ELLINWOOD - A visit almost a year in the planning brought author and Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan to the Ellinwood High School gymnasium Tuesday, first for a presentation to Ellinwood Middle School students and visitors from surrounding communities. Then, in the evening, Lazan made a second appearance, meeting adults from the community at an Ellinwood Chamber of Commerce after hours, and presenting her message of hope and perseverance to a crowd of nearly 150.
“This will be the last generation to hear this story first hand from someone who lived through it,” Lazan said. “There is so much to learn from it. Most of all, to be nice, kind and respectful to everyone.”
Lazan, her mother, her father and her brother were Jews trapped in Nazi Germany during World War II. They attempted to emigrate to the United States in 1938, but were detained in Holland for some time. When the Nazis captured Holland, they were sent to the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. She and her mother were separated from her father and brother, but occasionally caught glimpses of each other. She was at Bergen-Belsen from age nine to 10 years old. The family was liberated in April, 1945.
Her book, “Four Perfect Pebbles, A Holocaust Story,” is their story. The book has been translated into several languages since, including, German, Dutch, Hebrew and Japanese. Lazan has been speaking to groups about that experience since 1979. In 1996, the book was published in paperback and eventually picked up by Scholastic Books.
Ten years ago, Ellinwood Middle School English teacher Connie Mitchum found “Four Perfect Pebbles,” and decided to use it instead of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” for a literary unit for eighth grade. One assignment was to write a letter to the author. Those letters prompted Marion’s response, and the opportunity to bring her to Ellinwood. The visit was made possible thanks to a grant from the Ellinwood Library Foundation.
Monday night, Lazan spoke about the conditions she and her mother were subjected to during their time at the camp. Starvation, filth and inadequate clothing were constants that facilitated the spread of disease among the prisoners. There was no tooth brushing or bathing the entire time she was there. The stark landscape,without even a blade of grass, reflected the Nazi’s relentless work to break the spirits of inmates.
“We as children saw things that no child at any age should ever see,” she said. Squashing lice, she recalled, was her primary pastime.
For Lazan, her imagination was her salvation. Without toys of any kind, she created imaginary pets, in her mind from the pebbles and pieces of glass and other findings scraped from the dirt that surrounded them. She shared with her audience how she would play a game, in which she would find four perfect pebbles each day, and if she could find four that matched, it would mean all four of her family members would live. It was a game she never lost, she said.
“Imagination was my survival skill,” she said. “No one is spared adversity, but we can overcome everything with hope.”
As the Allied forces converged on the Nazis, Lazan and her family were loaded onto train cars, destined for an extermination camp, she said. Normally, the trip would take a day or two, but with all the fighting happening all around them, they were moved from place to place on the train over a two-week period. During that time, there was no food to be had, and no bathroom facilities. Finally, the Allies liberated them. It was April, 1945, and Lazan was 10 years old. She weighed 35 lbs., and her mother weighed only 60 lbs., she said. Her family was reunited, but her father was very ill with Typhus. He lived only six more weeks, time enough for the chaos to have settled so he could be buried in an individual grave, rather than the mass graves where so many at the beginning of the liberation were buried, out of concern for the public health.
Lazan shared how she and her mother and brother settled briefly in Palestine. Then, when she was 13 years old, through the Jewish Relief Organization, they were able to travel to the United States. They arrived in Hoboken, N.J., and the first place she was able to visit in the new country was the Statue of Liberty. It is a place that holds special meaning for her, and she is certain to look for it whenever she travels from the New York City suburb she lives in today to the heart of the city.
“If you have never been to see it, I urge you to make a point of it someday,” she said.
They were settled in Peoria, Il, and she was placed in a fourth grade class with nine-year-olds. She worked hard in school to catch up, and she worked hard outside of school to help her family make ends meet. She graduated from high school at the age of 18, and soon after, met her husband, Nathaniel.
Her marriage and her family, which includes three children, five grandchildren, plus an assortment of great grandchildren, is a testament to her hope and faith in God, and she is very proud of her heritage. She is grateful that so many of her people were able to survive the Holocaust, and that their families will live on to share their story.
“It is so important to share this story,” she said. “Today’s young people will have to bear witness. Only then can we stop it from ever happening again.”
Lazan shared her hopes of what her audience would take away from her talk. First, that all people deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. Learning respect and tolerance for one another is something that must start at home, and it translates from there into the world.
“We must be true to ourselves,” she said. “It is not cool to simply follow anyone’s lead without first thinking through where their leadership might go.”
“Also,” she said, “never generalize. This applies to today’s political situations and to our own lives.”
She shared a quote from Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”
Reflecting on Sunday’s 15th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers, she shared her memory of that morning.
She and Nathaniel were visiting family in Florida. They chose to drive home, and as they neared the city and could see the smoldering ruins of the towers, she saw the Statue of Liberty, believed to have been one of the terrorist’s targets which they were unable to destroy.
“We must redouble our efforts to be kind and good and respectful to one another, and to all people,” she concluded, to a standing ovation.