Auschwitz survivor Bernard Marks: ‘I tell this story so we don’t repeat it’
Bernard Marks, the Holocaust survivor whose comparison of the Trump administration’s hardline stance on refugees and undocumented immigrants to Nazi regime received widespread attention, died Friday. He was 89.
He died of natural causes at his home in Sacramento, according to his daughter, Leann Gonchoroff.
“History is not on your side,” Marks told Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones at an immigration forum hosted by Jones in March 2017 featuring then-acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Thomas Homan.
Marks’ sharp comments were picked up by The Washington Post, Huffington Post, New York Daily News, The Times of Israel and The Independent (of London) among other publications.
“I have not compared them 100 percent to the Nazis, but we are on the way,” Marks later told The Sacramento Bee in an interview. “What concerns me is we are breaking up families. We are turning justice upside down. We are starting with the Muslims. Who is next?”
Marks was born September 17, 1929, and raised in Lodz, Poland. He survived both the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps as a child.
“I think it broke his heart to watch the way immigrants and refugees were being treated,” said Rabbi Mona Alfi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento. “He knew what sort of lasting trauma happens when we separate children from their parents.”
Both his mother and younger brother were slain at Auschwitz – a fate Marks was spared due to the efforts of his father.
Marks described his experience in Jewish ghettos and concentration camps in the short film “66 Years by Rachel Behrmann.”
Children living in the ghettos who were under the age of 10 were taken to extermination camps, Marks said. So his father lied about his age to keep him safe.
“In all of my discussions with anyone, I always tell them my father is the angel,” Marks said in the film. “Because he made me five years older, I survived the ghetto.”
The lie also saved his life when he and his family were eventually taken to Auschwitz.
Marks said he had been selected to go with his mother and brother to be exterminated. But his father provided documentation to an officer indicating that Marks was older than he was and was allowed instead to stay with his father in the camp.
Marks, who spent five-and-a-half years imprisoned by the Nazis, said he and his father would later learn that officer had been the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele.
He and his father were liberated from a Dachau sub camp on April 27, 1945, Marks said.
Out of his 200 extended family members, Marks was among the only five who survived the war, he wrote in a March 2017 op-ed for The Bee.
Sponsored by a family in Missouri, Marks emigrated to the U.S. alone in 1947. Eventually he was able to sponsor his father to come stateside as well. He finished high school in Kansas City, where he also went to college and earned his degree electrical engineering after serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
Marks eventually moved to the Sacramento area and worked at the Aerojet facility in Rancho Cordova for 15 years. He and his wife, Eleanor, had two daughters together, Gonchoroff and Sarah Davis.
“He had a good heart. He meant well, he tried to do good. He volunteered daily at the temple – doing things, whatever needed done, fixed things that needed to be fixed,” Gonchoroff said of her father. “He volunteered a lot. He was not a sit-idle man.”
As children, Gonchoroff said she and her sister remember their father in the garage rebuilding cars and engines. He was a Jaguar enthusiast and collected them.
Marks had also loved Western movies, Gonchoroff said, and when he was still living in Poland had always wanted to come to the U.S. to meet the actor Tom Mix, considered Hollywood’s first Western star.
“He was just dad, you know,” Gonchoroff said.
Alfi, who has known Marks for 20 years, described Marks as a good man who was a “fiercely patriotic American” and always helping people.
The Jewish community was also very important to him, Alfi said, adding that it was his Jewish values that guided his moral compass. In 2008, Alfi performed Marks’ bar mitzvah because he was prevented from having one as a boy due to his time in the concentration camps.
“I would be shocked if there were people at the temple who didn’t know Bernie,” Alfi said.
After his wife died in 2008, Marks started a Holocaust essay writing contest in her memory called the Eleanor J. Marks Holocaust Project, where each year students from sixth grade all the way through college write about heroes of the Holocaust. Students worldwide are welcomed to enter their essays.
Every spring, Marks went to Germany, Poland and other parts of Europe to speak to high school and college students about the Holocaust, Alfi said.
It wasn’t just that he wanted children to know about what the Nazis had done, Alfi said. Marks wanted people to know not to do it again.
“So we would learn the lessons from it,” Alfi said.
Alfi said the current White House policies regarding immigrants and refugees reminded Marks of how the U.S. closed its borders to the Jews in the 1930s. She said he identified with them and what they were going through.
“As a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, I take this responsibility seriously. Today, as an America citizen, I feel compelled to raise my voice when I hear echoes of my childhood years in our current political rhetoric,” Marks wrote in an op-ed for The Bee in April 2017. “The fear that immigrants (illegal and legal) in the United States must live with under the new administration’s approach is personal and familiar to me.
“I cannot forget the day when the Special Police came to the door of our home in Lodz, Poland, and took my father – a successful tailor and kind man – away.”