Look Back on Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders & Rescuers


place/state: Hamburg
SCHOOL: Gymnasium Kaiser-Friedrich-Ufer
TEACHER: Margit Maronde-Heyl
age group: 14 years and older
subject: History

learning activities
Changing perspectives
Creating local historical references
Interpreting eyewitness reports
Interpreting historical images
Interpreting historical texts

Anti-Jewish boycott
November 1938 pogrom
Nuremberg laws

Students examined the social structure of Nazi Germany and the persecution of Jews in the period between 1933 and 1938. Using photos, texts and local history, the students studied the actions of perpetrators, victims, helpers, and bystanders. While considering those groups' differing perspectives, the young people learned about the possibilities of independent decision-making.

Methodological and Instructive Considerations

The goal of this teaching unit consists of following the persecution of the Jews from the various perspectives of the people, then living, that took part in the events of that time. In order not to get lost in the diversity of reactions and behaviors, one should attempt to structure what has been learned in a clear description and careful generalization. The students developed various schemes during this process, which in the course of the lessons clearly became more differentiated. [see Documents]

The multidimensional approach used here is intended to make students aware of the choices in behavior available during the National Socialist era. This awareness can lead them to a more realistic assessment of people's lives during that time, allowing for a more developed approach to the history of their own country.

To me, the advantage of this way of learning is that the stories of the perpetrators and bystanders are the focus, not just those of the victims. However, the goal is not to make the students feel guilty and dismayed, but to enable them to develop their own standards by which to understand and judge the behavior of the people of that era.

Through this approach to the history of the persecution of the Jews, the students are given the opportunity to identify with a wide range of attitudes and behaviors. Through learning about various perspectives, they discover that it was possible to make individual decisions on how one would act in certain situations. The period from 1933 to 1938 is especially suitable for understanding this concept, since at that time the individuals concerned – perpetrators, victims, helpers, and bystanders – had more opportunities for independent decision-making than later in the Nazi dictatorship. The ability of the students to identify with the people of that time is important in providing a humane perspective.

This approach should be supplemented with an appropriate range of sources. The students will thereby be brought face-to-face with photos and texts by which the actions, reactions and behavior of perpetrators, victims, helpers, and bystanders can be dealt with by theme. [see Documents].

Development of the Lesson

In lessons one through four, I decided to work mostly with historical photographs as opposed to texts or a film. This was done in order to call the students' attention to many different points of view and, most of all, to oblige them to be aware of exactly what they were seeing. Students frequently have come across photos as "illustrations" of particular events; too often, they no longer look at them closely because certain photos evoke an automatic recognition and classification response ("Oh yes, that's what that is all about"). Such photos preserve a certain symbolic value, i.e. they do not only stand for the story of the person in the picture, but come to symbolize an entire event. This has been the case with many photos relating to the Holocaust. We no longer inquire about the life and fate of the individual, of whom the photo is often all that remains, but instead use the image as a metaphor for the fates of all Jewish victims. I am referring, for example, to the photo of the young Jewish boy standing with raised arms in the Warsaw Ghetto.

In order to help students become more sensitive to this problem and make it clear that we can become aware of unaccustomed perspectives by getting involved with the story of a person or event in a photo, I selected two photos that had nothing to do with National Socialist themes. They did, however, demonstrate the reflex that allows us to reject personal involvement with the depicted subject matter. The first photo [see Reference: Contact Information] shows a starving child sitting alone in the sand in Africa. It is the kind of photograph everyone has seen often enough to immediately think: "Hunger in the Third World – poor children." Quickly, we busy ourselves with something else.

The second photo [see Reference: Contact Information], an enlarged detail of the first, responds to just this reflex. The viewer is drawn back to the photo and forced to consider its story, the circumstances under which it was taken, and his/her own thoughtlessness and lack of involvement.

After completing this process, the students were instructed to try to come up with questions that might give them a point of reference to use in viewing historical photographs.

They then had the opportunity, in groups or with a partner, to choose one photo out of a wide variety of different pictures from the period 1933-1945 and describe it. In order to sharpen awareness of the subject, prevent generalizations, and avoid influencing the interpretation of the viewers, none of the photos were given captions [see Photos].

The photos had been taken at very different times, allowing students to approach the various stages of the persecutions. In choosing the photos, I carefully selected those in which one can recognize something about human behavior. People are shown taking other human beings into custody and degrading them; others are shown having to suffer this treatment, and almost always there are people in the photos watching what is happening with serious or smiling faces. These bystanders also provide an answer to questions about what common citizens knew at the time regarding the persecution of Jewish citizens. Another criterion for the selection of further photos was to choose not only Nazi propaganda photos, but also personal "remembrance photos," such as those of German soldiers in Poland or of an informant. After the students interpreted the photos, they were given the original captions for each photo and asked whether and how the captions changed anything about their interpretations.

The first differentiation among the groups (perpetrators, victims, bystanders) became clear through the descriptions of the photos. Work with textual material would refine the students' perceptions of these groups in upcoming lessons.

I had chosen appropriate sources to point out different reactions among the population [see Documents]. Through these texts, the students were to learn that the groups were not exclusively passive victims, active perpetrators, or inactive bystanders; in fact, there was a wide spectrum of behavior in all three groups. The texts elucidated these different human reactions in actual situations and showed that those involved were not bound to a specific course of action from the start.

I chose the texts to present variety in the types of written material (reference materials, leaflets, autobiographical material, and literary texts) as well as a direct, regional connection (in this case to Hamburg or Eimsbüttel). This enabled the students to identify their own environment and allowed them to perceive the events more vividly, almost as if they had taken place in their own backyards.

Using visual and textual materials, the next two lessons (fourth and fifth lessons) were devoted to working on the reactions of individual groups to the April Boycott in 1933. This boycott represents the first significant event in the persecution of the Jews. It was the first clear public display of the way the Nazis had behaved toward Jews from the beginning, as well as how the non-Jewish population behaved toward their Jewish neighbors.

Because the students had widely differing ideas about the Jews in Germany, as well as their citizenship and their exclusion (through the Nuremberg Laws, for example), I decided to add a class period (sixth lesson) on the discussion of two laws, Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums, of April 7, 1933 [Law to Re-establish the Civil Service] and the Nuremberg Laws of September 15, 1935. This focus also fit in thematically at this point, as it underscored how the measures of the boycott, later legally implemented, undermined the status of Jewish citizens.

The following class period (seventh lesson) illustrated, through the example of Kristallnacht, how far the exclusion of Jews had gone by 1938. The students worked on a topic that is the subject of an annual debate: what form and content should be used for the annual remembrance of those who were killed? An exchange of opinion on this period of German history can be facilitated through offering different kinds of material as long as this process is tied to real people and situations.

By using local events, literary sources, diaries, and autobiographies, teachers and students can give identities to the unknown victims, perpetrators, and bystanders.

A timeline (1933-1945) was provided at the end of the study unit (tenth lesson), as the students wanted an overview of the entire period relating to the persecutions and exterminations [see Documents]. The use of timelines raises questions about the didactic principle of reductionism. The phrases by Hilberg used in the timeline (definition – dispossession – concentration – extermination) were expanded upon in class discussions about persecution and mass extermination.

Experiences Relating to this Lesson Plan

At the end of the study unit, the majority of students stressed that this approach allowed a clearer understanding of the social situation during the persecution of Jews from 1933 to 1938. The students' conceptions about the behavior and reactions toward the persecutions of both Jews and non-Jews became livelier and more differentiated in the course of the lessons, as the following text by the student Thomas I. confirms:

"I give the text about the Eimsbutteler Jew as an example. In this instance, one can observe many different ways of behavior. It begins with the 'Israel Leather Shop' on the way to school, whose display window is adorned with 'Purely Aryan' signs. This group is difficult to place in the scheme [see Documents] of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, etc. On one hand, it is a bystander, which does nothing against what is happening; on the other, it is concerned with rescuing itself. In addition, it considers itself a potential victim.

The Eimsbutteler Jew who is discussed in the text actively defends himself against the boycott, as he doesn't quietly take notice of the flyers, but throws one at the feet of the SS man. This perpetrator reacted by brutally beating the Jew. Then one of the crowd of bystanders isolated himself by becoming a rescuer, pretending to the SS man that he wanted to continue abusing the Jew. The SS man 'turned the Jew over' to him. The rescuer pulled him into a nearby house and helped him by giving him some money for a taxi and a recommendation to emigrate.

One can observe many types of reactions in this example; there are victims, perpetrators, fellow-travelers, observers, and rescuers."

The students had serious discussions on issues of social and individual choice during the National Socialist era. There are indications that the educational introduction to the subject opened the door to a long-term analysis of the students' own places in society and the individual choices that are made as a result.

Limiting the materials to refer only to German history from 1933 to 1938 proved successful in this thematic area. Additionally, focusing on the beginning of the persecution and the progressive intensification of the anti-Semitic measures leading up to 1938 provided an impetus to discuss the recurring question, "How could this persecution and extermination of the European Jews have occurred?" During the discussion of the April Boycott, for instance, one of the students asked, "The German citizens probably were scared to help the Jews around 1940, but why didn’t they do it earlier? At the beginning no one would have done anything to them."

The students' intense discussions and their experiences with the photos and texts show that the multidimensional approach enabled them to go beyond both what was typical for their age group and the restraint toward the theme that they had demonstrated when questioned at the beginning. They became involved with it in a different way.