It was Bernard Marks’ turn to comment at an immigration forum in Sacramento on Tuesday night. The 87-year-old approached the microphone wearing a sticker that read “Keep American families together” and read from a piece of paper:
“When I was a little boy in Poland, for no other reason but for being Jewish, I was hauled off by the Nazis. And for no other reason I was picked up and separated from my family, who was exterminated in Auschwitz,” Marks said, directing his words at Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones.
Marks finished by telling Jones, “Don’t forget, history is not on your side.”
The impassioned speech lasted only a couple of minutes, but his words were received with an outburst of applause and cheering from the attendees — and have resonated across the country.
The event was hosted by Jones, who invited Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to discuss the sheriff’s department’s priorities regarding immigration enforcement.
It was the first time Homan had addressed a public assembly since being assigned to the post, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The debate was contentious at times. While Jones reiterated his department does not “do immigration enforcement in the community,” attendees expressed their concerns about the role of local authorities in enforcing federal immigration laws. Several protesters were escorted out of the event, CNN affiliate KOVR reported.
Marks said he sees a parallel between deportations that tear families apart and what he went through with his family when he was a child.
“I feel horrible when I see or hear that a father or a grandfather is being picked up,” said Marks, later adding, “And just because they get a traffic ticket, according to ICE they’re criminal.”
Marks was 7 years old when the Nazis invaded his native Lodz, Poland, in what ended with his own family being separated and sent to concentration camps. He was imprisoned at Auschwitz and Dachau, where he spent his childhood doing manual labor. Only five members of his extended family of about 200 survived the war.
Taking a stand
Tuesday night wasn’t the first time Marks has publicly spoken against deportations. Earlier this month, he wrote an opinion piece for The Sacramento Bee, where he warned of anti-immigrant sentiment, calling it a “danger that is all too familiar to me.”
Marks has spent more than 20 years as public speaker, educating students in the United States and Europe about the Holocaust.
Marks said his lectures are a way to make sure “we do not forget the past,” but he fears “the past is repeating itself in an ugly way.”
In 2008 he founded the Eleanor J. Marks Foundation, in honor of his wife, who passed away after they were married for 56 years. Each year, the foundation does an essay contest for students on a topic related to the Holocaust.
“I think the more of us who like to speak up, maybe we can have a better country … a country without hate.”
Marks said he will continue taking a stand for the immigrant community and “resist in any and every point that I can to prevent families from being broken up.”
“If I have to, I’ll declare my house as a sanctuary house.”