While imprisoned at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany during World War II as a child, Marion Blumenthal Lazan saw unspeakable things.
“Death was an everyday occurrence. Bodies could not be taken away fast enough,” she said. “We as children saw things no child should ever see. … The filth and continuous horror were awful.”
Lazan spoke on her experiences at Am Yisrael Chai’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Event, themed “Hope and Perseverance,” Sunday night at City Springs’ Byers Theatre in Sandy Springs.
The event came exactly one week before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of when the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated in 1945, and Am Yisrael Chai is a Dunwoody-based nonprofit focusing Holocaust and genocide awareness and education.
Lazan was born in Bremen, Germany, and at age 4 witnessed Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of the Broken Glass, when the Nazis burned down synagogues and vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses Nov. 9 and 10, 1938. After that she and her family, which included her parents and her older brother Albert, escaped to the Netherlands with plans to eventually flee to the United States.
But in the Nazi invasion of Holland, the Blumenthals were deported, first to the Westerbork transit camp, and then to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Anne Frank and her sister Margot died. Lazan used games to cope with the horrors of the camps.
“Much of my time was taken up with make-believe games,” she said. “I decided if I could find four pebbles of the same size and shape, that would mean the four members of my family - my mother, my father, my brother and I - would survive. What if I didn’t find those four pebbles? I thought one of them would die.”
Lazan’s 1996 memoir, “Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story,” co-written by Lila Perl, recounts her experience of overcoming adversity during the war. While in Westerbork, she said she and the other Jews were on pins and needles as they awaited “the dreadful transports to the concentration and extermination camps in Eastern Europe.”
“This started in early 1942 and from then on, every Monday night, lists of those to be deported were posted, causing incredible anxiety, anguish and fear,” Lazan said. “And then on Tuesday mornings, men, women and little ones were marched literally (to their) transports and sent by train. … Of the total 120,000 men, women and children that departed Westerbork, 102,000 were doomed never to return.”
In January 1944, her family was sent to Bergen-Belsen. Once they arrived, things got even worse.
“Six-hundred of our people were cramped into the little barracks meant for 100 people,” Lazan said. “German winters were bitter cold and very long. We were given only one blanket and a straw mattress. I was very lucky I was able to share a bunk with my mother and my brother was able to share a bunk with my father.
“I remember seeing a wagon filled with what I thought was firewood. But then I realized what was in the wagon was dead, naked bodies piled one on top of another. …
“Frostbite was common. We would treat our own frostbite with the warmth of our own urine.”
They were given little to eat, mainly bread, water and/or soup.
“My father … refused to eat the so-called soup because it contained non-kosher meat,” Lazan said.
But they persevered, with her entire family surviving the camps. The Blumenthals were part of a group of 2,500 Jews from the last trains being sent to the gas chambers when they were freed by the Russian army.
“Normally it would take 10 hours to get there, but since the Germans were trying to evade the Allies, it took two weeks. We had no bathrooms on the train. … It is truly remarkable any of us were able to survive the concentration camps. One of five died en route.”
Unfortunately, her father died of typhus six weeks after the family was freed, but the rest of the family survived and eventually moved to the United States.
After the war they first moved back to Holland and then to Palestine (shortly before it became Israel following the Arab-Israeli War), having to learn the Dutch and Hebrew languages, respectively. Then her family moved the U.S., arriving in Hoboken, New Jersey, April 23, 1948, exactly three years to the day of their liberation.
“Thanks to the Holland-America line, we were able to use tickets we had bought 10 years earlier,” she said.
The Blumenthals moved to Peoria, Illinois, where Lazan had to then learn English and eventually met her future husband, Nathaniel. Today she tours the country as a public speaker at schools and events and her book is used by some history and social studies classes.
“When I talk about those six (and a half) years (in the camps), it’s as if I’m talking about a nightmare. I try to separate myself for it,” Lazan said. “… Despite all that has happened, my life is full and rewarding.”
Before her keynote speech, several other Holocaust survivors lit candles as a way to remember the six million Jews who died during the war. Also, Judith Varnai Shorer, the consul general of Israel to the Southeast, spoke before Lazan about hope and perseverance.
“My mom died a year and a half ago,” she said. “While she was alive, I knew I would always have someone to remind me not to take anything for granted, to be sure we got to where we got because of our character as survivors.”
Lazan and her husband have three grown children, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“For over 20 years, I have spoken to 1.5 million students and adults, but it still has not come easy,” she said. “But I still feel like it’s important to share our history. In a few short years we won’t be here any longer to tell our story. The youth, you are the last generation that will hear our story firsthand. Share these stories with your friends, your teachers and share them with your children and even your grandchildren.”