Jewish Journal

Artist’s Works From Death Camp Live On

by Gaby Wenig

Posted on Jan. 2, 2003 at 7:00 pm

"Self-portrait" by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1931, Photocollage and tempera).

"Self-portrait" by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1931, Photocollage and tempera).

The final portrait that Friedl Dicker-Brandeis drew was of a child's face. The portrait is clean and white, and the face has an enigmatic expression of purity, innocence and stark intelligence.

What makes the child's portrait haunting is that it was drawn in 1944 in Terezin, where children who entered the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia were shown hanging bodies as a warning, faced death by disease and starvation and were often shipped off to the gas chambers to "alleviate" the crowded conditions.

The child in the portrait seems unsullied by the wretchedness of life in Terezin, and the portrait appears to testify to Dicker-Brandeis' conception of a purer world or the way the world was meant to be.

Dicker-Brandeis was a prolific Bauhaus artist, who taught art to the children of Terezin. Her art and the art produced by the children in the camp under her tutelage is the subject of a new exhibition at the Simon Weisenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance.

Titled "Freidl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin: An Exhibition of Art and Hope," the exhibition is a Dicker-Brandeis retrospective, with artwork displayed from all the periods of her life, including the anti-Fascist photo montages she plastered all over Vienna in 1931 and the vibrantly colorful Kandinsky-like paintings that she did while studying at the Bauhaus in 1923.

The exhibition also displays the stackable chairs Dicker-Brandeis designed, toys she built for children and her architectural plans for the Maria Monstessori kindergarten. The collection shows a woman who was at once practical but whimsical, aggressively political but also soft and gentle.

The art, most of which was in very poor condition, was collected from 24 lenders, many of whom had been friends with Dicker-Brandeis and received the works from her as gifts.

"Her father said to her, 'Until you become a good artist, you can't use good paper,'" said Regina Seidman Miller, project director at the museum. "I think she felt guilty that her art was never deserving of good paper. Unfortunately, she used the worst paper always -- it is a miracle her art survived. We had to restore everything."

Freidl Dicker was born in Vienna in 1898 and became interested in art at an early age. At 21, she started studying art at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, which was then a revolutionary new school of art and design. She was so advanced that after her first year, she was asked to be a teacher there, and she taught alongside great 20th century artists and architects such as Kandinsky, Klee and Walter Gropius.

In 1923, she moved to Vienna, and in 1931, she joined the Communist Party there to protest against the growing fascist movement. In 1936, she married Pavel Brandeis, and in 1938 they moved to Hronov, a town northeast of Prague, where she started teaching art to children from local Jewish families.

In 1942, the couple was sent to Terezin, a "model" camp that the Germans set up for privileged Jews, where they were allowed to paint, play sports and produce operas and plays. The Germans used the camp as a ruse to try to convince the International Red Cross that Jews were treated benevolently under the Third Reich.

However, the majority of Terezin's Jews were transported to Auschwitz, and most of them died there. On Oct. 6, 1944, Dicker-Brandeis was sent to Auschwitz, and on Oct. 9 she was killed in the gas chamber.

But her art survived -- in Terezin she hid it between planks of wood -- and so did the love that she transmitted to her students there. Dicker-Brandeis was aware of the hopelessness of her surroundings, but it was not something she dwelled on.

"She wasn't good in a saint-like way," said Miller. "She never told children that everything was going to be OK. What she said was, 'If you have one day, then you have to live it. And while we are here, we have to do the best that we can.' So it was a way that they were allowed to be sad and afraid, but they could express it through art."

Dicker-Brandeis had her charges in Terezin draw self-portraits. She was always careful to have them sign their work, so that they could develop self-esteem and retain their identities beyond the numbers that had been assigned to them when they entered the camp. Instead of drawing images of the death and destruction, the children drew flowers and pictures of their friends, among other things.

"Instead of food, she would ask her friends to send her paint," said Ela Weisberger, 71, one of Dicker-Brandeis' students in Terezin, in a phone interview from New York. "She used the wrapping paper when people were getting packages, and from that we were drawing our paintings."

"Some of the paintings or collages were done on forms from the offices that were in the garbage. She was using every little thing that you could make out of it something," Weisberger said. "You look at her paintings, her beautiful colors, and you feel life in them. I think that she would have been the artist of the century if she would have survived."

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