Opinion Columns & Blogs

This Holocaust survivor’s message against Trump is more urgent than ever. Will we listen?

“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 … After all, I have personal experience with the rise of the most shameful event of the 20th century.”

These words from Bernard Marks, published in The Sacramento Bee in 2017, resonated with me as I grappled with how to respond to the Trump administration’s increasingly vicious attacks on Latinos.

The latest outrages:

Imprisoned children deprived of toothbrushes and beds, left to linger in their own waste

Threats of mass raids and deportations

A shocking photograph of the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his baby daughter, Valeria, clinging together after they drowned in the Rio Grande

Marks, a Sacramento man who survived the Holocaust, died in December at 89. He spent his final years speaking out with fierce moral clarity against a resurgence of the same hate and authoritarian tactics that preceded his imprisonment in Auschwitz and Dachau.


As debate raged over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the term “concentration camp,” I remembered Marks’ words.

Nothing in modern times compares to the Holocaust, but the term concentration camp predates it by decades. One Cambridge Dictionary definition for the term is “a place where large numbers of people are kept as prisoners in extremely bad conditions, especially for political reasons.”

This describes what’s happening in a Texas camp where “a chaotic scene of sickness and filth” was unfolding, according to The New York Times.

“Children as young as 7 and 8, many of them wearing clothes caked with snot and tears, are caring for infants they’ve just met,” The Times reported. “Toddlers without diapers are relieving themselves in their pants.”

“There is a stench,” one observer told The Times.

Yes, there is – and it’s not just the stench of children imprisoned in filth. It’s the stench of authoritarian racism making one more try in 21st-century America.

The question is not what to call the camps. The question is how to respond to this ongoing campaign of racial hatred and dehumanization against Latinos and others. Trump and his enablers constantly force us to confront new horrors designed to terrorize minority groups and divide the country.

“The dangers of fascist politics come from the particular way in which it dehumanizes segments of the population,” writes Yale Professor Jason Stanley in “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.” “By excluding these groups, it limits the capacity for empathy among other citizens, leading to the justification of inhumane treatment, from repression of freedom, mass imprisonment, and expulsion to, in extreme cases, mass extermination.”

Unless you’re Native American, you’re a child of immigrants. How can we see what’s happening to these children and not see ourselves? In an economy reliant on immigrant labor, how can anyone justify the frenzy of torment Republicans are inflicting upon them?

Yes, Republicans. Trump’s executing the policies, but the Republican Party’s complicity in this ugly persecution will stain it forever. When Trump is finally out of power – and when Republicans scramble to distance themselves – we must hold them accountable.

Until then, citizens who care must find a way to summon the passion and intensity Marks displayed as he raged against the rise of American fascism in his final years. Every person has power. Even small steps – a call to an elected official, a speech at a public meeting or a donation to an immigrant organization – can make a difference.

The question Marks raised for all of us is: How long do we bear witness to such horrors and injustices before we stand up, speak out and call them what they are? His answer was clear: Don’t look away. Speak out. Act.

“The problem is that we do not like to remember the past,” he said in an interview with ABC 10. “I want the people to understand that we must be very vigilant of what’s going on around us. The words that we use on the Holocaust Remembrance Day is those words: ‘never again.’ Those words must be embedded in our brain … that history repeats itself.”

Gil Duran is California opinion editor at The Sacramento Bee. This Sunday, The Bee will republish Mr. Marks’ 2017 opinion piece, “Holocaust survivor remembers past, worries about America’s future.”
Related stories from Sacramento Bee