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Learning from the Holocaust


To understand and learn from the role America played in the Holocaust.


Obtain a copy of the PBS documentary America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference.


Most histories of the Holocaust present the United States as a liberator of concentration camps and a champion of freedom. To its credit, the United States did play this vitally important role, but it also aided and abetted Nazi Germany in several key ways:

  1. It closed its borders to Jewish refugees.

  2. It set a precedent for legalizing racial discrimination (in fact, Hitler cited America's Jim Crow laws and racist immigration policies in justifying Germany's treatment of the Jews).

  3. It permitted anti-Semitism within its own borders (for example, in limiting the number of Jewish students admitted to college).

This darker side of history is covered in a scholarly and moving documentary called America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference (part of "The American Experience" PBS series).


After discussing the background topic above, introduce the videotape as follows:

"This documentary examines the role America played in the genocide of the European Jews -- something that isn't often covered in American histories of World War II. Normally, America is portrayed exclusively as the liberator of Jews who were in Nazi death camps. In this video, though, you'll see that the truth is more complex.

As you watch, you may feel a sense of outrage that America could have been so apathetic in the face of Nazi atrocities. Ask yourself, though, where that apathy came from. Just as Stanley Milgram's research on obedience suggests that German actions grew out of normal tendencies that all of us have, ask yourself whether the American response also grew out of normal human tendencies. We can discuss this question further after the film."

Show the videotape (runtime: 80 minutes) and follow it with a class discussion that includes these questions:

  • Did anything in the video surprise you?

  • To what extent were Americans responsible for the Holocaust?

  • How hard did America try to save the Jews from being exterminated by the Nazis?

  • If the war had gone on a few more years and the European Jews were exterminated, would most Americans have grieved?

  • Why isn't the information in the video more widely known?

  • How relevant is the video to current affairs?

  • If a new Hitler came to power today, how would America respond?

  • Did the film make you think of recent cases in which genocide was committed while other countries stood by?

  • How closely have you followed recent cases of genocide? Can you describe any to the class?

  • Have you done anything to help prevent or end modern-day cases of genocide? Why or why not?

  • Could there be another Holocaust?

  • What does genocide look like -- that is, if you were a fly buzzing around randomly in Nazi Germany, what would you see?

To the last question, students often mention concentration camps, gas chambers, crematoria, and mass graves. Although these elements of the Holocaust are painfully vivid, it is worth noting that genocide involves a more mundane side in which people wake up in the morning, go to work, have dinner, and look the other way when atrocities occur. That is, from the random perspective of a fly, most scenes in Nazi Germany would not look very different than daily life today in the U.S. and other industrial nations. Any complete understanding of genocide must therefore include this uncomfortable truth and include the psychological underpinnings of genocide present in all people.


To instructors using Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination: If students have already read Section VI, one effective way to introduce the PBS video is by asking: (1) whether students previously knew about the relationship between Hitler and Henry Ford, and (2) why this relationship is rarely covered in history textbooks.

If your students took the Baseline Survey: You may want to discuss the Baseline Survey items regarding: (1) student images of the Holocaust, and/or (2) student knowledge of Henry Ford.

After the video, you might also consider discussing how psychological research on bystander intervention helps to explain America's "apathy" toward the plight of European Jews.


Be sure to stress that there is a difference between understanding behavior during the Holocaust and condoning it. Even though genocide -- like prejudice itself -- is partly the result of normal human tendencies, that does not excuse it or make it less reprehensible. The greatest value of understanding the link between genocide and human nature is that it affords greater protection against future tragedies.