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Holocaust Survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan Speaks At PSU

By Samantha Latos
On November 16, 2018


Plymouth State University was honored to host Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan on Wednesday, the 14th. Mrs. Lazan dedicated the latter part of her life to telling her story of survival all over the world, been interviewed on PBS, and has written a well-received book, "Four Perfect Pebbles." 

The idea of the four perfect pebbles comes from her time in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She told herself that if she found four pebbles, one representing each member of her family, they would all survive. 

Mrs. Lazan was able to walk us through her childhood. “Mine is a story that Anne Frank might have told, if she survived,” she said. Their stories intertwine in terms of time and place. Anne Frank died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. 

She stated that life in early 1930s Germany seemed normal. Antisemitism was present, as prejudice is today, but no one thought it would lead to anything.

It started slow. Restrictions emerged: Jews were given a curfew, and could only go shopping during certain hours. Soon they weren’t allowed in theatres, parks, or swimming pools. Her family wanted out. Her father made arrangements for their family to immigrate to America.

The situation worsened; Jewish children couldn’t attend school anymore. Then came the infamous night of broken glass, or Kristallnacht, in 1938. Looking back, Mrs. Lazan said that night was the beginning of the Holocaust. Their home was broken into, and the soldiers filled a pillowcase with valuables, which they confiscated. They took her father away as well. They didn’t return him home safely until three weeks later. They only returned him because their immigration papers went through.

One month before the family was scheduled to leave, the Germans invaded. “We were trapped,” Mrs. Lazan said. They were moved to a temporary stay in a ghetto, but the true horrors were far ahead of them. Mrs. Lazan and her family lived a very stagnant and dull life during that time. Her parents got small jobs in order to keep busy. Their family didn’t leave via train until 1944. She and her brother were sick of the constant state of boredom, and they were anxious for a change of scenery. “We were all allowed one knapsack each, and all the children were happy to leave. We were all so naive,” she said.

They arrived at Bergen-Belsen on a cold dark night. As they walked out of the train, they were greeted by Nazis screaming different demands. Their attack dogs appeared vicious and frightened Mrs. Lazan, who was only nine at the time. To this day, she is afraid of German Shepherds.

The guards were strategically placed, so they could see the incoming Jews from all angles. This terrifying night was her first taste of what was in store. Mrs. Lanzan was brave enough to share many of her experiences inside the camp. Men were placed on one side of the camp, and the women were placed on the other. This meant that families could only catch glimpses of each other. The sanitary conditions were nonexistent; the toilets were long benches with holes in them. There was no privacy, toilet paper, or water to wash up with. Six hundred people were crammed into each heatless barrack. Two people shared each bunk, and every bunk had one thin blanket. The bed itself was full of straw. Mrs. Lazan counts her family as one of the lucky ones, because she shared her bed with her mother, and her brother shared his with their father. She couldn’t imagine how strange it must’ve been for two grown adults, who didn’t know each other, to have to snuggle to make it through the night.

She quickly noticed that the women were better off than the men. She believes this is due to a mother's need to keep her children alive. “My mother's inner strength and fortitude sought us through,” she said. This instilled a great respect for her mother. During her speech, she showed the audience a picture of her mother on her 104th birthday. “I’m going to display this here so you can all admire her,” Mrs. Lazan said, “She was a magnificent and wonderful lady.”

Mrs. Lazan stated that no movie or documentary could ever accurately depict the Holocaust. “I saw things as a young child that no person should ever have to see. I saw piles of dead bodies, stacked one on top of another,” she said. “The odor, filth, and fear that surrounded death is indescribable.” 

In the early spring of 1945, she was ten. Her mother was breaking the rules by discreetly making soup. The big pot of boiling hot soup spilled onto her leg. Mrs. Lazan knew if she cried out, it would have cost them their lives. She had to quietly endure the pain. Although she was so young, she had an advanced level of self-control compared to other kids her age, due to her deeply-rooted fear of Nazis. 

She had another coping mechanism other than the four perfect pebbles, called the three B’s. The first B stood for a bed of her own; one with clean sheets and real pillows. The second B was a warm bath, all to herself, with soap, as well as a toothbrush. The final B was bread, enough bread so she would never have to go hungry again.

These mind games helped her survive. They gave her something positive to think about. They were her games, and so she made all the rules. She joked that if she ever misplaced a pebble, she knew exactly where to find another one.

Her family knew that the war was coming to an end when they noticed Nazis changing into civilian clothes so that allies wouldn’t recognize them. They were liberated in the spring of 1945. She noted how horribly cold that winter had been. This contrasted with the moment she took her first steps of freedom; it was a beautiful day full of sunshine.

Unfortunately, her father passed away six weeks later, due to typhus. Things seemed dismal afterward as well; they had to shave their heads to truly rid themselves of head lice. On top of that, her leg was severely infected. It was impossible to keep her wound clean at the camp. She came close to losing it, but her leg thankfully responded to medicine and healed quickly. After a period of recuperation, Mrs. Lazan, as an eleven-year-old, had to come to terms with the outside world. She never had any formal education, and she didn’t grasp how money worked. She joked that she lacked table manners as well. 

On April 23rd, 1948, they arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey. They came to America exactly three years to the date of their liberation.

Her favorite thing about this country upon her arrival was potato chips. She wasn’t familiar with chips and dip, and so she associated dip with mayonnaise. She joked that she was a rather big thirteen-year-old due to her love of big bags of potato chips dipped in mayonnaise.

Mrs. Lazans mother encouraged her to learn English quickly. She took her mother's advice and made time for all of her studies so that she could graduate with her class. She studied after school and took every opportunity to further her education, including weekend and summer classes. She ranked 8 in her graduating class. She still has a strong passion for her education, since the option was robbed from her as a young child. Today she speaks English, German, and some Dutch and Hebrew. “You all go to school in the beautiful state of New Hampshire, and you all get such a wonderful education. Do not take your education for granted,” she said, “You will never regret putting hard work into your studies.” 

She met her husband, Nathaniel, when she was sixteen. He was a college-educated young man from New York. They wrote to each other every day, which greatly improved her English. The two got married, and are still happily together to this day. “We have three children, nine grandchildren, and five extraordinary, magnificent great-grandchildren,” she said. She considers her life full and rewarding.

She wants young people to treat each other with kindness. She believes that the root of all problems within countries is a lack of empathy for others. Mrs. Lazan wants people to care for one another and pursue higher education, in order to build a strong community. This system, built around treating each other fairly, will help mankind avoid another Holocaust. “We need to show love, respect, tolerance, and compassion regardless of religion, the color of our skins, or any differences we may have,” she said, “Look for similarities, and respect the differences.”

Mrs. Lazan holds family close to her heart. “You, too, need to check in on your moms and your dads. They need to know where you are and how you are, and you owe that to them.” She lost her father at an early age, and always felt very close to her mother. Relationships between parents and children are a priority to her. She wanted to stress to her young audience that they need to show love and patience to their parents.

The two main takeaways she wanted to stress are that the Holocaust did in fact happen, and to be kind and good to one another. She dedicates much of her time these days to traveling the world, in order to share her story with as many young people as possible. “Even though I have spoken to half a million students, it’s not easy,” she said, “Although I do appreciate the history of what happened. There is not many of us (survivors) left. We will no longer be here in a few years. Yours is the very last generation that will ever hear a firsthand story of the Holocaust.”

When asked if she was frightened by the recent synagogue shooting, Mrs. Larzan said that this hatred is terrifying and that “it’s like it’s is happening all over again.” Later on, she said “It (the Holocaust) will never happen again. It just won’t. Period.” Hate crimes are terrifying now, just like they were back then. She’s convinced that there will never be another Holocaust, given the horrors she endured, and all the progress that has been made since then.

After the war, President Eisenhower had Bergen-Belsen burned down. In the decades since its destruction, it has become unrecognizable to Mrs. Larzan. She said it looks like a park, compared to what it used to be. There was no color when she was there, but in the ensuing decades, grass began to grow again. 

It’s now mandatory for students in Germany to learn about the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. They’re even encouraged to visit camps like Bergen-Belsen, to develop an idea of the conditions millions of people had to suffer through. It’s up to our generation to be aware of what is going on in our country and educate ourselves on the horrors of the Holocaust. We need to spread the information to the people we know, and to our future families. 

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