WHY SHE BECAME MY HERO!
-an essay by Leslie Zurla
I ‘m from a little town in New Jersey and went to College not far from where we lived. I was there recently to celebrate my college reunion. It was a wonderful experience to share our “pasts” and “presents.”
My trips “back home” are always full of nostalgia and wonderful memories. I was reflecting on the carefree days of my becoming a teenager – totally pre-occupied with “breaking out” the night before class pictures. Elvis Presley dominated the pop music charts along with “The Platters.”
I particularly loved their song, “My Prayer.”
“My prayer is to linger with you…”
I never could quite define who YOU was, but fantasized anyway – especially on warm New Jersey summer nights.
During the reunion week, I was sharing a current project with a college friend. It’s a documentary film called “For The Life of Me.” – an accounting of Peter Vanlaw’s discovery of his true identity. This experience introduced me to a book called “Four Perfect Pebbles”, and I learned of an amazing woman whose experience of becoming a teenager was starkly different from mine, as was her entire life. I was profoundly moved by the comparison.
When Marion Blumenthal Lazan was about to become a teenager, she, her mother and brother sailed into New York Harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, America’s music featured the tune “Sentimental Journey“. Quite ironic because up to that point their lives were an unimaginable struggle for survival at the mercy of the Nazi’s – Fleeing their homeland, only to be imprisoned in the notorious concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen and ultimately on the horrific death train known as the “Lost Transport.”
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. 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. Her book “FOUR PERFECT PEBBLES” is her story.
When Peter Vanlaw was doing research for his film, “For The Life Of Me,” someone sent him the story of the “LOST TRANSPORT” – a train that left Bergen-Belsen on April 9, 1945 destined for another concentration camp, THERESIENSTADT, located near Prague, Czechoslovakia, 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. The camps had long been infested with typhus and so many of the prisoners were barely surviving. Nevertheless, 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. Peter’s 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, destroying many miles of railroad tracks in the process.
So, that last train 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.
Yet that engineer had to make periodic stops so that the living prisoners could bury the dead ones, who continued die along the way.
While trying to track down his uncle’s connection with the “Lost Transport”, Peter 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 same nightmare trying to survive that journey. That’s when he learned that Marion and her family had also been on the very same death train with his Uncle Paul.
But the train could go no farther than a small German farming village called “Troebitz” before it was stopped and liberated by Russian troops.
Marion, her brother, and mother survived the liberation, but her father, Walter did not, succumbing to the dreaded typhus. Neither did Peter’s uncle Paul nor his aunt Kaethe Rehfisch. All three were buried in the village of Troebitz.
Finally after years of trying, Peter had an opportunity to meet Marion and her husband Nathaniel. It was at a speaking engagement at a Middle School in Redlands California.
Here he was able to witness first hand this wonderful lady’s passion as a Holocaust survivor, and her need to pass on her personal experience to younger generations.
When she was done with her story, the children were so mesmerized that they left their seats to surround her at the podium. Some were so moved that they wanted to touch her and hug her. While others wanted to speak to her and get her autograph, mostly in their personal copies of “FOUR PERFECT PEBBLES.”
Traveling for thousands of miles, around the world, she has reached over 1,000,000 people. All of them hearing her message of love, respect and tolerance to audiences of all ages. Her enduring enthusiasm is fueled by 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.
I’m so grateful to know of Marion. My journey is not diminished by hers, but my gratitude for it is elevated beyond words.
The knowledge of her perseverance reminds me of the state of grace in which I’ve been living because I have never experienced warfare first hand. The closest I ever came were the air raid drills I experienced growing up in New Jersey – the usual “drop and cover” exercises, but nothing more.
Later, as a college student, I was selected as an exchange student for “The Experiment In International Living”, which gave us the opportunity to live with a family in a foreign country.
I had lived with a family in Ireland and when my stay was over, I sailed back to America on a ship surrounded by international students. When we approached New York Harbor, that last evening, everyone was on deck to see The Statue of Liberty and the glorious skyline behind her.
I was with some German students. They, like most of the other students, were seeing Her for the first time. I was so overwhelmed with pride and gratitude that night – a feeling I will never forget.
I’ll be returning to New York very soon and intend to take the cruise around Manhattan Island once again. When I see The Statue Of Liberty this time, I will remember the young Marion Blumenthal as she first saw Lady Liberty, and say a prayer for all those who never got the chance.
Now it will have far more meaning than ever because Marion’s story has so deeply touched me that when I think of Marion Blumenthal Lazan, I walk just a bit taller.
To learn how Pete Vanlaw and Marion met, check out his post, “One Amazing Lady”.