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They'll Have to Catch Me First

An Artist's Coming of Age in the Third Reich

Irene Awret

Publication Year: 2004

Berlin 1939. A few months after Kristallnacht, eighteen-year old Irene Spicker tries to flee to Belgium but ends up in a Nazi prison. Freed after a few weeks, she tries again—this time, in the dark of night, she successfully crosses the frontier. The Germans invaded Belgium, and Irene was forced into hiding. Constantly on the move, she worked as a farmhand, at one point using false identity papers. Arrested by the Gestapo, she sat in a cellar prison cell destined for transport to Auschwitz. To calm her fears, she made a small detailed drawing of her hand which was to save her life. Incarcerated in the concentration camp in Mechlen, she was assigned to paint signs, posters and numbers for her co-prisoners to wear around their necks. This is Irene Awret’s story of her first twenty-five years, from coming of age in a middle-class Jewish family to Mechlen where she met the young sculptor Azriel Awret, to liberation and freedom once more.

Copublished with Dryad Press.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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My heartfelt thanks to my lifelong partner Azriel Awret and my old friend Eve Fastag-Dobruszkes who tirelessly helped me to collect the notes needed to write the latter part of this memoir. Traveling together, our search for survivors of the Mechelen Gestapo camp willing to share their memories led us to Brussels and Antwerp, to elegant flats ...

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pp. ix-xii

As the chronicler of the generation which Irene Awret belongs to, I think I have read more stories of survivors, published and unpublished, than most. I still find every one of absorbing interest because no two stories are alike. The first part of Irene Awret's account of her youth is only too familiar to me personally—the German ...

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pp. xiii-xvi

Some years ago, our good friend Gruine Robinson, a retired newspaper reporter, invited my husband and me to accompany her to a lecture at the Belgian embassy in Washington, D.C. where she had been invited together with a large group of her colleagues. As former inhabitants of Brussels, we accepted gladly. We had often driven by the handsome ...

Drawings and Paintings

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pp. xvii-xviii

PART ONE: Berlin

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pp. 3-20

In the beginning my story is quite ordinary. A normal birth, normal weight, and my mother who tied the dark fuzz on my head in a little pink bow. After the childless rift of World War I, which my father had spent in the trenches of France, I was welcomed warmly as a bonus of the great inflation. My entire family, down to the last great-cousin, a bachelor who kept ...

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pp. 21-32

When Grown-ups would whisper n my presence and my mother was dressed in black, I knew without asking that another member of the family had vanished. 1927. The first to go was my fun-loving Grandfather Zoegall. Soon after his laughter had died, my Great-grandmother Treumann and her croaked commands were gone as well. ...

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pp. 33-50

My mother came to me in dreams, blurred like a poorly exposed photograph, without ever smiling. Nevertheless, I loved those dreams, waking up with the warm feeling that Mutti maybe was still somewhere. My father had always been the one to romp and play with me rather than my more reserved, careful and pensive mother, so ...

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pp. 51-64

Coming home from school one noon, I was dumbfounded when I walked into the house. What happened? Where were the etchings of the Prussian uniforms? Where did this ugly hall stand come from? Suddenly I grasped I had taken the wrong entrance path and had rung the wrong bell. I apologized to Mrs. Pohl. ...

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pp. 65-76

Putting one foot out from under the quilted bed cover, I quickly pulled it back. Overnight the window had become overgrown with ice flowers, though for my father it was not yet sufficiently cold to justify heating my bedroom. Still, I would not get out of my warm bed a minute earlier than necessary to make it to Miss Vogel's class in time. ...

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pp. 77-94

How does a thirteen-year old show that she is proud of her religion, even if mainly out of defiance? She becomes devout. For the first time I fasted the full twenty-four hours on Yom Kippur, accompanying Aunt Hanna to the women's separate gallery at the synagogue on Fasanen Street. Disconcerted, I stood by her side when during the remembrance ...

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pp. 95-114

In the youth movement we were trying to prepare ourselves for the rigors of pioneer life in Palestine. Groups of us marched many miles in the summer heat on country roads and through woods, most of the time with blisters on our feet. To drink water on those marches was considered a weakness, to be a sissy; to quit was out of the question. Though this discipline was ...

PART TWO: Brussels

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pp. 117-132

Mr. Hersch became Eugene. My demanding teacher changed into a gentle, understanding lover, and a day that had started on a very ugly note ended in the most beautiful evening. It was hard to believe—the mature man of my dreams was actually in love with me. That he was a little over-ripe did not matter. I would have loved nothing better than to crawl ...

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pp. 133-150

I registered at the academy as a German national, my profession a maid. While tuition for aliens was double that for Belgian citizens, I had passed the entrance exam with high marks and an exception was made for me, perhaps because I was the first domestic on the royal list of art students. One evening I entered Monsieur van Halen's ...

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pp. 151-172

Though we had finished our studies at the academy, some of us returned to Monsieur Van Halen's class after the summer vacation. If not as good a teacher as Eugene or Mademoiselle de Wappenaar, M. Van Halen was nevertheless a good man—I am sorry to say that he was killed in the street soon afterwards by shrapnel from a bomb attack by the Allies....

PART THREE: Mechelen

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pp. 175-188

After what seemed like a long trip past bare, wet meadows we drove into a town shrouded in the darkness of a blackout. One could only guess at names and signs, but then the somber silhouette of a cathedral came into view. "Mechelen," someone beside me whispered. The truck passed a big gate, then stopped. Thin rays of flashlights ...

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pp. 189-204

Time passed slowly, hunger was my companion. Every few days the lucky prisoners chosen to be porters stacked packages of food under a roof in the yard. Would today at last be my lucky day, would my name be among those called up? It was mail call time, and Dina, the nice girl from Frankfurt whom I had met in the washroom, accompanied me in the yard even though ...


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pp. G1 - 1-G1 - 8

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pp. 205-220

The next day was an ordinary weekday. Dago Meyer was no longer singing but roaring through the usual morning exercise. After the breakfast of so-called coffee, I became wholly absorbed in a drawing when the flour-loaded truck rolled into the yard. Like brushfire the news raced from one dormitory to the next. Though tense and apprehensive, ...

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pp. 221-242

I was now making brooches everyday. Perhaps it was during the fourth week that Kommandant Frank appeared in the doorway, followed by Boden and a man in civilian clothes, someone from the Gestapo to judge by his raincoat and slouch hat. "An inspection from Brussels," one of the workers whispered. Everyone stiffened, suddenly and wholly absorbed in work ...

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pp. 243-262

"On top of everything you are now talking in your sleep, Irene,"I heard Tilly's voice as if through a filter of cottonwool." Nice and airy here under the window, you know, but you'll be moon-struck and start walking in your sleep. I rubbed my eyes. I had slept through the wake-up whistle. Tilly was combing her hair. Madame Rosenberg was already ...

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pp. 263-276

The Gestapo had named the ruse that enabled them to net more than a thousand Belgian Jews "Action Iltis."The most prominent and wealthiest among them were soon released to return to their empty houses and apartments. Even with those let go, the barracks remained full of B-Numbers and foreboding. On the daily walk in rows of five, I was now swarmed ...

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pp. 277-286

A long winter and many months of yearning were to follow that November morning. Awret's release came about after members of his family petitioned the Queen Mother, who tried to help Nazi prisoners wherever possible. A quite good amateur sculptress, Queen √Člisabeth learned from the potter near the palace of Laaken that Awret used fire his clay ...

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pp. 287-310

Life in the new painters' workshop was quieter than it was in the old one. Dago Meyer still mustered enough energy to run up and down the stairs urging me to paint, but the guards rarely entered, apparently considering me harmless. Harmless I was, and also careless. I did something that had I been caught, the Kommandant would have punished me severely. ...

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pp. 311-314

Only recently I learned that the Dossin army barracks in Mechelen were built by Queen Marie-Therese in the 18th century when Belgium and the Netherlands were not yet independent states, but provinces of the Austrian Empire.I suppose that when I was imprisoned there neither my fellow inmates nor I were interested in the history of a place we abhorred. ...

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An Afterword on Mechelen

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pp. 315-320

Germany invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940; less than six months later, all Jews were ordered to register with the German authorities. A little more than two years after the invasion, the country's Jews were ordered to wear the yellow star. In Malines (called Mechelen by the Germans), located midway between Antwerp and Brussels where most Belgian Jews lived, the ...


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pp. 321-322


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p. 323-323

E-ISBN-13: 9780299188337
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299188306

Publication Year: 2004