JOPLIN, Mo. —
They arrived at the Bergen-Belsen camp on a cold, rainy night. They were greeted by the shouts, rifles and attack dogs of the German guards, said Lazan, who was 9 at the time. Men and women were separated, and groups of 600 were sent to live in wooden, unheated barracks that designed for 100 people. They slept two per bunk.
The German military had established Bergen-Belsen in 1940 as a prisoner-of-war camp. It held about 7,300 prisoners in July 1944 and more than 60,000 by April 1945, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Life there was nightmarish. Lazan said she never saw trees or grass. Toilets consisted of a long wooden bench cut with holes. There was no privacy or soap, and only limited running water. Prisoners were given a slice of bread daily — later once per week — and hot, watery soup, she said.
“Our birthday present to one another was that little piece of bread that we had saved from the previous week,” she said.
Lice infested prisoners' bodies, clothes and hair. Lazan said her “primary pastime” became squishing the bugs between her fingers.
Malnutrition and dysentery “destroyed body and mind,” she said, and corpses of those who died were never removed quickly enough. She recalls once seeing a wagon loaded with what she assumed was firewood for barrack's oven. She later realized that it had actually been a pile of dead, naked bodies.
“We, as children, saw things that no one - no matter what the age - should ever have to see,” she said.
By spring of 1945, Allied forces were closing in on the Germans, and the Nazis decided started to send some of the Bergen-Belsen prisoners to extermination camps. The Blumenthal family was among those loaded onto a train for transport, said Lazan.