Saturday, September 13, 2008

Holocaust survivor prepares for bar mitzvah

A little nervous and plenty excited, Bernie Marks practiced Torah chanting Tuesday for his upcoming bar mitzvah ceremony, the symbolic Jewish passage into manhood.

Marks stood at the bimah, or stage, at Sacramento's Congregation B'Nai Israel, chanting the Torah in a deep, beautifully haunting voice quite different than the 13-year-olds also preparing for their passage.

Marks is 78 – a Holocaust survivor. When he was 13 – before the family was taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp – they lived in a Jewish ghetto in Poland under the rule of Nazi soldiers, who forbid Jewish religious practices.

Reading Tuesday from a Torah that also survived the Holocaust, a moist-eyed Marks chanted to a soulful melody taught him by his late grandfather, Jakub Menachem Makowski.

"He said, 'If you're going to chant the Torah, it should be like an opera – with feeling, Torah is poetry,'" Marks said.

A delighted Rabbi Mona Alfi remarked, "It has an old world feel to it. It's a way to pay tribute to the community Bernie came from, and that we stand on their shoulders as well."

"We're having him do what our 13-year-olds do," Alfi said, "But Bernie was doing things the rest of us shudder to imagine when he was 13."

Last February, Marks, a 54-year member of the synagogue, remarked to Alfi, "You know I never had my bar mitzvah."

Alfi told him, "It's never too late – why not now?"

"It was always my desire to fulfill the dream that my father and grandfathers had," Marks said. "For years, older men weren't afforded the opportunity because it wasn't traditional. But times have changed, and Rabbi Alfi is more progressive."

So Marks, who speaks 10 languages and was trained by his grandfathers who were both rabbis, is scheduled to be bar mitzvahed Sept. 20.

"He's definitely the oldest," said Alfi. And she's never heard of a Holocaust survivor having a bar mitzvah.

The son of Josef Makowski, a master clothing designer, Marks was born Ber – which means bear – Makowski on Sept. 17, 1929 in Lodz, Poland. By age 3 his religious training began.

But in September 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland. Lodz became a ghetto, surrounded with barbed wire.

In early 1940, "they constructed a gallows and hung 40 people in one day – teachers, doctors, lawyers and judges – and we all had to stand there and watch them," Marks recalled. "They left the corpses hanging for 24 hours. One of the ladies was my teacher."

Surviving mainly on yellow turnips, Marks worked as a cloth cutter in the ghetto while his family and other Jews worked in factories making shoes, uniforms and shell casings for the Nazis.

In August 1944, the Germans shut down the Lodz ghetto and told the Jews they were being relocated to Germany "to get better food, better housing," Marks said. "We had no idea there were concentration camps."

His family and others from the ghetto were shipped in cattle cars to Auschwitz, where more than a million Jews died – most of them in the gas chambers.

"When we got off the transport, I was selected to go with my mother and younger brother, but my father spoke to an officer in his excellent German and asked if I could go with the men," said Marks.

His father's quick thinking saved his life – he never saw his mother and brother again.

Marks and his father were transferred to Dachau and then Hurlauch, one of Dachau's 11 slave labor camps. They worked in a gravel pit to build an underground bunker where the Nazis planned to manufacture Messerschmitt ME 262 jets, Marks said. "You were allowed 500 calories a day, usually a lousy slice of bread, and you didn't get that until you came back from work."

The boy's spirits were lifted by his father, who'd say, "God will help, trust God, conditions will improve, look ahead."

To survive, Marks would imagine attending birthday parties and discuss the various outfits he would wear with his father. They had to hide the fact they were related from the Nazis.

"Some people couldn't take it," said Marks, who saw others commit suicide by running into the electrified fences or jumping into the latrine pits to drown.
In April 1945, Marks was suffering typhoid fever when he and his father jumped from a train going back to Dachau. The Nazis opened fire with machine guns and both were wounded.

"We never lost faith that freedom would come, and it did on April 27, 1945," said Marks, who was rescued with his father by the U.S. Army's 12th Armored Division.

One of their liberators, Marvin Bertelson of Sunnyvale, has been invited to attend Marks' bar mitzvah.

"We saw hundreds of corpses around the compound," Bertelson recalled. Those who had survived "were human skeletons."

Marks said he was nursed back to health at a Franciscan monastery. He lived in Germany with his father until 1947, when he and other child survivors were allowed to come to the United States.

He moved to Kansas City, Mo., where he met his future wife, Eleanor Cohen. He served in the Korean War and returned to Kansas City to get his degree in electrical engineering.

In 1954 he got a job with Aerojet and moved to Sacramento, where he and his wife raised two daughters.

He has given hundreds of presentations throughout the United States and Germany about his experiences. Sometimes, he said, students ask him who Hitler is or what concentration camps are.

Two weeks ago, he suffered a mild stroke, and isn't permitted to drive, but his spirit – and his voice – remain strong.

"In my Torah portion, God tells his people I have taken you from slavery out of Egypt and gave you the Land of Milk and Honey – in this land you shall settle permanently, multiply and cultivate," Marks explained.

At his ceremony, the youngest of his four grandchildren, 7-year-old Ariana, will pass the Torah – rescued from a museum that Hitler established in Prague – to Marks' three older grandchildren. They will pass it to Marks' two daughters, who will pass it to him.

It's a twist on the usual passing of the Torah from grandparents to parents to children, "signifying the passing of the Torah from the generation that stood at Mount Sinai 4,000 years ago with Moses," Alfi said.

Marks has been tuning up for the big event with the temple's music education specialist, Julie Steinberg.

"He sounds like the cantors of Eastern Europe," Steinberg said. "Of all my students, I don't think I've had somebody so nervous – or so joyful."

She turned Tuesday to Marks and smiled, "You're going to be so fine!'"

"Age is only a state of mind," Marks said. "The bar mitzvah was something I was supposed to have in 1942. For years I had this desire – this is my destiny."

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