The World of The Bystander: “The Hangman”
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The World of The Bystander: “The Hangman”

Categories Holocaust 
Tags: Poetry 

Lesson Summary:

The Holocaust, The Role of the Bystanders

“The Hangman,” a poem by Maurice Ogden, focuses on a town in which people are hanged one by one by a mysterious hangman. The citizens of the town stand by and rationalize each victimization. This powerful poem (and video) gives us a glimpse into the mind of the bystander and highlights the value of individual and social responsibility.

Enduring Understandings:

  • One of the three most important lessons of the Holocaust as described by Yad Vashem, The Center for Holocaust Studies in Jerusalem, is “Thou Shalt Not Be a Bystander” 
  • Each of us has a moral responsibility for taking a stand against hate and prejudice.
  • Bystanders, those who watch while evil happens and do nothing, fuel the flames of hatred and discrimination.

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

Background information:

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, an 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 popula­tion did nothing; the victims had few allies, and the Nazis gained power and control. How very different the outcome would have been if those who knew did talk, and those who did not know asked questions, and those who asked questions demanded answers.

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Materials and resourcesmore


Note to Teachers:

One of the primary concerns of educators teaching the history of the Holocaust is how to present horrific images in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Graphic material should be used judiciously and only to the extent necessary to achieve the objective of the lesson. You should remind yourself that each student and each class is different and that what seems appropriate for one may not be appropriate for all.

Students are essentially a "captive audience." When you assault them with images of hor­ror for which they are unprepared, you violate a basic trust: the obligation of a teacher to provide a "safe" learning environment.Try to select images and texts that do not exploit the students' emotional vulnerability or that might be construed as disrespectful of the victims themselves. (Studying the Holocaust Through Film and Memoir: Human Rights and Social Responsibility , Kassenoff and Meinbach, page xxiv.)

This lesson is as an integral part of Holocaust Education, however, it can be taught on its own (with little modifications) as a lesson dealing with the topic of “the bystander.” 


Discuss the concept of “The Bystander.” Consider using this document to supplement and deepen you and your student's understanding of this concept.

Journal Writing
  • Have students write a journal entry about a time they have observed “bystander” behavior. Provide time for students to share their journals either in large or small groups.


Introduce students to the poem, “The Hangman.” 
  • Ask students to make predictions as to how this poem connects with the concept of “bystanders.” 

Critical Thinking and Discussion:  Read the poem aloud, stopping when appropriate to address comments, clarify, predict and guide students’ understanding.
  • Discuss the meaning of the following line: '"He who serves me best,” said he, “Shall earn the rope on the gallows' tree."' In what ways might the people have responded to the Hangman's question, "What concern have you for the doomed?" From where did the Hangman get his power?
  • Describe your feelings after viewing and reading this poem. How did it affect you?
  • How would you connect the message or theme of this poem to your own life?

“The Hangman” is an excellent vehicle for a discussion of a moral dilemma: after reading the poem, involve students in reading it together (you may wish to divide the class into 4 groups, each reading the appropriate numbered portion of the poem together.
  • List the facts and issues presented, summarizing events, the people involved, and possible alternative actions the main character could have taken.
  • Individually decide which alternative the main character should follow and describe (in writ­ ing) at least three reasons for your decision.
  • Find other students who have selected the same alternative as you and focus on the most important reasons for taking this position.
  • With your entire class, discuss the various alternatives selected and the reasons for it.
  • Reevaluate your position. Think about the facts, issues, and reasons discussed and then indi­ visually record what you think the main character should do and the most important reasons for taking this position. Compare your views now with your views before. Are there any changes? Explain.

Summarizing Activity:

Comparing Poem and Video: Involve students in watching the video of “The Hangman.” Which version did they prefer? Why? Did the video version change their perceptions in any way? If so, how? 


Explore, Discover, and More Extension and Reinforcement Activitiesmore

Reflections in Writing:
Add students ideas to those listed below and involved them in one or more of the following: 

  1. Write a poem for today s world in which bystanders give power to perpetrators, such as bullies and gang leaders. 
  2. Write a lesson for life you learned from “The Hangman.” Find creative ways to disseminate this message, illustrate it, and display it in the classroom. Example of a slogan: "Stand up for what s right, even if you re standing alone." 
  3. Write and deliver a 1-minute speech to inspire and galvanize the community to stand up to the Hangman. 
  4. What is the main theme of “The Hangman” ? Reread the poem and look for the various images and symbolism used to deliver its message. Write a paper that explores the use of these images and symbolism. 
  5. Compare the video and print versions. Which was the most impressive, effective, or thought­ provoking? Write a commentary that explores this question. 

Researching the History:
Fill your room with appropriate maps, news articles, encyclopedias, and reference books to help students in their research. For example:
Heritage: Civilization and the Jews
The Longest Hatred
There Once Was a Town

Historical texts:
The World Must Know by Michael Berenbaum (1993)
A History of the Holocaust by Yehuda Bauer and Nili Keren (1982)
Holocaust: A History by Deborah Dwork and Robert Van Pelt (2002)

Web sites:
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: comprehensive summary of the Holocaust, timelines, maps, photographs, glossary, and survivor testimony
The History Place: Includes a comprehensive timeline of the Holocaust and and historical information
The Holocaust Chronicle : Includes more than 800 pages of Holocaust history

  1. Research ways in which people, individually and collectively, in Eastern Europe remained bystanders during the Holocaust years. What effect did the Nuremberg Laws have in promot­ ing bystanders? Write an editorial that gives your impression of such bystanders and use support from the research you did. 
  2. How did ordinary men and women living in Germany in the early 1930s react to the Nazi policies and philosophy? How did the Church react? 
  3. Research other times in the history of this country in which Americans were bystanders to a social or political issue. Select one such event. On an index card, list the event, the date, the public response, and the effect(s) of this response. Put your index card together with those created by others in the class to create a timeline or a bulletin board to illustrate the effects of being a bystander. 

Lessons for Today:
Student responses can take many forms: video, artistic, poem or other writing format or involve students in a Grand Conversation:
  • Think about a time in your life when you might have been considered a bystander. For example, perhaps you witnessed discrimination towards another, or you have knowledge of a classmate who made threats to another student. In view of what you have learned about bystanders, if you were to witness a similar even, what would you do differently? 

Music Connectionsmore

Evidence of Learningmore

  • Student discussion, writing reflect an understanding of the ways in which bystanders have helped perpetuate hate and prejudice.
  • Student questions and research evidence growth in understanding in terms of individual and social responsibility.


Lesson Contributors

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