Plano Middle School students recently received a history lesson they are likely never to forget.
Marion Blumenthal Lazan, 82, a survivor of the notorious Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, spoke to students and community members on Wednesday, Feb. 8, about her experiences as a child living through the Holocaust, and provided a chilling reminder that it is up to us to never let it happen again.
Lazan began speaking about the Holocaust in 1979 and has written a memoir of her experiences called "Four Perfect Pebbles." She has also been the subject of a documentary, "Marion's Triumph."
Lazan's father, Walter, ran a shoe store in the small town of Bremen, Germany, and she lived with her brother, parents and grandparents above the store.
In September 1935, Adolf Hitler introduced the Nuremberg Laws, when Lazan was less than a year old.
"Jews were not allowed into theaters, into parks, or into swimming pools," Lazan said. "All public schools were closed to Jewish children. Then there was the evening curfew for the Jews. Jews were only allowed to shop during specific hours of the day, and non-Jews were not allowed to shop in Jewish-owned stores. Non-Jews were just not allowed to associate with Jewish people."
Lazan said it was after the Nuremberg Laws were passed that her parents decided to leave the country. Her grandparents, however, did not see the need.
"These restrictions went on and on, and it was then that my parents made arrangements to leave the country," she said. "My grandparents, who were in their late 70s and ill, refused to leave their home. They could not understand the urgency or the necessity of doing so. My grandparents passed away in 1938 within 11 days of each other, and soon thereafter, we received our necessary papers for our emigration to America."
In November 1938, Kristalnacht, known as the "Night of Broken Glass," where Nazis and their sympathizers smashed the windows of Jewish storefronts and caused other damage, set off an even more aggressive anti-Semitic campaign, she said.
"This was the beginning of a massive pogrom against the Jews in Germany," she said. "A massive verbal and physical assault against all German Jews. In reality, this was the beginning of the Holocaust."
Lazan said the family was forced to sell their home and business for a fraction of their worth, and in January 1939, they left Germany for Holland to prepare for their move to the United States. They lived in Westerbork, a camp in Holland for Jewish refugees, to await their departure date.
"In May of 1940, just one month before our planned departure date, the Germans invaded Holland and we were trapped," she said. "All of our belongings, which were about to be loaded aboard ships, were burned and destroyed as the harbor of Rotterdam was bombed."
Lazan said that the conditions at the camp were fine at first, with the adults assigned to work duties – her father repaired shoes, her mother worked in the communal kitchen – and the food was enough that they didn't go hungry. However, months later, the Nazis took over the camp.
"We became acquainted with the ever-present, terrifying 12-foot-high barbed wire," she said.
The camp became overcrowded with Jews who were found by Nazis in hiding places, she said, and they had to share their living quarters with more people than before.
"And then the dreadful transports to the concentration and extermination camps in Eastern Europe began," she said. "This started in early 1942, and from then on, every Monday night, lists of those to be deported were posted, causing incredible anxiety, anguish and fear. And Tuesday morning, men, women and little ones were marched to a nearby railroad platform, from where they were transported. This area became known as 'Boulevard des Misères.' It was an area of complete misery. At 11 o'clock on Tuesday morning, the transports left for their destination, and of the total 120,000 men, women and children that departed Westerbork, 102,000 were doomed never to return."
Lazan said she and her family were shipped to a German concentration camp, the notorious Bergen-Belsen, in January of 1944, although she said as children they "welcomed the move" as a change of scenery and were "very naive." The experience left her traumatized.
"I remember that it was a bitter cold, pitch black, rainy night when we arrived at our destination: concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in Germany," she said. "We were pulled and dragged out of the cattle cars, and greeted by the German guards, who were shouting at us and threatening us with their rifles, and with the most vicious attack dogs by their sides. I was a very frightened 9-year-old, and to this day, I still feel a certain sense of fear whenever I see a German shepherd."
Lazan said 600 people were crammed into barracks built for a capacity of 100 at the camp, with two people per bed.
"German winters were bitter cold and very long," she said. "We were given one thin blanket per bunk, and a straw-filled mattress. Frostbite was common. We would treat our affected toes and fingers with the warmth of our own urine."
Lazan said the prisoners' diet consisted of a slice of bread per day, a pat of butter, and some hot watery soup with potato peels and gristle. She recalled being forced to strip and enter showers, where she and fellow detainees weren't sure if deadly gas or water would be exiting the shower heads.
"The Nazis did their utmost to break us physically, spiritually, emotionally," she said. "Unfortunately, they did succeed with many of our people. It was not uncommon for people who were no longer responsible for their actions to attempt escape, even though they knew the chance to succeed was next to impossible. But they also felt that they had nothing more to lose. The failure of their attempts were obvious when we saw their bodies lying electrocuted against the barbed wire."
She and her family managed to survive their experience, leaving the camp following the liberation by the Allied forces.
Her family arrived in the United States – specifically Hoboken, New Jersey – in April 1948, and a Jewish relief organization found a home for the family in Peoria, Illinois. As a 13-year-old, she was placed in fourth-grade classes due to her lack of English skills, she said.
But by taking extra classes, she ended up graduating from Peoria Central High School in 1953, and ranked eighth in a class of 267 students. She got married to her husband, Nathaniel, after graduation, and the couple is celebrating their 64th wedding anniversary is this year.
Her father died of typhus, which was common in the concentration camps, six weeks after their liberation in the spring of 1945. However, her mother, Ruth, died in December 2012 at the age of 104.
Lazan said she talks about the ordeal by psychologically separating herself from her experience.
"When I talk about those years, it is as if I'm relating a nightmare, a very bad dream," she said. "I separate myself from it ever having happened to me, and that is how I deal with it."
Lazan said she tells people her story so it will be passed down to future generations. She said children today will be the last generation to be able to hear the experiences first-hand.
"Although I've spoken to upward of one million students and adults over the past 20-some years, it still has not become easy," she told the students. "However, I do realize the importance of sharing that period of our history with you, simply because in a few short years, we will not be here any longer to give a first-hand account. Yours is the very last generation that will hear these stories first-hand. So I ask you to please share my story or any of the Holocaust stories that you read or learn about. Share them with your friends, share them with your relatives, and someday share them with your children and yes, even with your grandchildren. When we are not here any longer, it is you who will have to bear witness."
Plano Middle School Principal Mark Heller said Lazan's speech helped bring history to life for the students.
"I think to be able to read those things is one thing, but to be able to hear them from a person and connect that reality of someone who really went through the stories they've been reading and the connections that they've been making will hopefully really bring it to life," he said. "Marion does an excellent job of not just her historical story but tying in that message that all of us as adults are trying to pass on to our students about respect, kindness and being understanding of everybody else, and I hope they really take that away from it."
Beyond telling students about her experience during the Holocaust, Lazan gave a lesson to students about tolerance and kindness. She said it's up to us to not let such an atrocity happen again.
"Each of us, each and every one of us, must do everything in our power to prevent such hatred, such destruction and such terror from reoccurring," she said. "And we can begin by having love, respect, and tolerance toward one another, regardless of religious belief, regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of the national origin. This respect towards one another must begin in our homes, around the kitchen table, the dining room table, wherever we gather as a family. We the adults must pass it on in our places of business, you the students in your classrooms, in the halls of the school, communities, towns, cities, and only if there's tolerance and respect towards one another in the countries can we expect to have peace in the world."
Lazan also cautioned the students not to blindly follow a leader.
"We must be true to ourselves and not blindly follow a leader without thinking ahead and searching our hearts and our minds as to what the consequences might be," she said. "It is not cool to follow just anyone's lead without checking to see what his or her true intentions are."
Lazan said the students and those in attendance must learn from "the dark period in our history."
"We must never generalize and judge an entire group by the actions of some within that group," she said. "These are universal messages that each and every one of us is familiar with to varying degrees to be reminded of, over and over again. These messages are the lessons learned from the dark period of our history and certainly apply to today's situation and definitely to our own individual lives. By listening I hope that you prevent our past from becoming your future."
For more information on Lazan or to purchase her book, visit fourperfectpebbles.com.