Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
In a child’s imagination, there’s a fine line between hope and superstition. For Marion Blumenthal, a nine-year-old Jewish girl imprisoned with her family in the notorious concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, hope meant psychological survival in dire conditions, where death was a near certainty. Holding four pebbles in her hand, the young girl tells her older brother, Albert: “Look closely. I have these three pebbles, exactly matching. Today I will find the fourth. I suppose you think I’m silly’” (Four Perfect Pebbles co-written by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan, New York: Scholastic, 1996, 7). Although Albert humors his emotional and imaginative sister, for Marion finding the fourth pebble represents the survival of each one of her family members: her mother, her father, herself and her brother. The memoir Four Perfect Pebbles tells the story of the Blumenthal family’s survival against all odds. Of German origin, the Blumenthals flee the increasingly anti-Semitic measures adopted by the Nazis in Germany. They believe that they have escaped to relative safety in Holland. As the Nazi empire expands to Holland, however, in 1944 they arrange to be part of a group immigrating to Palestine (in exchange for release of German POW’s). However, to their misfortune, their ship is delayed by three months. Instead of finding their way to Israel, the Blumenthals are sent off first to the Dutch transit camp of Westerbork and later to the “Family Camp” in Bergen-Belsen.
Four Perfect Pebbles offers invaluable historical information about the Holocaust, targeting a young adult audience and written for their level. It also describes an exceptional story of survival in one of the most lethal concentration camps: the same one, in fact, where Anne and Marion Frank perished. Initially intended as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943 Bergen-Belsen became a full-fledged Nazi concentration camp. Located in Northern Germany, it operated between 1940 and 1945. In June 1943, Bergen-Belsen was designated a “holding camp” for Jews that were supposed to be exchanged for German prisoners in other countries. The SS divided the camp into several sections, including the “Hungarian camp”, the “Special camp” for Polish Jews and the “Star camp” for Dutch Jews, where Marion Blumenthal and her family were interned.
Aside from being deprived of sufficient food, water, adequate medical treatment and basic hygiene facilities, the inmates of Bergen-Belsen were forced to work all day long. Approximately 50,000 people perished there. Bergen-Belsen imprisoned Jews, Poles, Russians, Dutch, Czech, German and Austrian inmates. In August 1944, the Nazis created a new section, called the “Women’s camp”, which held about 9,000 women and girls at any given time. In general, the concentration camp became dangerously overcrowded, as over 80,000 people were brought there in cattle trains from camps in Poland and other areas overtaken by the Soviet army.
Unlike Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen had no gas chambers. Yet as death surrounded her and dozens of corpses were laid out on top of one another outside her barracks each day, young Marion lived in constant fear of extermination: “’Even though we had been told,’ Marion said, ‘that there were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, how could we ever be sure? … The soap that the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen were given before entering the showers did not guarantee their harmlessness. For it was common practice at Auschwitz to provide soap—and also the promise of hot coffee or warm soup afterward—in order to maintain calm and to deceive those about to be gassed” (66-67).
Conditions at Bergen-Belsen were notoriously bad. They deteriorated rapidly towards the end of the war, even by concentration camp standards. Marion Blumenthal recalls, “By early 1945 the food at Bergen-Belsen consisted mainly of cabbage-flavored water and moldy bread. This ration was far less than the six hundred calories a day per inmate that the camp had formerly provided… The death toll was now mounting rapidly as the result of exposure, hunger, severe diarrhea, and fevers” (70). Anne and Marion Frank perished here from typhus in March 1945, only weeks before the camp’s liberation by the Allies.
When the British and Canadians entered the camp on April 15, 1945, they found thousands of corpses and 60,000 half-starved and dangerous ill prisoners, themselves very close to death. But Marion and her family were not among them. After having been starved, forced into slave labor, attacked by fleas and allowed to languish sick from typhus, the Nazis forced them to march for miles as they were fleeing the Allies. Soon, however, they were finally freed by the Soviets and ended up in a refugee camp in Tröbitz. As she had grasped her four perfect pebbles, Marion continued to hold on to the hope of her family’s survival. Unfortunately, her father didn’t make it. He succumbed to typhus in May 1945. His death came as a blow to their tight-knit nuclear family. As Marion notes, “We had come so far, through flight, imprisonment, evacuation, the Nazis’ final attempt to destroy us, liberation at last, and now this—freedom and sorrow” (99). Her memoir, Four Perfect Pebbles, keeps his memory—and that of countless other Holocaust victims–alive. This book is not only an important historical document, but also a moving testimony of the paradoxical “freedom and sorrow” of being liberated after having suffered so much trauma and the inconsolable loss of loved ones that perished in the Holocaust.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon