Even from the depths of horror, hope can survive.
So said Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan, author of "Four Perfect Pebbles," who came to tell the story of her harrowing childhood spent in a Nazi concentration camp -- and inspire hope in the hearts of inmates at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverside.
Blumenthal Lazan visited the facility recently to speak with incarcerated minors and inmates at the jail.
Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, who organized the gathering and included his told the approximately 50 inmates convened in the church's chapel to take heed. “I hope that you will listen, understand, and appreciate the message of hope, courage, and compassion that she will share with you today," he said.
Blumenthal Lazan's young life changed irrevocably when the Nazis came into power in Germany. She and her parents, Ruth and Walter, and her brother, Albert, were ultimately incarcerated from the time she was four years old until she was 10.
When the political tides began to turn dark in December of 1934, Blumenthal Lazan said her family had begun to make preparations to leave Germany, but ultimately couldn't part with elderly grandparents. Her family stayed until 1938, and when both grandparents died, they once again made plans to emigrate to the United States.
"We were caught up in red tape," she said. "Everything was ready. We had our tickets, our visas."
Trying to escape the escalating tensions, the family moved to Holland, where they were living when the Germans invaded. "We were trapped," Blumenthal Lazan said.
First, her family was sent to the Westerbork detention and transit camp; they were not separated until Blumenthal Lazan and her mother were torn from her father and brother at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Anne Frank died only days before liberation.
Blumenthal Lazan said although she never knew Anne Frank, "My story picks up where hers left off."
Anne Frank's diary ends abruptly when she and her family are discovered in hiding; Blumenthal Lazan's story sheds painful light on life in a concentration camp through the eyes of a child.
Blumenthal Lazan, 78, who travels across the world to share her story and raise awareness of what horrors hate and intolerance can wreak, said she and her husband, Nathaniel, will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in August. They have three children, nine grandchildren, and one 15-month old great-granddaughter. Her own mother, she said, died just short of her 105th birthday in August.
"She was an amazing woman," Blumenthal Lazan said. "She is why I survived."
But, while Blumenthal Lazan could easily relax and spend time with her family, she finds hope and redemption in sharing her story -- and works tirelessly to keep the messages learned in the Holocaust alive.
Her brother, however, "still suffers greatly." With no children by choice, he has difficulty finding a voice to discuss the atrocities he witnessed at the men's camp, she said.
"We lost 1.5 million Jewish little ones -- babies and children," she said. "Six milliion of our people were murdered. The population of Suffolk and Nassau Counties is three million. Can you imagine losing twice the entire population of Long Island?"
Describing her life as a child at Bergen-Belsen, Blumenthal Lazan said, "It was such a horror, the filthiest of all the camps. We had nothing to clean anything. Toilets were benches with holes. We had no toilet paper, no water to wash. In a year and a half, we were not once able to brush our teeth. We had nothing."
Living in squalor, she said, "We were covered with lice. Squashing them became my primary pastime. There are no words, no pictures, that can describe those horrors."
As unspeakable as it was for a child, Blumenthal Lazan said, "Can you imagine what it does to a mother, to see her children in a state like that?"
Still, she said, her mother remained strong, a constant presence as they huddled in their cot. "Somehow she had faith, inner strength to know that things could get better."
A little girl trapped, Blumenthal Lazan said she began to rely on games she created with a vivid imagination. "There was one based on superstition," she said. "I decided if I were able to find four perfect pebbles, it would mean all four members of my family would survive. I made it my business to always find those pebbles."
The games, she said, were a physical manifestation of her inner survival skills. "We all have survival techniques within us," Blumenthal Lazan said. "The key is to find them and be sure we put them to work. No one is spared adversity. No one is spared hardship. We all have to overcome obstacles and with determination, faith, and hope, you can overcome just about anything -- and everything."
The inmates at Suffolk County Correctional Facility, Blumenthal Lazan said, have "huge obstacles" to overcome. "Many of them very likely didn't have a home life." she asked. Even at the worst of times at Bergen-Belsen, Blumenthal Lazan said she was blessed by the fact that she was so young -- and because she always had her mother beside her.
As a small child, Blumenthal Lazan was not aware at first what atrocities were occurring at the camp. "It was not until later that I realized people were being killed," she said. "When I was nine, people were dying around me all the time. I tripped over the dead."
Of living in barracks crammed with 600 women and children -- facilities only built to house 100 -- Lazan-Blumenthal said, "It was a horror."
Many, she added, did not survive because they succombed to disease, such as typhus, which killed her own father days after liberation and Anne Frank just days before.
Others, including her mother, had a fierce inner drive to survive. "Some people have inner strength and others do not. She did -- and she gave it to me."
Still, Blumenthal Lazan said, she is a woman without a childhood. "There really was none," she said. "When I was 13 we came to the United States and my brother gave me nylons. I was so upset. I didn't want to grow up. I wasn't ready to grow up."
As an adult, Blumenthal Lazan has made it her mission to share her story, so that others may learn. "We're running as fast as we can, for as long as we're able, to reach as many audiences as we can. We're running out of time. This is the last generation that will be able to answer the questons."
While it wasn't her idea to write a children's book, after hearing Blumenthal Lazan speak to students, her co-author Lila Perl urged her to write "Four Perfect Pebbles," for a young audience. The book is widely produced in many languages.
"I'm so happy to have it in book form so the story can be passed on," she said.
Today, Blumenthal Lazan remains friends with many of those she met in the camps as a child. The survivors, she said, meet and talk about the pain of their shared past. "It's very healing," she said.
Despite the horror she endured, Blumenthal Lazan said she has messages for inmates and students -- for the world -- that she learned from one of the darkest periods in human history.
"Be kind, good, respectful and tolerant. That is the basis for peace," she said. "Do not follow a leader blindly without checking your hearts and minds as to what the consequences might be. A guy with a mustache wouldn't have succeeded without the followers."
She added, "We must never make generalizations about a whole group." Many non-Jews, she said, risked everything to hide Jewish families during the Nazi invastion -- and ultimately lost their lives.
"There is very little that we can do against the negativity in our world but reach out and touch one another," she said.
After her visit with the inmates in Riverside, Blumenthal Lavan said some young people were crying --and many hugged her afterward.
"I had one young boy who said he'd missed my presentation at his middle school. He told me, 'I'm not happy to be here, but I'm glad I'm here to hear you.' He told me that it was the most meaningful talk he'd ever heard and it's changed his way of thinking about people he might not have thought too highly of -- and to understand the need to be more tolerant, for a more peaceful world."
Watching the inmates, Blumenthal Lazan said, was sad at times -- but she perseveres in the hope that her story will uplift. "Who knows what they're going home to, what misery?" she asked. "But I survived that miserable life that I led and here I am. You have to pick up the pieces, and do not blame others for the pitfalls."
Most of all, Blumenthal Lazan reminded, "Don't every give up hope."