PHOENIXVILLE — During her time at a concentration camp, Marion Blumenthal Lazan saw what she thought was firewood being pushed in a wagon.
To her dismay, she learned that instead of firewood, what she was seeing was in fact bodies piled on top of each other in the wagon.
During a visit with Phoenixville Area High School students on Oct. 15, Lazan shared this memory along with her story about enduring the Holocaust. Her personal experiences with the Holocaust led her to co-author a book, “The Four Perfect Pebbles,” which was later became a musical. A documentary, narrated by Debra Messing, was also made about her life. The speaker’s visit was timely in the school year since some students just finished reading “Night” by Elie Wiesel. English Teacher Trena Trievel organized the event and sophomore Sophia Tedesco introduced the speaker to the audience.
“Life in the early 1930s in Germany was very much for my family as it is here for most of you today,” Lazan said. She said she and her family never thought incidents would lead to the Holocaust.
Her father had a shoe store in town and she lived with her parents, older brother and grandparents above the store.
“Life for Jews was made increasingly more difficult,” Lazan said. “In 1935, the Nuremberg laws were formulated and enforced.”
Jews were not allowed into theaters, parks and schools, she said. Jews had an evening curfew and non-Jews were not allowed to socialize with Jews.
Shortly after restrictions were made, her parents worked on arrangements to leave Germany. Her grandparents didn’t want to leave and died within a week of each other from old age. Her parents received the necessary paperwork for the family to leave the country.
Lazan was just 4 years old during Kristallnacht, a night when Nazis broke the windows of synagogues along with businesses and homes owned by Jews.
“In reality, this was the beginning of the Holocaust,” she said. “The German government fined the Jewish population for the damage caused that night.”
Her father was taken from their home the night of Kristallnacht and sent to a concentration camp for 10 days. He was then released because of the paperwork came for the family’s immigration to America.
The business was sold and the family left for Holland where they waited for their number from the U.S. Department of State.
In December 1939, the family was sent to a detention camp in Holland where they continued to wait for their time to leave for America.
“(The camp) was instructed by the Dutch who accommodated Jews from various parts of Europe,” she said.
Germans invaded Holland and the family was trapped.
“All of our belongings about to be loaded on the ship were burned and destroyed as the harbor was bombed,” she said.
The transports to eastern Europe concentration and extermination camps started in early 1942.
When it was time for her family to be transported to Bergen-Belsen, each person was allowed to bring one knapsack with them.
“When we arrived to the concentration camp, we were pulled and dragged out of the cattle cars,” Lazan said. “We were greeted by German guards who were shouting at us and threatening us with their rifles and the most vicious police dogs at their sides. I was a very frightened 9-year-old and to this day, I am still frightened when I see a German Shepherd.”
Men and women were separated in the camp which was surrounded by electrified barbed wire. Two people had to share a bed in the bunks and that was their only living space. The mattresses were made of straw.
Lazan said the space was meant for only 100, but 600 were crammed into the camp. Unsanitary conditions led to lice, Dysentery and Typhus.
The restroom conditions were horrible. The restrooms were placed far away on the premises.
“Toilets were long, wooden benches with holes cut into them one next to the other,” she said. “There was no privacy. There was no toilet paper. There was no soap and hardly any water with which to wash.”
The family didn’t get to brush their teeth for a year, she said.
Once a month, the prisoners were taken to the showers. They had heard stories about exterminations at concentration camps so when they went in, they didn’t know if water or gas was going to come out of the faucets.
They ate a slice a bread per day and soup made with turnip and potato peels. A birthday treat would be extra bread if they saved some from the week before.
One day, her mother, who worked in the kitchen, smuggled some soup into the bunks and the Nazis made a surprise inspection. The boiling soup spilled on Lazan’s leg, but she didn’t cry out because she knew it would cost them their lives if the soup was found.
To pass the time, Lazan would make up games since she had no toys to play with.
“One game based on superstition became very important to me,” she said. “I decided if I were to find four pebbles of about the same size and shape that would mean all four members of my family would survive. It was a torturous, painful and very difficult game to play.”
Although she worried that her family members wouldn’t survive, the game gave her hope, Lazan said.
She said sometimes she would cheat at the game so she would find the four perfect pebbles.
Her family survived after spending six years in refugee, transit and concentration camps. Several weeks after liberation, her father died of Typhus.
Lazan, her mother and brother finally made it to the United States about three years later.
She urged students to share her story along with other Holocaust survivors’ stories since they will be the last generation to hear first-hand accounts.
Lazan said people must know about what happened, tolerate and respect each other, to prevent something like the Holocaust from happening again.
At the end of the program, students asked the Holocaust survivor questions.
One of the questions was if she had been back to Germany since the Holocaust. Lazan said she has been back several times. In 2010, a high school was re-named in her honor.