Marion Blumenthal Lazan was on a train headed for an extermination camp in eastern Germany when the Allied forces liberated the train and set Lazan and her family free in 1945.
Lazan, then 10 years old, weighed 35 pounds.
She shared her Holocaust experience with an assembly of fifth- through 12th-graders at Westminster Catawba Christian School on Tuesday.
"It is truly remarkable how any one of us could survive such horrendous conditions," she said.
With her husband of more than 50 years in the audience, Lazan recounted her years in Nazi concentration camps.
She told the students about cold nights, crowded triple-decker bunk beds with two people and only one thin blanket in each bed.
She remembered never brushing her teeth, using the bathroom in very public, unsanitary facilities and uncontrollable lice.
She remembered the time she saw a wagon full of what she thought was fire wood, only to discover that it was filled with naked corpses.
"Death was an everyday occurrence," she said. "Bodies could not be taken away fast enough. We, as children, saw things that no one, no matter what the age, should have to see."
Love, respect, tolerance
Despite the horror, Lazan aimed to instill a message of hope and faith in the students.
She told students to love, respect and tolerate one another, regardless of race, religion or any other differences.
She warned them not to blindly follow the leader or to judge groups of people based on the behavior of one person in that group.
The overarching message was "to prevent our past from becoming your future."
While she was in a concentration camp in Germany, Lazan developed a game to occupy her time. She would search for four perfect pebbles, one to represent each member of her family.
If she found all four, that meant her family would survive the camp.
"Four Perfect Pebbles" is the name of Lazan's book, which sixth-graders at Westminster have read and fifth-graders are reading.
After listening to Lazan talk, students raised eager hands, begging to ask questions.
They wanted to know if Lazan ever found all four pebbles, what she did with them and if she still has them today.
Lazan told the students that she found them and tucked them away. Sometimes, she would cheat at her own game, resorting to her stash of secret pebbles when she couldn't find all four.
She no longer has them but said she placed a few pebbles one of her grandchildren found on her father's grave in Germany.
Lazan's dad died of typhus a few weeks after liberation.
Renee Comer, media services director at the school, said all of the students have had some exposure to World War II history. Hearing it firsthand, she said, was a big plus.
"We're the last generation that's going to be able to hear it," she said. "That's very important and very sad, but it's a part of life."
Lazan, who lives in New York, had several other speaking engagements scheduled before she heads home.
Lazan came to the United States when she was 13. She worked hard to learn English and graduated near the top of her high school class.
She and her husband have three children and nine grandchildren.
Lazan's mother, who Lazan said was the force that got her through the hard times, is still living at age 99.