You wouldn’t normally expect to hear a pin drop in a multipurpose room full of hundreds of fidgety eighth-graders nearing the end of a long school day on a warm, sunny afternoon.
But at Holmes Junior High School on Thursday, you likely would have.
For nearly two hours, in fact, all Holmes eighth-graders sat spellbound by the story of Holocaust survivor Bernard Marks, whose memories — of the beloved teacher who was hanged before his eyes in the Lodz ghetto of Poland; of his father lying to Josef Mengele on the selection ramp at Auschwitz in order to save his son’s life — not to mention his photos and videos, provided students a first-person account of what they normally learn only in textbooks.
This was the seventh time that Marks, 83, has visited Holmes, brought once again by teachers Jeanne Reeve and Lisa Mowry.
Over the years, the two teachers also have brought survivors of World War II internment camps to speak to students and — when budgets for such things were larger — took eighth-graders to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. It all fits in to the period students are studying in history, as well as the books they are reading, like Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
Marks, who lives in Sacramento, was 7 years old when the Germans invaded Poland.
He and his family would end up confined in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, before being sent to the concentration camps at Auschwitz and later Dachau. Of the 200 extended family members he had in his early years, only five — his father, two cousins and an aunt — would survive the war. Marks’ mother and brother were both killed in Dachau.
Marks calls his story “5 1/2 years living with the devil,” and its premise is a very simple one: This happened, it could happen again, and it could happen in the United States. In fact, he said, it did.
Talking about the internment camps that Japanese-Americans were sent to during the same war, Marks said, “the only difference between these concentration camps and the ones I was in is they didn’t have gas chambers and ovens to kill people.”
In telling his story, Marks started with the growing anti-Semitism that preceded the war in Poland — benches that only Christians could sit on and signs on restaurants and hotels saying Jews would not be served, escalating to the burning of synagogues and the warm welcome many in Poland provided the invading Germans.
He talked about former neighbors who switched sides, becoming captains in the German S.S., and the daily humiliation of Jews on the streets of Lodz.
He called it bullying.
“How many of you know people who are being bullied on this campus?” he asked students. “And what are you doing about it?”
Then he talked about how the bullying escalated to murder, choking up when he displayed a photo of a line of people about to be hanged.
“I can name you every one of those individuals on that platform,” he said. “The judge, the butcher … my teacher.
“I was standing right there as they filmed it, and they hung my teacher. Then they just started hanging more and more people.
“This lady,” he gestured at one, “she used to come to my school and read poetry. They said she was a spy.”
In August 1944, Marks and his family were transported from Lodz to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Marks’ father had managed to hang on to his son’s work permit, which showed him being two years older than he really was, and it spared him on the selection ramp at Auschwitz — a ramp upon which the infamous Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death,” decided who would be killed and who would be spared to labor in the camp.
The rest of Marks’ family wasn’t so fortunate.
“I will never forget that day,” he said.
He credited his father for saving his life time and again and getting him through the ordeal.
And he ended the presentation to Holmes students with a little levity. Asked by a student if he had a number tattooed on his arm like other Holocaust survivors, he told the story of how he and his father managed to avoid that particular indignity with a little ingenuity.
When it was his turn to be tattooed, Marks said, he told the German officer he had to use the restroom. He even got into an argument about it, going so far as to tell the officer if he didn’t let Marks go, he would find himself in a large puddle. He was given permission to go, as was his father, who was ordered to make sure he returned. But they never did, managing to avoid the tattooing day after day.
It was, Marks said, “just one of the games we played.”
Marks shares his memories in presentations all over the world and Reeve said she felt fortunate to be able to bring him back to Holmes again.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy