Lesson Plan

What Neighbors Witnessed

Introduce students to the remarkable work of Father Patrick Desbois, who continues to reveal the uncomfortable truth about the realities of mass murder by the SS in the first years of the war.

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Enduring Understanding

Mobile killing squads massacred over one million Jews in the first years of the war and were aided by the neighbors of the victims.

Essential Question

  • 1Why were people willing to turn in their neighbors over to killers and revel in their death?


5 Min
Teacher's Note
Most students know about the somewhat isolated extermination camps and gas chambers, but few know about the Einsatzgruppen (otherwise known as the SS).

Ask your students if anyone ever heard that the Holocaust was a crime that happened in secret–that ‘no one knew’? How were people killed? Did other citizens have an idea about the horrors of the Holocaust as it was happening? Were they in favor of it?


25 Min

This lesson works best when complimented by the reading, What is the Holocaust by Bullets? by Yahud-in Unum. If you haven’t read it, please take the time to begin with the lesson plan ‘Operation Barbarossa’. If it is possible for your class to read this text prior to watching the video, ready your class by introducing them to its contents.

Then show this video interview with Father Patrick Desbois who researches sites of massacre.


20 Min

After the video, ask your students to consider the following questions by writing responses independently:

  1. Did you notice anything peculiar about the killing sites? If so, what did you see?
  2. What do you think about the people who are being interviewed by Father Patrick Debois?
  3. How does your perception of the Holocaust change, knowing neighbors were complicit and even interested in watching their fellow citizens be shot to death?

After this task is complete, ask your students to gather in groups of 3 or 4 to share their responses. Each group should also pick a person to serve as a representative for the group. Provide 10 minutes to let the groups discuss amongst themselves.

Then, initiate a conversation about these questions within the larger group, asking each representative to address the three questions that were previously provided. Moving question by question rather than group by group creates more space for generative conversation.

Finally, return to the perception that the Holocaust happened in secret. What do they make of this perception in light of this information?

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