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Holocaust Studies: I

The Literature of Resistance and Social Justice



This lesson plan is designed to help students cultivate a compassionate, primary-document based sensibility that ties them to one another and their own culture, while grounding them more profoundly in historical literary thinking from works written around the world and over thousands of years on the subject of human moral conflict. 




This lesson plan incorporates the concepts of moral dilemmas and various forms of resistance, with literature studies in a ten-week long curriculum.  This is NOT primarily a holocaust and genocide lesson plan, because the topic is taught more specifically in social studies and history classes during longer and more substantial units.  What can appropriately be referred to thematically are issues relating to:


  • Choices between law and conscience, law and religious beliefs, and law and loyalty to a friend or family member;
  • Various forms of resistance to moral wrong
  • Study of existing literary responses to moral and ethical conflicts
  • Creating literature as a response to conflicts of conscience
  • The paradigms of individual choices, and group responsibility, and how these are reflected in various arts, primarily literature


This study unit is designed as a second-semester lesson plan consolidated with a broad spectrum of works.  Tenth grade is an appropriate time to introduce “literature of resistance” and genocide studies for several reasons:  The students have World History this year, and should be more familiar with historical events – by second semester, they will be studying the Armenian Genocide and World War II;  the tenth grade literary canon typically includes “Antigone” and “Julius Caesar,” two works that relate specifically to issues of personal conscience versus public or political values; and at the age of about sixteen, the students are finally able to balance a variety of conflicting ideas in their minds, juggling complex concepts and realizing that sometimes problems that are individual, interpersonal, social, and political really have no good answer – an issue dealt with constantly in literature. 


Standards Met:  California State Board of Education Reading/Language Arts Framework for Grade 10


1.0 Word Analysis, Fluency, and Systematic Vocabulary Development
          1.2 Distinguish between the denotative and connotative meanings of words and interpret the connotative power of words.
     2.0 Reading Comprehension (Focus on Informational Material)
2.3 Generate relevant questions about readings on issues that can be researched.
          2.5 Extend ideas presented in primary or secondary sources through original analysis, evaluation, and elaboration.
          2.8 Evaluate the credibility of an author’s argument or defense of a claim by critiquing the relationship between generalizations and evidence, the comprehensiveness of evidence, and the way in which the author’s intent affects the structure and tone of the text.
     3.0 Literary Response and Analysis
          3.12 Analyze the way in which a work of literature is related to the themes and issues of its historical period (Historical approach).
     1.0 Writing Strategies
          Research and Technology
          1.3 Use clear research questions and suitable research methods (e.g., library, electronic media,   personal interview) to elicit and present evidence from primary and secondary sources.
     2.0 Writing Applications
          2.4 (c) Write persuasive compositions: Clarify and defend positions with precise and relevant evidence, including facts, expert opinions, quotations, and expressions of commonly accepted beliefs and logical reasoning.
     1.0 Listening and Speaking Strategies
          1.2 Compare and contrast the ways in which media genres (e.g., televised news, news magazines, documentaries, online information) cover the same event.
          1.6 Present and advance a clear thesis statement and choose appropriate types of proof (e.g., statistics, testimony, specific instances) that meet standard tests for evidence, including credibility, validity, and relevance.
          1.10 Analyze historically significant find the rhetorical devices and features that make them memorable.
          1.13 Analyze the types of arguments used by the speaker, including arguments by causation, analogy, authority, emotion, and logic.

All of these standards are employed during the course of this unit, but I have italicized the ones that receive particular emphasis.



Classroom Modification:


The classroom is ordinary except that across the front of the classroom, up high, four large, separate placards state:   VICTIMS – PERPETRATORS – RESCUERS – BYSTANDERS.  These are referred to continually during the unit.


 Works of Literature Included:


Both of these plays feature critical action in the face of injustice by individuals, groups, and a vast public body


Antigone, Sophocles


                This unit includes extensive introduction into the history of ancient Greek theater, not relevant for discussion here.  Also includes broad instruction on this particular play, including the Oedipus Trilogy.  However, of note is that instruction includes viewing first 26-minute segment of “Greek Fire:  Tragedy & Architecture” (Volume 3) by Mystic Fire Video (ISBN: 1561762288) which beautifully demonstrates classical thought about the difference between private and public responsibility, how that is portrayed in theater, and the impact of the visual, performing and literary arts on people either in groups, or individually.

                “Antigone” is taught in various ways by instructors.  My own page of web support is found at: and a webquest relating to the theme of Fate (whether the characters and individuals in general control their own destiny, an issue of critical importance to tenth grades) is found here:

                Core to studying this play as a political work is understanding how it is used to this day in production throughout the world (clips of play reviews are posted)

                Discussion is given regarding the role of artwork as a possible mode of political expression.

Students identify how the following fit into each of the characters or groups in the play fit into the four categories of victims-perpetrators-rescuers-bystanders categories.  Particular attention should be given to the various aspects of the chorus/antichorus, and the modes of performance which originally included contrapuntal movement across the stage, and what that would have signified.



Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare


                Includes instruction in the era and personal history of William Shakespeare, including viewing PBS Video of “The Worst Jobs in History” for the Elizabethan era, which demonstrates a man making choices about whether to perform the duties of hangman (a public office).  Also shown is Volume II of “William Shakespeare: His Life & Times” (ISBN: 1057742-1558) which dramatizes the impact of the Black Death on individual and family life, private terror and how it affects public behavior, individual public theatric choices and their political impact, and how people behave when confronted with stark, shocking choices.  Significant is their impact and expression artistically in the works Shakespeare was writing at the time, and their social consequence (Shakespeare was regularly shut down). 

                I am not going to describe in detail a lesson plan for “Julius Caesar”, as it is taught individually by instructors.  My own page of web support is at and a broad selection of Shakespeare resources are listed at

                Where did the following fit in the categories of victim-perpetrator-bystander-rescuer in this play and its performance:  each of the characters, the playwright, the performers, the public?

                This is the point at which to introduce the Drs. Edelmans’ four-part chart of Types of Resistance (worksheet to be designed) and have the students identify which characters participated in which forms of resistance to Julius Caesar, and when:


Table 1



Armed Resistance

Unarmed Resistance

Group Resistance






Individual Resistance








Immediately following study of these two plays:


A study of resistance through art and literature, including the following:


2)        Showing Attenborough’s “Gandhi,” in order to further discuss the concept of various forms of political resistance.  Satyagrahi, eg civil resistance, is described in detail and shown in succeeding and failing.  “Antigone” the character is sometimes described as a prototype of civil resistance, and this is an issue up for discussion.  Does she fit the elements required under Gandhi’s definition?  In what ways does her resistance qualify, and in what ways not?  What about the other characters? 

a.        Where do they fit in the Table 1 categories of behaviors? 

b.       Who exactly are the rescuers-victims-perpetrators-bystanders?


3)       Introduction:  Showing “Mosh,” a ten-minute propaganda video created by Eminem in order to spur voter turnout in the 2004 presidential elections.  The students normally view this and study it during the fall semester (when elections typically occur) as part of a propaganda unit. 

a)       They re-view the video with particular attention paid to “the wall,” a prominently featured element in the video; copies of Picasso’s “Guernica” are distributed individually to students; a color copy is projected at the front of the classroom and the scope and intention of the painting (to publicize the atrocities at Guernica) is discussed.  Students describe visual archetypes, propagandistic/motivational elements, and its impact (if there was any).  Is this propaganda?  Is it resistance?  What is the difference?

b)       Distribute a “parody” of Guernica, as copies of this famous painting are frequently  made to protest various wars and injustices.  Why do people continue to make artwork like this?

c)       Students are given an opportunity to make their own parody of this particular painting, or possibly a different political cartoon (my students do a great deal of political cartooning and are familiar with visual elements of persuasion).  Which elements will they retain?  Why?


4)       Negative ethnic images in cartooning (a continuation of the previous semester’s propaganda unit).

a.        Contemporary images in political cartoons, here and abroad

b.       Historical, especially in relation to holocaust and genocidal actions

c.        Show  “Selling Murder,” and discuss the various propagandistic techniques.

d.       Follow up with Disney’s “The Making of a Nazi” – Both are propaganda.  Is either one also resistance?  Why or why not?

e.        Who controlled and “owned” the images being made, and distributed the films, and why is this significant?


5)       Literary responses – Students to study the historical background, literary purpose as work of resistance, and cultural significance of the following works as acts of social justice:

a)       “1805 Oration of Red Jacket” by Red Jacket (Sa-Go-Yey-Wat-Ha).  Often studied as a work of persuasion, this oration to Christian missionaries has more features of a work of spiritual resistance.  Students are to study history of Red Jacket, the reason for the Oration, its mode of delivery, and its purpose.

                                                                Realistically, Red Jacket was not going to persuade anyone of anything here.  The missionaries could not, would not, and                                                                             never have ended their fervor to convert.  Red Jacket could declare some straightforward arguments, pointedly made, about                                                                     the abhorrently offensive nature of missionary zeal to blot out Native American life, culture, and religion.  A hundred or so                                                                       years after the first Puritan arrivals to North America, Native American population was reduced by NINETY PERCENT!                                                                           And after the defeat of the British (and Red Jacket had fought on their side), the author of this work surely knew that there                                                                   was no turning the tide on the things he hated most about the European-American explosion into Native American territories                                                                              -- Death, Disease, Intermarriage, loss of Language, Culture, Religion, and Land. 

                                                                If we consider that Red Jacket's other venues of defense and retaliation were limited, expression of resentment, and contempt                                                                  for missionaries (even if couched in polite language), is a legitimate and honorable form of resistance.


b)      “The Slave Auction” by Frances E. W. Harper, also often studied as a work of persuasion.  An African-American Maryland poet in the years just before the Dred Scott Decision helped ignite the Civil War.  Students are to study the role of such works in promoting abolitionist causes. Frances Harper uses short-lined

                           iambic rhymed couplet quatrains, including second-person form “ye” which would have been formally poetic
                           and archaic       even
                           in the 19th century, to address a “high culture” middle-class and upper-middle class white readership.  She would almost certainly have 
been trying to motivate this audience to sympathy for the abolitionist
                           cause, since higher and more educated social classes are likelier to have an impact politically both in terms of influence
                           and funding. 
                           Initial stanzas reflect on a different feminine relationships, in a situation set to motivate the reader’s empathy:  daughters as “young girls ….defenceless”; the “mothers ….[who
                           see] their dearest children sold”; a wife  who “gaz’d on the
                           husband of her youth”; husbands and children together, “gathered in that mournful band.”  It is a dramatically auditory poem, loud with “stifled sobs of deep despair,” “bitter
                           cries” of mothers weeping while their children are sold, contrasting with the stark silence of a woman who “gaz’d
                           … with anguish none may paint or tell” while “frail and shrieking children” are “rudely torn
                           away” from their families, with hardly any visual detail of the scene – and I find that particularly compelling.  Instead of having the picture illustrated for us piecemeal, we are left with the haunting
                           grief of broken human hearts, and our own imaginations fill in the faces of the relationships (perhaps loving, familiar ones)
                           that Harper leaves undrawn. 
                           The critical auditory components of this poem and the family relationships compare interestingly with the next poem:


c)       Yitzhak Katzenelson’s “Song of the Murdered Jewish People,” compared poetically and purposefully to “The Slave Auction.” 

The poet hauntingly contrasts joyous song, praiseful prayer and childish playfulness against scenes of death and devastation, while listing with intimate immediacy the names of family members and their relationships, along with the various places where they are being taken to be killed.  His expectation is the complete annihilation of the Jewish people (cf Red Jacket’s oration).  Like The Slave Auction, a highly auditory work, rich in sensory detail.  Much more personal and intense than either of the previous two works.  As a work of resistance, how does this poem function?  Red Jacket knew he would not persuade anyone of anything, but stood up oto make a positive statement of the dignity of his people to worship as they were inclined.  Harper’s work was a portrait promoting abolitionist sentiment.  Did Katzenelson really expect that the Jewish people would be extinguished, in 1943 (the Holocaust was just revving up)and the war was two years from ending)?  What functions did this poem serve for the poet?  For the readers at the time?  For people who read it now?


6)       Concluding compare and contrast essay, a research-based, primary-document supported work:  “What constitutes resistance against evil.”  Students proceed to write essays using Jane-Schaeffer method of theme and thesis development, organization, literary support, conclusion, and citation. A multi-week effort that continues into the following quarter’s theme.  Particular attention paid to the purpose of each of the literary works studied this semester.



Resources:  Text of “1805 Oration of Red Jacket” can be found at

                        Text of Frances E.W. Harper’s “The Slave Auction,” can be found half way down the page at

                        Biography of Frances EW Harper at

                        Biography of Yitzhak Katzenelson at

                        Poem “Song of the Murdered Jewish People” at

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