116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Anne Frank had limited time to document her life as a Jewish girl hiding from German soldiers in Nazi-occupied Holland. Her story is well known to people who read 'The Diary of a Young Girl.” The story of another girl imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen in Germany may be less well known to some.
She too has a memoir about her life during World War II, 'Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story.” Frank's diary represents an ending while Marion Blumenthal Lazan's book symbolizes a beginning. Lazan has been sharing her story since 1979 and continues to reach audiences even during the pandemic.
Eastern Iowans will have a chance to hear Lazan's story at one of three Zoom presentations: 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursdayand or 9 to 10 a.m. Thursday. Registration is required and is available at https://holocausteducate.org. (FYI: Maximum of 300 logins per session)
The Thaler Holocaust Remembrance Fund has arranged the presentations to educate the public on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jim Bernstein of Cedar Rapids, chair of the Thaler Holocaust Education and Planning Committee, said with Holocaust survivors in their 80s and 90s, it's 'important to talk to young people so they can bear witness.”
'The lessons are so important,” Lazan said. She has seen firsthand what can happen when people blindly follow a leader and persecute others. 'If I reached one person, I have done my job.”
Lazan was 4 years old on Nov. 9, 1938, when Kristallnacht - or Night of Broken Glass - shattered life as Jews knew it in Germany. Her family's possessions were taken, and her father was sent to Buchenwald, a concentration camp. Though he was released three weeks later, it would not be the last the family would see of the camps.
The Blumenthal family - mother Ruth, father Walter, brother Albert and Marion - left for Holland in January 1939 intending to sail to the United States. By December 1939, the family was still waiting and was sent to Westerbork, a refugee camp. There for four years, Lazan says, life was fine under Dutch control.
In May 1940, one month before the family's departure date, the Nazis invaded Holland and destroyed their belongings. The 12-foot-tall barbed wire arrived when the SS took over Westerbork in July 1942. So did the lists of people to be deported. The people whose names appeared on lists posted Monday night were marched to the train station and taken away Tuesday morning. Of the 120,000 people who were left, Lazan says, 102,000 died.
Too young to know what was happening around her, Lazan saw the conditions as a way of life. That would change in January 1944, when her family was shipped out of Westerbork. Initially glad for a change of environment, Lazan said, her new reality became clear upon seeing the cattle cars for transportation.
Lazan was 9 years old when the Blumenthal family arrived at Bergen-Belsen in Germany. With death all around and nothing to occupy her time, Lazan used her imagination as a survival skill. She would collect shards of glass to reflect the sun's rays and create pets for herself. Lazan set out daily in search of four pebbles of the same size and shape. If she could find them, Lazan said, that meant her family would stay intact and survive the camp. She always found four pebbles, but Lazan admits she cheated all the time. 'It was my game, and guess who made the rules?” she said.
Her family did survive and was among the 2,500 people on the last three trains to leave Bergen-Belsen. They left April 9, 1945, six days before British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen. After 14 days on the train, German soldiers boarded seeking civilian clothing to elude Allied forces. It was then they knew the war was coming to an end. Russian troops liberated the train and took the passengers to a nearby deserted village. Lazan, then 10 1/2 years old, emerged from the train weighing 35 pounds.
In spring 1945, the family was ill with typhus, a highly contagious disease caused by filth and spread by lice. Six weeks after liberation, her father died.
After everything she endured, Lazan believes people can overcome anything. It's all a matter of perspective. Lazan benefitted from her mother's positive attitude toward life. 'Mental attitude toward life has a lot to do with physical health,” Lazan said. Her mother's life validates that. Ruth Blumenthal died six weeks short of her 105th birthday.
After the War
Re-entering the post-war world meant starting school and work and waiting for visas to be approved. Life in America for the family began in Hoboken, N.J., on April 23, 1948, three years to the day of liberation. From there, the family settled in Peoria, Ill., with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
Peoria is where Lazan would go on to graduate eighth in a class of 267 students. It was where she met her husband, Nathaniel, who was a student at Bradley University. They have been married for 67 years and live in Hewlett, N.Y.
Now 86, Lazan remains positive and focuses on a message of kindness and respect for all people.
'Kindness has to begin at home,” Lazan said. 'Respect the right of others to their beliefs. That is the basis of peace, no doubt.”
Lazan attributes the rise in white supremacy in the United States to a lack of education. 'Terror,” she said, 'has to be wiped out.” That starts, Lazan said, 'little by little - clean up your own little corner first.”
Her former hometown of Hoya, Germany, has taken steps in that direction. It named a high school in her honor in 2010. 'It's tremendously courageous for a little town to redress what happened,” Lazan said.
' What: The Thaler Holocaust Remembrance Fund Speaker Series: Marion Blumenthal Lazan shares her story
' When: 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday or 9 to 10 a.m. Thursday.
' Where: Registration required at holocausteducate.org.