Marion Blumenthal Lazan is, by her own account, a stubborn person. Even as a girl, spending most of her childhood in concentration camps during the Holocaust, Lazan refused to believe a better world didn't exist.
"I did not know anything else," she said of the six and a half years she and her family spent in the Westerbork transit camp in Holland and Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. "It just got progressively worse. But my mother told me there was a better world out there, and I just knew it would be."
Lazan, 70, told her story to a full auditorium at George Mason University Wednesday, Sept. 14, as part of the 2005 Fall for the Book Festival. In 1996, Lazan and co-author Lila Perl wrote "Four Perfect Pebbles," the story of her Holocaust survival, an ALA Notable Book which has also won the "Best of the Bunch" from the Sydney Taylor Award Committee and the Association of Jewish Libraries.
Lazan was born in 1934 in Bremen, Germany, to Walter and Ruth Blumenthal. Walter Blumenthal ran a shoe business, and Lazan and her family lived in an apartment above the shop.
"Much of what happened to me was told by my mother," said Lazan. She was 4 years old on Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazi soldiers destroyed Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues in an evening thereafter called Kristallnacht.
Life in early 1930s Germany was much like it is today, said Lazan. "Never did we think the anti-Semitic instances that happened there would ever amount to anything," she said.
But on Kristallnacht, Walter Blumenthal was arrested and taken to Westerbork for 10 days. In May 1940, Lazan, her mother and brother Albert had arrived in Holland with visas, passports and affidavits ready to move into the United States when the Nazis invaded Holland. The entire Blumenthal family was sent to Westerbork, and after that, to Bergen-Belsen.
Every Tuesday morning, said Lazan, a train would come by Westerbork to take prisoners to concentration and extermination camps. The platform where prisoners waited for the train became known as the "Boulevard de Misère." When it was Lazan and her family's turn, she said, she did not know what to expect and was glad of the change of scenery.
But Bergen-Belsen, one of the most notorious camps of the Holocaust, remains "indescribable," said Lazan. Nazi soldiers separated Lazan and her mother from her father and brother. Six hundred people were made to fit in rooms with a capacity of 100, with two people to a bunk with a straw mattress and one blanket to share. Every so often, Lazan said, she saw carts go by holding what she thought was firewood, but were bodies of prisoners who had died from typhus, dysentery or starvation. The prisoners would stand in lines to be counted and would often end up standing there from morning to night, in all weather.
There was no privacy, with Nazi soldiers watching everything, said Lazan, and whenever she showered, she was "never sure when the faucets were turned on as to what would come out, water or gas." She had heard of the extermination camps where masses of prisoners were gassed and killed.
"Squashing lice in between my nails was my primary pastime," said Lazan. Fortunately, she had a vivid imagination, and invented games to play during the days at Bergen-Belsen.
"I believed that if I were to find four pebbles of the same shape and size, the four members of my family would all survive," she said. "My mother, my father, my brother and me." Lazan also used to take pieces of glass or mirrors and, on sunny days, would reflect them onto the ground. The sun reflection would be her pet, she said.
IN THE SPRING of 1945, Lazan, her family, and 2,500 other prisoners were put on a train bound for an extermination camp, when the Russian army liberated the train. At 10 years old, when she was freed, Lazan weighed 35 pounds. Six weeks after liberation, however, Walter Blumenthal died of typhus.
"When I talk about those years, it is like talking about a nightmare, a very bad dream," said Lazan. "I separate myself from it … that is how I deal with it."
Lazan spent some time in Israel and then three years in Holland after liberation, recuperating and catching up on her education. When she was 13, she moved to Peoria, Ill. with her mother and brother. In the space of three years, she said, she learned three languages: Hebrew, Dutch and English. But she was so behind in schooling that she was placed in a fourth-grade class in Peoria.
Lazan worked hard for the next five years, she said, and in 1952 graduated eighth in her class from Peoria Central High School.
Two years earlier, when she was 16, Lazan went to a Yom Kippur service at her synagogue. It was an orthodox synagogue and so women and men were separated, but a group of male students from Bradley University were allowed onto the balcony with the women.
"I saw a girl, and asked if I could walk her home," said Nathaniel Lazan, who was a 19-year-old Bradley student at the time. Marion Blumenthal did not ask him to break fast with her after the holiday, said Nathaniel Lazan, but shortly after her graduation, the two were married.
Lazan and her husband, who live in Long Island, N.Y., had three children and nine grandchildren. In 1979, said Nathaniel Lazan, Marion Blumenthal Lazan's rabbi asked her to speak about her experience in the Holocaust. For four days, she wrote notes about it.
"When you see her, she always has a smile on her face," said Nathaniel Lazan. "Those four days, she didn't."
AFTER TWO DECADES of public speaking, Marion Blumenthal Lazan and Perl wrote "Four Perfect Pebbles," the title taken from the game Lazan used to play while she was at the camps.
"I'm here to tell the story because I realize we're rapidly running out of time," said Lazan. "Today's generation is the last to hear a first-hand account … in a few years, they’ll be left to pass the story on."
In her book and public presentations, Lazan wants one thing to come across: tolerance. "It was a very difficult experience and should never be repeated," she said. "Treat people as individuals; ignore differences and look for similarities. And do not follow the leader blindly."
"It doesn't matter religion, or the color of the skin or anything, the people who ask Marion to speak," said Nathaniel Lazan, who accompanies his wife on her public presentation trips across the country. She has spoken in Germany and Israel, and will present to a group of Amish people soon, he said.
"[Marion Blumenthal Lazan] talks not just about the Holocaust, but about tolerance, which is very important right now," said Penny Gilchrist, one of the organizers of the Fall for the Book Festival. "She wants people to learn from what happened to her. Anyone who's had a tragedy, I think, can learn from what happened to [Holocaust survivors]."
"I like how it's a true story, and not made up," said Shannon Berenbaum, a student at Lanier Middle School who went to hear Lazan speak. The story resonates with Shannon, whose father is Jewish.
Ilene Decker, a reading specialist at Rocky Run Middle School, said that many Holocaust survivors have a hard time talking about their experience. Her son's grandmother, Olga Stonehill, was a Holocaust survivor but never talked about that part of her life.
"She was almost embarrassed to say anything because it was so awful," said Decker. But when Decker's son turned 13 and had his bar mitzvah, Stonehill took him to the Holocaust museum and described to him the often gruesome details of the concentration camps.
"[Survivors] didn't tell their own children," said Decker. "But as time goes on, people start to realize that time is running out."