Human rights, unleashed on the world in the 17th century to defend the integrity and dignity of individuals and enshrined in the magisterial Declaration of Independence as the platform for the American political creed and the assertions of fundamental freedoms and liberties, are too often dismissed as an exercise in political naivete. Jimmy Carter is still criticized for putting human rights at the forefront of American foreign policy, and some thought Franklin Roosevelt idealistic in proclaiming his Four Freedoms as the basis of a post-war world. Even defenders of Ronald Reagan raised their eyebrows in reaction to his second-term conversion as a champion of human rights to oppose tyranny in whatever form, whether of the left or the right.
But when you listen to Marion Blumenthal Lazans firsthand account of childhood survival in Nazi concentration camps, its impossible to ever again dismiss human rights as a simplistic abstraction. Lazan, an author and subject of an acclaimed PBS documentary, Marions Triumph, will deliver a lecture on human rights at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29, at the Boise State University Special Events Center. Her talk, Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story A Message of Perseverance, Determination, Faith and Hope, is sponsored by BSUs Andrus Center for Public Policy. The talk is free and open to the public.
Following Hitlers rise to power, 4-year-old Marion and her family managed to flee Germany and escape to Holland. They planned to embark for the United States, but shortly before their departure, ships that would have carried them away from Europe were destroyed by the Nazis. For the next 6 1/2 years, Marion lived in the deportation camp of Westerbork in Holland and the infamous Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, the same camps where Anne Frank was detained.
In her memoir, Four Pebbles, Lazan recalls that, We often tripped and fell over the dead. Death was everywhere. She recounts the misery of daily life and the hardships of survival, of picking lice from her hair and urinating on herself to prevent frostbite. On one occasion, her mother had somehow scraped together pieces of wood and potatoes with which to make soup. But that night, Nazi guards conducted a surprise inspection. In their frantic effort to hide the soup, boiling water was spilled on Marions legs. If she had uttered the slightest murmur, guards would have discovered the soup and she and her family would have faced death. Through extraordinary discipline, young Marion made no sound.
Following liberation by the Russian Army, Marion, by then a 10-year-old who weighed 35 pounds, along with her mother and brother, eventually made their way to the United States. Her father died of typhus six weeks after their liberation.
Lazans story resonates across the decades, and especially in our time, when governments across the globe routinely violate the dignity of individuals and trample fundamental human rights. Her message of perseverance and determination is a timely reminder of the high costs incurred by indifference to governmental atrocities, violation of civil and human rights and blind deference to governmental actions.
Since its emergence upon the world stage in the context of the English Civil Wars, the doctrine of human rights, born under the name natural rights, has become the principal vehicle for the expression of liberty and a primary weapon against governmental oppression. It is the ultimate bipartisan principle for human beings for liberals and conservatives alike, and it remains a valuable ally for Idahoans who continue to battle a persistent national perception that Idaho is a safe haven for intolerance.
Lazan represents one of the last surviving links to the horrors that engulfed Europe in the 20th century. Hers is both a personal and a universal story, a story all Idahoans particularly younger ones should hear. Far from being an abstraction at the edges of our politics and foreign policy, human rights must command a place at the very center of our values.
A commitment to human rights in thought, in word and in deed is a statement of a nation or a states strength. Lazan reminds us once again that it is only through the performance of our duty to protect and defend the rights of every human that we can ensure the protection of our own rights.
David Gray Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University where he also directs the Andrus Center of Public Policy. Marc C. Johnson is the president of the Andrus Center and a former chief of staff to Gov. Cecil Andrus.