Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein had a critical lesson for prosecutors like me

Former President Barack Obama awards Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein with the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom on Feb. 15, 2011.
Former President Barack Obama awards Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein with the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom on Feb. 15, 2011.
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Arizona and our nation lost a true hero this week with the passing of Gerda Weissmann Klein, age 97.

Gerda, who was Jewish, was born in 1924 in Poland. She lost her entire family in the Holocaust and spent three years in Nazi hard labor camps. Only 120 of the 2,000 women in her camp forced into the Nazi death marches of 1945 survived. Gerda was one of them.

I first met her in 2012 when she was the featured speaker at the opening of the Anne Frank Exhibit in Chandler. A diminutive, beautiful woman, Gerda thanked the audience for being her “Keepers of Freedom.”

As my friendship with Gerda grew over the years, so did my awe of this survivor. She profoundly inspired me, and every person she met, through her story of endurance and hope.

A strong reminder about protecting rights

Several years ago, I was invited to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for a training titled “Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust.” When first approached about the trip, my reaction was: What does the Holocaust have to do with me and my job as a prosecutor?

I soon learned that the history of the horrific crimes of the Holocaust holds important reminders for criminal justice professionals in our country. As we investigate and prosecute crime, we must always protect the individual rights and liberties guaranteed in our Constitution.

Hilter alone did not murder six million Jews and the millions more slaughtered for racial, ethnic, and national reasons.

The Holocaust occurred because the foot soldiers, the law enforcement officers, the prosecutors, the judges, the teachers, the doctors, and many more signed and followed orders. They minimized their roles as inconsequential, justified their actions as for the good of the state, chose a path of least resistance.

They remained silent.

Our role is to seek justice, not convictions

Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein (left) developed a friendship with Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk (center) after the "What You Do Matters" program was created. Polk created the program to educate law enforcement officers and lawyers in Arizona about the Holocaust. Former Cottonwood Police Chief Doug Bartosh (right) was one of the program's original facilitators.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officers must always keep in mind that the ends never justify the means. We must speak up when we see wrongdoing within the system, remembering that our role is to seek justice, not convictions. Doing the little things with integrity matters to the big things we do.

For instance, a young prosecutor in my office was assigned a high-profile case involving a senior citizen swindled out of her life savings. One of the two defendants quickly pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Several months passed before the co-defendant was convicted and sentenced. Following his sentencing, our prosecutor heard this defendant say the first defendant was merely a patsy in the scam. Rather than ignore the comment and move on to the next case, the prosecutor reopened the investigation.

The first defendant, it turned out, was a homeless man begging on a street corner who was paid a small amount to cash the victim’s check. His involvement was significantly less than the 10-year sentence warranted. Moving swiftly, the prosecutor reopened the court case and asked that the defendant be resentenced to time served with an immediate release from prison.

We must never devalue others or look the other way

Acting with integrity comes from reminding ourselves that the Declaration of Independence states “all men are created equal.”

When any human is devalued and it becomes easier to look the other way, you get what Allied soldiers found when they entered Germany in 1945. They were shocked at the depths of human evil they found. The brutality of war could not prepare them for what they encountered.

General Eisenhower addressed his staff after visiting a subcamp of Buchenwald: “I want every American unit not actually in the front lines to see this place. We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least he will know what he is fighting against.”

Gerda Weissmann Klein survived the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust and emerged with a purpose. She dedicated her life to preserving the memory of the Holocaust for generations to come.

I can think of no better way to honor her life and legacy than to remember the lessons of the Holocaust and my role as a “Keeper of Freedom.”

Sheila Polk is a career prosecutor who has served as the Yavapai County Attorney for the past 21 years. She serves as a facilitator for the nationwide course titled “What You Do Matters: Lessons from the Holocaust.” Reach her at sheila.polk@yavapaiaz.gov.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: What Holocaust survivor Gerda Klein taught prosecutors like me