Holocaust survivor shares her story
"Once a month we would march to a place to shower. There, under the watchful eyes of the guards, we were ordered to undress. We had heard about the extermination at other areas of Europe and we were never sure when the faucets were turned on if it was going to be water or gas," Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan told Cloquet Middle School students at a presentation early Monday morning.
Lazan, 82, shared her memories of living in Germany with her family in the late 1930s into the 1940s, escaping to Holland only to end up being captured and sent to a series of prison camps.
"Mine is a story that Anne Frank might have told had she had survived," Lazan said.
IN THE BEGINNING
Her father had owned a successful shoe business in the early 1930s in a small town in Germany. Her grandparents lived above the store with Lazan, her parents and her older brother.
"Life for Jews was made increasingly difficult," Lazan told the students listening raptly to her story. "Then in 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were formulated and enforced."
According to the new laws, Jews were not allowed in public buildings and all public schools were closed to Jews, Lazan said. Non-Jews were forbidden to shop at any business owned by a Jewish person.
Lazan's parents became alarmed by the unreasonable restrictions and wanted to leave the country. However, her grandparents were in their late 70s and ill. They did not understand what was going on and refused to leave.
Both her grandparents died within 11 days of each other in 1938. Lazan's parents received their paperwork to leave the country and immigrate to the United States a short time later. Lazan was 4 years old.
"November 9, 1938, it was Kristallnacht, or Crystal Night, it was the Night of Broken Glass," Lazan said. "The Nazis and their followers smashed the store fronts and the windows of Jewish-owned stores and synagogues. Jewish books were burned and destroyed. This was the beginning of a massive, prolonged event against the Jews in Germany ... In reality this was the beginning of the Holocaust."
She explained that the Germans actually fined the Jews for the damage done that night against them to help rearm Germany.
That night her father was taken away and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He was released after 10 days because his paperwork to leave the country had already been completed.
Lazan's parents then sold their home and business for a fraction of their worth due to the anti-Jewish laws in effect at the time.
In January 1939, the family left Germany for Holland to wait for their number from the American State Department. It took nine months. Her parents had been assigned to take care of about 125 children by desperate parents around Europe.
In May 1940, one month before Lazan's family's departure date, the Nazis invaded Holland, trapping the family before they could flee to the safety of the U.S.
The family's belongings were about to be loaded on the ship, but ended up being destroyed when the Germans invaded and bombed the harbor.
The family was taken away to Westerbork, a prison camp in Holland. Her parents were put to work, her father making shoes and her mom in the kitchen. There was enough food for the prisoners at this point. Lazan described her life at the camp as dull and stagnant.
Thousands of Jews were rounded up during this time and brought to the camp. Although many prisoners died, the Germans felt the process was not going quickly enough and decided to help move it along.
Early in 1942, Jews began to be transported to extermination and concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Every Monday night, lists were posted with names of people to be rounded up and put into cattle train cars.
"On Tuesday mornings, men, women and little ones marched to a nearby railroad platform from where they were transported," Lavan said. "Of the 120,000 men women and children who were deported from Westerbork, 102,000 were doomed to never return."
Her family's turn to be transported came in January 1944. When they saw the cattle cars they were to be transported in, the family feared the worst.
"I remember it was a bitter cold, pitch black, rainy night when we arrived at our destination, concentration camp Bergen-Belsen Germany," Lazan told the CMS students. "We were pulled and dragged out of the cattle cars and greeted by shouting German guards who were threatening us and with the most vicious attack dogs by their sides. To this day I still feel fear when I see a German Shepherd."
Lazan was now 9 years old.
Families were split up: men and boys on one side, women and girls on the other. The Jews had been issued a yellow Star of David to mark them as Jewish while they were in Holland, and they were required to keep the yellow star at Bergen-Belsen, where they were placed in a section called the star camp. They hoped to be exchanged for German Nationals, but very few exchanges were made.
The heatless barracks was built to hold 10,000 people, but the Nazis crammed 60,000 Jews in the wooden buildings.
Despite the harsh German winters, the people were only given a single thin blanket to ward off the cold. There were triple-level bunk beds for them to sleep, with two to a bed.
Lazan felt lucky to be able to share a bunk with her mom instead of a stranger as many were required to do.
"I remember when I first saw a wagon I thought was carrying firewood," said Lazan. "I soon realized what I saw in the wagon was dead, naked bodies thrown one on top of the other."
The desperate people attempted to thaw frozen fingers and toes with their own urine.
The Nazis tried to destroy the body and mind of the terrified prisoners in the dark crowded quarters.
The camp was surrounded by a 12-foot-high barbed-wire fence. Lazan saw the bodies of those who had nothing left to lose hanging on the fences where they had been electrocuted while attempting an escape.
"We as children saw things that no one of any age should have to see," Lazan said. "Death was an everyday occurrence."
The prisoners suffered from malnutrition, head lice, clothes lice and dysentery, Lazan said. The food was a hot watery soup with grizzly meat and turnips and potato peels. If they were lucky, they were allotted one slice of bread and a pat of butter a day.
There was no privacy, the toilets were made from a long piece of wood with holes cut out next to each other. There was no toilet paper, soap and very little water to wash with. The prisoners were not able to brush their teeth during their imprisonment.
"The bodies could not be taken away fast enough," said Lazan.
While people can see through movies and photographs what the prisoners suffered, they cannot portray the constant foul odor, the filth and the continuous horror and fear of being surrounded by death, according to Lazan.
"When I talk about those years, it's like reliving a nightmare," Lazan said. "I separate myself of it ever happening to me and that is how I deal with it."
The men and teens suffered the worst from malnutrition and died before the women and children.
"There is no doubt in my mind that it was my mother's inner strength and fortitude that saw us through," said Lazan.
Lazan used her imagination as a survival skill. She would search for four similar-sized pebbles to represent her four family members. If she could find all four, that meant her family members would all survive.
On April 9, 1945, her family was again loaded into a cattle car, this time headed east. Many of the people died and the prisoners were forced to carry the bodies out of the train and dig mass graves to bury them. Soon the prisoners began to notice the train was passing empty German houses.
"We knew the war was coming to an end when Germans looked for civilian clothes to wear," Lazan said. It was April 23, 1945.
The Russian Army finally liberated the prisoners from the train and led them to a village in Eastern Germany that had been mostly evacuated. The freed people stayed in the empty homes.
By this time Lazan was 11 years old and weighed only 35 pounds; her mom was 70 pounds. The prisoners had to shave their heads to get rid of the lice.
It was spring of 1945 and the birds were singing, there was green grass and pretty flowers, remembered Lazan.
"It was wonderful and exciting to be free at last," said Lazan.
The prisoners had typhus — a disease transmitted by lice or fleas — and her father died six months after they were liberated. Her 12-year-old brother had to help bury his dad.
The children were sent to a children's home in Holland. They had to learn how to behave in normal society. The young ones had no table manners and had never used money to make purchases.
They were also given nutritious meals and an education.
By November of 1947 many of the survivors were being sent from Holland to Palestine.
Luckily, Lazan's mother was able to use the tickets they had purchased 10 years earlier to get them to America. The family arrived in Hoboken, N.J., on April 23, 1948, three years to the day they had been freed from the concentration camp.
The family finally ended their journey in Peoria, Ill., when Lazan was 13. She was put in a class of fourth-graders because she spoke very little English.
Lazan worked hard and graduated on schedule at 18 years old, number eight out of 267 students, despite working after school to help her mom pay the bills. Her mom lived to be 104.
Two months after graduation, she married Nathaniel Lazan. They will be celebrating their 64th wedding anniversary this August.
"I am very grateful that I survived healthy in mind and body and spirit," said Lazan. "We have three children; we are happily married, have nine grandchildren and three magnificent great-grandchildren. Amazing, amazing!"
Lazan encouraged the students to share her story and keep it alive.
BREAKOUT BOX: A deadly camp
On April 15, 1945, British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The British found around 60,000 prisoners in the camp, most of them seriously ill. Thousands of corpses lay unburied on the camp grounds. Between May 1943 and April 15, 1945, between 36,400 and 37,600 prisoners died in Bergen-Belsen. More than 13,000 former prisoners, too ill to recover, died after liberation. After evacuating Bergen-Belsen, British forces burned down the whole camp to prevent the spread of typhus.
During its existence, approximately 50,000 persons died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp complex including Anne Frank and her sister Margot. Both died in the camp in March 1945. Most of the victims were Jews.
Information courtesy of the Bergen-Belsen- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum