California Forum

Holocaust survivor remembers past, worries about America’s future

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents seek immigration fugitives at a home in Atlanta in February.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents seek immigration fugitives at a home in Atlanta in February. The Associated Press

I am a Holocaust survivor, an 87-year-old man who experienced the graphic inhumanity of Auschwitz and Dachau and the infamous ghettos of the Nazi regime. I am also a proud American citizen who came to this country as a refugee in 1947 and believed the words of Emma Lazarus that welcomed me to its shores: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

For many decades I have lived my American dream, as a husband, a father, an engineer and an educator who works with young students to help them learn about the Holocaust so that the lessons of that tragic era are never forgotten. Much of my life has been dedicated to this mission because, one day in the not-too-distant future, the voices of my generation will only echo from the past.

I never imagined the day would come that I would feel compelled to raise a warning to the people of my adopted homeland about a danger that is all too familiar to me, a threat to democracy and to the character that defines America.

I am fearful when I watch the slow chiseling away of civil rights, tolerance, compassion and acceptance. I am saddened when I see this country’s pride in being a nation built on the belief, trust and hard work of immigrants challenged by the rhetoric of racism. I hear the tones, I feel the subtle threat, I see the nascent actions being taken by our new administration. After all, I have personal experience with the rise of the most shameful event of the 20th century.

I see men and women who wear the badge of law enforcement – most joined this dangerous profession to protect people from harm and serve their communities. Now, not unlike their counterparts in 1940s Poland and Germany, they are being asked to step up to an “enhanced” job description and round up illegal immigrants. I hear the divisive speech used to sway public opinion and leverage latent fears of people whose culture and language are foreign. I feel the liberation of opinions and actions that were once socially unacceptable in the America I know and love.

I am, of course, aware that the United States has experienced several bouts of exclusionary periods in which people were unjustifiably harmed: Chinese, Japanese, African Americans and Native Americans, and my fellow Jews among them. All these movements were sanctioned and led by government proclamation. Every country has its dark history, but it’s the great nations that embrace the commitment to never repeat dark history.

Now, as one of a vanishing cadre of Holocaust survivors, I am compelled to speak out, to ask Americans to raise their voices. To not stand silently by and watch as executive orders erode the essence of this nation’s character and creed. I remember how silent people were, how quietly complicit neighbors and community were as the Nazi occupation of my home in Lodz, Poland, slowly progressed into what the world knows today as the Holocaust.

I urge Americans to not think for a moment, “It can’t happen here.”

I spent my childhood doing brutal manual labor in concentration camps, surviving on one meal a day of weak broth and dry bread. But I was among the fortunate. Before the Nazis came there were 200 people in my extended family. When we were liberated by the Allied troops, only five were left among the living. All this, because we were Jewish. Different. We were scapegoats for a movement fueled by hate and discrimination.

I ask people of conscience to study the past and to envision the future of this extraordinary country. Democracy is only as strong as the people who define it, form it, and sustain it with their actions. The America I know must rise to its promise of being “The land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Bernard Marks of Sacramento, who died in 2018, was a survivor of the Holocaust who founded the Eleanor J. Marks Foundation, publishing essays of schoolchildren about victims of the Holocaust. The Bee is republishing this essay, which originally ran in March 2017.