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January 27, 2017  RSS feed

Text: T T T

They Tried to Kill Me, Part 2

Emilie Socash
Executive Director, Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties

The following column is second in a three-part series begun in December, exploring my journey of discovery regarding Saul Gurevitz, an artist who painted a work I purchased from a neighborhood store in December 2015, without knowing he was a Holocaust survivor. As my family welcomed this piece of art into our home, my research quickly revealed that we were also welcoming the artist’s story into our lives, providing a reference point to examining how and why we remember the lives of individual survivors.

As I patiently spoke over the course of an afternoon with Gunnar Berg at YIVO, I realized that bringing this painting into my life had set something in motion, which I could not stop, and of which I would need to be patient. (YIVO is a research institute that preserves the cultural history of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.)

In my final conversation that day with Gunnar, he agreed to scan and send me 10 pages of the manuscript, which are those that sit on my shelf now. The first 10 pages begin to shed light on the early days of Gurevitz’s life: it’s mostly about his family and their life in Vilna. But while I waited for these treasured details, the Internet kept me busy in unpacking what can only be described as a rabbit hole of a journey.

I learned that my new artist friend was born in 1930 in Vilna, Poland, and after immigrating to the United States in 1948 he settled in Brookline, MA, where he passed away in 2001 at 80 years of age. He only painted from 1960 to 1967; the rest of his years were spent as a psychoanalyst.

Looking at this tidy description of his life could have been enough for me; I would have been satisfied had there not been other interesting clues along the way that began to tell the tale of a man rich in glory and adventure.

The Internet had more to say about Saul. In 1956, he met Adrienne D’Ennerie DeJoie, a Haitian woman 12 years his junior who was an actress, singer, and artist. With Adrienne, he started a family, having two daughters, Tamara and Sonia. The songstress has a fascinating resume of her own: Haitian-born and extremely talented, she graced the cover of Jet magazine on Nov. 6, 1958, with the headlines “Haitian Trouper” and “Adrienne DeJoie: Pretty Haitian sings with troupe now in U.S. for tour!”

I was bursting with questions at this point. How did they meet? Why did they settle in Cape Cod? How did he decide to leave his educational path to solely paint for seven years?

I shared my research with my husband, Shane, who had a slightly different take. “If one of his daughters was born in 1960, and our painting is from 1961, I have to imagine he bounced her on his knee as he finished up this painting.”

My experience of this painting – of this man – was intensely humanized. The story of one was becoming a story of all, as a Holocaust survivor, a husband, an artist, a psychoanalyst, and now father.

I thought my research was at an end as I found the last dregs of facts on the Internet in reading his obituary. He lost his entire family in World War II. While he was encouraged to take art lessons as a child, he always had a fascination with the human mind; to that end he acquired his PhD at the University of Zurich and practiced in New York City. He finally settled in Brookline and spent several years painting, and the rest of his life collected mainly 20th century abstract art, including Joan Miro, Marc Chagall, Xavier Gonzalez, Alexander Calder, and Francis Bacon.

It was now early January 2016; I had no leads on anyone who could visit YIVO headquarters to copy the memoir manuscript for me. I had practically wrung Google dry, thumbing through Cape Cod art show booklets from the 1960s finding shreds of his existence in the name of a piece on display here or there. I wondered what his other paintings looked like. In fact, I found two other paintings produced by Gurevitz on an auction site, but nothing that revealed who this man was as a person.

After several months of searching for information about Saul Gurevitz, I was beginning to feel as though the well had run dry. I had stumbled through JewishGen, the robust yet clunky Jewish geneology website that lists every possible configuration of names, birthdates, death dates, and so forth.

Saul’s father, Israel, appeared in my search, and even though I knew that his entire family was killed in the Holocaust, I couldn’t help but feel it in a more real and visceral way to see that the Lithuanian Jew, Israel Gurevitz, born April 10, 1902, killed on Dec. 29, 1944 after being taken to Dautmergen, a subcamp of the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in southwestern Germany. Since the main camp was liberated in the fall of 1944, it’s likely that his death occurred at Dachau, where most of the Natzweiler prisoners were taken.

The movement of the Gurevitz family across and around Europe remains a large question mark: of particular interest is how Saul endured through the years of the Vilna Ghetto, when the town’s population of 40,000 was reduced to just a few hundred?

An interesting inspiration appeared on Feb. 18, 2016 at the Florida Holocaust Museum’s annual “To Life” event. The evening featured Samuel Bak as the Loebenberg Humanitarian Award recipient. As Bak discussed his work, his reasons for pursuing art, and his own personal story, I was struck by one point of serendipity: Bak, too, had survived the Vilna Ghetto. He was 13 years younger than Gurevitz, but nevertheless, their stories had striking similarities.

My research paths opened up to me: would I contact Saul’s daughters? Would Samuel Bak be any assistance in learning more about how the young survived Vilna’s atrocities? And still, how was I to get the manuscript, “They Tried to Kill Me?”

In the final part of my story, I’ll share my results from my upcoming visit to YIVO Headquarters in New York, and reflect on why and how this one painting has changed my view on remembrance forever.

Liked it? Loathed it? Want to react? I would welcome your feedback and can be reached at

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