Story of Hope


Holocaust survivor shares story of hope

Marion Blumenthal Lazan’s second great-granddaughter was born this morning (Oct. 29). Two months ago, she and her husband, Nathaniel, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. And her mother lived to age 104, dying just last December, six weeks shy of her 105th birthday.

Lazan happily related those milestones Tuesday at Bluffton University. But none of them would have been possible without a nearly 70-year-old triumph of “perseverance, determination, faith and, above all, hope,” she said in a filled Founders Hall on campus.

The native of Germany told her story of surviving the Holocaust to visiting high school students and community members, as well as Bluffton faculty, staff and students. And she reminded her youngest listeners that they will be the last generation to hear her, and her peers’, stories firsthand. “When we are not here any longer, it is you who must bear witness,” she said, also urging them to “be kind, good and respectful to one another.”

Growing persecution
Lazan was less than a year old when the Nazis, who had risen to power in 1933, enacted the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Among other restrictions, the laws closed public schools, theaters and parks to Jews, and non-Jews could no longer associate with them, she explained.

Three years later, in November 1938, came Kristallnacht, often called the “Night of Broken Glass,” when Jewish synagogues and businesses were attacked in Germany. “In reality, this was the beginning of the Holocaust,” she said.

That night, her father, a shoemaker who had been honored for his military service to Germany in World War I, was arrested and taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was released after 10 days, though, because he had previously made arrangements—and the papers were in order—for the family to leave Germany for the United States, Lazan recalled. 

Forced to sell their home, the Blumenthals went to Holland in January 1939. While they awaited their departure for the U.S., her parents looked after children who had been sent there from elsewhere in Europe. But in May 1940, only a month before they were to leave, “Germany invaded Holland, and we were trapped,” she said, adding that their belongings were destroyed.

During the German occupation that followed, her family—which also included her older brother—lived in two small rooms, shared their quarters with another family and became familiar, she noted, with a 12-foot-tall, barbed-wire fence built by the Nazis.

Taken away
Transportation of Jews to concentration camps began in early 1942, Lazan said, remembering people being taken to a nearby rail platform nearly every Tuesday morning. And in January 1944, “it was our turn to be shipped out,” she continued, saying that “our fears began to mount” as they approached the platform and saw the cattle cars that would take them eastward.

Her family’s destination was Bergen-Belsen, where they were greeted by shouting guards, barking German shepherds—which she still fears, she said—and more barbed, electrified wire.

Women were on one side and men on the other of the “star camp,” so named for the Star of David that Jewish prisoners had to wear. Two people shared each bunk in the triple bunks crammed into the barracks, said Lazan, who shared a bunk with her mother while her brother was with their father. They slept with one blanket, on a straw-filled mattress, in the winter cold, she added.

Man's inhumanity
She also described seeing a wagon that she thought was filled with firewood, only to soon realize that it was actually dead, naked bodies piled atop each other, and primitive outhouses with no privacy, toilet paper or soap. There was “hardly ever” any water to wash with, either, she recalled, pointing out that she didn’t brush her teeth for the nearly 18 months she was held at the camp.

Every morning, the prisoners had to line up on a large field, where they stayed—often until night with no food—until everyone was accounted for, Lazan said. Frostbite was common, and they treated frostbitten fingers and toes with their own urine, she noted.

Meager food rations included one slice of bread, whose distribution was reduced to once a week and sometimes saved and given to others as a birthday present. And once a month, she said, everyone was marched to the showers, where they were “never sure what would come out”—water or gas, which they had heard was being used on other prisoners.

“Bodies could not be taken away fast enough,” she said. “Malnutrition, dysentery and loss of the will to go on destroyed body and mind.” Those who tried to escape were electrocuted on the wire, and the filth and the odor of ever-present death were “indescribable,” she continued.

To escape mentally, the 9-year-old Marion decided to play a game in which finding four pebbles of about the same size and shape would mean the four members of her family would survive. “This game gave me something to hold on to, some distant hope,” said Lazan, whose 1996 memoir is titled “Four Perfect Pebbles.”

Women were the last to die from malnutrition, she said, attributing that to mothers’ desire to survive for their children. In spring 1945, after Marion had turned 10, her mother “somehow managed” to scrape together ingredients for soup she cooked on their bunk, Lazan said. It was almost ready when guards broke in for a surprise inspection and the boiling soup spilled on Marion’s leg. Knowing that crying out could cost her life, she kept the pain to herself.

That April, with the Allies closing in on the Nazis, her family was among 2,500 people herded aboard three trains heading farther east. Because of the war, what would have normally been a 10-hour trip took two weeks, with no food, water or medical supplies. About 500 people died along the way—and were buried along the tracks when the train stopped—but “it is truly remarkable” that anyone survived, Lazan said, remembering rampant disease.

After two weeks, Nazi guards went through the train to get clothes they hoped would prevent them from being recognized by Allied soldiers. At that point, she said, the survivors knew the war was almost over, and the Russian army liberated them shortly thereafter.

She weighed 35 pounds, and her mother 65 pounds, but they reached houses that had been abandoned with plenty of food left behind. The Russians also got treatment for her infected leg, which responded to medication and healed, enabling her to learn to walk again.

Although her father died from typhus soon after liberation, “it was a wonderful feeling to be free at long last,” said Lazan. With her mother and brother, she returned to Holland, where she received her first formal education—including instruction in Dutch and Hebrew—at age 11. Her mother ultimately made arrangements for them to come to the U.S., using the same tickets they had been unable to use 10 years earlier.

Life in America
They arrived in Hoboken, N.J., on April 23, 1948—three years to the day of liberation—and then found a home in Peoria, Ill. In school, she was a 13-year-old in a class with 9-year-olds, learning her third language in three years, but through summer school and other extra coursework, she graduated from high school five years later.

And two months after graduation, she married Nathaniel Lazan. They have three married children, nine grandchildren and, now, two great-granddaughters. “It just conveys a message of continuity and survival,” she said, calling her story one “that Anne Frank might have told had she survived.”

She has now told it to more than 1 million students and adults, and “it still has not become easy,” Lazan said. But sharing it is important because “in a few short years, we will not be here any longer,” leaving young listeners to tell their children about the Holocaust, she added.

“Let us all remember to respect the right of others to their beliefs,” she urged, pointing out that the 6 million Jews murdered by Hitler would be more than half of Ohio’s population of about 11.5 million. “It is a simple message, yet so difficult to achieve.”