A little garden
Fragrant and full of roses
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.
A little boy, a sweet boy
Like that growing blossom
When the blossom come to bloom,
The little boy will be no more. — Franta Bass, 9/04/1930 – 10/28/1944
It wasn’t until months after our visit to Theresienstadt that I even became aware of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the person, and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the heroine to the imprisoned children she helped there. A dear friend and former docent at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, happened to mention a soon to open exhibit of her work at the museum and that of the children who became her students. How did I miss it when we were there, right in the midst of the work of all those children; the ones that she influenced with her teaching?
Curious as to how I overlooked such a heroic and influential woman, I went home and checked the photos I’d taken in the museum at the Terezin ghetto. And there she was.
Apparently I’d been so emotionally overwhelmed by my discovery of Petr Ginz, that I totally missed Dicker-Brandeis and possibly a whole lot more.
Only after I visited her exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance did I learn about the artist and teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was as much a heroine to the children of Theresienstadt as Petr was a hero.
Friedl (Frederika) Dicker was born in Vienna on July 30, 1898, into a poor Jewish family. Her father was a shop-assistant; her mother, Karolina, died in 1902. As a four year old child losing her mother, and never achieving motherhood as an adult, she was able to compensate for it by becoming a mother to hundreds of young prisoners who were her students in the ghetto at Theresienstadt.
Her early art education began when she attended classes at the Bauhaus, while it was still located in Weimar, Germany. In 1915, after a course in photography and her early experiences in a street puppet theater, Friedl joined the textile department of the School of Art and Crafts. From that point on her thirst to learn everything she could get her hands on in the world of art was astonishing.
Because her training was so broad, during the next fifteen years she designed a Montessori kindergarten, a tennis club, and completed numerous other architectural jobs. Then, while working on various interior design projects, she also created stage sets and costumes. Meanwhile, she taught art to children at several private schools.
However, in 1934, during the right wing coups in Vienna, she was arrested for Communist activities. After being imprisoned for a short time, she fled to Prague, which was then considered a stronghold of democracy in Nazi-infested Austria.
In Prague she became a Czech citizen and continued her work designing for the theatre, while painting, teaching and creating textiles.
It was this move to Prague that changed the course of Friedl’s life. Marrying her cousin, an accountant, Pavel Brandeis, she became a Czech citizen, and also began to develop her gifts as a painter.
From 1934 to 1938, she also began working with the children of German political refugees. It was here that she began to apply techniques that she had learned from her Bauhaus training under such Bauhaus luminaries as Johannes Itten and Paul Klee – a philosophy based on the aesthetics of empathy. The idea was to see your subject both inside and out, and become one with it. To empathize with it.
Itten once said, “Color is life; for a world without color seems dead”. And Klee proposed that a drawing is simply a line going for a walk.
This philosophy would become the core of her own work and the guiding principle by which she taught art to children. As a result, she formed an intense bond with her young students, who often said that her mere presence and maternal warmth were enough to create a positive atmosphere.
Her guiding principle would soon be fully tested in Theresienstadt.
On Dec 17th, 1942, while she and her husband, Pavel were living in Harnov, Czechoslovakia, they were deported to the ghetto at Theresienstadt.
Instructions for the Jewish deportees specified that they could only bring 50 kilos, or roughly 110 lbs of personal belongings with them.
What a daunting task that must have been. Choosing what to pack while having no idea of what was going to become of them. As a result most deportees packed clothing, household articles, valuables, photo albums, etc.
But, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis had a different idea. She filled the bulk of her quota with art supplies. Not just for her own artistic needs, but to ensure that she would have the necessary materials to teach art to the hundreds of traumatized children she knew she would find when she reached Terezin. It was a choice that was just a natural part of who she was.
Obviously her survival instincts were different from the rest of us. By choosing to give of herself to others – to donate her time, her talents and her indomitable spirit – she displayed an extremely rare quality, especially under those circumstances.
Conditions in the camp were appalling. For the young children it was especially traumatic; suddenly finding themselves in a prison after being forced from the warmth and security of their own homes and families.
And now they were thrust into a terrifying new reality which they could barely understand.
From the time they arrived in the ghetto, the children were driven apart from their parents and loved ones. Ultimately, they were sent to live alone in overcrowded children’s “dormitories”. Even brothers and sisters were segregated because boys had to live separately from girls.
Surrounded by starvation, illness and brutality, living in these appalling conditions put an enormous strain on the ability of those children just to survive. Desperately in need of some form of stability or structure within the camp, that urgency became Friedl’s motivation.
By using her enormous enthusiasm and energy, art became her therapeutic tool, which she applied while teaching over 600 children. Yet with only the limited art supplies that she brought with her, she was able to have her students explore various media such as collage, watercolor painting, paper weaving, and drawing.
But her lessons were not designed merely to teach her students different techniques. For Friedl art represented freedom, and that freedom became the means she used to teach her young students to dig into their feelings and emotions; to use them as a source for their creations; giving them a freedom that allowed them a way to distance themselves from the grim reality of their surroundings; to live briefly outside the boundaries of their prison, and the horror and degradation that always remained.
Of her few students who survived the Holocaust, one was Helga Kinsky nee Pollak. She recalls how under Friedl’s guidance, “We didn’t illustrate the misery and horror that surrounded us, but rather a different world that Friedl transported us to. She painted flowers and had us paint what we imagined we’d see looking out of windows. Her’s was a totally different approach. She didn’t make us draw Terezin!”
Another surviving student, Eva Dorian, said of her beloved teacher, “I believe what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings; to liberate us from our fears. These were not normal lessons, but lessons in uninhibited meditation”.
But there was no way that Friedl’s use of art as therapy -by merely using paints and paper – could change the horrifying reality that awaited the majority of those poor Jewish children.
When Friedl’s husband, Pavel, was deported to Auschwitz in late September 1944, she voluntarily signed up for the next transport; so desperate was she to be reunited with him.1
Then on October 6th, 1944, Friedl Dicker Brandeis and 60 of her students were finally sent on transport number EO 167 to Auschwitz Birkenau. Most of them probably perished shortly after their arrival.
Yet, even at the very end, she did not give up hope herself, nor allow her students to do so. Instead, as one of the first teachers to use art as therapy, she showed them how to find artistic freedom and beauty, while helping to give meaning to their young lives, for as long as they were still able.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, much of her children’s precious artwork, along with many of her own beautiful drawings and paintings, didn’t disappear. Hoping that they would be found someday, she hid 5,000 pieces of art in the same two suitcases they had arrived in, when they were merely raw art supplies, two years earlier.
Although Friedl herself did not sign most of the work she produced in Theresienstadt, she made sure that her students did sign their names, and ages on all of their creations, as a testimony to their identity. A way of documenting their existence. Sadly that’s all that remains of most of Friedl’s 600 students. Apart from their ages and names, the majority of them will remain forever unknown, murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz Birkenau, starved to death in Theresienstadt or dying from the inhuman conditions in other concentration camps.
Sadly, her own works of art are seen far less often. Because of a hot temper and lack of self-confidence, she destroyed much of it herself.
And before her deportation, when she was forced to move into ever smaller apartments, she gave many of her paintings and drawings to friends, students or relatives…or she just left them with neighbors.
During most of the time at Terezin she was engaged in teaching children. Only in the summer of 1944, when the trains to the death camps were temporarily suspended – while the Nazis were creating a hoax for the Red Cross and the rest of the world – did she dedicate herself completely to painting. “I am painting with all possible intensity,” she wrote to her sister-in-law Maria Brandeis in August 1944, two months before her death.
But many of her projects were never completed and remained as sketches; and many are simply variations of the same composition. Yet her themes continued to be landscapes, flowers, people, street scenes, nudes, abstract compositions, and sketches for theater productions. She merely continued to ignore the ghetto’s environment. As a result, one will not find any trains, crowds, soup lines, dead bodies, or darkness in her work.
Of her last works of art, over one hundred and thirty of them are now at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles. But they were only discovered in the 1980s, along with hundreds of her letters, dating from 1938 to 1942.
As a result, it took more than forty years before her work began to get publicized and shown in exhibits in different parts of the world. And only then did Friedl Dicker-Brandeis begin to gain the recognition that she so richly deserved, as an artist, teacher and incredible human being.
1. Ironically, Pavel Brandeis survived the Holocaust.