Holocaust Survivor Fights Hatred After Swastikas Found At LI School

RIVERHEAD, NY — After recent incidents at the Riverhead Central School District when “reprehensible” swastikas were found on desks and on a blackboard, school officials took action and invited Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan to speak with students about erasing nti-Semitism and bigotry.

Blumenthal Lazan was slated to speak Thursday with Riverhead Middle School eighth grade students about her story of perseverance and determination throughout the Holocaus, including her experiences at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the district said.

“This assembly is a component of the Riverhead Central School District’s mission to promote and foster an accepting, safe, and respectful learning environment,” the district said. “In sharing her story, Ms. Blumenthal Lazan will educate students with a first-hand account of the Holocaust and discuss the damage caused by hateful rhetoric, symbols, and ideas.”

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After speaking about her journey, she planned to answer questions from Riverhead Middle School students and educators, the district said.

“In order to further bolster the meaningful lessons provided by this assembly, Ms. Blumenthal Lazan will return to Riverhead Middle School in February to speak with the seventh grade,” the district said.

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Marion Blumenthal Lazan has spoken with more than 1 million people in 41 states and five countries about her story of hardship, hope and courage, the district said.

She is the subject of the PBS documentary Marion’s Triumph and author of her memoir “Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story.” She has received numerous accolades for her work in Holocaust awareness and education, including the New York State Board of Regents Louis E. Yavner Citizen Award, a special congressional citation, designation as a New York State Senate Woman of Distinction, and keys to the cities of Galesburg, Illinois, Owensboro, Kentucky, and Idaho Falls, Idaho, the district said.

She was awarded the German Federal Cross of Merit by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2023, and the grade and high school Marion Blumenthal Oberschule in Hoya, Germany was named in her honor, the district added.

Lazan also spoke with Patch recently about her mission.

The Riverhead Central School District told the community that they would be proactive in preventing racism and bigotry after a number of recent incidents: In September, the Riverhead Central School District reacted after “reprehensible” swastikas were found drawn on desks in a high school classroom, officials said.

In a letter to the community, Dr. Augustine E. Tornatore, then-superintendent of schools, said the high school administration was informed by one of its teachers that they were made aware of the swastika symbol being drawn on desks in their classroom; the district immediately opened an investigation, he said.

High School Principal Sean O’Hara interviewed the students known to be sitting at the desks; the parents of these students were notified and spoken to, Tornatore said.

The images were removed from the desks, he added.

O’Hara said he reached out to the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove for resources and support, the superintendent added.

“It goes without saying that this behavior is reprehensible and has no place in our community. The district has strict policies and has zero tolerance for any behavior, whether verbal, physical or in any form, that is derogatory, abusive, racist or in any way defamatory. Following a thorough investigation, appropriate disciplinary action, if warranted, will be taken,” Tornatore said at the time.

A swastika was found drawn on the blackboard at the Riverhead Middle School in November, officials said.

According to a message sent out to Blue Waves families by Cheryl Pedisich, interim superintendent of schools, the middle school administration is conducting an investigation with the Riverhead Police Department regarding a student who drew the swastika on a blackboard at the middle school.

“The student is being disciplined in accordance with the code of character, conduct and support, and the district has spoken with the student’s parents,” Pedisich said. “We continue our commitment to condemning this behavior and emphasize that any form of anti-Semitic or discriminatory symbols, speech or actions are reprehensible and unacceptable in our schools and community. Unfortunately, these acts are not just limited to the Riverhead community, as incidents of this nature are occurring across Long Island and throughout the country at elevated rates.”

Pedisich said the goal is to stress the importance of a school-home partnership for addressing the issues.

“This collaboration is crucial to ensure students fully understand the damage these messages of anti-Semitism cause and to provide students with the support they need to combat hate and bigotry. Please speak with your children and convey the seriousness and hurtful nature of discriminatory acts. As important, please emphasize to your children that there will be serious consequences for those that do engage in this behavior from the school district, and depending on the act, law enforcement.”

With an eye toward continuing its mission of fostering an accepting, safe and respectful learning environments, Pedisich said the district-wide diversity, equity and inclusion committee would commence work to promote tolerance and acceptance and establish programming, events and lessons throughout all of the district’s schools.

In addition, she said Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan would be visiting the Riverhead Middle School on Thursday to speak with students.

Blumenthal travels to speak with students around the world, showing them that even from the depths of horror, hope can survive.

Blumenthal Lazan also told the story of her harrowing childhood spent in a Nazi concentration camp, inspiring hope in the hearts of inmates at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverside, in 2013.

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, 89, 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 have three children, nine grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. Her own mother, she said, died just short of her 105th birthday.

“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.”

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.

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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.

Most of all, Blumenthal Lazan reminded, “Don’t ever give up hope.”

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