Holocaust survivor Marion Lazan inspires Judson community and friends
On March 21, 2017, Judson College’s Alumnae Auditorium was filled with students, faculty, administrators, and guests who hung on the words of a petite woman who stood on a box to be seen behind her podium.
Speaking in measured tones, Marion Blumenthal Lazan told the story of her childhood spent in concentration camps in Holland and Germany during the Second World War. “When I talk about those years, it is as if I am relating a nightmare, a very bad dream,” she said. However, Lazan’s story is one of triumph, of “perseverance, determination, faith, and above all, hope.”
Lazan related her family’s attempts to escape Nazi Germany following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the accompanying restrictions placed on Jewish citizens. Five-year-old Marion, her parents, and her brother had procured passports, visas, and tickets to leave from Holland for the United States, but in May of 1940, just one month before the Blumenthals’ departure date, Germany invaded Holland. Marion’s family’s possessions were destroyed as the Nazis bombed the harbor at Rotterdam. The Blumenthals were trapped in Westerbork, a refugee camp which, under Nazi command, quickly became a terrifying, overcrowded, unsanitary concentration camp. The Blumenthals spent the next six and a half years at Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen in Germany.
The experiences Marion described in her presentation are detailed in her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, which derives its name from a game she created as a “survival skill” to find relief from the physical and psychological abuses she witnessed and experienced. “I decided that if I were to find four pebbles of about the same size and shape, that would mean that the four members of my family would all survive”, she said. “It was a painful, torturous, difficult game to play. What if I could not find the third or fourth pebble?” Regardless of its terrors, the game provided “something to hold on to, some distant hope.”
In April 1945, Marion’s hopes were realized. A “surreal and horrifying journey” on a train bound for the extermination camps in eastern Europe was interrupted by the Allied forces, who liberated Marion’s family and almost 2,000 other Bergen-Belsen deportees. She remembers the restorative, redemptive spring of 1945 vividly. “The weather was beautiful, sunny and bright, trees and grass were lush and green, flowers were in bloom, birds were singing…it was a wonderful and exciting feeling to be free at last.”
Though Marion’s family survived their camp experience, her father died of typhus just six months after liberation. After three years of recuperation and work to build a new life in Holland, Marion and her mother and brother were able to travel to the United States using the same tickets they had purchased ten years earlier.
The Blumenthals settled in Peoria, Illinois, where thirteen-year-old Marion entered 4th grade because she spoke little English. She quickly advanced through grade school, however, learning English through extra courses, movies, radio, and, later, her correspondence with a young college sophomore, Nathaniel Lazan. Marion graduated from Peoria Central High School in 1953, just five years after beginning fourth grade, ranking 8th of a class of 256. She married Nathaniel Lazan soon after her graduation and moved with him around the United States as he served in the Air Force. Now Nathaniel travels with her to speaking engagements.
Marion paused in her presentation to introduce her husband, who had been snapping photos and offering suggestions from the third row as Marion spoke; she announced, to thunderous applause, that they will celebrate their 64th wedding anniversary in May. The couple has three children, 9 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. “So, you see, despite the terrible things that happened to me as a child,” Marion said, “my life today is full and rewarding.”
Lazan began speaking publicly about the Holocaust after her rabbi asked her to speak at a Holocaust remembrance service in 1979. She accepted, and wrote down “all of those feelings, those things I had tried not to think about for 30 years”. Realizing that sharing her story could be a way to ensure that its horrors would not be repeated, Lazan continued speaking, especially to students. In 1996, Four Perfect Pebbles was published, and her story was featured as a PBS documentary entitled Marion’s Triumph in 2003. She has spoken to more than one million students and adults since her speaking engagements began. The Lazans keep a busy travel schedule; in the last three months, the couple has made 9 round-trip flights. “We schlep a lot,” she smiled.
Lazan exhorted Tuesday’s audience to remember that the Holocaust did happen, and to tell its story to their friends, children, and children’s children. She repeated: “be kind and good and respectful towards one another. That is the basis for peace.”
Dr. Laura Schrock, Chair of the Judson College Concert/Lecture Committee, described Lazan’s audience as “spellbound” by her presentation. “The overwhelming response of the Judson student body demonstrated how deeply they respected and connected with her message, a message of hope and love they carry with them and will pass on to the next generation,” Schrock said.
After the presentation, Lazan signed copies of Four Perfect Pebbles and answered questions from students at an afternoon Q&A session.
Four Perfect Pebbles is in its 28th printing and is available in English, Dutch, German, Hebrew, and Japanese. Find more information about Lazan and her story at fourperfectpebbles.com, and follow the Lazans’ travels on her Facebook page.