Irene Awret, like many other Jewish survivors of concentration and transport camps during WWII, was the beneficiary of chance: awaiting interrogation by the SS in a narrow cell in Brussels, terrified, she did a small drawing to calm her nerves. That drawing was to save her from deportation to Auschwitz, the fate of 20,000 Jewish prisoners in Mechelen, where she was sent. Assigned to the painters’ workshop, she painted numbers that prisoners wore around their necks, linen armbands for other prisoner-works, and signs. During her year-and-a-half of imprisonment, Nazi officers had her do portrait paintings of themselves and mistresses – at the same time, she and other artists surreptitiously drew and painted scenes of camp life. After liberation by the Allies, Mrs. Awret was able to rescue what was left of her own artwork as well as work by Lon Landau, Jacques Ochs and Azriel Awret, the sculptor whom she later married. They’ll Have to Catch Me First is one of the few accounts in any language of day-to-day life in Mechelen – it is based on Mrs. Awret’s own experiences and extensive interviews she conducted years later in Belgium and Europe with former prisoners. Written originally in German, her translation is buoyed by self-deprecation and a disarming sense of the comedic, despite the terrible brutality of all that she experienced.
Irene Awret is the author of Days of Honey: The Tunisian Boyhood of Rafael Uzan, winner of first prize in the Janusz Korcak Competition. Known widely in Israel for her paintings and her ceramic sculptures, she has had numbers of solo shows in Israel and the United States. While some of her drawings and paintings from the Mechelen transit camp have been published in books of Holocaust art, They’ll Have to Catch Me Firstgathers the largest collection of her work from the year-and-a-half she was imprisoned there. She and her sculptor husband Azriel Awret immigrated to Israel from Belgium in 1949 and helped found the Safad Artists’ Colony. Since 1968, they have lived in Fairfax, Virginia, and continue to exhibit their work here and in Israel.
Selections of artwork in the memoir