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Survivor of Nazi death camp taught of life, hope

Published October 20, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, 78 students from Manatee High School in Bradenton gathered at the Florida Holocaust Museum.

They had come to hear Felix Lazar tell of his survival in notorious Nazi death camps. His family, meanwhile, was mourning him. Mr. Lazar, honored by the museum for his more than 1,000 hours as a lecturer, mostly to students, died Saturday (Oct. 16, 2004) at home. He was 87, and his death apparently was related to his heart, said a daughter, Cynthia Sinclair.

"He was an amazing guy," said Sandy Mermelstein, a receptionist at the museum. He spoke often to students and was especially effective with kids at boot camps, she said. "They really identified with him. Kids connected with him. He will be very missed here."

Speaking to juvenile offenders at Pinellas County boot camps, he showed them the scars on his back from torture. They listened.

"I try to show them there is always a chance in life," he said in an interview published in the Times last year. "Even if you're in the worst of conditions. If you have faith, you have a chance."

Mr. Lazar said he had addressed thousands of students.

"I never have enough time," he said. "But the main thing I feel is important is not my story as such. But the fact that in spite of what happened to me, I still can preach tolerance rather than hate. That is my message."

Born Felix David Eliazar in 1917, he was the only boy in a middle-class Jewish family in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, with one older sister and one younger. He attended college, served a year in the Dutch army and then joined his father in the furniture business.

When the Nazis overwhelmed Dutch forces in 1940, he and thousands of fellow soldiers surrendered. He later joined freedom fighters in Holland. He was arrested but escaped. Using fake papers, he found work as a laborer for the German government in an understaffed factory that made slides for the V-2 rockets to be launched at England.

"There was another man like me in this factory," he recalled. "And we worked hard at being the lousiest welders we could be, making sure the welds were very, very weak. That way, the slides would fall apart as soon as the rockets were fired."

Meanwhile, he wrote and distributed an underground pamphlet, which led to his arrest by the Gestapo. After interrogating him and burning his back and legs with lighted cigarettes, they shipped him to a camp near Frankfurt where prisoners were "taught" to be good workers in the Reich.

After five weeks, the prisoners were released, but Mr. Lazar was re-arrested for being a Jew in Germany and taken to the dreaded concentration camp at Auschwitz. Freed in 1945 by Russian troops, he weighed roughly 90 pounds. He returned to Holland to learn that his parents and sisters, 62 relatives and friends, had died in concentration camps.

In 1954, he emigrated to St. Petersburg. He became a U.S. citizen in 1959 and worked as a director of advertising for Seagrams. He was a member of Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Clare; four sons, Richard Roese, Dallas, Michael Higgins, Los Angeles, Harry Lazar, St. Petersburg, and Peter Lazar, Gainesville; two daughters, Corene Wagner, Jacksonville, Texas, and Cynthia Sinclair, St. Petersburg; and 10 grandchildren.

Beth David South Chapel of David C. Gross Funeral Homes, St. Petersburg, is in charge.

Information from Times files was used in this obituary.

[Last modified October 20, 2004, 00:16:16]

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