Zezette Larsen was born on February 21, 1929 in Brussels, Belgium. Zezette enjoyed being close to her assimilated, French-speaking Jewish grandparents in pre-World War II Belgium as well as spending school vacations with her Dutch grandparents in Amsterdam, Holland.
Like so many European Jews, Zezette's family was ill-prepared for the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. With the help of the Belgian Underground, however, she and her brother Marcel were initially hidden in Catholic institutions. When her parents went into hiding, Zezette, at the age of 12, was taken to a Catholic convent and boarding school in Overies, Belgium, under the pseudonym "Marguerite Michaels."
She found it very difficult to adjust to her new identity and was tormented by living a life of deceit. Suffering extreme homesickness, she went to visit her parents in hiding during the Easter holidays. Together with her mother and father she was captured on Easter Sunday 1943 and deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp three weeks later. A dedicated Girl Scout, she remembers departing the Belgian deportation center wearing her Belgian Girl Guide uniform.
Upon arrival in Auschwitz, her mother was selected for immediate death in the gas chambers of Birkenau. Zezette was to see her father only once during their imprisonment in Auschwitz. His final fate remains unknown to this day. As a healthy-looking 14-year-old, Zezette was selected for slave labor in a munitions factory operating in close proximity to the extermination camp. She survived both the extreme conditions of Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as the death march from Birkenau in the spring of 1945.
With the help of the International Red Cross, Zezette returned to Brussels in August 1945 and was reunited with her brother, who also survived the genocide. For the next five years they lived with their Dutch uncle near Amsterdam. In this chaotic post-war period, Zezette learned Dutch, graduated from the School of Social Work in Rotterdam, and attempted to pick up the pieces of a shattered life. With the encouragement of her Dutch uncle, she immigrated to the United States in 1951 under a war orphans' quota system. Again, she was confronted with the emotional loss of family and friends. Despite intense loneliness, she found work stuffing bills into envelopes at Macy’s and studied English at the School for the Foreign-Born. During this time she earned a Masters Degree in Social Work from Rutgers University.
Zezette ... was a tireless advocate for the rights of the disenfranchised. Since 1976 she was an active member of the Board of Facing History and Ourselves and was honored with its Humanitarian Award in 1996. As a resource speaker for Facing History, she spoke to many audiences of all ages and championed the power of education to address injustices wherever they occur.
Courtesy Facing History and Ourselves.
A Poem for Zezette
by Marjorie Agosin
Uncertain traveler, forever tenacious.
We hear you,
In your language of floating words
Like your eyes, two generous islands
filled with shadows and joy.
You immerse yourself,
Your heart at peace
Like a contented angel
And yet always vigilant
Watching for memories that have been cut open.
I know you have not left us completely alone,
You simply have gone to sleep to a different island,
The island of peaceful sleep,
The island that welcomes you with blue flowers.
Your vigilant eyes also sleep,
You are in the island of death,
The island of life itself.
Who were you before entering the city of the dead?
Did you enjoy tying your hair with silk flowers?
How was your laughter before entering the city of death?
So many times I wanted to navigate amidst your silences
But I sank in your dry cries,
Your eyes like fiery waves,
Those eyes that could make the world cry.
Your soul was also crying.
We all entered into the mystery of water
Like a waterfall spilling over your eyes.
You always told me you could see the watch tower at night,
The ashes of that city where children’s hair was always white.
Sometimes I saw your eyes in a lost dwelling,
I saw crack and barbs,
But even more than
a necklace of sorrows,
I saw faith residing in your face,
Joy like a lamp of abundant love
Far removed from the city of ashes.
Thinking of Marcel, the Jewish chef from the Pyrenees,
Everybody knew what he yearned so much to hide.
The whole sea smiled in your lips,
The whole world in your heart.
One day I wanted to visit the city of death
Naïvely trying to find that girl who was
And then no longer was.
I did not see you,
I did not hear you,
But all throughout that morning
Birds returned to sing
And I knew it was you sending signals.
Your peaceful eyes are resting,
They have acquired the color of the islands
And the color of Steve’s love
That is sweet like the water that emanates from your eyes.
There, in the island of Maine,
His arms were your lighthouse and your port.
Now you are resting bathed in light.
You have left us with your customary elegance,
Your French accent,
And you leave us with the labor of memory.
How to think about you?
How to care for your memory of Auschwitz and you there?
You have also given us the gift of tears,
Remembrance makes the soul lighter.
The sky is clear like your eyes,
You are no longer afraid,
Your eyes are now our lighthouse
You who always lived between light and shadows.
You are now resting in the island where you found love,
All dressed in light, all dressed in water.
The open sea embraces you,
The world is mending your heart.
Marjorie Agosin is a poet, human rights activist, and professor at Wellesley College.