it was not the right thing to do? How did you feel after?

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