Home / In the Spotlight / Lessons from the Holocaust for Victims of Bullying


Research into many case studies of school shootings by professors from Wake Forest and Clemson has suggested that bullying occurs frequently, that about 75% of children experience bullying at some time in their school lives, but that shooters seemed often to be particular targets for relentless bullying.(1) Schools have re-doubled efforts to prevent bullying, however,
what may be overlooked in these admirable prevention efforts is the long-term impact of bullying on its victims. According to Dr. Mark Dombeck, even after the bully has been apprehended, punished, suspended, or otherwise silenced, the victim still suffers—with low self-esteem and poor self-image, with anger, depression, the failure to trust others, and increased difficulty in personal relationships. In his article, Dombeck also discusses the possibility of recovery from these effects:

People who have been bullied have been fundamentally dis-empowered. Their feelings of personal safety have been violated and their belief in their own competency and adequacy has been brought into question. Such people may exist in a state of perpetual avoidance and paralysis. In order to feel good about themselves, they will need to break through that paralysis and engage in something that helps them feel like they are gaining in power. Not power over others, but power over themselves. No other people can do this for them. Each paralyzed person has to decide to empower themselves.

There are a million avenues one can go in to fulfill an empowerment goal, the one that is right for any given person being a function of that person’s talents and opportunities. Anger can be productively funneled into a competitive endeavor (such as education, business, sports, gaming or some other means of becoming excellent) or a creative expression.
In teaching about the Holocaust, especially with younger children, teachers sometimes compare Adolf Hitler to an oversize bully, one who is exceptionally mean and who “picks on” millions of people who are at his mercy. Of course the scale of his actions is so extreme, the horrors he set in motion so terrible, the devastating effects on his victims so overwhelming, that the comparison seems very limited, even though it may help children understand genocide a little or even be useful in a school anti-bullying campaign.
Where this analogy may be more useful is in looking at the results of bullying: the anger, depression, social breakdown. How does one repair the effects of bullying?

The film Defiant Requiem, the story of a concentration camp near Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia and is now the Czech Republic. At Terezín, more than 100,000 Jews from many countries in Europe were interned by the Nazis from 1941 to 1945. Many died of starvation, disease, and forced labor. One would expect to find, during the years of this brutal incarceration, only anger, depression and despair.

Instead, prisoners gathered after long workdays to put on plays, to make music, to prepare and listen to lectures on an extraordinary range of subjects. Teachers supervised art classes and artists, forced to work during the day for the Nazis, worked late into the night on their own, recording the sights of the Terezin. One musician, Rafael Schächter, used a piano and a single copy of Verdi’s Requiem to train 150 Jewish singers to interpret this Catholic Mass for the Dead. Its hymns of “Libera me” and “Dies irae” expressed respectively a passionate desire for freedom and the belief that a Day of Judgment would bring the wrath of God upon the Nazis. They were given the opportunity to sing the Requiem in a concert attended by the Nazis in a unique act of defiance.

Defiant Requiem captures the horrors of the Third Reich, but it also shows the power of the human spirit to sustain itself in the creation of art and beauty under the most egregious circumstances. The prisoners at Terezin empowered themselves, in Dombeck’s sense, by using their talents for creative expression, staving off the despair that one would expect to find amid such horrors. In their work, they found hope, joy, companionship, support and strength to continue. As such, they provide a model for all children, but especially for those who have taken the brunt of bullying and who need to find a way to empower themselves again.

(1) See Mark R. Leary, Robin M. Kowalski, Laura Smith, and Stephen Phillips, “Teasing, Rejection, and Violence: Case Studies of the School Shootings” at http://www.sozialpsychologie.uni-frankfurt.de/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Leary-et-al.-2003.pdf