For eight years, Holocaust survivor Bernard Marks has been inspiring students at Holmes Junior High School with his memories of surviving the Lodz Ghetto and the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau.
During his annual visits, arranged by Holmes teacher Jeanne Reeve, Marks leaves eighth-graders spellbound by the stories of his childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland, including the Jewish ghetto and the death camps, from which just five of his 200 extended family members emerged alive.
He’s been doing the same at St. James School for the past couple of years as well.
“His presentation is powerful and compelling,” said St. James teacher Kathryn Baggarly. “He always makes an incredible impression on my students — they love him.”
But Marks also has inspired some of those students to go a step further and enter an essay contest he established six years ago in his late wife’s memory.
The Eleanor J. Marks Holocaust Essay Contest began very small, with just a handful of entries from youths at Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento. But in the past few years, the contest has grown exponentially, with students all over the world submitting essays, including a growing number of students at Holmes and St. James, all of whom were honored by Marks last week for their contributions.
In addition to receiving certificates from Marks — and in the winners’ case, a cash award — all of the students will have their essays published in next year’s edition of “Children’s Voices,” which will be the third collection of essays Marks has published.
The theme of this year’s essay contest was “Albanian or Italian Heroes of the Holocaust,” focusing on people in those countries who saved Jews between 1939 and 1945.
“The kids did great,” Marks said.
Holmes co-winner Breanna Lee wrote about Refik Veseli, an Albanian hero who dressed up a Jewish family in traditional Albanian clothing to conceal their identity and protect them from the Nazis.
St. James co-winner Kyla Burmester, meanwhile, wrote about Adele Zara, an Italian nurse who sheltered a Jewish family for the duration of the war.
Joining Lee as a winner at Holmes was Jake Purves, while five other students — Annie Cui, Camilla Jensen, Zachary Bergevin, Mengxuan (MX) Zhang and Supriya Saxena — will have their work published in next year’s book as well.
Co-winners at St. James were Burmester and Julia Palchak, and student Joshua Noll took second place.
Other St. James participants — all of whom will have their essays included in next year’s book, are seventh-graders Maggie Alvarez, Haley Sue Benson, Siena Mazza, Steven Noll, Ysabella Orendain, Jun Park, Samantha Shimada, Serena Shimada and Alexis Soloaga; and sixth-graders Jared Canio, Catherine Chow, Grace Harrison and Isabella Palchak.
Last year’s edition of “Children’s Voices,” which also features a number of essays by Holmes and St. James students, was released about a month ago and may be purchased by emailing Marks at [email protected]
Next year’s edition will be even larger, Marks said, because so many more students entered.
“It’s growing bigger and bigger and bigger,” he noted.
Though Marks reads all of the essays, he doesn’t judge any of them — that part he leaves up to a team of teachers, librarians, business people and others. Though for some essays coming from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, Marks does serve as translator.
The 84-year-old Sacramento resident admits it is a time-consuming task, especially given his other work. In addition to traveling around the world sharing his personal story, Marks also works at the Sacramento Public Library assisting patrons with genealogy research.
The library’s publishing arm — I Street Press — published the first volume of “Children’s Voices,” featuring Holocaust essays written from 2009 to 2012, as well as the second.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy