April 9, 2006 – Morris Paiewonsky has soft blue eyes, a full head of silver-white hair, white eyebrows and a neatly clipped white moustache. He is the patriarch of the Paiewonsky clan and seems to enjoy every minute of it. Which is not to say he relishes attention. He does not.
As patriarchs go, Paiewonsky is humble. He was, in fact, more or less cajoled by family members into an interview — a fact that surfaces now and then as he sorts through memories most of us could only imagine accumulating in one lifetime. And his memories are vivid, alive today.
Paiewonsky will celebrate his 95th birthday April 22. He is taking his regular breakfast – light on fat and sugar – at the Delly Deck in Havensight, waited on by Ronnie, a morning ritual for more years than he can remember.
"All right," he says, finishing up a bagel. "I was born in the little town of Samana in the Dominican Republic."
He carefully folds his napkin. "Samana was a small town, about 3,000 [people] on a beautiful little harbor on a northern peninsula. The main industry was growing coconuts and malanga [a potato-like tuber].
"My father was well known in our small community," Paiewonsky says, "he cared deeply about the town. He would give the campesinos seeds to plant malanga, to grow their own crops."
Paiewonsky's stories are alive with anecdote, feeling, humor, and, as becomes evident, he is an astute student of human nature. He dips into one memory after another. As one door opens, another is never quite closed.
He is interrupted frequently as friends stop to say hello.
Paiewonsky also holds court at Hook, Line and Sinker in Frenchtown, where he takes Sunday brunch with his family – usually his daughter, Sheila, and her husband, former congressional delegate Ron de Lugo, Albert, his oldest son and St. Thomas businessman, his wife Marcia, Anna, their daughter, and most especially, his great-granddaughter Jessica, Anna's two-year-old daughter.
The Paiewonskys have a long and rich history in the Dominican Republic, as well as St. Thomas.
There are two groups of the family: Isidor's and Morris'. The late Isidor Paiewonsky, historian owner of A. H. Riise, and Morris are cousins. Both families began arriving in St. Thomas in 1867 from Lithuania, where they fled to escape deteriorating living conditions for Lithuania's Jewish population.
When he was about 11 years old, Paiewonsky and his older sister, Olga, moved with their mother, Anna, to Brooklyn, where they attended high school. He attended New York University for one year and St. Louis University for two years, studying pre-med, before returning to Samana in 1935 to join his father in business.
Both elder Paiewonskys were influential in the small community. The dictator Raphael Trujillo was in power then, and Anna had some influence with Trujillo, which later turned out to be propitious.
As he sifts through his memories, there is one that stands out above all others. He tells of the day that changed his life.
"I hadn't seen my father for 13 years," he says. "When I had got home, my father told me to button my shirt because we had guests. I was a wise guy," he adds parenthetically.
"A lady and her daughter were sitting at the dining room table," he says. "I took one look at the daughter. She had the most beautiful, the greenest blue eyes that I had ever seen."
And just like that the "wise guy" became a hopeless romantic.
"You know, they say there is love at first sight. There is. I knew I had fallen in love forever," he says of meeting 17-year-old Hulda Conde.
And it may as well have been that day in 1935, as Paiewonsky relates the story. He smiles like a schoolboy whenever he mentions Hulda. "After about three weeks, I told her we were getting married," he says. " We scarcely knew each other. She told me I was crazy, but she wasn't unhappy. We felt the same way about each other.
"I had to ask her father, Salustiano Conde. He said I would have to ask my parents. I asked why, and I told him my parents didn't ask me when they got married." Though the wise guy resurfaced, Conde didn't refuse the smitten young man. "I got home, and sent him a telegram – 'Parents approve.'"
Paiewonsky and Hulda lived in Samana, where they had three children: Albert, Sheila and Edgar.
In 1946 an event happened that would change their lives, one that wound up with Paiewonsky in jail. "We had electricity in those days," he says, "but the lights went out at midnight. Right after that, one night about 1946, a fire broke out in my father's warehouse. The fire spread fast because the building was filled with copra [dried coconut meat] and it was very dry.
"We had volunteer firemen, but I think they were kept back. Before the fire had cooled down, I was taken to jail, along with two others. The newspaper said the town was 'burned down by communists.' They tried to get me to say I had done it. The attorney general, Delorbe, tried to get me to admit it. He told the commander of the jail to have me sign a confession and then 'commit suicide.'"
An air of mystery surrounded the incident, but owing to politics at the time, and the fact that Anna knew Trujillo, Morris was released. However, the attorney general was found dead shortly thereafter.
The experience left Paiewonsky discouraged, and he left his beloved village and moved his family to Santo Domingo, which was known as Cuidad Trujillo then, and where their fourth son, Irving, was born.
It was there he got his start in the movie business, managing the distribution of Universal Films – a job which would take him to South America and, ultimately, to the Center Theater on St. Thomas' Main Street.
After successfully managing the Santo Domingo office, Universal asked Paiewonsky to manage its office in Montevideo, Uruguay, a town Paiewonsky describes as the "Switzerland of South America."
"I wanted my children to see what it was like living in a democracy," he says. "They had only lived under Trujillo." He smiles at a memory: "Little Edgar — he is named after Edgar Allen Poe, my favorite poet — and I saw a policeman one day help an elderly lady across the street. Edgar didn't know what to make of it. 'That's an innocent policeman' he said to me."
After a few years in South America — moving to Lima, Peru, after Uruguay, at the urging of family members — Paiewonsky moved his family to St. Thomas in 1957 to manage the then Center Theater on Main Street, and the old Apollo Theater on Government Hill.
It wasn't easy at first, Paiewonsky says. "The audience was vulgar; they would laugh when it was sad and not understand when it was funny."
Paiewonsky steadied the ship. He brought first-class cinema to the center, including Kurosawa's classic, "The Seven Samurai," and the audiences came.
The Center movie house became Cinema One in the Sugar Estate building, and Paiewonsky still maintains his office there today. After finishing his breakfast weekdays, Paiewonsky spends a few hours in the office where, with his secretary of 40 years, Louise Smith, he manages two properties, Little Switzerland and the parking lot where the Apollo once stood.
After celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in 1987, Paiewonsky lost his beloved Hulda later that year. "I was angry for a long time," he says. "The best part of my life was taken away. I felt this emptiness you could never imagine.
"What saved me," he says, "is a book 'When Bad Things Happen to Good People' by Rabbi Kushner. It helps explain how not to blame God." Whenever he mentions Hulda, Paiewonsky lights up. He is still the smitten young man. "She just hypnotized me," he smiles.
About 40 or so of Paiewonsky's ever-expanding family and many friends were hypnotized by Paiewon
sky on Saturday as he observed his 95th birthday, a week or so early to accommodate some of his many grandchildren on spring break. Albert and Marcia Paiewonsky's home was filled with laughter, food and drink, and memories.
Presented with an enormous birthday cake, Paiewonsky, with a playful smile, deliberately switched the numerals to 59.
"I love them all," he says, "and they love me. What else is there? This is happiness."
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