For seven 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.
Invited by Holmes teachers Jeanne Reeve and Lisa Mowry, 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.
Now, Marks has inspired some of those students to go a step further and enter an essay contest he established five 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 three Holmes eighth-graders whom Marks honored last week for their efforts.
Skyler Mikalson, Rachel Harriman and Darby Maguire received a surprise visit at school on Friday from Marks, who gave each a certificate and Mikalson and Harriman cash prizes for their essays. All three students will have their essays published in the upcoming second volume of “Children’s Voices,” which will include nearly 150 essays written by students around the world.
The essays this year centered around the theme “Unsung, Unknown Heroes of the Holocaust.”
Mikalson was named a runner-up for his entry, which focused on Frank Foley, a British intelligence officer stationed in Berlin who gave out more than 10,000 visas enabling Jews to escape Germany before the war.
Maguire wrote about Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist credited with saving more than 1,000 Jews by employing them in his factory during the war, while Harriman wrote about Marks himself.
“She thought I was a hero,” Marks chuckled on Friday.
For her essay, Harriman received special recognition.
“Your essay was so good the judges selected it for a special award,” Marks told her.
While Marks himself does not serve as a judge — he has 29 people, including librarians and teachers, to do that — he does read every essay as it comes in. For some coming from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he also serves as translator.
The 83-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, and will publish the second volume due out in late 2013 or early 2014. That second volume will include the essays written by Mikalson, Harriman and Maguire.
“They will be published authors,” Marks noted.
And while many students submitted essays that were done as part of a class project, the Holmes students worked individually on theirs.
“Our students volunteered and did it on their own time,” Mowry said.
Next year’s essay contest will get underway in early January and is open to any student in grades 6-12. To learn how to enter, contact Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone interested in purchasing “Children’s Voices” can do so by contacting Marks or visiting the B’nai Israel gift shop, 3600 Riverside Blvd. in Sacramento.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at email@example.com or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy