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America On Trial: Holocaust Bystander

Created by:
Barbara Langel
Greater Egg Harbor Regional

Kim Cramer
Greater Egg Harbor Regional

Pamela Lawler
Greater Egg Harbor Regional

Immigration in a Changing World

Grade Level:
9 to 12


The tragic events of the Holocaust have forever changed the way the world views its international social responsibilities. Genocide has been something that ethnic groups, especially the Jewish community, have resisted for the last 2000 years; but the world was divided into isolated communities with no global interaction for much of that time. By the 20th century, however, the world was linked economically, socially and politically. As a result, some argue that the Holocaust, including Hitler's Final Solution, could have been lessened or avoided if the global community, particularly America, had acted earlier and more boldly. This lesson is designed to explore whether or not America should have or could have done more to stop the Holocaust. It furthermore explores what the world knew from 1933, when the Holocaust began, until 1942, when Hitler issued his Final Solution. What did Americans feel about what they knew? What were the varying degrees of responsibility for the Holocaust held by important parties including the President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the State Department, and the American public?

Historical Context

The Holocaust began with Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Facing economic, social and political oppression, thousands of German Jews wanted to flee, but found few countries willing to accept them. America's traditional policy of open immigration had ended when Congress enacted restrictive immigration quotas in 1921 and 1924. After the stock market crash of 1929, rising unemployment caused isolationist sentiment to grow, and President Herbert Hoover ordered vigorous enforcement of visa regulations. The American public as well as Congress widely supported this move. The new policy significantly reduced immigration; in 1932 the United States issued only 35,576 visas. This number reflected America's pre-war support of isolationism, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Additionally, some Americans sincerely believed that the country lacked the resources to accommodate newcomers.

Throughout the rest of the war, the New York Times and most other newspapers failed to give prominent and extensive coverage to the Holocaust. During World War I, the American press had published reports of German atrocities that subsequently turned out to be false. As a result, journalists during World War II tended to approach atrocity reports with caution. The world discovered the full extent of the Holocaust only when the Allied armies liberated the camps in 1945.

genocide, immigration, justice

Goals and Objectives:

Following this activity, students will be able to:

1. Synthesize and analyze primary and secondary sources in order to understand the time period, identify key issues and formulate persuasive arguments about them.

2. Develop an understanding for the political and moral sentiments that led to the Holocaust.


STANDARD 6.1 (U.S. History: America in the World): All students will acquire the knowledge and skills to think analytically about how past and present interactions of people, cultures, and the environment shape the American heritage. Such knowledge and skills enable students to make informed decisions that reflect fundamental rights and core democratic values as productive citizens in local, national, and global communities.

STANDARD 6.2 (World History/Global Studies): All students will acquire the knowledge and skills to think analytically and systematically about how past interactions of people, cultures, and the environment affect issues across time and cultures. Such knowledge and skills enable students to make informed decisions as socially and ethically responsible world citizens in the 21st century.

STANDARD 6.3(Active Citizenship in the 21st Century): All students will acquire the skills needed to be active, informed citizens who value diversity and promote cultural understanding by working collaboratively to address challenges that are inherent in living in an interconnected world.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Computer with internet access

Supplementary Materials 1-4

Details of Activity

PART 1: Defining Key Terms (20-25 minutes done for homework):

Begin by asking students to define the following terms for homework, drawing on Internet or other research: ethnicity, genocide, Holocaust, atrocity, SS St. Louis, Hitler, FDR, Nazi, Final Solution, Zionism, Bermuda Conference, Wagner-Rogers Bill, War Refugee Board, International Rescue Committee, State Department, bystander, indifference, prosecution, defense, jury, and witness.

The following day in class have students share their responses in small groups, adding to their own definitions as the group shares.

PART 2: Introduce the Challenge (20 minutes):

Divide the class into 6 groups, each group will represent one of the following: the prosecution, the defense team, the jury (this can be a larger group than the others), or one of three different witnesses: the Executive branch, the State Department, and the American people. Explain that the class will be putting each witness on trial for negligence. Although the three trials will take place simultaneously, the verdicts can be different for each witness depending on the testimony and evidence entered during the trial.

PART 3: Research for Trial (20 minutes in class, finish for homework for another 30-45 minutes):

Each team collaborates on responsibilities for research and presentation using the witness list (Supplementary Materials 1) and the primary source documents (Supplementary Materials 2). The prosecution and defense teams will use the provided attachments to gather their arguments and create questions for key witnesses. The witnesses will use the documents to prepare their stories and testimony. Those representing the Executive Branch should focus on primary source documents 1-5 (Supplementary Materials 2) and examine President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's responses and actions. Witnesses representing the State Department should concentrate on documents 5-6 (Supplementary Materials 2). Witnesses representing the American public should review the script from the film The Holocaust: The Untold Story (Web Link 1, to view the script of the documentary click on Documentary Info. on the right side of the screen, and then on View the Script, pdf). The jury will preview all of the documents as evidence.

PART 4: Collaboration and Preparation for Trial (40-45 minutes):

Teams should use the trial procedure handout (Supplementary Materials 4) to help prepare and organize their opening and closing remarks, questions, and testimony. The jury group should use this time to continue to preview all of the documents.

PART 5: Trial (40-45 minutes):

Following the trial procedure handout (Supplementary Materials 3) the class will put the Executive Branch, the State Department, and the American people on trial.

PART 6: Reflection (20-30 minutes to be completed for homework):

For homework, the students should assess the responses of the President, the State Department, and the American people to the violation of human rights that occurred during the Holocaust. All students, not just members of the jury, should assess the level of guilt, if any at all, of each defendant. This should be done in three well-written paragraphs.

Practice and Reinforcement

Examine other historical and current genocides such as the Armenian genocide, or the various genocides in Africa (search under genocide on Web Links 2-3) Assign students to research the event through newspaper articles or historical documents on line; each student should find one document or article supporting U.S. intervention to end the genocide and another opposing it. Have students bring these pieces to class and compile a list of reasons for and against government and military intervention to prevent mass genocide.


Jonathan D. Sarna and Jonathan Golden, The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation TeachServe, National Humanities Center, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/jewishexp.htm

or see Supplementary Material 3

Deborah E. Lipstadt, America and the Holocaust, Modern Judaism, 10:3 (Oct. 1990): 283-296.

Web Links:
"Holocaust: The Untold Story"

U.S. Holocaust Museum

Houston's Holocaust Museum

Supplementary Materials




For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here