OSWEGO, NY – Marion Blumenthal Lazan brought her message of respect, understanding and hope to the Port City Monday.
During the Holocaust, the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews. That is equal to about one-third of the current population of New York State and the pre-war Jewish population.
In that number were 1.5 million children, “children just like you,” she told the teens seated before her in the OHS theater.
There were also 5 million non-Jews who lost their lives aiding the Jews, she added.
In 1938, Marion and her family were scheduled to leave for the United States as refugees from Nazi Germany.
However, just before they were able to depart Rotterdam, the Germans invaded Holland, bombing their ship.
The family was trapped.
They experienced six-and-a-half years of horror in HitlerÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s camps, living an incredible story of “near escapes, dashed hopes and tragedy,” she said.
The camp was liberated in 1945; Marion was 10 years old, she weighed 35 pounds.
“In the spring on 1945, the leaves on the trees and the grass were lush and green. Flowers were in bloom, the birds were singing. It was a wonderful, exciting feeling to be free again at long last,” she told the students.
Many people were sick, suffering from typhus; her father died from the illness six weeks after being liberated.
“And this, after six and a half years of mental torment and physical abuse,” she said. “My 12-year-old brother, Albert, actually helped bury our father.”
Her mother celebrated her 100th birthday in February.
They were sent back to Holland to start their lives over.
She and Albert were placed into a children’s home in preparation to live in Palestine (Israel).
“Most of the children in this home survived alone, without their parents. I felt like a total misfit. I needed to learn how to re-settle into a normal society,” she explained. “I had no training for that. Here I was, by this time, 11 years old ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ I had never been in a store, had no idea what money was all about, I had almost no table manners. It was like learning to live all over again! It was in this home that we became reacquainted with life in its normal state.”
It was a rather strict environment; but “much love and care was given us,” she added.
She began receiving a formal education, including a new language, Dutch and also Hebrew.
Some ships with Jews were re-routed to the island of Cypress because a limit had been placed on how many Holocaust saviors were being allowed into Israel in the early 1940s, she noted. Some ships were even sent back to Europe.
Finally, they made it to America in 1948, and thanks to the Holland-American Line, they were able to use the tickets paid for 10 years earlier, she pointed out.
They arrived in Hoboken, NJ, April 23, 1948; it was three years to the day of their liberation from the camp, she added.
The settled in Peoria, Ill.
“At the age of 13, I once again started life anew in a strange land and again learning a new language. My third new language in less than three years,” she said.
Because of her inability to speak English, she was placed in the fourth grade with nine-year-olds.
She and her brother worked after school to help her mother pay bills. Marion also found time for taking extra classes.
She graduated five years later at age 18, ranking eighth in a class of 267 students.
“It was two months after high school graduation that I was married to Nathaniel Lazan who I had met at the age of 16 in Peoria,” she said. “And, God willing, we’ll be celebrating our 55th wedding anniversary this coming August.”
Her husband stood and gave a wave to acknowledge the round of applause from the audience.
The couple has three grown children and “nine beautiful grandchildren.”
Today, Marion travels the world to bear witness as a member of the last generation of living Holocaust survivors.
Her memoir, ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œFour Perfect PebblesÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â (named for a game she invented to pass the time in the camp), is in its 11th printing and is taught in schools worldwide.
When she talks about her days in captivity, it is like she is reliving a very bad dream, she said.
“I am so happy my story is in book form, so that it can be passed on to future generations,” she said.
She is also pleased that a documentary, MarionÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s Triumph, has been made to help tell her story, adding, it’s the story Anne Frank might have told had she lived.
Despite all the bad things in her childhood, her life today is full and rewarding, she proclaimed.
In the past 20 some years, she’s told her story to more than 700,000 people.
“It’s difficult for me to tell the story. It has not become easier,” she said. “But, it is important to share that period of our history with you. Because, in a few short years, we will not be here to give a first-hand account. Yours is the very last generation that will hear the stories firsthand.”
She asked the audience to share her story (or any story regarding the Holocaust) with their friends and families, and some day with their children and grandchildren.
“When we aren’t here any longer, it is you who will have to bear witness. As difficult as it is, the horror of the Holocaust must be taught, must be studied and kept alive. Only then can we guard against this from ever happening again,” she said as she displayed the yellow star she was forced to wear more than 60 years ago.
“It was just another way to denigrate us and isolate us and set us apart from the rest of society,” she explained. “This represents the Star of David; a beautiful, meaningful Jewish symbol. But the Nazis made it so very ugly.”
Everyone must do everything in their power to prevent such hatred, such destruction and such terror from ever reoccurring, she told the audience.
“We can begin by having love, respect and tolerance toward one another, regardless of their religious belief, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of their national origin,” she said, adding that respect must start at home.
She urged the students to look for similarities they have with others and respect the differences.
“Build bridges and reach out to one another,” she said. “Don’t blindly follow the leader.
We must never judge an entire group solely on the actions of some in that group, she stressed.
She has returned to Germany on three occasions, including 1995, the 50th anniversary of their liberation.
The Allies burned down the camp because it poised a health risk.
“So, today it looks like a park, green grass, shrubs, trees, really not that bad looking,” she recalled. “Except for the mounds everywhere; mounds with plaques that read ‘Here lie a thousand.’ ‘Here lie 2,500.’ These are the mass graves of our people.”
She also visited her hometown where the officials apologized “over and over again” for what was done to the Jewish people, she continued.
The old Jewish cemetery was in terrible disarray, it hadn’t been properly maintained since 1938, she said.
A non-Jewish couple took Marion to her family’s plot.
“There, among the toppled over stones, was a brand new shiny granite footstone,” she said.
In German she recited what the inscription said. Then, she translated for the students: “In memory of the desecrated plot of the Blumenthal family.”
“It was placed there by the non-Jewish couple, unbeknownst to us. The most beautiful, generous, kind gesture.” she explained. “I never thought I’d refer to non-Jewish Germans in such glowing terms. It’s people like these that renew people’s faith in humanity.”
They have since become good friends and the couple visited New York in February to celebrate Marion’s mother’s 100th birthday.
She is planning another trip to Germany later this fall.
Marion’s message wasn’t lost on the students.
“I thought it was just going to be more like her explaining what happened,” said Maggie McCloskey. “But, it was very inspirational; especially how she told us to be kind to people, respect their differences.”
Kali Purt said they have heard a lot of stories about Auschwitz. “But this is different, it’s a different camp. And, it’s a first-person account of the Holocaust, that made it very interesting,” she said.
“I liked how she can do this. Some people who have gone through less terrifying things than (the Holocaust) can’t talk about it. But she can and she inspires others,” Kali continued.
Students can take a course about the Holocaust as part of Global studies.
But to hear someone who has lived through it makes for a powerful learning experience, Maggie pointed out.