Portrait of a Holocaust Survivor
In a Nazi Camp in Belgium, Irene Awret Found Salvation in Art
By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004; Page C01
Alone in a Gestapo jail cell with blood-stained walls, Irene Spicker -- 21 and Jewish -- was terrified. She had fled her native Berlin in 1939 and managed to hide for several years in Belgium. But by 1943, the Nazi persecution of Jews was in full force, occupied Belgium was no longer a haven, and her captors were determined to learn from her the whereabouts of her father.
Spicker had decided she could brave the uncertain fate of Jews facing deportation to Auschwitz. (Only at the end of the war would the full story of mass extermination efforts emerge.) But she would not put her father, who was in hiding, at risk -- no matter the consequence.
And so she waited.
Spicker searched for some distraction to calm her fears. Luckily, the burgeoning artist still had her purse and the small sketchbook that she always carried. She proceeded to draw her left hand in careful detail.
It turned out to be a life-saving piece of art.
The Gestapo commander who arrived later to interrogate her was taken aback by the skillful drawing he found among her belongings. He abandoned his questioning and ordered her transferred to the transit camp at Mechelen -- halfway between Brussels and Antwerp -- where 25,000 Jews and several hundred Gypsies were processed before being shipped east to Auschwitz.
But instead of the short-term stay experienced by most detainees, Spicker would spend a year and a half at the Mechelen camp in 1943 and 1944. She was assigned to the art workshop, where a small group of prisoners painted cardboard identification signs, linen armbands and other posters and signs for the camp.
When the rudimentary tasks were done, Spicker was forced to paint portraits of Nazi officers. By choice -- and in secret -- she painted portraits of her fellow prisoners.
She also fell in love. Azriel Awret was another workshop artist, and he and Spicker married soon after Allied forces liberated Mechelen in September 1944.
Today, the Awrets live in Falls Church, where they each have home studios and still share a passion for the art that brought them together -- and helped them survive the Holocaust. Irene, 83, fills large canvases with bold, vivid brush strokes. Azriel, 93, sculpts wood, clay and metal.
Irene has produced so much work that the overflow has made its way onto Azriel's studio wall. "She has to pay rent for them," jokes her husband. Russian-born and reared in Belgium, he is quieter than his wife, who takes the lead in telling their story.
They were founding members of the Safed Artists' Colony in Israel, where they settled in 1949 and raised two children before relocating to Northern Virginia in the '70s. They've produced an array of public art, including ceramic murals at several Montgomery County schools, and Azriel's sculptures adorn George Mason University's campus.
Irene has also written a book, "They'll Have to Catch Me First," about her harrowing experiences during the Third Reich. It serves not only as a deeply intimate memoir, but also as a landmark historical account of Mechelen's role in the Holocaust. Irene decided to write the book -- which included traveling throughout the world to interview other Mechelen survivors -- about 10 years ago when she met a young Belgian scholar from Mechelen (also known by the French name Malines) who had no idea that the transit camp existed.
The book also features art by the Awrets and other Mechelen prisoners. Irene managed to salvage some of the work after the camp's liberation. The Awrets have long since donated it all to museums. The work is dominated, not surprisingly, by stark images of men, women and children who never returned from the transports to Auschwitz.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company