There is one question that upsets Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan more than any other: “Why didn’t you fight back?”
“From children I can understand it, but I am shocked when adults ask that,” she told NJ Jewish News. Her warm, effervescent personality doesn’t prevent that from bringing out the fire in her. “Don’t they understand — how it feels to be weak and sick and scared, and facing a soldier with a machine gun and a snarling dog? All you know is that if he opens fire, so many people will be killed.”
On Sunday, April 11, Blumenthal Lazan will speak about her experiences in Nazi Europe at the Perrineville Jewish Center, the Conservative congregation in Millstone Township, as part of the synagogue’s Yom Hashoa observance.
Her name may sound familiar: Blumenthal Lazan is the coauthor with Lila Perl of Four Perfect Pebbles, an acclaimed book about her and her family’s experiences during the Holocaust. Her story was also told in a documentary, Marion’s Triumph — Surviving History’s Nightmare, narrated by actress Debra Messing.
Since 1979, when the Hewlett, NY, resident first began speaking out about her wartime traumas, she has addressed thousands of children and adults at schools, synagogues, and community groups. When NJJN contacted Blumenthal Lazan was en route from a talk given the day before and on her way to another, with more scheduled within the following few days.
“I do it because it’s important to reach as many people as possible while there’s still time,” she said. “We are the last generation of people who will be able to give a personal description of what happened. I will continue to speak about it for as long as I can.”
To each audience, Blumenthal Lazan relates how the family fled from Germany to Holland in 1938, and then found themselves trapped when the Nazis invaded that country, and the hell they endured, barely surviving one concentration camp after the other.
As grim as her memories are, of six-and-a-half years of terror, pain, hunger, and torment, the ultimate message is determinedly upbeat, expressed in her gracefully fluent English. She and her mother and father and brother survived the war. Her father died of typhus very soon after liberation, but her feisty, determined mother is now 102 and still going strong. Her brother is around too, though his experience of the war was even heavier than hers, and he chooses to keep a much lower profile about it.
For 30 years, Blumenthal Lazan said almost nothing about her past. “I don’t know why that was — whether people wouldn’t have believed what we had to say, or if they weren’t ready to hear it,” she said. “Even my husband and my children knew very little about what we’d been through.”
Judy Zodkoy, president of the Perrineville Social Club, which is sponsoring the event, said the center offers a couple of speakers a year, and “on Yom Hashoa we wanted to bring in someone who could share their story with our congregation. This is such an important event in Jewish history, we don’t want these stories to go unheard or forgotten.” The author was chosen in particular “for her experience in presenting at many venues as well as her commitment to educating children.”
When Blumenthal Lazan was first persuaded to talk in 1979 she found the audiences responsive, but the experience harrowing. After delving up the memories, she suffered for hours afterward. But over the years, she said, it has become easier. What buoys her up, aside from the steady companionship of her beloved husband of 57 years, Nathaniel, is the eager receptiveness of both children and adults. “Of course, I am more gentle with the children,” she said, “but our story is our story.”
She speaks, she said, to convey the importance of tolerance, and the vital duty everyone has to treat one another kindly and with respect, never to generalize about people, and never to follow a leader blindly. She tells the youngsters in her school audiences that they must carry forward the knowledge she shares with them, “and to tell it to their children, and to their grandchildren.”