Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust explores the Role of The Bystander
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Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust explores the Role of The Bystander

Categories Holocaust 
Tags: antisemitism 
Book Title: Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust

Author: Eve Bunting

Illustrator: Stephen Gamell

Book Summary:

This unique introduction to the Holocaust encourages young children to stand up for what they think is right, without waiting for others to join them.

Topic(s) Addressed:

The Holocaust, Bystanders, Prejudice

Enduring Understandings:

  • Whether or not you are personally affected, stand up for what you believe. 
  • Those who fail to stand up to injustice of any type, allow it to happen.

Be Inspired:The ideas included are offered as starting points as you and your students explore, discover and live the lessons. Be sure to elicit and encourage student and parent participation, consistently reinforcing the value being addressed. Allow lessons to authentically develop and change based on engagement and interests.

Lesson Plan Components

For the educatorJewish Thought, Text, and Traditionsmore

To watch as neighbors lost their rights, their homes, their freedoms, their lives; to stand behind closed doors and drawn curtains and ignore what was happening to friends in the streets beyond; to witness the torture of friends and neighbors and never raise a voice in opposition; to say, "I never knew"; this was the world of the bystander. Raul Hilberg, esteemed scholar of the Holocaust, in describing the bystander, wrote, "They were not involved, not willing to hurt the victims and not wishing to be hurt by the perpetrators." Holocaust survivor Primo Levi explained that most Germans didn t know because they didn t want to know: “In Hitler s Germany, a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism.”

The truth, however, was that most of the population did know; how could they not know? Millions of people don t just disappear. How difficult, if not impossible, it would have been for the Nazis to murder millions if other millions had stood up and made their voices heard. Unfortunately, the general popula¬tion did nothing; the victims had few allies, and the Nazis gained power and control.

Jewish every dayIncorporate Jewish Valuesmore

Materials and resourcesmore


•Copy of book, Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust


Animated retelling of Terrible Things 

Sharing The Storymore

Introducing The story

Involve students in analyzing the cover of Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust. Have them make predictions about the content of the book based on the title, subtitle, and illustrations. 

Discuss what is meant by the word allegory.

Read the introduction to the book. Provide time for students to comment on it and its meaning.

Reading The Story

Critical Thinking and Discussion Read the story aloud, stopping when appropriate to address comments, clarify, predict and guide students’ understanding.
(For upper elementary audiences, 5th-6th graders) rather than read the book aloud, you may wish to have them view the video version, stopping as necessary to discuss text and illustrations.


  • How did the animals in the woods get along before the Terrible Things entered their lives? (They shared the woods in peace. They were content.)

  • How did the animals in the woods react to the Terrible Things when they first came for the creatures with feathers on their backs? (Most were relieved that they did not have feathers.)

  • How did the animals rationalize the selections made by the Terrible Things? (They created reasons for the animals being taken away. The birds were too noisy; the squirrels were greedy; frogs were lumpy and slimy; the porcupines were bad-tempered.)

  • How does Little Rabbit’s father respond to Little Rabbit’s question “Why did the Terrible Things want the birds?” (His father told him not to question the selection and just be grateful that the Terrible Things had not come for them.)

  • What were his father’s reasons for disagreeing with Little Rabbit when he suggested that they leave the woods because the Terrible Things might return. (His father said that the woods had always been their home and he believed that the Terrible Things would not come back for them.) 

After The Story


  • What were the Terrible Things?

  • Of all the animals in the forest, which was the wisest? Explain.

  • Why didn’t the animals in the woods band together to resist the Terrible Things?

  • Readdress the question as to why this story is an allegory to the Holocaust. What additional insights were gained?

Lessons for Today: 21st Century Terrible Things
Preceding the story, the author, Eve Bunting, included a brief introduction. After completing the book, re-read this introduction Discuss the terrible things she alludes to which can happen today if we take the easy way out and look the other way. Promote the idea of individual accountability and civic engagement.

  • Brainstorm a list of 21st Century Terrible Things threatening our lives and times today.

  • Group students, having each group select one of the events listed and create a multi-genre project to include (but not limited to) the following

o 5 facts about the “terrible thing”
o One or more picture/photographs to illustrate it
o Locate a poem, song lyrics, or quote that connects with the event
o What we can learn from this
o Action(s ) can we (as students) take

  • Have students share their findings in a creative way, such as:

o A digital “story” with illustrations and text
o A picture book
o A newspaper article with photo(s) and caption( s)
o A “call to action” that describes the problem and one or more ways to address it.
o Group choice

  • Provide for a larger audience with whom this work can be shared.


Explore, Discover, and More Extension and Reinforcement Activitiesmore

Researching the History
History, Language Arts
Fill your room with appropriate maps, news articles, encyclopedias, reference books and computers to help stu¬dents in their research . Provide time for students to look through the web sites and skim the books, focusing on “big ideas.” What did they discover? 
Suggested Holocaust Resources

Terrible Things: The Trailer

Creative Writing, Drama, Art , Music 
Create a new digital trailer for the book Terrible Things: An Allegory to the Holocaust to generate interest in students their age to read the book. Post on one of the school approved sites.

History Through Allegory 
History, Creative Writing 
Have small groups of students create a short story that might be considered an allegory to teach one of the lessons of the Holocaust as described by Yad Vahshem, the Central Agency for Holocaust Education: “Thou Shalt Not be a Victim”; “Thou Shalt Not be a Bystander, “Thou Shalt not be a Perpetrator. ” You may wish to compile stories into a class book.

Why Does Evil Happen?   
Civic Engagement, Language Arts, Art 
Much has been said about the role of the bystander in terms of the evils in today’s world. For example:
 • “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. “ Edmund Burke ( 1729-1797)
• The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. Albert Einstein (1879 –1955)

Have students find a quote that best supports their belief concerning the importance of taking a stand or the impact of not taking a stand against evil of any kind. Have them select a favorite quote, put it on poster paper (be sure to include the author) and write their own comments in terms of what the quote says to them and how it affects them personally. Encourage students to enhance their posters to make them visually appealing and eye -catching Display posters in classroom and common areas of the school.

Genocide Today
Current Events, Writing 
What can we learn from the Holocaust in terms of the way we lead our lives in today’s world? Have students use this as a prompt to write an editorial or opinion piece for a local newspaper or other publication regarding this in terms of genocide today. Encourage them to submit these for publication.

Ten Ways to Improve Understanding    
History, Civic Engagement 
Too often we see the world as “we” verses “them.” How do we get to a vision of a world in which we see one another in terms of our humanity? Brainstorm ways that students can help promote multicultural understanding in school and community. For example: invite someone from another culture to your home for dinner; each month highlight a culture; create an oral history library, etc. Compile the 10 most popular ideas into a pamphlet and distribute through the community (banks, stores, etc) and through social media.

Music Connectionsmore

Evidence of Learningmore

  • Student discussion and writing reflect an understanding of the ways in which bystanders have helped perpetuate hate and prejudice. 
  • Students “action plans” and follow-through reflect understanding in terms of individual and social responsibility.


Lesson Contributors

Dr. Miriam Klein Kassenoff and Dr. Anita Meyer Meinbach Adapted from their book, with permission): Studying the Holocaust Through Film and Literature: Human Rights and Social Responsibility (2004 ). Christopher-Gordon, Publishers, Inc. Norwood, A