Petula Dvorak: Revisiting a torturous past through a pumpkin

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The tasteful little ghosts flapping in the breeze were not the scariest part of the churchyard's pumpkin patch.

No, for Alfred Moritz, a 79-year-old retired architect who lives in Rockville, it was the fat orange gourds that were frightening. Moritz has a complicated relationship with pumpkins.

For most people, they are the quintessential symbol of the autumn harvest, trick-or-treating and Thanksgiving pies. For Moritz, pumpkins conjure the darkest days of his childhood, of starvation and a brutal struggle to live.

He and his little brother survived the Holocaust by hiding out for years in the French countryside, where they slept in barns with rats and huddled with goats for warmth and wondered whether their family members were alive.

While their father was in the concentration camp at Dachau and their mother remained in hiding, the little boys scavenged chestnuts and apples and pretended to be French. The family of four survived and was reunited, but Moritz lost a grandmother, aunt, uncles and six cousins to the extermination camps.

After finishing school in Europe, the brothers eagerly moved to America for college.

Moritz became an architect who built fabulous buildings all over the world. Geneva, Moscow, Prague, Mexico City rolled off his tongue as he told me his stories.

In his elegant home in Rockville, we sat as he showed me the book he'd authored, "Survival in WW II 1933-1944," which he illustrated with his own watercolors tracing his family's journey through the war.

So now he tells his story and volunteers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as a translator, poring over documents and piecing together names and events, so that others might learn the stories of their families, too.

He is also an avid bicyclist and often stops his bike -- whether he's cycling along the Rhine River in Europe or near I-270 in Maryland -- when something beautiful catches his eye.

He takes off the helmet, opens the bike pannier and begins to paint.

On an autumn day last week, he was pedaling past the Faith United Methodist Church in Rockville when a flash of orange caught his eye. He hit the brakes, and out came the watercolors.

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