In the early morning hours of April 23, 1948, Marion Blumenthal Lazan had been called to a deck of the Holland-American ocean liner bringing her, her mother, and her brother along with all the others on board, into New York harbor.
It was exactly three years to the day since she and her family had been liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany and the passengers assembled on the decks all wanted to see the Statue of Liberty.
There loomed the “symbol of freedom,” which imbued her with “the sense of liberation and compassion” she had never felt so acutely.
“Such wonderful, welcoming attributes” are possessed by the statue she told Global Atlanta that even now, 71 years later, whenever she passes over the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge on her way to or from her home in Hewlett, N.Y., she cranes her neck to get yet another look.
At age 84 she maintains a speaking schedule promoting tolerance and respect for others in the U.S. and Europe rivaling that of a political candidate — though she insists on not discussing politics — because she feels she belongs to a rapidly disappearing population of Holocaust survivors.
For this reason, she came to Atlanta to give her address on “Hope and Perseverance” at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center to more than 1,000 attendees for Am Yisrael Chai’s annual “Holocaust Remembrance Event” on the evening of Jan. 20. The event is held each year to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The attendees were welcomed by Dr. Andrea Videlefsky, a founding member and current president of Am Yisrael Chai, a non-profit Holocaust education and genocide awareness organization, which is committed to “learning through action for today’s world and for future generations.”
Nineteen Holocaust survivors living in the Atlanta area originally from Belgium, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania and the Ukraine lit remembrance candles prior to the remarks of Sandy Spring’s mayor, Rusty Paul, who recalled the career of his predecessor former Mayor Eva Galambos, whose family escaped the Nazis in 1933 and eventually settled in Athens, Ga. The newly completed arts center is located at 1 Galambos Way, named in her honor.
Ambassador Judith Shorer, Israel‘s consul general for the Southeast, said in her opening remarks that she learned from her mother, who had been an early settler in Israel and died a year and a half ago, not “to take anything for granted.” She called Israel the “best thing that has happened to the Jewish people,” and that “it is imperative not to forget” the Holocaust
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman of the Congregation Beth Shalom said in his comments that “We can never give up to make the world a kinder place.” Adding that “We have met the angel of death before with light,” and in the face of rising anti-semitism in the U.S. added that “We are not going anywhere.”
Ms. Blumenthal Lazan, now a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, speaks to as many school children as she can of her experiences at Bergen-Belsen, and implores them to learn to be “kind and good to one another.”
“It’s important that they learn these values at home and at a young age,” she said. “It’s such a simple message, but it’s a difficult one.”
Her accounts of her family’s life during the Nazi reign of terror in its refugee and prison camps including Westerbok in Holland and Bergen-Belsen in Germany are recounted in her book “Four Perfect Pebbles,” which was first published in 1996. Since then she has been promoting her pleas for tolerance and reflection throughout the United States and in Germany, Holland, Israel and the United Kingdom.
Her promotional materials indicate that more than 1 million students and adults in schools, organizations and houses of worship have attended her presentations. Her account includes the suffering, degradation and fear that her family experienced, and their methods of surviving.
When she was liberated by the Russian army at age 10 she said that she weighed only 30 pounds and her mother, 70 pounds. They were moved to East Germany and occupied residences that had been vacated by the Germans who fled the approaching armies. In these abandoned homes, they found cupboards full of food that their stomachs couldn’t digest because they had been starved for so long.
Mrs. Lazan was hesitant and almost seemed to apologize for recounting her memories of having to urinate on herself to combat frostbite, the scant nutrition that she received, the head and clothing lice that she killed with her fingernails and the scenes of dead bodies of prisoners hanging from barbed wire who were electrocuted while trying to escape or shot by the guards.
She counterbalanced these memories with those of the mental survival games she played including the one she has named the “three Bs” during which she would imagine a clean bed with blankets, a bath with soap and towels to dry herself or delicious bread to eat.
She also collected pebbles representing members of her family which she would hide to guarantee their safety. All did survive — her mother died recently almost reaching 105 years old — while her father died of typhus shortly following their liberation. The camp soon afterwards was burned to the ground to contain the typhus that had been rampant and claimed many lives.
Once released, perseverance underscored their post-war life and is often presented as the life that Anne Frank, the child who gained fame posthumously with the publication of the “Diary of a Young Girl,” might have had, had she survived her imprisonment at Bergen-Belsen.
Coinciding with Mrs. Lazan’s visit, Am Yisrael Chai brought in the “Anne Frank – A History for Today” exhibit that highlights photographs of Anne Frank’s life during the Nazi era.
Am Yisrael Chai organized an additional event in collaboration with the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust at which Mrs. Lazan spoke to 250 students from a mix of eight local middle and high schools answering their questions.
During these gatherings she said she underscores her gratefulness to the U.S., which she repeatedly refers to as “the blessed United States of America,” because it’s where she began her education at the age of 13 as a fourth grade student alongside students four years younger. It was then that she began to learn English, which she now speaks fluently in addition to German, Dutch and Hebrew. She also advised all immigrants to learn English as quickly as they can if they don’t already speak it as a means of integrating into American society and benefiting from its opportunities.
Among the attendees of the events were members of Atlanta’s consular corps and international organizations including representatives from the governments of Belgium, Canada, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Turkey and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.
Mrs. Lazan told Global Atlanta she appreciated Dr. Heike Fuller, Germany’s consul general based in Atlanta, for attending the event, and recalled that she first returned to Bergen-Belsen in 1995 with a group from Israel for the 50th anniversary of their liberation.
Although the camp had been burned to the ground after the war, there were mounds containing the mass graves of the remains of the thousands of victims. Despite these horrific reminders of her past, she has revised her opinions of the German people, primarily because of the efforts of the descendants of friends of her family from the town of Hoya in lower Saxony, who contacted her and invited her to visit.
Hans and Heike Huth first came to New York to meet her and extend an invitation to return. As she prepared to host them, she told Global Atlanta, that she couldn’t still her negative thoughts. “What am I doing this for?” she asked herself. But once she met them it took only two minutes for her to realize the sincerity of their sorrow about the Nazi atrocities.
Upon her return, the Huths took her to the Jewish cemetery in Hoya, which remained mostly in disarray with the exception of her family’s plot which the Huths had taken care of and where they placed a new gravestone honoring her Blumenthal ancestors buried there from 1894-1938.
“Their family had been friends of my family,” she said, adding that she considered the Huths “amazing people” and was grateful for their efforts to rekindle the family relationship.
She also praised the efforts of the German government to make certain that its schools reviewed the Nazi period in an effort to prevent a recurrence of the Holocaust and in support for children suffering in the face of genocide and other humanitarian crises in the world today.
Nor is she solely preoccupied with the past, saying that in all of her presentations she tries to instill the values of tolerance and kindness that provide the counterweight to the actions that lead to genocide.
She also quoted the famous proverb “for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.”
Am Yisrael Chai is reinforcing this message through its Daffodil Project which aspires to build a worldwide Living Holocaust Memorial by planting 1.5 million daffodils in memory of the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust and in support for children suffering in the face of genocide and other humanitarian crises in the world today. To date, 530,000 daffodils have been planted.
Am Yisrael Chai also joined the MLK Day of Service activities at Brook Run Park where volunteers planted 8,000 daffodils on a cold morning honoring the messages of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Each spring, Central Atlanta Progress also hosts a “Daffodil Celebration” and the Daffodil Dash 5K run in the fall, which begins and ends in Woodruff Park, to raise awareness and funds for the project.