It was an unforgettable day for many students and guests on Jan. 28 as author, lecturer and Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal-Lazan visited Yucaipa High School to provide firsthand experiences of the Holocaust. Hundreds of high school students sat riveted and listened silently to an hour presentation in the gymnasium.
“I feel her message resonated with students,” said YHS teacher and co-coordinator John Taylor. “It far exceeded my expectations — it wasn’t just a talk about the Holocaust, it was about the human spirit and adversity in the most tragic conditions. It’s rooted in history and also had universal implications.”
Although the atrocities are unimaginable to most, Blumenthal-Lazan’s bigger focus in her presentation explored positive thinking, tolerance and peace.
“All of you are the last generation to hear a firsthand of the Holocaust,” said Blumenthal-Lazan. “Please share it with your friends and family and your children and grandchildren.”
Blumenthal-Lazan was a Jew who survived six and half years in refugee and concentration camps, which included Westerbrook in Holland and Bergen-Belsen in Germany, she said.
“Mine is a story that Anne Frank might have told, had she survived,” she said. “Most of you know — Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl who died in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. This is also a story that conveys a message of perseverance, faith and above all- hope.”
She talked about her early childhood in Germany. Her father owned a successful shoe shop and was a good citizen and was even honored for fighting in the German Army in WWI. Life was good for the Blumenthal family. Then her world changed. Germany attacked Poland and World War II began.
“We were forced to sell our home and business for a fraction of its worth,” she said. When she was just four years old, along with her mother, father and older brother she left to Holland in Dec. 1939 to await their move to the USA.
“But in May 1940, the Germans invaded Holland and we were trapped,” she said. “All our belongings were burned and destroyed at the harbor.”
Shortly thereafter, the family was transported from Holland to Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp.
“We became acquainted with the ever-present, terrifying 12’ high, barbed wire fence,” she explained to students. “Thousands of Jews were rounded up, many taken from their hiding places to the dreadful concentration and extermination camps of Eastern Europe.”
Blumenthal-Lazan said she remembers the event vividly. “In January 1944, it was our turn to be shipped out,” she said.
Each person was allowed one small knapsack of belongings.
“I remember it was a bitter-cold, pitch-black, rainy night when we arrived at the camp.”
She said the men were on one side and the women were on the other side of the camp. They were jammed inside on triple-decker bunk beds with two people sharing a single bunk bed. Winters, she said were bitter cold and very long.
“We were given one thin blanket each and slept on straw beds,” she said. “I was very lucky to bunk with my mother.” She described deplorable conditions of living in the camp. “I soon discovered what the big wagons were for,” said Blumenthal-Lazan with a pause. “There were dead, naked bodies thrown one on top of each other.”
She talked about the primitive outhouses, with “no privacy, no toilet paper, no soap, and hardly ever any water in which to wash.” She said they did not once brush their teeth.
Day after day, she witnessed horrible conditions and she invented a game to occupy her mind. It was called the “four perfect pebbles.” Years later she wrote a book about the game and her life in the camp.
She would search for four perfect pebbles about the same size and if she found them it would mean all of her four family members would stay alive. Finally, came liberation.
After surviving the camp, the family was finally liberated. Her father Walter unfortunately became ill with typhus just days after liberation and died. Her mother weighed 60 pounds and she weighed only 35 pounds at the age of 10. Her brother didn’t weigh much more.
The family of three boarded a ship and headed to the United States.
Blumenthal-Lazan urged students to be tolerant and always remain respectful of differences in others.
“Only then can we have peace in our world,” she said. “Be kind and be good to each other.”
She received a long standing ovation from students and faculty.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our students,” said YHS teacher Liz Calbreath. “I’m so thankful for the administrative support to bring her here.”
Blumenthal-Lazan resides in New York but is constantly traveling around the globe to deliver her presentation and encourage peace and understanding.
“Nathaniel and I will do this for as long as we are able,” she said. “We hope to reach out to as many audiences as we can.”
Blumenthal-Lazan and her husband Nathaniel have traveled to five countries and 37 states. Her award-winning memoir, “Four Perfect Pebbles” can be found on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and wherever books are sold.