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Friday, April 11, 2014

Keynote Speaker Teaches a New Generation about the Holocaust

by Staff Sgt. Susan L. Davis
319th Air Base Wing Public Affairs


4/10/2014 - GRAND FORKS AFB, N.D. -- Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan took the podium in the Nathan F. Twining Elementary and Middle School gymnasium here April 7, 2014, in front of a crowd of about 500 students from three local middle schools to share her experience with a new generation of youth.

As she began speaking, she shared details about her life growing up in Germany in the 1930s. As a young girl, she lived with her parents, grandparents, and older brother. Her father owned a successful shoe business.

Her family and others could sense a change coming, however.

"Suddenly many of those we had formerly counted as friends became hostile, laws were enacted aimed at oppressing Jews and segregating us from non-Jews, and we were being singled out and scrutinized in nearly every aspect of our lives."

Then came the night that came to be known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, on Nov. 9-10, 1938, when Marion was only four years old. On that night, the Jewish populations of Germany and Austria saw their businesses vandalized and looted by the Nazi Brownshirts, the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party, and other non-Jewish civilians. German authorities simply stood by and watched.

At least 91 Jews were killed in the attacks, and another 30,000 were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned, and more than 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed.

Marion's parents knew it was time to leave, but her grandparents refused. After her grandparents passed away, Marion's family left Germany for Holland, and made plans to immigrate to the United States on a work visa, but they were too late.

"Holland was invaded days before our scheduled departure to America," she said. "Our family's belongings were burned and destroyed, and we were forced into prison camps including the Dutch Westerbork and the German Bergen-Belsen."

Westerbork was a transit camp designed to gather Romani and Dutch Jews for transport to other Nazi concentration camps. Bergen-Belsen was originally a prisoner of war exchange camp where Jewish hostages were held with the intent of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas.

From 1941-1945, the camp had claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and some 50,000 inmates. Up to 35,000 of those died of a typhus outbreak in the first few months of 1945 leading up to the liberation, including the famed Anne Frank.

During their time in the prison camps, Marion, her parents and her brother endured horrific living conditions.

"We had lice in our hair and in our clothes. We had barely enough food and water to keep us alive. For birthdays we would save up pieces of bread and give them to each other as gifts. The barracks where we would sleep had bunk beds furnished with only a thin blanket and stuffed with straw, and there might be two or three to a bed," she said. "We had no way of maintaining our hygiene, washing, brushing our teeth or even cleaning ourselves when we went to the bathroom. Many died of typhus and dysentery. Frost bite was common. Death and burial in mass graves were everyday occurrences. And it was gloomy and dull and inspired boredom as much as it did fear."

Marion said that the conditions even drove some prisoners to attempt to escape, despite the armed guards, search lights and 12-foot electrified barbed wire that imprisoned them.

"That was part of the goal of the prison camps, was to break the prisoners physically, mentally and spiritually," Marion explained. "It was to crush any hope they may have had."

She shared some of her own coping mechanisms that kept her from losing all hope during her time in the prison camps.

"I made up a game where I would look for four pebbles that were all similar in shape and size, and each one would represent each member of my family," she said. "If I could find a nearly matching set of four pebbles, it would be a sign that my family and I would survive our ordeal with our lives intact."

Finally, in the spring of 1945, Marion, her family, and the other prisoners had their hope and their faith rewarded when a group of Russian soldiers liberated them after nearly seven years of imprisonment.

Marion, then 10 years old, weighed only 35 pounds.

They received food, medical attention, and many had to shave their heads to eliminate the lice infestation.

Sadly, Marion's father, Walter, had contracted typhus, and succumbed to the disease only six weeks after their liberation.

Over the next three years, she, her mother and brother continued to struggle and wait before they were finally able to relocate to the U.S. They moved first to Holland again where they learned Dutch, then to Palestine (modern-day Israel) where they learned Hebrew, and finally to the U.S. where they learned English.

Having spent nearly seven years in captivity had left its mark, however.

"We had to relearn everything that we had either forgotten or never had a chance to learn when we were in the prison camps," she said. "We had to readjust to normal life, which was a hard adjustment to make--table manners, social skills, money, education--it was a difficult transition."

Marion's story is one of hardship and struggle, but ultimately one of courage, hope and overcoming the odds.

"Despite those early years spent in Nazi concentration camps, my life today is full and rewarding."

Exactly three years to the day of their liberation on April 23, 1948, the family finally arrived in Hoboken, N.J., and from there moved to Peoria, Ill., where Marion later graduated from high school eighth in her class, and met the man who would become her husband and a U.S. Air Force pilot, Nathaniel Lazan.

Together the couple had three children, and today they have nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They just celebrated 61 years of marriage. Marion's mother died just short of her 105th birthday. Her brother, Albert, is married and lives in California.

Marion impressed upon her young audience how important it is that they listen and heed her message.

"Your generation is the very last generation that will hear these stories firsthand," she said. "The horror of the Holocaust must be studied to keep anything like it from ever happening again. We must teach tolerance, love and respect for each other, and we must think for ourselves, and not blindly follow leaders who come to power. Don't let our past become your future."

Marion's story has inspired a book co-written by herself and Lila Perl entitled "Four Perfect Pebbles," a PBS documentary entitled "Marion's Triumph," and even a two-act musical written by John Holt.

"Marion's message has so much to do with kindness and hope, which is an integral part of our character education," said Eric Sanders, Nathan F. Twining Middle School English teacher. "We really hope that the students can walk away from this presentation today with a better understanding of why it's so important to be good and respectful and tolerant of others."

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