What can art do when civilization itself is lost?
In December 1942, an art teacher was deported to Theresienstadt. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis trained at the Bauhaus. She filled her luggage allowance (only 50 kilos) not with clothes, but with art materials. Her choice to give of herself to others – to donate her time, her talents and her indomitable spirit – is rare quality, one that still has the power to captivate and inspire us 70 years later. Childless herself, she would become an art mother to the children of Theresienstadt, fierce and inspiring.
Conditions in Theresienstadt were appalling, and even more so for children who had to first cope with the enormous trauma and life-changing upheaval that deportation wreaked upon their young lives. Realizing that art could be a therapeutic tool to help children to deal with their feelings of loss, sorrow, fear, and uncertainty, Friedl set about teaching over 600 children with enormous enthusiasm and energy. Her art classes gave the children a momentary escape if only in their imaginations. She had her students explore various mediums such as collage, watercolour painting, paper weaving, and drawing. But her lessons were not designed merely to teach her students technique. Rather, these different techniques became the means through which she taught her young students to dig below the facile to the deep well-spring of their feelings and emotions, and from that intimate place, to create.
In a lecture she gave in the ghetto in 1943 to explain her teaching methods, she declared that her purpose was not to train the children as artists, but rather to “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” by helping children choose and elaborate their own forms.”
After the war, two suitcases Friedl had hidden, were found in the camp. They contained 4,500 pieces of art made by the children. They survived thanks to Dicker-Brandeis, who hid them in two pieces of baggage in Theresienstadt before her deportation to a death camp.One of Friedl’s few students who survived the Holocaust, Helga Kinsky (nee Pollak), recalls how under Friedl’s tutelage, they did not depict the misery and horror that surrounded them, but rather that Friedl “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.” Another surviving student, Eva Dorian said of her beloved teacher: “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”
By September 1942, the ghetto reached its peak of 53,004 prisoners, with Jews continuing to arrive until the war’s end.
These pictures are full of flights of fancy.They belong to Prague’s Jewish Museum and are on display in the Pinkas Synagogue.