JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Marion Blumenthal Lazan was a young child at the Bergen-Belsen camp in northwestern Germany, she decided to focus all her energy on finding four pebbles of the same shape and size.
A success would mean that the four members of her family would survive the Nazi concentration camp alive, she rationalized with all the childlike innocence of a 9-year-old.
“This game gave me something to hold onto, some distant hope,” Lazan said during a public presentation Monday in Joplin. “I made it my business to find those four pebbles.”
Lazan, now 78, shared her experiences as a survivor of the Holocaust with several hundred students, faculty and staff members, and community members in a packed auditorium at Missouri Southern State University. She is scheduled to speak again at 6:30 p.m. today at Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School, 3401 E. Newman Road.
Lazan was the younger child of a Jewish family living above its shoe store in Germany in the 1930s. As the Nazi party began its crusade against Jews, the Blumenthals — father Walter, mother Ruth, son Albert and daughter Marion — received the papers they needed to emigrate to the United States. They left for Holland, from where they would depart, in 1939.
But in May 1940, one month before their scheduled departure date, the Germans invaded Holland, and the family was trapped at Westerbork transit camp.
The family members remained at Westerbork until January 1944, when they were shipped out in cattle cars for a Nazi camp in eastern Europe. Lazan and the other young children were “very naive” and “glad for the change of environment,” she said, while the adults fearfully suspected what was in store for them.
They arrived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on a cold, rainy night, and they were greeted by the shouts, rifles and attack dogs of the German guards, said Lazan, who was 9 at the time. The men and women were separated in the camp, with 600 individuals living — two per bunk — in wooden, unheated barracks designed for only 100 people, she said.
Bergen-Belsen was established in 1940 by the Germany military primarily as a prisoner-of-war camp. It held about 7,300 prisoners in July 1944 and more than 60,000 by April 1945, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Life at Bergen-Belsen was nightmarish. Lazan said she never saw trees or grass; toilets consisted of a long wooden bench with holes cut in it, with no privacy or soap and limited running water. Prisoners were given a slice of bread daily — later cut down to once per week — and hot, watery soup, she said.
“Our birthday present to one another was that little piece of bread that we had saved from the previous week,” she said.
Lice were rampant among the prisoners, living on their bodies and clothes and in their hair. Lazan said her “primary pastime” became squashing the bugs between her fingers.
Malnutrition and dysentery “destroyed body and mind,” and Lazan said the corpses of those who died were never removed quickly enough. She recalls once seeing a wagon loaded with what she assumed was firewood for the oven in their barrack; she eventually realized that the firewood had actually been a pile of dead, naked bodies.
“We, as children, saw things that no one, no matter what the age, should ever have to see,” she said.