One Amazing Lady – Marion Blumenthal Lazan

Marion Blumenthal Lazan is a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated her life to delivering a message of racial and religious tolerance to audiences all over the world. I finally had the opportunity to meet this incredible woman in person, just a few weeks ago, when she spoke to 500 students at Cope Middle School, in Redlands, CA.

Marion in her favorite spot, surrounded by school children
Marion in one of her favorite spots, surrounded by school children

Telling her story to school children, high school and college students, as well as young adults is something she’s been doing for over twenty years, motivated by the knowledge that she is the last of her generation to speak first hand about the horrors and adversity that she lived through, and the Anti-Semitism that caused it. What seems to fuel her enduring enthusiasm is the knowledge that the current generations to whom she is speaking, will be the last to hear of it, first hand from a living survivor.

But before I go on, let me explain what led up to this very moving experience.

Back in 2008, when I was doing research for my documentary, “For the Life of Me”, I happened to be working on the story of my uncle, Paul Rehfisch, who died in the Holocaust. His had been a narrative that had been evolving over a period of many months.

Kaethe and Paul Rehfisch
Kaethe and Paul Rehfisch

Originally, it had been disclosed by the Red Cross that he had perished in the notorious concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, near Celle, Germany. But more recently I learned that was not true. While he’d been a prisoner there, he actually died in a little German farm village called Troebitz, near Dresden and the border to Czechoslovakia. 

Then someone sent me the story of the “Lost Transport” – a train that left Bergen-Belsen on April 9, 1945 destined for another concentration camp, Theresienstadt, located between the German/Czech border and Prague, where the Nazis had recently installed gas chambers.

With the British Army only days away from liberating Bergen-Belsen, the Nazis didn’t want to be caught with the evidence. So they loaded three trains, each one carrying approximately 2500 sick and dying Jewish prisoners that the Nazis wanted to get rid of in a hurry. My uncle Paul and his wife, Kaethe were on the third train, all three bound for the same destination.

But when that third and final train began its journey, direct routes no longer existed because allied troops had already cut off much of the access to the southeast, and destroyed many miles of railroad tracks in the process. So, that last train, containing thousands of prisoners, who had no idea where they were headed, many already stricken with typhus, turned to the north east and meandered for two weeks without food, water, or any sanitary facilities, while the engineer continued his desperate search for a safe route to the Czech border.

That was a distressing revelation for me. But as I tried to learn more, I discovered the name, Marion Blumenthal Lazan, and her book, “Four Perfect Pebbles”. Never expecting to find a single living person who had been through the horror of that journey, I got a real jolt when I learned that Marion had been on the same “Lost Transport” with my uncle Paul. 

Marion's book with her story of survival.
Marion’s book with her story of survival.

But then, when I found her on the internet I was amazed to learn that not only had she and her family been on the same death train as my uncle Paul and his wife Kaethe, but the coincidences continued to unfold. Marion’s path from prewar Germany was almost identical to that of my uncle’s. Both families fled from Germany shortly after Kristallnacht for the safety of Holland.

While the Blumenthals were from Hoya, the Rehfischs were from Hannover, less than 45 miles away. Both ended up in the Dutch transit camp at Westerbork. Then in February, 1944 both families were transported to Bergen-Belsen. Ultimately on April 9, 1945, they were all loaded onto that infamous “Death Train” that meandered for two weeks, only to wind up ignominiously in the little German farm village of Troebitz. That’s when it was finally forced to stop by partisans on one side and the Russian Army on the other, who then liberated the sick and dying passengers on board.

Marion, her brother, and mother survived the liberation, but her father, Walter did not, succumbing to the dreaded typhus. Neither did my uncle or aunt, Paul and Kaethe Rehfisch. All three were buried in that little German farm village.

Overwhelmed with all of this new information, I felt compelled to contact Marion and share with her all the incredible coincidences that I found – how she and my uncle had been on parallel paths from Germany to Troebitz. And I wanted share the possibility that we might also be related, since my paternal grandmother was a Blumenthal, who lived in Hannover, just a few miles from Marion’s home town of Hoya.

When I finally did find her phone number, I really didn’t know what to expect from the other end of the line. But when I was able to reach her, I was relieved to hear a very warm and understanding voice, spoken with a soft German accent that sounded so terribly familiar. It felt as if she was an old family friend who I’d known for many years. It took me back to my childhood, listening to a voice so similar to the ones I grew up with.

From that point on, we struck up a wonderful friendship. She sent me more information about Troebitz and the “Lost Transport”, and put me in touch with some of her friends and relatives who were other possible sources of information for my research and film script.

By finding Marion’s website,  fourperfectpebbles.com, I began to learn about this wonderful lady’s passion as a Holocaust survivor, and her need to pass on her personal experience to younger generations.

As a result, I wanted desperately to meet her in person and tried for over a year to get her speaking engagements at local Jewish groups, and college classes in the Los Angeles area. But I was unsuccessful, and finally had to drop the idea when I just plain ran out of time.

I also considered going back to New York to meet her and her husband, Nathaniel, on the off chance that I could get a couple of speaking engagements of my own, and show my film in the New York vicinity, which would pay for my travel, and make the trip worthwhile. But that never happened either.

Meanwhile, we had a couple of near misses when Marion was booked for engagements a few hundred miles away. But she was never close enough to make a visit possible. That was until last November when her husband, Nathaniel sent me an email message that Marion was booked for a dozen or so speaking engagements in the “Inland Empire”, early in December, in the towns of Redlands and Yucaipa, all within easy driving distance from my home in Studio City.

But then a near tragedy occurred in November when she was at a speaking engagement in Germany. While opening the wrong door in someones home, she fell down a flight of concrete steps to the cellar, severely injuring the ligaments and tendons in her right hand, requiring immediate surgery and a five day stay in a German hospital.

Now this would be a serious injury for anyone of any age. But mind you, Marion is now 80. Yet her energy and resilience is so astounding that immediately upon her release, with her hand still swathed in bandages, this amazing woman went back to the speaking engagement she had missed due to her accident.

Then, still intending to keep her Southern California speaking engagement for the week of December 5, she experienced further complications, which required more surgery in New York, and forced her to postpone her trip out here until further notice.

But in mid January, I got the good news from Nathaniel that Marion was ready to resume her schedule, and all her speaking engagements. A few days later, I received her revised itinerary, and we were back on track, rescheduled for Thursday, Jan. 22, at Cope Middle School, in Redlands, CA. for her 1:15pm speaking engagement.

I brought my wife, Linda, and my son, Tim, and we all drove down on a glorious, crystal clear, winter day headed for the Inland Empire. When we arrived at the school, we were ushered into their “Multi Purpose Building”, which serves as their auditorium. 

We entered before the students arrived, and there was Marion, up on the stage with the school’s young principal, Kate Pearne, preparing for her talk.

When I approached her and spoke her name, she looked up, and within a fraction of a second recognized who I was,  greeting me like a long lost cousin. We hugged and once again, I had that warm feeling like we were really family.

We finally meet.
We finally meet.

After introductions all around, I finally got to meet her husband, Nathaniel. Then Linda, Tim and I took our seats as the students filed in.

When Marion began her talk, I was struck by her ability to tell her story and make it sound as if she’s telling it for the first time. Yet I know that she’s given this same address thousands of times before, to audiences all over the world. But somehow she maintains a spontaneity that belies the reality.

She certainly got our attention.
She certainly got our attention.

I was also aware of the fact that Marion had only been out of her second surgery for a few days and was sporting a cast on her right hand. Yet, she was signing autographs with pleasure, as if her accident had never happened.

It was also heart warming to watch the children surround her after she finished her story. Some were so moved that they wanted to touch her or hug her. While others wanted to speak to her and get her autograph, mostly in their personal copies of “Four Perfect Pebbles”. But the demand was so overwhelming that she ended up taking a stack of their books back to the hotel with her, so the students could get to their classes, and she could sign them with less time constraints. This apparently happens after nearly EVERY event, finding Marion in her hotel room continuing to sign autographs for hours after each day’s activities.

Marion signing autographs and kids hugging her. A very happy time.
Marion signing autographs and kids hugging her. A very happy time.

Meanwhile, Nathaniel, who has been taking pictures throughout the entirety of each speaking engagement, sorts his photos from each event in order to make CDs for each and every school and organization where Marion has spoken.

Now bear in mind that Marion usually has at least two speaking engagements a day, and often at different schools. She and Nathaniel keep up this killer schedule for at least nine months a year, traveling all over the U.S. and Europe, while schools and universities are in session. If they’re lucky, they get an occasional week at home, scattered throughout the year.  But that’s when Nathaniel spends his free time making the CDs which he then sends back to the schools, often with additional prints.

For example, while they were here in Southern California, Marion had nine speaking engagements over a five day period, in eight different venues: four middle schools, three high schools, one university and one Church. During each talk, Nathaniel shoots dozens of pictures. So, by the end of a week, he has hundreds of photos to sort through and compile for each school, deciding which ones get burned onto CDs and which ones get printed.

I’m exhausted just writing about it!

In spite of this insane travel schedule, on Fridays Marion will only plan speaking engagements in the morning, so that they can ALWAYS observe Shabbat. And by bringing their own food with them, they can make certain they will always be eating Kosher food on the Sabbath.

Coming away from that memorable day last January, and looking at Nathaniel’s photos again, I’m reminded of the mood in that auditorium after Marion finished speaking. While one would assume that it should be somber, reflective, and maybe a bit depressed after her harrowing description of the Holocaust, it’s quite the contrary. The room is alive and electric in an atmosphere of optimism and joy. You see it in the children’s smiling faces and their need to get close to Marion. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Marion surrounded by the students of Cope Middle School, and their principal, Kate Pearne.
Marion surrounded by the students of Cope Middle School, and their principal, Kate Pearne.

Not only is Marion one amazing lady, but she and Nathaniel are one amazing team. Traveling together for thousands of miles, they have reached over 1,000,000 people, who have heard her message of love, respect and tolerance to audiences of all ages – a message that I’m certain she will continue to convey as long as she has the breath to do so.

Marion, and Nathaniel, we reach out to you, grateful for who you are and what you do! The millions who have heard you, do so as well.

Author

5 thoughts on “One Amazing Lady – Marion Blumenthal Lazan”

  1. I went to the Emmett O’Neal library in Mountain Brook, AL to hear Maqrion B Lazan speak Wed 3/25/17. When I got there I found her just inside the door autographing her books. I bought a copy and waited my turn. When I reached her she asked my name so she could address her autograph to me personally. I told her I had read many books about WWII, the Nazis, and concentration camps but this was my first time to ever hear a holocaust survivor speak and I was happy to be there. She looked up at me with a clear lovely smile that looks more 62 than 82 years and said, “Well, you look like you could use a hug!” I said, “I certainly could!” It was the beginning of a memorable evening as events of the holocaust came alive through the words of this gracious and charming lady. It must be hard. I had a lump in my throat most of that evening, as I do now writing about it.Please go and hear nearly flawless presentation of her clear voice while you still can. Few survivors still exist who are able and willing to publicly communicate their story. Mrs Lazan’s story needs to be told, and her life message repeated and emulated. Regardless of your ideological or religious persuasion, make it a priority to hear this. I’m so glad I did! JH

    Reply
    • Jack, thank you for your comments. Being there in person to witness her magnetic personality is an incredible experience. My own connection with her began when I learned that she had been on the same Death Train with my uncle and his wife. I phoned her. When she answered the phone, I felt I was talking to a close relative. Our phone conversations continued for the next four years until I was finally able to meet her in person, when she came out to So. Calif. to speak. We immediately hugged which made me feel like we’d known each other for a lifetime. She is indeed an amazing lady.

      Reply
  2. Bless her heart!!! More and more people are failing to remember the Holocaust as there are fewer who can give first hand accounts now. I can say from experience that these speakers can make a huge difference in the world views of high schoolers!! I remember our speaker in Manchester high school like it was yesterday. And he was already an old man in 1982. It wasn’t until over 30 years later that I realized the true impact of his words. And the sacrifice he made personally to come and talk to an auditorium full of bratty kids like us.

    Reply
  3. When I read these stories, I think of horror movies. Human nature… what separates us from animals is just a fine line. When the animal in the human kicks off, man becomes a beast. We should never forget!

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