Auschwitz survivor Bernard Marks: ‘I tell this story so we don’t repeat it’
Three weeks before he died of natural causes on Dec. 28, Bernard Marks spoke out against police brutality before a packed audience gathered at the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors chamber.
Marks was a Holocaust survivor from Poland who as a young Jew was sent to Auschwitz with his family, many of whom were exterminated by Nazi soldiers. He saw first hand the brutality of police states aided and abetted by vast arrays of co-conspirators in silence.
Marks knew first hand how easily human and civil rights could be trampled by men in uniforms who were armed with the law and free from checks and balances to protect people from grotesque abuses of authority.
Did Marks literally compare the abuses of authority by Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones with the Nazi horrors that he survived. No, of course not.
But Marks was there at the Dec. 4 Board of Supervisors meeting on a cold afternoon, wearing his winter jacket, to remind younger generations they had to raise their voices to remind authorities that they were accountable to the people who elected them. Listed at 89 when he died of natural causes last Friday, but who was actually younger for reasons that will be explained later, Marks was a beautiful man of peace and justice.
Bernie Marks was a man of humanity despite personally witnessing the worst forms of cruelty committed on this planet in the last century. When Marks spoke about justice, his words carried the awesome power of righteousness that caused strangers to listen to him intently and cheer loudly when he finished.
“Just because you hand someone a gun, that does not give them the authority to shoot. Especially when the person is running away,” Marks said at the meeting.
Marks was speaking of in favor of maintaining a civilian review of the sheriff’s department in light of the fatal shooting of Mikel McIntyre, an African American man killed by deputies in May of 2017 on the shoulder of Highway 50. According to authorities, McIntyre struck a deputy in the head with a rock during a confrontation and fled. He was shot in the back several times and died on scene.
The former County Inspector General, one-time Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel, questioned whether deputies needed to kill McIntyre. Jones responded by locking Braziel out of his buildings, preventing him from doing his job. At that meeting attended by Marks, supervisors voted to toughen the language in county ordinances to prevent Jones from unilaterally obstructing the IG again. They may even sue him.
Jones used his Facebook page to con some of his supporters into thinking that “liberals” were trying to usurp his authority when the purpose of the IG was to make recommendations designed to help prevent the next fatal shooting.
Why would anyone be against that? But, there they were repeating Jones’ partisan talking points.
Marks was there to provide an informed rebuttal to misguided people who confused sincere questioning of authority with disrespecting authority.
He was there to remind people that all lives were precious and that black lives mattered. He had not only survived Auschwitz and Dachau. He had been a soldier in the U.S. Army. He knew that use of weapons in wartime was unavoidable, but that weapons wielded by authorities in communities like Sacramento needed to questioned and examined.
“If I were the one with a gun and someone strikes me on the head with a stone and I retaliate by chasing them with my gun and shooting them, I would be on trial for murder,” Marks said. Without an IG to recommend better tactics and introspection within the sheriff’s department, you have abuses of authority, Marks said.
“If the sheriff gets a ticket, he writes his own ticket and then he is going to be his own policeman,” Marks said. “And then he is going to tear up the ticket. That’s what he’s doing...What were talking about is transparency. What we’re talking about is checks and balances.”
Marks was applauded loudly. But this wasn’t the first time he had spoken against Jones. In 2017, Marks made national news by speaking out against Jones during a public meeting where Jones had invited Thomas Homan, then the acting director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I spend five and a half years in concentration camps,” he said. “I was there for one reason and one reason only. Because we picked on people....You stand up here, Mr. Jones, but don’t forget. History is not on your side.”
Marks was referring to ICE tactics of separating immigrant children from their families when seeking asylum or apprehended at U.S. ports of entry.
His comments were aired and quoted by CNN, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, the Times of Israel and several others because they were provocative. But they were also prescient.
“I have not compared (President Donald Trump’s administration) 100 percent to the Nazis, but we are on the way,” Marks told The Sacramento Bee in 2017.
“What concerns me is we are breaking up families,” he said. “We are turning justice upside down. We are starting with the Muslims. Who is next?”
Marks was born in Lodz, Poland. “I was actually born in 1932,” Marks told filmmaker Rachel Behrmann, who directed a short film about Marks for KVIE in 2012. When his family was rounded up by the Nazis Marks said his father lied about his age, convinced the authorites that he was born in 1927. Later, after the war, Marks’ birth was listed as 1929. The reason for deception was down to life and death.
“All children under the age of 10 were taken to Chelmno, an extermination camp (roughly 30 miles from his hometown) and gassed,” Marks said in the film, “66 Years.” “My father made me older so I could work and get a pass and food. In all the discussions I have with people, I tell them my father is the angel.”
According to a non-profit that Marks and his family established, Marks had roughly 200 extended family members when he was a small boy. By the end of World War II, only four of his relatives survived – his father, two cousins and an aunt. His mother and brother were exterminated at Auschwitz. Marks’ non-profit, named for his late wife Eleanor, invited students to write essays about the Holocaust. Marks believed that genocide happens when all of us accept predjudice, bullying and ignorance.
Marks understood the difference between 1930s Germany and the U.S. in 2018, and he didn’t confuse the two. But his family said he was horrified by the rise in hate speech and hate crimes .
“I think it broke his heart to watch the way immigrants and refugees were being treated,” Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento told Cassie Dickman of The Bee. “He knew what sort of lasting trauma happens when we separate children from their parents.”
Many people experience trauma but grow bitter because of it or keep it to themselves. Bernard Marks shared his story and felt compassion for others who were mistreated and abused by authority figures. He spoke out when he saw injustice and he wasn’t afraid, frail as he was, to point a finger at a sheriff from Sacramento and an federal immigration leader from Washington, D.C.
People cheered Bernard Marks, but he didn’t speak out because he was vain. He loved his fellow man and felt well-earned suspicion of any authority figure who disdained common people. He knew all too well when that disdain was taken to maximum extremes while good people looked the other way. Marks never could look the other way. He came out on cold afternoons, as he did on Dec. 4.
He won’t be there in 2019 when county supervisors follow through to make sure Jones doesn’t abuse his authority again. His voice will be missed, but the rest of us who care about social justice need to have his back. We need to remember his example and keep the flame of Bernard Marks alive when circumstances demand for good people to raise their voices.