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Making peace with the past and 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.

"I see him and wonder what he's doing," said Melody Manning, who was watching over the church's pumpkin patch that day. Each year, she helps decorate and design it.

Moritz explained to her that he wanted to paint the scene. So she left him alone.

In less than an hour, Moritz delivered to Manning his watercolor painting, a lovely rendition of the church's brick front, the fall leaves and the pumpkins on the ground. The ghosts look like angels, not ghouls, she said.

"He tells me to keep it for the church. I was just so touched by that," Manning said. "So I told him to pick a pumpkin from the patch. Go ahead."

Moritz wasn't so sure.

"I said no thank you and went home," he told me, still a little puzzled that I came to his home to talk about pumpkins.

The church ladies were puzzled, too.

All around him this time of year, pumpkins abound. Who wouldn't want a pumpkin?

Even if you don't like the taste of them, you can take one to a pumpkin-smashing festival, where folks throw them, catapult them, squish them with bulldozers and impale them on a wall of spikes.

Moritz can't imagine such a thing. On one of the stops where he and his brother hid in the French countryside, the frightened boys survived a season and the "awful, unforgettable pangs of hunger -- real, awful hunger," he told me, by eating nothing but pumpkins.

"I couldn't eat them since," he said. "Didn't even want to touch them."

So for at least six decades, he avoided the orange pie at holidays, he hung back when his children carved toothy smiles on their jack-o'-lanterns.

He just couldn't do it.

He looked at one of his paintings of the pumpkins. And he took a long breath.

"Damn pumpkins," he said.

"I came home, told my wife about it. She said I really should take the pumpkin. It was a gesture," he told me.

So he returned to the church and took the gourd, explaining his story to the church ladies.

"He touched my heart," Manning said. "I think he made peace with the pumpkins."

It was an act of forgiveness.

"He did a lot for us. He made us wake up and look at him, realize we never had to grow up that way," Manning said. "And he showed us how people of different beliefs can talk and get along and learn from each other."

It wouldn't have worked for Moritz to throw the pumpkins at spikes or put them under a bulldozer.

He carried the church pumpkin home and put it on his front porch. He said he's grown to like it there.

Next year, perhaps he'll even have a slice of pumpkin pie.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com

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