Four Perfect Pebbles: Holocaust survivor captivates crowd in Wheeling appearance

Marion Blumenthal Lazan autographs copies of her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, following her lecture Sunday at Temple Shalom.

Marion Blumenthal Lazan autographs copies of her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, following her lecture Sunday at Temple Shalom.

By Lee Chottiner

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

— Edmund Burke

For Marian Blumenthal Lazan, evil did not triumph during the Holocaust.

Even though she spent six years suffering in transit and concentration camps from 1940-45, death, despair and cruelty all about her, evil did not triumph.

Even though her father died six weeks after his liberation, a victim of typhus, evil did not triumph.

Even though her brother, Albert, who also survived, lost his faith in God and refused to bring children into the world, evil did not triumph.

“Despite all the terrible things that happened to me as a child, my life today is full and rewarding,” said the 81-year-old mother of three, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of two.

But Lazan, a German Jew who first witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust at the age of 4, said she needs witnesses to prevent those horrors from ever recurring, people who will recount the truths of the Holocaust long after she and the other living survivors are gone.

With that in mind, she appealed to the 200 adults and teenagers who packed Temple Shalom Sunday evening: Remember her story and tell it to others.

“It is your generation that is the last generation that will hear these stories firsthand,” Lazan said. “I therefore ask you to please, please, share my story, or any of the Holocaust stories that you read and hear about. Share them with your friends; share them with your relatives. And you young people here this evening: Someday, share them with your children and, yes, even your grandchildren. When we are not here any longer, you will have to bare witness.”

Lazan, who travels around the world with her husband, Nathaniel, to share her story, appeared in Wheeling Sunday in a program cosponsored by Temple Shalom and Classrooms Without Borders.

In addition to Sunday’s program, Lazan is making appearances this week at public and private schools in Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties.

Lazan later autographed copies of her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, which she co-authored with young people in mind. The title comes from a game she played while in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Every day she would search for four equally perfect-sized pebbles. If she found them, it would mean all four members of her family would survive.

The book recounts:

• The earliest days of Lazan’s youth in Hoya, Germany, when the Nazi’s Nuremburg Laws made it a crime for Germans to buy from Jewish shop owners (her parents ran a shoe store), and kept Jews out of parks, theaters, pools and other public places.

• Kristallnacht when Nazi gangs burned synagogues, smashed Jewish-owned shop windows, burned Jewish books, and sent Jewish men to the first concentration camps. Afterwards, the government actually fined the Jewish community for the damage the vandals wreaked.

• Her family’s flight to Holland to stay one step ahead of the Nazis, only to be trapped there when Hitler invaded the country in 1940.

• Their 18 months in Bergen-Belsen where guards “did their utmost to break us physically, spiritually and emotionally.” Prisoners were starved, beaten and neglected. Some tried to escape by climbing the electrified fences; their dead bodies were left hanging on the barbed wire.

• Their two-week cattle car train ride east as allied forces closed in—no food, water or toilets—a hellish journey that ended with liberation by the Soviet Red Army.

At one point in her talk, Lazan held up a yellow star with the German word Jude (Jew) in the center. The Nazis made all Jews wear such patches on their clothes.

Lazan shows the audience the yellow star the Nazis forced her to wear.

Lazan shows the audience the yellow star the Nazis forced her to wear.

“This is the very yellow star that I was forced to wear,” she said. “It was just another way to ghettoize us, to isolate us and to set us apart from the rest of society. This represents the Star of David, a beautiful, meaningful Jewish symbol, but the Nazis made it so very ugly.”

One time in Bergen-Belsen, Lazan’s mother stole some potatoes from the kitchen and boiled some soup in the barracks. As guards suddenly entered the building and her mother tried to hide what they were doing, the soup spilled, scalding Lazan’s leg. She stayed silent, though, knowing full well that crying out would cost them both their lives.

Miraculously, Lazan, her brother and their parents all survived the Holocaust (few families did). Tragically, her father died of typhus six weeks after liberation. 

In 1995, she reluctantly returned to Bergen-Belsen with a group of survivors and their descendants. The camp as she recalled it was gone, destroyed by the allies in 1945. In its place was a beautiful park-like scene—with one exception: the mounds.

There are mounds all over Bergen-Belsen with markers testifying to the thousands of bodies buried there.

“These are the mass graves of my people,” Lazan said.

As sobering as that site was, Lazan actually found the trip renewing to her faith in human nature.

For instance, they also visited the eastern German city where her father died and found his grave well cared for with a headstone atop it. Many survivors who died at liberation weren’t as fortunate; they were buried in mass graves.

And in Hoya, her old family home, she found a brand new memorial at the desecrated graves of her relatives in the Jewish cemetery, placed there by a non-Jewish married couple whose family had known hers. Had she not returned to Germany, she would never have known it was there. She has since befriended that couple, which traveled to New York to help celebrate her Lazan’s mother’s 100th birthday.  

Such is the message she left her audience:

“Be kind and respectful to one another,” she pleaded. “It’s so simple a message, and yet so hard to achieve.”

• • •

Almost as engaging as Lazan’s story was the ballad, also titled Four Perfect Pebbles which was performed before she spoke. Written by Pittsburgh songwriter John Holt, who was in the audience, John Marshall High School freshman Kailey Filben sang the song as Leslie Garrett accompanied her on the keyboard.

Holt first met Lazan during an appearance at the Holocaust Museum. He bought her book, took it home, read it, and became inspired. He even traveled to New York to interview Lazan, and her mother.

In fact, he became so inspired that he wrote a two-act musical about Lazan story, which includes the ballad. that was sung at Temple Shalom.

Sadly, the musical has never been performed, but the song has, by an orchestra, dance groups, choirs and soloists. 

“The blessing is this song is performed all over the world,” said Holt, “and isn’t that a wonderful gift?”

The capacity crowd at Temple Shalom gave Lazan a standing ovation following her lecture.

The capacity crowd at Temple Shalom gave Lazan a standing ovation following her lecture.