CNHI News Service
JOPLIN, Mo. — As a child in Germany's Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Marion Blumenthal Lazan focused on finding four pebbles of the same shape and size. Success would mean that the four members of her family would survive the Nazi camp, she rationalized with a 9-year-old's innocence.
“This game gave me something to hold onto, some distant hope,” Lazan said Monday night. “I made it my business to find those four pebbles.”
Lazan, now 78, shared the memory from a camp in northwest Germany for several hundred people in a packed auditorium at Missouri Southern State University. It's a story she's told publicly for more than 30 years, and wrote about in a book, "Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story," published in 1996. It's a story that Lazan urged her audience - especially younger ones - to pass along as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles.
“It is your generation that is the last generation that will hear these stories firsthand,” she said. “When we are not here anymore, it is you who will have to bear witness.”
Lazan was the younger child of a Jewish family living above its shoe store in Germany in the 1930s. The Blumenthals — father Walter, mother Ruth, son Albert and daughter Marion — received papers they needed to immigrate to the United States as the Nazi party began its crusade against the Jews. In 1939, they left for Holland, from where they would depart.
But, in May 1940, one month before they were scheduled to leave for the United States, the Germans invaded Holland. The family was trapped at Westerbork transit camp.
They remained there nearly four years, until January 1944, when they and other Jews were shipped out in cattle cars for a Nazi camp in eastern Europe. Lazan and the other young children were naively “glad for the change of environment,” she said. The adults feared what lie ahead.
They arrived at the Bergen-Belsen camp on a cold, rainy night. They were greeted by the shouts, rifles and attack dogs of the German guards, said Lazan, who was 9 at the time. Men and women were separated, and groups of 600 were sent to live in wooden, unheated barracks that designed for 100 people. They slept two per bunk.
The German military had established Bergen-Belsen in 1940 as a prisoner-of-war camp. It held about 7,300 prisoners in July 1944 and more than 60,000 by April 1945, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Life there was nightmarish. Lazan said she never saw trees or grass. Toilets consisted of a long wooden bench cut with holes. There was no privacy or soap, and only limited running water. Prisoners were given a slice of bread daily — later once per week — and hot, watery soup, she said.
“Our birthday present to one another was that little piece of bread that we had saved from the previous week,” she said.
Lice infested prisoners' bodies, clothes and hair. Lazan said her “primary pastime” became squishing the bugs between her fingers.
Malnutrition and dysentery “destroyed body and mind,” she said, and corpses of those who died were never removed quickly enough. She recalls once seeing a wagon loaded with what she assumed was firewood for barrack's oven. She later realized that it had actually been a pile of dead, naked bodies.
“We, as children, saw things that no one - no matter what the age - should ever have to see,” she said.
By spring of 1945, Allied forces were closing in on the Germans, and the Nazis decided started to send some of the Bergen-Belsen prisoners to extermination camps. The Blumenthal family was among those loaded onto a train for transport, said Lazan.
Two weeks later, the Russian army liberated the train. They were free.
“I vividly remember the spring of 1945,” said Lazan, who at age 10 had withered to 35 pounds. “The weather was beautiful, sunny and bright. The trees and grass were lush and green. Flowers were in bloom, birds were singing. It was a wonderful, exciting feeling to be free at long last.”
When British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen camp, itself, they found many of its prisoners to be seriously ill. There were thousands of unburied corpses.
An estimated 50,000 people - including Anne Frank, whose diary was famously published posthumously - died at Bergen-Belsen during its five-year existence, according to the museum. Another 13,000 liberated from the camp later died from their illnesses. Lazan’s father, succumbing to typhus, was one of them.
The Nazis killed about 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews - including Gypsies, disabled people and gay people - during the Holocaust.
Of those who survived an estimated 500,000 are still living, according to the UJA Federation, a Jewish philanthropy with U.S. headquarters in New York. In 2011, it was estimated that 127,000 survivors are living in the United States, though many are in their 80s and 90s, and they are passing away at a rate of perhaps thousands each year.
Granted freedom at age 10, Lazan began learning about life. Using the same tickets purchased years earlier, she eventually immigrated with her mother and brother to the United States.
They landed in Hoboken, N.J., on April 23, 1948 — three years to the day of their liberation. A Jewish relief organization found them a home in Peoria, Ill. Lazan started fourth grade at age 13.
She eventually graduated from high school and soon thereafter married her husband of 60 years, Nathaniel Lazan. They now have three children, nine grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. Her mother lived to be 104 years old, and her brother currently lives on the West Coast. “
Despite all the terrible things that happened to me as a child, my life today is full and rewarding,” she said.
Lazan keeps few mementos from that era, including the “ugly” yellow Star of David that she was forced to wear to identify herself as a Jew. Most of what she keeps and shares are memories, which are enough for those who come to listen.
“It really kind of touched me," said eighth-grader Imogen Eads, "because sometimes it’s really hard to comprehend the hardships, especially when we have such an easy life now."
As she traveled from New York to Southwest Missouri for this week's presentations, Lazan said she thought about the May 2011 tornado that destroyed one-third of the city and killed 161 people - and the difference between the uncontrollable terror of a storm and terror that is entirely man-made.
“There is nothing we can do against nature’s wrath and nature’s devastation," she said, "but how we as humans behave toward one another, that is up to us."
Emily Younker writes for the Joplin, Mo., Globe.