Zenia Larsson was a sculptor and an author. She was the first person in Sweden to write about her experiences of the Nazi concentration camps.
Zenia Larsson was born in 1922 in the Polish industrial town of Lódz. She was the daughter of the hairdresser Wowsza Marcinkowski and Perla Wolek. She grew up in the town’s working-class quarter. Her mother died when she was nine years old. Six years later, in 1937, her father remarried. In 1940 the whole family was forcibly removed to the ghetto which the German occupying forces had established in Lódz.
Zenia Larsson spent the period of 1940–1944 in the Lódz ghetto, initially accompanied by her father and his second wife, and subsequently – following her father’s death – with her step-mother alone. When the ghetto was obliterated in 1944 she and her step-mother were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp, only to be moved to the Bergen-Belsen death camp at the tail end of the war. In April 1945 their camp was liberated by the British army. Ten days later Zenia Larsson’s step-mother passed away. Although Zenia herself was still alive, she was very unwell and received treatment from the Swedish Red Cross who sent her to Malmö. She, just like Cordelia Edvardson, was part of the largest wave of Second World War refugees to arrive in Sweden in the period between spring and summer of 1945: more than 100,000 people made the journey. Zenia barely weighted 30 kilos when she arrived in Malmö.
Zenia Larsson had been a keen painter, drawer, and writer even as a child. Her persistence and talent gained her access to Konstakademin (the academy of art) and she became the first foreign student there since the time of King Gustaf III. She studied sculpture with Professor Eric Grate and completed her studies in 1952. During that period while she was studying at Konstakademin she also undertook two study trips to Denmark.
Zenia Larsson worked in a variety of different materials. Her artwork primarily comprises model studies and portraits in wood, terracotta, plaster, and marble. On several occasions she exhibited her work in Sveriges Allmänna Konstförening (Swedish association for art) exhibitions and at the Liljevalchs gallery as well as part of various group displays in combination with other artists. She created several portraits of well-known individuals, including one of Astrid Lindgren. Zenia Larsson’s public works include the sculpture Vandraren, which she produced for the memorial garden in Falun, and the wooden sculpture called Ensam created for Folkskoledirektionen (public school administration) in Bromma.
When Zenia Larsson came to Sweden the sole baggage she brought with her was her “testimony”, as she later wrote. More than ten years passed before she was able to begin writing her memoires. She was certainly encouraged to reveal her experiences whilst she was a student at Konstakademin. She had impulsively created a small crushed feminine form in clay and when her instructor, Eric Grate, stopped to inspect it he did not give an aesthetic critique as expected but rather simply said: “You should write about this…”. However, it was not until the tenth anniversary of the end of the war in 1955, when Olof Lagercrantz posed the question of why the voices of those who had survived the concentration camps were not being heard in an article for Dagens Nyheter that she seriously decided to write down her own experiences. The silence and the denial of the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the holocaust emerged just ten years after the war had ended and she saw it as her duty to testify.
Zenia Larsson made her debut as an author in 1960 when she published her autobiographical novel entitled Skuggorna vid träbron. The story takes place in Lódz and became the first of a trilogy based on a girl called Paula Levin and her almost unimaginably horrendous experiences. The two subsequent parts, Lång är gryningen, from 1961, and Livet till mötes, from 1962, tell of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the arrival in Sweden and the initial difficulties of adjusting, respectively. These books are central to what became an extensive and significant authorship. It is striking that these books, which are generally very detailed, largely ignore the actual experiences within the concentration camps themselves, almost as if these were impossible to relate. The books can be read as historical documents and insertions, like literary testimony, which are simultaneously literary compositions and contain a lucidity which goes far beyond that of the document itself.
Zenia Larsson wrote another ten novels. Their overarching theme is the fate of the small individual and how we are all influenced by our circumstances. In her 1964 book Åter till Babel she deals with the lack of connection between people. Her 1966 book, Mejan, is a novel about the life of artists at Konstakademin in Stockholm. In Fotfäste, from 1968, Zenia Larsson once again considers the issue of surviving. In this book the character of Uriel Ballin, a former prison-camp survivor, comes to terms with his past. Zenia Larsson also wrote short stories, essays, and radio plays. Brev från en ny verklighet, from 1972, is a selection from a 25-year long correspondence with a childhood friend and fellow inmate at Bergen-Belsen.
Zenia Larsson married the engineer Per-Axel Larsson in 1950 and they remained together until his death in 1994. Zenia Larsson died in 2007.