Holocaust survivor spreads message of tolerance

May 15, 2008

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Marion Blumenthal Lazan's favorite time of year is spring, when the air becomes warm and flowers begin to bloom. It's a time of hope, the Jewish woman said, as she remembered back to a spring more than 60 years ago. It was in April 1945 that Lazan felt the warmth of hope again after she was liberated from the horrors of the Holocaust.

Lazan, 73, spoke to a group of more than 50 area residents last Wednesday evening at Williston Central School about her experiences during World War II and how she was able to continue her life after years of confinement in detention and concentration camps. Her talk coincided with visits to Chittenden South Supervisory Union schools, including Williston Central and Champlain Valley Union High.

"Mine is a story that Anne Frank might've told if she had survived," Lazan said.

Lazan talked much about the need for peace in this "troubled world," calling for love, respect and tolerance, regardless of religion, skin color or nationality.

"It's such a simple message, yet so hard to achieve," she said.

Surviving the Holocaust

Lazan was born in Germany in 1934 to Walter and Ruth Blumenthal, around the time the Nazi party had gained control of the country. Seeing the fascist direction in which Germany was headed, the Blumenthals — Walter, Ruth, Marion and her older brother, Albert — escaped Germany for Holland, hoping for safe passage to the United States.

One month before the family was supposed to set sail, Germany invaded Holland and the Blumenthals were imprisoned in a detention camp. For more than four years, they sat stagnant in the camp until the Nazis began transporting thousands of Jews in Holland to the concentration camps in Germany for forced labor. Lazan said at that age she didn't understand the danger when the train boxcars arrived at her camp.

"The adults suspected and somehow knew what was in store for us," she said.

After a cramped and frightening journey, the trains reached the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, the same camp where Anne Frank died.

It was around this time that Lazan, only 9 years old, witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust.

"Death was an everyday occurrence," Lazan said. "Bodies could not be taken away fast enough. Children saw things no one at any age should ever see."

After nearly 18 months at Bergen-Belsen, the Blumenthals were again placed in boxcars and sent to the extermination camps in Eastern Europe on a 14-day journey. Lazan said one of every five died during the train journey.

The Russian army liberated the train before it reached its destination. Unfortunately, Lazan's father died soon after from typhus contracted on the train.

"I separate myself from the war and the horrors, and that is how I've learned to live with it," she said.

In the end, the Holocaust claimed the lives of more than 6 million Jews and 5 million gypsies, homosexuals, developmentally challenged individuals and political dissidents.

Lazan, her brother and mother returned to Holland, where they were able to use the same tickets they had bought in 1939 to travel to the United States. In America, the Blumenthals settled in Peoria, Ill. in 1948, where Marion Blumenthal started school and quickly learned English.

She married Nathaniel Lazan soon after high school. They've been married for more than 50 years and have three children and nine grandchildren. Her brother Albert lives in California and her mother, at 100 years old, lives on Long Island near the Lazans.

Telling her story

Lazan began speaking about her Holocaust experiences in 1979 and wrote her book, "Four Perfect Pebbles," with author Lila Perl in 1996. A 2003 documentary, "Marion's Triumph," also tells her story. She continues to travel around the country, having spoken to more than 600,000 students and adults.

Carol Grau, an English Language Learning teacher at Shelburne Community School, had the idea of bringing Lazan to CSSU schools after seeing her talk in Burlington a few years ago. She said students in CSSU read Lazan's book and the reaction was well received.

"This is probably the best experience I've had in my teaching career," she said.

Deb Laskarzewski, a world languages teacher at Williston Central School, attended Lazan's talk after seeing part of her earlier presentation for students. They were very appreciative of the talk, she said, with many touched by the stories.

"It was really quiet in (the auditorium) for that many kids," Laskarzewski said.

Shawn Sweeney of Shelburne also attended Wednesday evening's discussion.

"The fact that anybody can come out of that horror and be so optimistic is amazing," he said. "She carries a tremendous message."

Lazan said she tells her student audiences they are the last generation to hear Holocaust stories firsthand.

"When we're not here any longer, it is you who must bear witness for us," she said. "Please share these memories and never forget them."