Portrait of a Holocaust Survivor
Hard though it may be to comprehend that art existed in such circumstances, Irene says she understands.
"Germans -- even these people -- have a respect for art," she says. "It's like you are some kind of magician."
She recalls vividly how the camp commander would sometimes bring official visitors to the art workshop: "He would say, 'These are our artists.' "
Irene adds that the very nature of artists will drive them to create, even in an oppressive environment.
"If you are a painter, you are very visual," she says. "You have visual experiences, and you want to express them. It can be something very good, or it can be very sad. I was very young, and I didn't think much of why I did these things. I see a child with sad eyes, so I want to do this."
Had she known at the time, though, what became of the women and children at Auschwitz -- how they were sent directly from the trains to gas chambers -- Irene wouldn't have painted their portraits.
"I couldn't have done it if I had known," she says plaintively. "Being a mother with children -- helpless -- it was the worst thing."
The pain of her Holocaust experience, however, and the pain of learning afterward of the millions of Jews who perished, isn't something she has chosen to explore overtly in her art, Irene says. But she is proud to help educate the public through her book about what transpired at Mechelen in those darkest days of World War II.
As for the future, she and Azriel are happy to simply continue making art, traveling when they can and enjoying time with their family and each other.
"One thing I've learned in my life," says Irene, "is not to plan a long time ahead."
They'll Have to Catch Me First by Irene Awret, published by the University of Wisconsin Press and Dryad Press of Takoma Park. $26.95. Available at local bookstores, by phone at 773-702-7000 or online atwww.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company