It was one tragedy among many millions. But the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the children of Prague’s Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto shows how creative expression can defy the everyday horrors of totalitarian regimes.
When Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia from 1939, Prague’s Jewish population was quickly interned in what was called a ‘model ghetto’ in the city’s Terezin quarter. Many Jews, young and old, were brutalised, starved and then deported from the ghetto to extermination camps. But through one woman’s selfless dedication, drawings made by children in the ghetto survived the war and Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich.
Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (born 1898) was a Viennese artist who came to Prague to escape Nazi persecution in her home city. Unfortunately, it followed her. She and her Czech-born husband, Pavel Brandeis, were eventually ordered to the Terezin ghetto in December 1942. Here Friedl devoted much of her time, energy and considerable creative skills to teaching art – and more – to the ghetto children. With no children of her own she became a mother of sorts to her students, encouraging them to express themselves through creative work as a form of escapist therapy for their traumatic experiences.
Friedl lived at the girls’ boarding home L410, where children forcibly separated from their parents stayed. She organised exhibitions of the children’s work as well as theatre performances for which she designed the sets and costumes. Much of the teaching had to be conducted in secret and was based on Friedl’s theory that art should ‘unlock and preserve for all the creative spirit as a source of energy to stimulate fantasy and imagination and strengthen children’s ability to judge, appreciate, observe, [and] endure.’
It all came to an end in October 1944. Pavel was deported in September and Friedl volunteered to be taken away. She was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp on transport EO-167, apparently with some of the children she taught. Perhaps they were able to take some comfort in being together as they met whatever end the Nazis inflicted. Before she left, Friedl gathered up into two suitcases over four thousand of the works the children had created and entrusted them to L410 tutor Raja Engländerova for safekeeping, in the hope that they might somehow escape the Holocaust.
The war finished in 1945. Pavel Brandeis was a lucky survivor but only around 100 of more than 600 Terezin child artists escaped the ghetto and the camps. There are various accounts of how the preserved drawings were rediscovered, but in any event they were eventually passed to the Jewish Museum in Prague where they can be seen today
, together with some others in the Pinkas Synagogue in Terezin. The pictures testify to the resilience of children in the most extreme circumstances and are a memorial to the courage and dedication of a remarkable woman. Their plain lines of crayon and paint stand for light and love against the darkness of evil.
Those of Friedl’s students who lived on after the war remembered her as an inspiring teacher and human being. Eva Dorian wrote: ‘I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation’.
Another former student, Erna Furman, would later write: ‘Friedl’s teaching, the times spent drawing with her, are among the fondest memories of my life. Terezin made it more poignant but it would have been the same anywhere in the world… Friedl was the only one who taught without ever asking for anything in return. She just gave of herself.’
The children’s work, together with what survives of Friedl’s own art, have been exhibited around the world from time to time. Daisaku Ikeda, founder of the Fuji Art Museum, took the 1999 exhibition to Japan, noting that:
‘The various artworks left behind by this great woman and the children of Terezin are their legacy to the present, to all of us today. They demand that we continue in our quest for a society that truly treasures human life, transcending all differences of race, religion, politics and ideology. It remains my heartfelt hope that this exhibit may provide a moment of introspection for its viewers, a moment for us to reaffirm the importance of our rights as human beings and the value of life itself.’