Friday, May 04, 2007

That we should never forget

Marion Blumenthal Lazan's hazel eyes sparkle with pride as she flips through the pages of the small photo album she carries in her purse, showing off her children and grandchildren to teachers and students at a luncheon in her honor at Rocky Point Middle School Monday.

The petite and vivacious, well-dressed woman from Hewlett could be anybody's modern-day bubbe. (For all you goyim out there, that's grandma in Yiddish.) She identifies her three grown children by what they do and where they live. She kvells — beams with pride and pleasure — over the images of her nine grandchildren. Her index finger touches each face as she says each name aloud, a broad smile on her face. My mother used to do the same thing with pictures of her grandkids.

But Ms. Lazan's pride takes on special meaning when you think about how the smiling, attractive people in the snapshots filling the pages of this grandma's brag book were almost never born.

Ms. Lazan, a German-born Jew, spent more than six of her first 11 years of life in the Westerbork refugee camp and the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She and her family were on their way to a death camp, packed into a cattle car with 2,500 other prisoners for two weeks, facing certain extermination at the end of their journey, when an allied invasion ended their trip and ended the war.

She had nearly starved to death, weighing only 35 pounds when Russian soldiers liberated the surviving occupants of that death train, on April 23, 1945. One in five had perished on the way. Marion and her family were among the fortunate to have escaped with their lives, though barely. And her father died six weeks later of typhus contracted at Bergen-Belsen.

The nightmare she lived as a child still haunts her, 60 years later. She recalls in vivid, explicit detail the horrors suffered at the hands of the Nazis: being slowly starved to death, being beaten, terrorized by vicious German shepherd police dogs. The lice that infested her hair and clothes and spread disease and death among the prisoners. The straw mattress on a narrow wooden bunk that served as living quarters for two in an unheated wooden barracks, with one thin blanket to share between them. Standing in assembly for hours on end, while Nazi soldiers conducted head counts of their prisoners, with little to wear and nothing to shield her from the weather. The frostbite she suffered as a result. Prisoners trying to warm their hands with their own urine. Having nothing to occupy her mind but fear, nothing to play with but dirt and pebbles — and lice. The sights and sounds and odors that no little child should have to see or hear or smell. The utterly unspeakable.

And yet, Marion Blumenthal Lazan speaks. She has to. Driven by a passion that the world must never forget how six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, Ms. Lazan speaks. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to recount the details of her imprisonment repeatedly as she travels the country with her doting husband, Nathaniel, speaking to schoolchildren, as she did at two assemblies of middle and high school pupils in Rocky Point Monday.

"I detach," she told me. "That's the only way I can do it. So it's as if I'm talking about a bad dream I had, rather than something that I actually lived through."

But Ms. Lazan's mission extends beyond making sure the Holocaust is not forgotten by future generations. Hers is a mission to make children understand the logical consequences of unbridled bigotry. The details of her ordeal are interspersed with words of wisdom: Be kind, be gentle, be tolerant. Accept others' differences, even celebrate them. Never judge a large group of people by the actions of a few of them. Don't generalize. Don't ever, ever follow anyone blindly. No one.

Quietly, but firmly, she teaches us how history repeats itself, relating current events to the lessons of the Holocaust. Religious fundamentalists, terrorists, Sept. 11, ethnic "cleansing," genocide in Darfur. All the violence in the world that's fueled by hatred, bigotry and intolerance.

Of course, I can't do justice to the compelling message carried by this 73-year-old Holocaust survivor to the children of Rocky Point this week. But I can tell you it is a message those kids heard loud and clear. They were riveted in their seats. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium, though it was filled with 750 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Nearly every student's hand shot up when Ms. Lazan asked for questions at the conclusion of her talk. They didn't want to leave the auditorium; a large group surrounded her onstage, where she spoke with students one-on-one, and freely dispensed warm, loving hugs to each of them.

Ms. Lazan's courage, spirit and determination, her zest for life, her love for humanity and her message of respect and tolerance made an indelible impression on the young hearts and minds of Rocky Point students this week. Her living history lesson will be remembered by those she touched forever.