This one hurt a lot.
Close to 100 people gathered into Facing History’s library at the old St. Mary’s School in Brookline Village Tuesday night to pay tribute to Zezette Larsen, a survivor of Auschwitz, wife, mother and Facing History board member.
I worked as a program associate at Facing History’s Boston office from 1997 to 2000. Spending time with survivors like Zezette or Rena Finder, who was on Schindler’s List, was one of my favorite parts of the job.
I didn’t have many of those times with Zezette, and the ones I did have stayed with me. In 1998 Facing History had a Choosing to Participate exhibit at the Boston Public Library that included portraits of Holocaust rescuers, a section on the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and one about Billings, Montana, where residents of all backgrounds bonded together against anti-Semitic acts.
Zezette was one of the docents who helped the students think about and understand their experience.
My dear friend Dave Russell came to the library with his class of middle school students from the McKinley School in Boston’s South End during one of the days that Zezette was there.
Dave’s students were in their full adolescent and attention deficit disorder glory when they came upon Zezette and me. I gave them a quick explanation about who she was.
“You a survivor?” One of the students asked her bluntly.
“I am a survivor,” she answered.
”It was tough?” the boy asked.
“It was tough,” she replied, a trace of her French accent and Belgian roots pushing through on the final word.
Groups of children assess new adults much the way dogs meeting for the first time do, sniffing for signs of weakness.
The boy and the other students responded to Zezette’s open and honest acknowledgment of the struggles she knew they were having and of her own past suffering during the war. Rather than hassling her, they nodded and went on quietly to look at the exhibit.
It was tough was an understatement of enormous proportions.
Zezette rarely shared her wartime experiences with students when I was at Facing History, but they came through in pieces during the tribute event.
Being hidden in a convent until someone betrayed her.
Sent at age 13 to Auschwitz, where she stayed for two years.
Her parents killed.
The suffering stayed with her her entire life and gave Zezette the compassion to which Dave’s students responded.
It was also a large part of why people in the room were grieving so openly.
People’s grief took the form of tears – Facing History founder and executive director Margot Strom had them streaming down her face, and Zezette’s husband Steve Black broke down at a number of points -and of people like Marc Skvirsky saying, “I don’t think I can do this.”
Fortunately, he did.
Marc brought Zezette into the room through four video clips filmed over the course of two decades starting in the 1980s.
One excerpt was from 1991, when she returned to the death camp, met Steve, fell in love, and gotten married. Another was from 2001, when she participated on the Facing History civil rights trip in the southern United States.
The clips showed Zezette age with grace and dignity and allowed us to witness her pain in her as she struggled to name the indescribable loneliness she felt while standing hour after hour during the appel, or roll call, at Auschwitz.
I was trying to survive for an unknown purpose, she said.
Zezette said she had no friendship or connection to anyone else in the place because she was trying like hell not to be noticed.
Friend, poet and human rights activist Marjorie Agosin, who had written interviewed Zezette for a book about Jewish-American women called Uncertain Travelers and who previously written a poem about her, read a freshly written poem about her.
So did several other people.
Karen, a woman whom Zezette mentored, sang and brought French and Belgian chocolates.
Sadness descended over me as I bit into a truffle-filled chocolate, telling myself I was doing it in honor of Zezette. If Zezette was an uncertain traveler, she has arrived at a certain destination that will eventually face us all.
So too was the cumulative toll the year has taken.
My father-in-law Marty and stepmother Diane’s deaths, Dunreith’s car accident, and Mom’s heart and hip struggles are the most major blows we have sustained.
Seeing old friends raised my spirits. Catching up and looking back over dinner with my friend Tracy at Chef Chow’s boosted me, too.
I knew gratitude for Zezette’s courage in managing the suffering that lifted but never left would eventually come.
And, at that moment, standing among the group that had come together to honor an elegant, wounded and quintessentially human woman, the sadness crowded out everything else.