Bergen-Belsen and Four Perfect Pebbles

Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

Bergen-Belsen and Four Perfect Pebbles

Review by Claudia Moscovici

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 concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, hope means psychological survival in dire conditions, in which death is 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 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 Jewish origin, the Blumenthals flee the 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 the release of German POW’s). However, to their misfortune, their ship is delayed for 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. The book describes an exceptional story of survival in what became, during the final months of the war, one of the most lethal Nazi camps: the same one, in fact, where the sisters Frank perished. Initially intended as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943 Bergen-Belsen became a full-fledged concentration camp. Located in Northern Germany, it operated between 1940 and 1945. In June 1943, Bergen-Belsen was designated as a “holding camp” for Jews who were supposed to be exchanged for German prisoners in other countries. Initially, the conditions were relatively good, but with overcrowding they deteriorated. 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, the “Women’s Camp”, which held about 9,000 women and girls at any given time. In general, the concentration camp became dangerously overcrowded. 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, Marion lived in constant fear of extermination: “Even though we had been told 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 victims some soap—and also promise them 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 deteriorated rapidly towards the end of the war, even by Nazi concentration camp standards. As 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 there from typhus in February 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 prisoners. Fortunately, Marion and her family were not among them. After having been starved, forced into slave labor, infested by fleas and ill with typhus, the Nazis transported them in cattle trains away from the approaching Soviet army. They were nevertheless found and freed by the Soviets, ending up in a refugee camp in Tröbitz. As she had grasped the 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 wistfully 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 offers 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 who perished in the Holocaust.

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