Irene Awret, a well-known artist, a loving mother, a Holocaust survivor, a speaker of five languages, and a longtime resident of Falls Church, passed away at the age of 93 last Friday, June 6.
To tour Irene’s home painting studio was to take in a brilliant prism of colors, textures, and expressions ricocheting from wall to wall, across a sea of richly hued portraits. It was, in many ways, a reflection of her inspiring and colorful life story – though the early chapters might be best expressed in black and white.
In 1939, Irene Spicker, a Jewish teenager living in Berlin, fled for Belgium hoping to avoid imprisonment by the Nazis. She went into hiding for several years, but following the German occupation, she was captured and sent to a Gestapo jail. In the midst of interrogation where they sought (in vain) to force her to reveal her father’s whereabouts, a Nazi officer noticed one of her sketches and was impressed. Unbeknownst to her at the time, this would alter her life dramatically.
She was assigned to the art workshop at a transit camp in Mechelen where most detainees were shipped off to Auschwitz, but because of her skills as an artist she was spared. It was also in this workshop where she would meet her future husband, Azriel Awret. Despite the grim and desperately sad circumstances, they were able to forge a deep love, which continued through almost 70 years of marriage until his passing two years ago at the age of 101.
Following the liberation of the camp, they married and subsequently moved to Israel, where they were founding members of the Safed Artists’ Colony. After raising two children, Uzi and Martha, they relocated to Northern Virginia in the 1970s.
They quickly set about building two studios in their house – one for each of them. Irene’s was filled with her beautiful, vivid paintings, notably her portraits of close friends and family whom she captured in a nuanced and human way. She also contributed significantly to Azriel’s sculpture work, which can be seen in many prominent places throughout the region. Both of their works of art have been showcased across the country and internationally.
In her 70s, Irene translated her experiences of the Holocaust into a book titled “They’ll Have to Catch Me First.” And in her 80s, Irene and her husband were profiled in the Style section of the Washington Post, highlighting their life story and their continued artistic contributions to the culture of the area.
Suffice it to say, Irene lived a life that seems more movie script (or history book) than real life, and for those of us fortunate enough to know her, we always felt as if we were in the presence of a living legend. However, any sense of her being anything other than our dear Irene dissolved the moment she welcomed you with a big smile into her home to chat, share a meal, and to discuss art, world events or the news of the day. She will be missed immensely, but her legacy lives on – from Falls Church, to Israel, to Europe, and beyond.
Irene is survived by her son Uzi, daughter Martha, grandchildren Boaz, Ilan, Keolu, the memory of her husband Azriel, and a lifetime of beautiful and meaningful art.