POINT PLEASANT — “You are the last generation to hear these stories first hand, please share my story or any Holocaust stories. When we’re no longer here, it is you who will have to bear witness.”
Those words were spoken by Marion Blumenthal Lazan of Hewlett, N.Y., to an auditorium full of students at Point Pleasant Junior/Senior High School this week. The story of how a little girl from Bremen Germany survived some of the worst atrocities of World War II only to end up bearing witness to students in a little town in West Virginia years later is nothing short of a series of miracles and endless hope.
Marion told students her life as a child before the war was a good life, a normal life which included a mother, father, brother and two grandparents. Her family, which were Jewish, lived in Bremen above the shoe store her father owned but they lived during a time of growing, state-sanctioned discrimination and outright hatred of Jews.
Her grandparents both passed away at different times in 1938 - a year Marion, and countless other Jews in Europe, can never forget. Marion was four years old on Nov. 9, 1938 which was Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass” — a series of attacks on Jews and Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues and other establishments. Kristallnacht is viewed by some historians as the beginning of the Nazi’s “final solution” to eliminate the Jews.
Marion’s father, who had been awarded the military Iron Cross from the German army for his service in World War I, was forced to leave the country he served for Holland, his family in tow. This was the beginning of a journey of uncertainty for the Blumenthals which would go on another six years. In Holland, the family lived in a deportation camp to await extradition to America. Tickets were purchased to make passage across the Atlantic but in May 1940, one month before being deported to the United States, the Germans invaded Holland.
Those who were in the deportation camp had the majority of their belongings burned, and they were then to be transported to a German concentration camp. Marion recalled being placed on the train for the camp with German guards shouting at them and what she called “vicious” German Shepherds at their sides, guards in the towers and electrified fence surrounding it all — surrounding an “area of complete misery.”
Her family eventually ended up at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She said women were on one side of the camp, men on the other which meant she and her mother were separated from her brother and father. Marion recalled sleeping in crude, wooden barracks which were made for 100 people though 600 were sharing them during bitter cold German winters — winters with only a blanket and some straw to bed down on. The toilets were long, wooden benches with no privacy, and there was no soap, no water, no trees, flowers or grass either, as she recalled.
Each morning at the concentration camp, all prisoners were forced to line up — a process which could take hours. There was no medical care, and people were forced to use their own urine to try and sterilize wounds. Food consisted of a soup made of turnips, potato peels and bread once a week — sometimes prisoners saved their bread for special occasions, like birthdays. Then, once a month, Marion said they were taken to shower, and there was an uncertainty as to whether water or gas would come pouring out of the shower heads.
She said there was no way to really describe the filth, the odor, the horror and the fear of being surrounded by death each day — she called it “indescribable.”
She told the students she could recount her story to them because it was like relaying a “bad dream”, and that’s how she dealt with it. She also spoke about how she dealt with the despair and uncertainty of life in the camp as a child. She created her own games and used her imagination to survive. One particular game she played every day with determination. The game required she search for four perfect pebbles of almost exactly the same size and shape to represent her four family members. If she found these four pebbles each day, she knew it meant her family would stay alive, and she said she made it her business to find those pebbles without fail. The game gave her hope.
One day, Marion’s mother had secretly gotten some potatoes from the kitchen where she worked and brought them back to the barracks. In hiding, the two created a soup and just as it was beginning to boil, guards burst into the barracks, and the ruckus caused the soup to spill, scolding Marion’s leg. Marion knew if she cried out, it would cost them their lives, so she remained silent, hiding the soup and the pain.
It was soon after this that prisoners in the camp were loaded up on to three trains en route to the gas chambers. Marion and her family were amongst 2,500 people who were on the last of the three trains. A trip that should’ve taken several hours ended up taking two weeks due to the Allies advancing on German troops to end the war. These two weeks, Marion and her family went without food or water, and her leg became severely infected. Malnourishment, dehydration, lice and typhus were running rampant.
Then, one day, the German soldiers started asking prisoners on the train for their clothing to disguise themselves from the Allies. Soon after, the Russian army liberated the train and Marion and her family. Marion was 10 years old and weighed 35 pounds. Her mother weighed 60 pounds.
Six weeks after liberation, in the spring of 1945, Marion’s father died of typhus. Eventually, Marion, her mother and brother were able to use the tickets purchased 10 years earlier for their boat ride to America. She recalled to the students how she, along with countless others on the boat, stood on the ship’s deck as they passed the Statue of Liberty; how to this day, when she’s traveling near her home in New York, she always turns her head on the Verrazano Bridge to get a glimpse of Lady Liberty.
Marion and her family eventually ended up in Peoria, Ill. She couldn’t speak English, and at 13 years old, she was placed in a classroom with fourth graders. She said she worked hard to catch up with her peers and graduated high school at age 18. She went on to attend Bradley University, worked in the medical field, married her husband Nathaniel Lazan and had a family — a family which includes children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Marion began speaking about her Holocaust experiences in 1979, and then in 1996 her memoir “Four Perfect Pebbles” was published. In addition, a PBS documentary on her experience, “Marion’s Triumph” has been made.
“Despite all the terrible things, my life today is full and rewarding,” Marion told the PPJ/SHS students this week.
She held up the yellow Star of David patch she wore on her sweater for all those years in the camps. She said the Star of David was a beautiful symbol that was instead used by the Nazis to denigrate and isolate Jewish people — to “set us apart.” This led into her message of showing tolerance towards one another despite our differences.
“It must begin in our own home,” she said about tolerance.
She asked the students to be true to themselves, to be kind to others, to not generalize or judge others and to “prevent our past from becoming our future.”
She then retrieved a photo of her late mother who died at the age of 104 this past December. She placed the photo on a chair behind the podium where she gave her speech — as if her mother was in the audience with her, bearing witness.
“God gives us beautiful minds to allow us to choose right from wrong, good from evil,” she said. “Be kind, good, respectful and tolerant of one another — this is the basis for peace.”
For more on Marion’s story, go to Fourperfectpebbles.com or find Marion on Facebook.