As Passover begins, a Holocaust survivor shares her story with students

Marion Blumenthal Lazan, 79, of Hewlett, described the horrors she experienced as a child imprisoned by the Nazis at Bergen-Belsen, the same concentration camp where Anne Frank died. She spoke to eigth-graders at Bellport Middle School on Thursday, April 3, 2014, a few days before the start of Passover. (Credit: Ed Betz)

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Marion Blumenthal Lazan was 10 1/2 years old and weighed 35 pounds when Russian troops rescued her from a train headed to a Nazi extermination camp.

It was April 1945, and she had survived more than six years in refugee, transit and prison camps, including the one where Anne Frank died. Lazan endured unspeakable horrors: naked bodies piled on top of each other, food rations that went from a watery cup of soup and a slice of bread a day to a slice a week. "Death was an everyday occurrence," Lazan, 79, of Hewlett, told several hundred eighth-graders at Bellport Middle School at a recent special assembly. "Mine is a story that Anne Frank might have told, had she survived."

Lazan's story holds special resonance as Passover begins Monday at sundown for thousands of Jews on Long Island and millions around the world.

The weeklong commemoration of the Jews' historic exodus from slavery in Egypt 3,300 years ago carries with it a message of faith, freedom, defiance and hope embodied by Lazan, said Rabbi Steven Moss, head of B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale and chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.

"Passover is really a message for all human beings, not just the Jewish people," Moss said. "The desire for freedom arises in the hearts and the minds and the lives of every human being."

Many Jews will mark the start of the major holiday with festive seders, which generally take place the first and second nights of Passover. Children will ask four questions about the Passover ritual, and their parents will respond by retelling the Exodus story.

Lazan, a member of the last generation of Holocaust survivors, has been telling her story to audiences for more than three decades, visiting 37 states. She has co-written a memoir, "Four Perfect Pebbles, A Holocaust Story," and was the subject of a 2005 PBS documentary, "Marion's Triumph: Surviving History's Nightmare."

She left many students at the Bellport school in awe. "I thought it was unbelievable how she survived all that -- just the abuse they took and how they stayed strong through everything," said Ryan Baumann, 14. "It's unbelievable she's still alive."

Lazan, her parents and her brother were living in Germany in the 1930s when Hitler rose to power, she told the students. Anti-Semitism rose with him, with Jews outlawed from parks, pools, theaters and public schools, and barred from associating with non-Jews.

On Nov. 9, 1938 -- the Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass" -- Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish businesses and synagogues, and the verbal and physical repression intensified. "In reality, this was the beginning of the Holocaust," Lazan said.

Her family secured paperwork to immigrate to the United States, and went to Holland to wait. But before they could leave, the Nazis invaded. "We were trapped," she said.

The family ended up in the Westerbork camp, and later was transferred to the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany, where Anne Frank was imprisoned and died of typhus.

Lazan described the horrors: Six hundred people crammed into an unheated wooden barracks designed for 100. Two people, usually strangers, assigned to each bunk. Toilets made of long wooden benches with holes cut in them and no privacy. No toilet paper, soap or water to wash with regularly.

And the constant deaths, mainly from starvation and typhus.

"Bodies could not be taken away fast enough," she said.

She told of seeing wagons pulled through the camp, full of what she first thought was firewood for stoves. It turned out to be stacks of naked, dead bodies.

Once a month the women were brought to a communal shower and forced to undress before guards. "We were never sure when the faucets were turned on what would come out -- water or gas," Lazan said.

She devised a way to survive mentally. Each day, she would play a game: If she could find four similarly sized and shaped pebbles, that would be a sign that the four members of her family would survive.

"It was a very torturous, painful game to play," she said.

The family was on the way to an extermination camp on April 23, 1945, when the Russians liberated the train on which they were riding.

Three years later, Lazan arrived in Peoria, Ill., where she graduated from high school and met her future husband, Nathaniel, a Woodmere native who was a college student there. The couple has lived on Long Island since 1960.

Lazan said she remains on a mission to keep the memory of the Holocaust from fading, before there are no more survivors left to tell about it.

"The horror of the Holocaust must be studied -- must be kept alive," she said.

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