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LESSON

One Survivor Remembers: Bullies & Bystanders

This lesson reminds students that they, too, make choices about whether to stand aside—or stand up—when someone else is being maligned, bullied or harassed. In standing up, we honor not only the other person’s humanity, but also our own.
Grade Level

Objectives

Students will:

  • Explore the role of being a bystander and its moral implications
  • Understand the plight of the Jews in the Holocaust
  • Draw thematic parallels between the history of the Holocaust and modern-day bigotry, prejudice and persecution
Essential Questions
  • In what ways is the past about me?
  • How can the perspective I have about my own life experiences be viewed as part of the larger human story across time?
  • Is conflict inevitable?
Materials

This lesson is an excerpt from the accompanying teacher's guide to One Survivor Remembers, a teaching kit built around the incredible life story of Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein.

 

Framework

People involved in historical conflicts are often placed into one of two categories, “victim” or “perpetrator.” Yet Gerda Weissmann Klein’s story reminds us that there is an important third choice: the bystander. Many, many people witnessed Gerda’s experience during the Holocaust—and did nothing, or otherwise denied her humanity. A select few reached out and showed kindness to her. This lesson reminds students that they, too, make choices about whether to stand aside—or stand up—when someone else is being maligned, bullied or harassed. In standing up, we honor not only the other person’s humanity, but also our own.

 

Suggested Procedures

Step 1
As a class, discuss: Who were the victims and who were the oppressors in One Survivor Remembers? Ask students to write responses on the board.

Next, create definitions for “victim” and “oppressor.” Possibilities include: 

Victim—one who is harmed, killed or made to suffer by another: a victim of the Holocaust.

Oppressor—one who keeps another down by severe and unjust use of force or authority: Hitler was an oppressor. 

Explain that in addition to the roles of victim and oppressor during the Holocaust, there also was the role of “bystander.”

Bystander—a person who is present at an event without participating in the central actions of the event. Bystanders sometimes actively or passively condone or condemn the central actions by their words or actions or, alternately, by their silence or inaction.

Step 2
Individually or as a whole class, read the three scenes from All But My Life and answer the following questions:

1. In these scenes, who were the bystanders?

2. Did these bystanders harm or help others, or were they neutral? How so?

3. How might different actions of the bystanders have changed the events in each scene, or changed Gerda’s experience?

Step 3
Deepen the discussion of the role of bystanders. Discuss the spectrum of violence, both physical and verbal. Help the students understand that choosing to say or do nothing in certain moments can, in itself, perpetuate or even encourage violence. Allow students to draw examples from the film, the excerpt handout and their own lives.

1. What happens if we are silent when we witness an act of prejudice, injustice or violence against another person? What happens when we do nothing in the face of such things?

2. Was there a time when you were a bystander to violence, whether physical or verbal, such as a classmate being bullied? What did—or didn’t—you do? What do you wish you had done differently?

3. How might our roles or choices shift, given the context or situation? Are we, as individuals, more likely to be subject to, participate in or ignore some forms of bullying over others, for example? Do I feel a greater need to speak up, or be quiet, if someone is being bullied because of a characteristic that I share with him or her (e.g., weight, race, sexual orientation, religion)?

4. What forces, internal and external, keep us from taking action in such moments? Are some more excusable than others? What can be done to diminish the forces that keep us from taking action?

Step 4
Introduce the following quote:

“Thou shalt not be a victim.
Thou shalt not be an oppressor.
But most of all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”
— Yehuda Bauer, Jewish historian

Ask students: “Why do you think Bauer presents being a bystander as the worst role to take?” Then ask, “Do you think it’s worse to be a bystander or an oppressor? Why?” Let students wrestle with the complexities of this question.

Extend the inquiry further by exploring these words from Holocaust survivor Elie

Wiesel: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.

Ask students: “Why do you think Bauer presents being a bystander as the worst role to take?” Then ask, “Do you think it’s worse to be a bystander or an oppressor? Why?” Let students wrestle with the complexities of this question.

Extend the inquiry further by exploring these words from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Step 5
Share a narrative about an incident in which you—an adult in the school—were a bystander and did nothing.

Introduce the Bystander Scenes from Our School handout. Ask students to write for 15 minutes to describe incidents they’ve experienced.

Over the course of the next few days, read a scene each day and brainstorm how someone could have actively and peacefully addressed the situation. Keep a running list in class of strategies you’ve identified to avoid being a silent bystander.

 

Extension Activity

Researchers have confirmed that children who experience bullying and/or cyberbullying are more likely to consider suicide than children who do not. When Gerda receives letters from classrooms, she says, “I always have one or two letters that ask me about suicide. It is usually framed as ‘my best friend has the problem’ kind of thing, but I have gotten enough of them to know it when I read it.”

There was a time during her ordeal, in the summer of 1943, when Gerda thought of suicide. And she remembered once promising her father never to do “that.” She even felt the touch of her father’s hand on her neck in that moment. Today, when students ask Gerda about their own thoughts of suicide, “I beg young people never to give up. Do not make a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Bullying has serious consequences for its victims, including suicide ideation, consequences bullies and bystanders rarely consider. Invite Gerda’s words into your classroom and take a moment to remember children who have lost their lives—Carl Walker-Hoover, Phoebe Prince and others—when bullying overcame them.