"Facing History and Ourselves has helped me to regain some faith in humanity. I believe that most students who are introduced to this curriculum will make a positive difference in the world. My commitment to Facing History is immense."
- Zezette Larsen
Zezette died after a long illness on November 23rd, 2010. Zezette was our friend, our board member, and a survivor of the Holocaust who made Facing History her home and family and the students her hope.
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. As 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. She 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 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 emigrated 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 Macys 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's professional accomplishments were many. She was a tireless advocate for the rights of the disenfranchised. Since 1976 Zezette 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.
- Ms. Larsen’s testimony is included in Facing History and Ourselves' resource book and accompanying video Elements of Time, a collection of Holocaust testimonies. The companion manual describes the context for and content of video testimonies dealing with a wide range of themes pertinent to the study of the Holocaust and human behavior. Zezette’s story is part of a montage called Childhood Memories, which is also available on DVD through our library.
- Uncertain Travelers: Conversations with Jewish Immigrants to America by Marjorie Agosin contains a profile of Zezette Larsen.