In early February, she stood before Groton students, recounting not just her horrors from the Holocaust but also how she survived there and in the seven-plus decades since.
Despite stories of hunger and fear, she carried a message of tolerance and responsibility, leavened with wisdom and cheer. She talked about the twelve-foot-high walls with barbed wire the Nazis constructed, and the effects of scapegoating an entire people, noting that the Nazis’ Nuremberg laws prevented her and other Jews in Germany from entering parks, pools, or public schools, and prevented non-Jews from patronizing Jewish-owned businesses.
“We must never generalize, or judge an entire group by the actions” of a few, said Blumenthal Lazan, author with Lila Perl of Four Perfect Pebbles: A True Story of the Holocaust. “Let us treat people as individuals. Look for similarities.”
In her absorbing hour-long talk, Blumenthal Lazan described her journey, which began with a four-year-old's comfortable life in a home above her father’s shoe store, and disbelief that nascent Nazi actions in Germany would build. "Never did we think the anti-Semitic incidents there would ever lead to very much," she said. She described her family's escape to Holland, where they led a humble, peaceful existence with other migrants until Germany’s invasion of that country; their deportation to the concentration camp, in crammed cattle cars with no sanitary facilities; and the constant struggle to maintain their family. She and her mother were confined to the women’s portion of the camp and her father and older brother to the men’s; they struggled to survive on small pieces of bread, as others died of typhus, dysentery, and malnutrition.
When they were freed at the end of the war, Blumenthal Lazan was ten years old and weighed thirty-five pounds. Her mother weighed seventy. Her father succumbed to typhus six weeks after their liberation.
During her talk, Blumenthal Lazan held up the yellow star that she, like all Jews, was forced to wear. "It was just another way to denigrate us, to isolate us, and to separate us from society," she said.
What got her through the Holocaust? Without paper, pencils, books, or games to amuse her, she focused on tasks, such as picking off lice, and created “games,” such as searching for a tiny piece of glass or shattered mirror, and considering its sunlit reflection her “pet.” She dreamed of the three “B’s”—a freshly made bed, a warm bath, and an ample supply of bread. And she obsessed over the need to find four perfect pebbles, convincing herself that recovering those tiny identical stones would mean that the four members of her family would survive.
With her mother and brother, Blumenthal Lazan eventually made it to America and settled in Peoria, Illinois, thanks to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. (The same group helped Groton Headmaster Temba Maqubela when he fled persecution in South Africa and immigrated to the United States with his wife, Vuyelwa, and their infant son; the headmaster and the Holocaust survivor bonded over this shared connection after the talk).
In a grandmotherly tone, Blumenthal Lazan repeatedly urged kindness, asking students to warmly welcome new arrivals in school—as she was welcomed in Peoria, even though a language barrier at first forced her into a class with children several years younger. She also asked students to be kind on social media, and reminded those far from home to check in from time to time with their mothers.
Blumenthal Lazan expressed hope that her young audience would carry forward the message and memory of Holocaust survivors when they are gone—the reason the speaker has told her story to more than a million students all over the country.