Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and Artwork by the Children of Theresienstadt
Many years ago, I was invited to participate in the Connecticut State Assembly Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony. In addition to chanting the memorial prayer for those lives lost in the Holocaust, I was asked to share music inspired by the victims of the Holocaust. In preparing for this event, I came across the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of poems, later set to music, and artwork created by the children of Theresienstadt (Volavkova, 1992).
I was moved and intrigued by the paintings in this book. They were not the dark images filled with despair that I had come to expect from depictions of the Holocaust. Instead, they were bright, beautiful renderings of childlike wonder that could easily be mistaken for artwork created in a child’s classroom today. As I flipped through the pages, I wondered how these children learned to create art, and how they could be motivated to make it under such horrific conditions(Volavkova, 1992). This is the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, their teacher and their motivation.
I. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis: The Early Years
Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was born in 1898 in Vienna, Austria to Simon Dicker and Karolina Fanta. She was a talented Jewish artist who studied initially at the Kunstgewerbechule in Vienna, and later at the Bauhaus School in Weimar. She trained in textile, printing, painting, sculpture and stage design workshops (Gerber, 2006). She was inspired by the teaching methods of the Bauhaus which advocated a holistic approach to art integrating “the mind, the body, the senses and the emotions (Leshnoff , 2006, p.94). She was particularly inspired by her teacher, Johannes Itten, who viewed art not as imitative copying, but as a process to “liberate the creative forces and thereby the artistic talents of the students” (Leshnoff , 2006, p.94). This process included breathing and movement exercises to “establish the intellectual and physical readiness which make intensive work possible” (Leshnoff , 2006, p.94).
Brandeis left the Bauhaus to begin her own teaching studio and later organized art classes in Prague for the children of German refugees (Gerber, 2006). Edith Kramer, one of her former students and a pioneer in the field of Art Therapy, cites the holistic approach of Brandeis as formative to her work (Wix, 2009, p153-154). In 1942, Brandeis and her husband were deported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia where Brandeis would continue to teach art (Gerber, 2006).
II. Theresienstadt: transit camp and cultural center
On October 10, 1941 the garrison town of Theresienstadt was established as a concentration camp with several functions. The camp would serve as a transit station to death camps or other labor camps for Jewish prisoners. It would also house Jews who were highly decorated war heroes or had “sufficient regional, national or international celebrity to encourage domestic and foreign inquiry” into their disappearance (Theresienstadt: Key Dates, 2021). The camp was also used by the Nazi Party as a propaganda tool to demonstrate the humane treatment of the Jews to the international community (Theresienstadt: Key Dates, 2021).
Despite the horrific living conditions of the camp, culture, music and art flourished in Theresienstadt (Theresienstadt Cultural, 2021). “Art at Theresienstadt was both commissioned and clandestine…” and artists like Brandeis were allowed to bring art supplies with them to complete their works (Leshnoff , 2006, p.93). Brandeis taught art to the children of Theresienstadt in addition to creating her own work. In a written lecture that she delivered, “On Children’s Art” Brandeis described her teaching philosophy to the other art teachers at Theresienstadt (Leshnoff , 2006, p.93), (Wix, 2009, p.154). She emphasized that her purpose was not to turn children into artists, but to “unlock and preserve for all the creative spirit as a source of energy… and strengthen children’s ability to judge, appreciate, observe and endure…” (Wix, 2009, p.154). The simple act of signing and dating each piece of artwork allowed the children, who were identified in the camp by number, to reclaim their individual identities. She insisted that adults need not “direct the sparks of children’s inspiration” but must instead have faith in their creative spirits. Above all, she trusted unquestioningly that “in working with art materials to give form to personal experience, children would gain courage, speak truth, and unfold their imaginations.” (Wix, 2009, p.155).
III. The Artwork of Theresienstadt
Brandeis taught art in Theresienstadt from 1942 – 1944. When her husband, Pavel was assigned for transport to Auschwitz, Brandeis voluntarily signed up as well in the hopes of reuniting with him. Prior to her deportation to Auschwitz, Brandeis hid two packed suitcases containing 5,000 pieces of artwork from her over 600 students. Although Brandeis perished in Auschwitz along with many of her students, the artwork miraculously survived (Elsby, 2021).
Today, most of the artwork is now housed at the Jewish Museum in Prague and some is available to see on their website. The images in the artwork reflect the pedagogy of Brandeis and the influence of the Bauhaus. There are circles and squiggles from exercises the children did to teach their hands to move freely. There are also studies in color and texture. Some of the works are of happy memories from the past, while others are of hopeful reunification with family and friends (Children’s Drawings, 2021).
Many of the works are also reproduced in the book, I never saw another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp 1942-1944 (Volavkova, 1992). Brandeis’ life has been the subject of many books including a children’s book, Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin (Rubin, 2001).
IV. The Artists of Theresienstadt
An exhibition of the artwork of Theresienstadt travelled internationally from 1999-2003,
thanks to the work of historian Elana Makarova. As the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis became more widely known, childhood survivors of Theresienstadt came forward to share their experiences on how their art teacher left an impact on their lives (Gerber, 2006).
One student, Professor Erna Furman shared what Friedl meant to her in a letter to Elena Makarova. "Friedl's teaching, the times spent drawing with her, are among the fondest memories of my life. The fact that it was Terezin made it more poignant, but it would have been the same anywhere in the world… I think Friedl was the only one who taught without ever asking for anything in return. She just gave of herself” (Elsby, 2021).
Another student, Helga Kinsky (nee Pollak) shared that she and her fellow students were encouraged to “draw what we like to do, what we dream about…. (she) transported us to a different world…. She painted flowers in windows, a view out of a window. She had a totally different approach…. She didn’t make us draw Terezin” (Wix, 2009, p.154).
V. The Enduring Legacy of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis
a. Holocaust Education
Holocaust education is essential not only to honor the lives of its victims, but also to prevent future genocide. However, teaching about the Holocaust is no simple task, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to hear first-hand accounts from living survivors. The facts and figures can be overwhelming, and one can become desensitized to images of brutality and death. A successful education program must connect with students in a meaningful, personal way. The story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and her students is one way to teach the Holocaust in a personal, unique way. Children can identify with the art created by the children of Theresienstadt and with the glimpses of life they chose paint or draw. Adults can identify with the resiliency of Brandeis to continue teaching art and inspiring hope even in the most horrible of circumstances. Rather than teaching dates and statistics, each piece of art allows the viewer to connect with one individual person who lived in Theresienstadt. This method of teaching the Holocaust through art is more likely to have a long-lasting and meaningful impact.
b. Therapeutic Applications
The work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis has implications not only for Holocaust education, but
also, for the fields of art and play therapy particularly effective methods of expression and processing experiences for children (Glazer, 1999). Although Theresienstadt may have been a less severe environment than other concentration camps, the children who lived there experienced extreme trauma. They were taken from their homes, separated from their families, and forced to live under crowded, unsanitary, and unpredictable conditions. Many suffered from what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual would categorize as post-traumatic stress disorder; a reaction to experiencing, witnessing, or confronting events that involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or threat to the physical integrity of self or others. Play therapy has been shown to help the traumatized child process traumatic events to provide the child with control and meaning (Glazer, 1999). There is evidence to suggest that Brandeis recognized the therapeutic value of play in the children’s lives and worked “to provide opportunities for art and organized play for the children at Terezin” (Glazer, 1999).
Brandeis used a variety of play and art therapy techniques like storytelling, spontaneous drawing, and collective creative work in her interactions with the children of Theresienstadt. For example, Brandeis would provide children with a list of objects that they would use in their artwork to tell a story. She would also encourage spontaneous drawings which helped her “enter the child’s inner world and to perceive the emotions and motivation of the child (Glazer, 1999). The children were often encouraged to do collective creative work to learn “exactness and tolerance” (Glazer, 1999). Edith Kramer, a student of Brandeis, and pioneer in the field of art therapy, spoke about how she was influenced by her studies with Brandeis. Linney Wix, art history professor and author of the book, Through a Narrow Window, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and Her Terezin Students, believes the field of art therapy owes a debt of gratitude to Brandeis for her work with the children of Theresienstadt. She called on the American Art Therapy Association to incorporate the work of Brandeis to “enrich and contribute to shaping the profession’s future” (Wix, 2009, p.158).
Imagine you were told that you would be deported to a concentration camp and you could
only bring along one suitcase of your possessions. Many people would bring jewelry, priceless family heirlooms, valuables or even photos. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis filled her suitcase with art supplies so she could continue to make and teach art (Leshnoff , 2006, p.93). She continued her life’s work, teaching art to hundreds of children in Theresienstadt, many of whom did not survive. Brandeis herself perished in Auschwitz, but not before hiding two suitcases filled with children’s artwork which miraculously survived the war (Elsby, 2021).
This artwork, which is now on display in Prague, is unique in that it does not show
images of death or despair. Instead, the images are filled with the hope and dreams of the many lives Brandeis touched through her instruction (Elsby, 2021). This collection of art provides educators with a new way to approach the study of the Holocaust. Rather than learning dates and statistics, students can connect directly with an individual child who lived in Theresienstadt through their art. Rather than teaching the worst in humanity, teachers can emphasize the power of tolerance and resilience even under the worst of circumstances.
The work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis also has broader implications for the field of art
therapy. She used a variety of therapeutic techniques such as storytelling, spontaneous drawing, and collective creative work to help children process their experience in Theresienstadt. One of her students and pioneer in the field of art therapy, Edith Kramer, credits her studies with Brandeis as formative to her work as an artist and a therapist (Glazer, 1999). The work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and her students teaches us about the Holocaust, the children of Theresienstadt and about the potential of art for self-expression and healing.
Children's drawings from THE Terezín GHETTO, 1942-1944: Židovské MUZEUM V PRAZE. Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/explore/permanent-exhibitions/children-s-drawings-from-the-terezin-ghetto-1942-1944/
Elsby, L. "Coping through art - friedl dicker-brandeis and the children of Theresienstadt". Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://www.yadvashem.org/articles/general/coping-through-art-brandeis-theresienstadt.html#footnote4_qp9u9u1
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