“What You Do Matters: Lessons from the Holocaust” is an educational partnership initiated in early 2017 between the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center and law enforcement in Arizona.
The program parallels the “Law Enforcement and Society: The Lessons of the Holocaust” initiative launched by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Prescott, Arizona, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. In 2006, Prescott officials attended the pilot program designed to educate law enforcement cadets in training about the critical roles that law enforcement and elected officials played during the Nazi occupation of communities across Europe during World War II and the inherent dangers of obeying an authoritarian regime.
The local program got its start when Bryan Davis, executive director of the Jewish History Museum, invited then-Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus to tour the Center in 2016. There, Davis shared with Magnus about the role law enforcement played in the Holocaust in Belgium and mentioned the “What You Do Matters” program.
“We formalized this partnership with TPD in the fall of 2016,” says Davis. “Since then, every graduating class of cadets — approximately four classes per year — have undertaken this training on the day prior to their graduation. This is the last thing they do as a class prior to graduating from the academy.” Since 2017, 389 recruits from Tucson and across the region have attended the class and tour, says TPD Training Captain Joe Puglia.
The classes teach cadets about the Holocaust, with a focus on the consequences when a government shifts the role of police from protecting people to a policy of abusing basic human rights. “My understanding from the TPD officers I have spoken with is that they truly appreciated the program and thought it helped them with their overall policing abilities,” says Rothschild.
“Following a morning of study and then an extended tour of the Holocaust History Center, the program culminates with time for the cadets to hear first-person testimony from a Holocaust survivor and to ask questions of that survivor,” Davis says. “The program also looks at 150 years of civic engagement, economic development, cultural enrichment, philanthropy, and all of those ways that Jewish people have contributed to our community.”
Walter Feiger is one of several local Holocaust survivors who speak to cadets in the program. He shares his personal story of survival but also of his post-war affiliation as an officer in the Haganah defense forces that fought for Israeli independence. He also was a sergeant in the Haifa Police Department and transferred to organize an anti-terrorism group. “So I have experience in law enforcement, too,” he says, which helps him connect with the cadets.
Besides his personal story, “I also tell them that when they are full police officers that when they engage with people on the street, they should be compassionate. Not everyone is a felon,” Feiger says. “After the story and questions, they are very attentive and all line up to shake my hand. It has an impact anytime a Holocaust survivor speaks, no matter where that is.”
“The reactions from the cadets run the gamut,” Davis continues. “We spend extra time helping the cadets understand the relationship between Nazi anti-Semitism and contemporary manifestations of anti-Semitism in the U.S. Additionally, we make connections between Nazi ideology and the histories and ongoing realities of racism and xenophobia in the U.S. It is important that the cadets understand these linkages so that they do not bracket off the Nazi era as an aberration in time that happened on another continent and rather make connections across various instances of state violence past and present.”
Officer Davina Bolinsky was a cadet in the last cohort, graduating at the end of February. She called the program an eye-opener. She thinks the program should be mandatory training at least every few years not only for new cadets but for all officers. Officer Donavan Vance, an cadet from the same cohort, agrees. “Tenured officers need to come,” he says. “Even extending it beyond law enforcement, it needs to be exposed to others.”
Vance says he knew the program would be in-depth and personal going in. “The reflections on the Holocaust definitely were mind-opening and is still nice to reflect on throughout the day. The program definitely taught me to treat people with respect and to talk through issues. Now I keep my own personal biases in check. Keeping an open mind was my biggest take-away from it,” he says of the program.
A former U.S. Marine, Bolinsky says she is the type of person that follows orders. “But for a bunch of officers to blindly follow orders just because it is the law and they are just doing their job,” as the Nazis did to the Jews in World War II — that is unacceptable, she says. “If my morals are not in line with that I am doing, it’s time to give my badge back.
“Everyone knows right from wrong morally,” Bolinsky says. “There was a poll among German officers about how many felt comfortable shooting someone just because they were Jewish or who wouldn’t but wasn’t afraid to see someone else do it. That affected me.”
Tucson Holocaust survivor Bill Kugelman, who spoke to her graduating cohort, also impressed her. “He is the happiest man I’ve ever met in my life. How someone could go through hell and think every day is a gift …”
“He definitely made an impression,” Vance says.
Instructors also shared the story of Phoenix-area survivor Gerda Klein, author of “All But My Life,” who was abandoned at the end of the war by the Germans with a group of Jewish women survivors, dehumanized, filthy, and in rags. “They saw an American truck approaching and a soldier asked if there were other women. Klein told him, ‘Yes, but you need to know I am a Jew.’ The soldier took her by the arm and said, ‘I am too.’ When they got to a facility, he held the door open for her. That is when she knew she would be all right. Now, every time I hold the door open for someone, I think of that,” Bolinsky says.
Today, Vance and Bolinsky are officers in field training with Operations Division West, Squad 5. Bolinsky says the program was definitely a good thing. “I don’t see sourness toward people just because they are who they are. I try to be kind to everyone. There are less fortunate people on the street dealing with unfortunate cards they are dealt. Some made poor choices. But, when it comes to the cards that were dealt to Jews, it wasn’t their choice.”