Holocaust survivor shares story with Plainfield students
By Frank Vaisvilas Correspondent October 20, 2013 4:20PM
Marion Blumenthal Lazan speaks with students | Frank Vaisvilas~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 22, 2013 6:19AM
PLAINFIELD — When Marion Blumenthal Lazan experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, she was a little younger than the children with whom she shared her story last week.
Lazan shared her story Thursday with middle school students at four Plainfield schools. Her book, “Four Perfect Pebbles,” is part of the curriculum in Plainfield School District 202.
The book is told from the perspective of a child and details Lazan’s experiences during Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. The Nazis killed roughly 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews who tried to help Jews escape.
Lazan was 4 in 1939 when her parents and older brother were forced into a prison camp called Westerbork in Holland because they were Jewish. She said life was dull in the camp with little to eat in cold, crowded barracks.
In January 1944, Lazan, then 9, learned that her family was to be moved to another camp and at first was looking forward to the change.
“We children were glad of having a change of environment,” she told a student assembly at Drauden Point Middle School. “We were very naive. When we saw the cattle cars in which we were to travel, our fears began to mount.”
She said Nazi SS guards would force the prisoners to move, using their rifles and vicious attack dogs.
“To this day, I still feel a certain amount of fear whenever I see a German attack dog,” Lazan said.
They arrived at the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany where their nightmare intensified, she told the children.
“Death was an everyday occurrence,” Lazan said. “... We, as children, saw things that no one, no matter what age, should ever have to see.”
She recalled seeing barrels of what, at first, looked like much-needed firewood for the cold barracks but that turned out to be piles of dead, naked people.
And then there were the showers.
“We heard about the gas chambers,” Lazan said. “... We were never sure when the faucets were turned on what would come out, water or gas.”
To survive mentally and emotionally, Lazan invented a game for herself in which she would have to find four perfect pebbles every day, one representing each member of her family. If she was able to find them, it meant her family would survive, she said, admitting that sometimes she cheated.
Her story also is one of inspiration and triumph of the human spirit as her family did survive the camp. But so many did not. From 1941 to 1945, almost 20,000 Russian prisoners of war and another 50,000 inmates died there, before it was liberated by British and Canadian troops in April 1945.
Up to 35,000 of them died of typhus during the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation. Unfortunately, Lazan’s father was one of them, dying six weeks after the liberation.
“We all have to overcome obstacles at one time or another,” she told the students. “But we need faith, perseverance, determination and, above all, hope.”
And her brother, to this day, refuses to talk about what happened at the camps and chose not to have children, Lazan said, adding that he probably experienced worse atrocities in the men’s area of the camp.
Lazan arrived in America at 13. She recalled seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time and being overjoyed because of what the monument represents — freedom.
And although she was different than her classmates in the U.S., she said they didn’t make fun of her and, instead, helped her with her studies.
Lazan told the students they should always have love, respect and tolerance for one another — no matter what a person’s religion, color or national origin.
The Holocaust is a lot to take in for middle school students, but school officials believe they have selected certain appropriate information, according to the grade levels.
“The book was written from the perspective of an adolescent,” said Thomas Hernandez, director of communications for District 202. “... The reason why this is so powerful is because it’s real to the kids. These young people are about the same age.”
He said it is a difficult subject for students, but “they need to know this.”