Holocaust survivor shares her story with students

VIENNA – Holocaust survivor and inspirational speaker Marion Blumenthal Lazan shared her story Monday with students at Jackson Middle School.

Lazan spent more than six years in a concentration camp during World War II with her mother, father and older brother. She is co-author of “Four Perfect Pebbles,” which tells her story of survival in the concentration camp and how a game she created gave her the strength to survive.

“Mine is the story Anne Frank might have told had she survived,” Lazan said, referring to the young Jewish girl whose story of hiding from the Nazis during World War II became famous through discovery of her diary after her death in a concentration camp. Her first-person account was published in “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Much like Frank, Lazan’s family attempted to flee Germany in the mid-1930s when German Jews were persecuted and laws were created to restrict their movement, ability to purchase goods and to hold jobs. Lazan was only 4 years old at the time.

Lazan said in 1940, while waiting in Holland to board a ship to the United States, the family and other Jewish families were taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwestern Germany. There Lazan said families were forced into cramped unheated barracks, given little food and water, subject to the elements and cruel treatment at the hands of Nazi guards, and surrounded by 12-foot-tall electrified barbed wire fences.

Lazan said she remembered one day seeing a wagon carrying what she thought were cords of wood for the barracks’ stoves.

“I soon realized what was in the wagon was dead, naked bodies, piles one on top of the other,” she said.

Once a month the prisoners were marched out to shower, and by then all had heard stories of mass executions at other camps.

“We were never sure when the faucets were turned on what would come out: Water or gas,” she said. “Death was an everyday occurrence.”

Lazan said life in the camp was so dreary and soul-crushing she found distraction in anything. A piece of glass and a reflection of sunlight became a flickering pet on the ground that couldn’t die and couldn’t be taken from her. While in the camp, Lazan created a game. Each day she would search for four pebbles of equal size and shape.

“I thought if I found four of them, the four members of my family would survive, my mother, my brother, my father and me,” she said. “It was a tortuous game. It gave me something to hold on to.”

In 1945, at the age of 10, Lazan and her family along with 2,500 Jewish prisoners were loaded on to cattle cars to be taken to another camp for extermination. Because the Allied Forces were so close to the camps, the normally 10-hour trip took two weeks, with people dying every day of starvation, dehydration and disease. One out of every five people, about 500, died along the way.

But the train never reached its destination. Lazan said Russian soldiers liberated the prisoners, taking them to a nearby village which had been abandoned during the war. Lazan said she was nearly 11 years old and weighed only 35 pounds and her mother weighed only 60 pounds.

Less than six weeks after they were liberated, Lazan’s father died, and her then 12-year-old brother helped bury him.

Lazan said she spent years physically recovering and much longer mentally and emotionally recovering. Her family looked to relocate to Israel, but eventually she and her brother traveled ahead of their mother to the United States, eventually coming to rest in Peoria, Ill.

Lazan, now married with three children, nine grandchildren and two great-granddaughters, said she has extensively traveled telling her story, and has seen her memoir published as a book, made into a documentary and even immortalized in a song.

Sixth-graders Jesse Eaton and Addison Garner said while they have been studying World War II and the Holocaust in school, hearing a first-hand account Monday made an impact.

“It was amazing to hear an actual witness,” Eaton said. “You read about it and you see things, but actually hearing from a real person, it gave a better illustration of the events.”

Twelve-year-old Garner said it was difficult hearing a girl close to her own age go through such a tragic struggle.

“Because it was a person telling it, it made it so much more real,” Garner said. “It was really difficult hearing how many children died in the Holocaust.”

But Garner said she took another lesson from the story as well.

“It’s about how little things let you hold onto hope,” she said. “I definitely think I will be sharing this with my friends and my grandparents and my parents, so we will all learn.”

Betsy Utt, a sixth-grade English teacher at Jackson Middle, was the first to reach out to Lazan and bring her to the area.

“I contacted her this past summer, and she asked that I contact other schools and colleges in the area,” to ask about her speaking, Utt said. Lazan will speak at 2 p.m. today at West Virginia University at Parkersburg and at 7 p.m. today at Ohio Valley University as part of her visit to the Mid-Ohio Valley.

Utt said having her first speak to the students is important, because it is important for those lessons to be passed on to those who may be far removed from the events of the past.

It teaches “the invaluable lesson of not forgetting the past,” Utt said.

Lazan told the gathered students to spread her story to others, to tell her account to friends and family and eventually to their children and grandchildren.

“Yours is the last generation to hear these accounts first-hand,” Lazan said. “As difficult as it is, the horror of the Holocaust must be shared, must be studied. Only then can we guard from it every happening again.”