Today people around the world are marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in memory of the 6 million European Jews executed by the German Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945.
During the past 15 years, I’ve heard three Holocaust survivors speak about their experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, including author Elie Wiesel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Each of the three survivors had different stories to tell, yet all were equally gripping and moving. If you ever have an opportunity to hear the stories of a Holocaust survivor, I recommend you do so.
The following story is that of Marion Blumenthal Lazan, as reported by me in the Streator Times-Press after she spoke at a local school in November 2001.
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All it would take for Marion Blumenthal Lazan’s family to outlast the Holocaust is four perfectly round pebbles. Or so the 9-year-old told herself as she, her brother and her parents struggled to survive the atrocities of life in a concentration camp.
Now, more than 55 years later, Lazan understands it took more than finding pebbles to live through that “dreadful” experience where “death was an everyday occurrence.”
Speaking before a student assembly at Woodland School on Thursday, Lazan described what her family went through during their incarceration. As she noted, her story picks up where that of a less fortunate Jewish girl left off.
“Mine is the story that Anne Frank may well have told had she lived,” Lazan said. “It is a story of determination, perseverance, faith, and above all, hope.”
Lazan was born in Germany in 1934, before anti-Semitism became rampant throughout the country.
“Life in the early 1930s was much like your lives today,” Lazan told her audience. “Never did we think the anti-Semitic movements that were happening there would amount to anything.”
But that would change as the decade grew older. The totalitarian principles and policies associated with German leader Adolf Hitler began to take hold, and they were not kind to those of Jewish descent. Suddenly, Jewish people were not allowed into parks, churches or other public places.
“My grandparents refused to leave the house because they didn’t think it was worth it,” Lazan said.
This drastic change in attitude toward Jews convinced her family to leave the country, a process they set into motion in 1938 – the same year death struck the Blumenthal family twice in a two-week span.
“Both of my grandparents died in 1938, just 11 days from each other. Within a few days, we received our papers to emigrate to America,” Lazan said.
But the family still hadn’t left the country when Kristallnacht occurred the next year. That is what Jews call Nov. 9, 1939 – a day when Hitler’s followers destroyed many Jewish stores, synagogues and other institutions.
Lazan also lost her father for the first time that day.
“My father was taken away on Nov. 9 – Kristallnacht. We did not know if we’d ever see him again,” she said. “Fortunately, he was released 10 days later because our papers were in order for our emigration to the United States.”
Two months later, the Blumenthals moved to Holland and were scheduled to leave for America in June of 1940. But fate had different plans for the family.
“In May of 1940, just one month before we were to leave for the United States, the Germans invaded Holland and we were trapped,” Lazan recalled. “All our possessions, which were on the boat ready to go, were burned.”
German guards rounded up all the Jewish people living in Holland and placed them in an area confined by 12-foot-tall barbed wire fences.
“It was an area of misery,” Lazan said.
Lazan vividly recalls the weather conditions of the night in January 1944 when the Germans shipped her family off to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.
“I remember it was a bitterly cold, pitch-black, rainy night,” she said.
Prior to the family’s relocation, they remained incarcerated in Holland, where the Jews were forced to make do with the few things allowed them by their German captors.
“We children had a makeshift education and a rather dull life,” Lazan said.
Because there was so little to do, the children welcomed a change when they found out they would be sent to the camps. While the imprisoned adults had an idea of what lie ahead for them, the children didn’t know any better.
“We children actually were happy about the move,” Lazan said. “We wanted a change of scenery. We were very naive.”
At the concentration camp, they were forced to live in extremely confined quarters that were built during World War I for Russian prisoners of war. Lazan recalled the guards cramming 600 people into a building made to accommodate only 100 prisoners.
“We had to sleep in double-decker beds with two people in each one,” Lazan said. “I was lucky I got to share a bed with my mother, and my brother got to share a bed with my father. But can you imagine two adults – two strangers – having to share a bed together?”
Food was at a premium in the concentration camps, as bread was available – or unavailable – at the whims of the guards assigned to them.
“Bread was given to us only if our so-called quarters were in order,” Lazan said. “I remember our birthday gift to each other. It was a little piece of bread we saved from the week before.”
Lack of hygiene was a problem as well, she said, noting that they were not allowed to brush their teeth and often they had to warm their extremities in their own urine.
Head lice became a serious problem at the camps. A lot of time was devoted to fruitless attempts to rid themselves of the bugs, Lazan said.
“Squashing them between my nails became my primary pastime,” she said.
When they were allowed the rare opportunity to clean themselves, the Jewish prisoners feared they might be heading for a death chamber instead of the showers.
“Once a month, we were marched off to take a shower. … We were never sure what would come out, water or gas,” Lazan said.
There was always a feeling of impending death in the camps because so many Jews died there every day, she said.
“We saw things no one, no matter what the age, should ever have to see,” Lazan said.
As a 9-year-old imprisoned in the concentration camps, Lazan allowed her youthful imagination to come up with a way for her family to survive the horrors of the Holocaust. She believed that her entire family would survive another 24 hours as long as she found four perfectly round pebbles each day. If she didn’t find all four pebbles – one for each family member – she believed that her family would not survive the camps intact.
Through sheer determination, she found those four pebbles every day – and her entire family did survive the concentration camp experience. The Russian army liberated them in spring of 1945, when Marion was 10-1/2 years old and weighed only 35 pounds.
“It was a wonderful feeling to be free at last,” Lazan said.
But it was not long before tragedy struck again. Death claimed her father a mere six weeks after the family was reunited, ending his dream of moving to America.
After getting medical attention for malnutrition and various ailments, the Blumenthals slowly readjusted to regular society.
“I felt like a total misfit. I had to readjust to living in a normal society again,” Lazan said. “It was really like trying to learn and live all over again.”
Eventually her family emigrated to America. They arrived at Ellis Island on April 3, 1948 – exactly three years to the day after being liberated by the Russians.
They settled in Peoria, where they again found themselves having to adjust to society.
“At age 13, I once again learned life anew in a strange land,” Lazan said. “Because of my inability to speak English, I was put in the fourth grade with nine-year-olds.”
But hard work paid off for her, as she graduated from Peoria Central High School at age 18, ranking 8th in her class of 265 students. A short time later, she married her high school sweetheart, Nathaniel Lazan.
It wasn’t until 1979 that Marion began speaking publicly about the Holocaust, but since then she has spoken to more than 50,000 people about it. In 1996, her memoirs were published under the title “Four Perfect Pebbles,” which is now in its 10th hardcover printing.
In order to talk about her experiences during World War II, Lazan has to separate herself from the events.
“It is as if I’m relating a nightmare. I separate it from having actually happened to me. That’s how I deal with it,” Lazan said. “Some people say, ‘Marion, you’re in denial.’ Well, if I am, then so be it. It works for me.”
She added that the point of telling her story is to make sure atrocities like the Holocaust don’t happen again. By preaching respect for others, she believes she is doing her part toward that end.
“Each of us must do everything we can do,” Lazan said. “It must start with love, respect and tolerance for each other, regardless of our religion, color of our skin, or country of our origin. Let’s look at the similarity between people and respect their differences.”
She also hopes that by spreading the story, future generations will continue to learn from history’s mistakes.
“In a few years, we (Holocaust survivors) will not be here anymore to tell this story firsthand. Please, please share my story or any others you hear with your friends, and one day, with your children, and even your grandchildren,” Lazan said. “The horrors of the Holocaust must be kept alive. That is the only way we can guard against something like that happening again.”