“She helped restore a balance to the trembling consciousness of terrified children.” Chaim Potok wrote of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a Vienna-born, Baushaus-trained, German-speaking artist who turned down a personal visa to enter Palestine during World War II. Rather, she remained in a ghetto to teach children as the official art teacher of the camp. To the Nazi’s, the camp was known as Theresienstadt. And the Czechs and the rest of the world, the camp became known as Terezin. From 1942-44, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis helped children create and express through nearly 5,000 pieces of art. (1)
“Auschwitz was the Kingdom of Death. Theresteinstadt was the Kingdom of Deceit.” (2)Terezin posed first as a relocation station then as a preparation stop for Jews heading to Palestine; however, the humanitarian smoke screen both dangled and diluted hope day by day.
Yet, truth and beauty found its way out of that mire, in part, because of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who held no pedagogical credentials, faithfully and sacrificially taught art and expression to non-German-speaking children in this Nazi-run camp situated just outside Prague.
‘… always holding somebody up …’ Although Terezin maintained a posh façade as a countryside resort (a featured location for Nazi propaganda films), the inhabitants knew this ghetto offered any real rest… Perhaps, all but the children fortunate enough to find themselves under the tutelage of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.
Despite language barrier, she animated techniques. They listened… and learned. Time. Observe. Think. Texture. Time. Observe. Think. Texture. Repeat. Mrs. Brandeis -the artist turned teacher who refused payment of any kind- ceased her own work to conserve and to share the meager art supplies with her pupils.
“She taught in the way she herself had been taught by her art teachers in Vienna and the Bauhaus: exercises in breathing and rhythm; the study of reproductions, texture, color values; the importance of observation, patience, freeing oneself from the outer world of numbing routine and inner world of dread.
She would tell stories, and the children would be required to draw objects she mentioned twice. They drew flowers, butterflies, animals, cities, storms, rainbows, streets, railway stations, family portraits, holidays, merry-go-rounds. They drew their concealed inner worlds, their tortured emotions, which Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was then able to enter and try to heal… A member of those classes who survived said of her:
‘I remember Mrs. Brandeis as a tender, highly intelligent woman, who managed- for some hours a week- to create a fairy world for us in Terezin… a world that made us for get all the surrounding hardships, which we were not spared despite our early age.'” (3)
This fairy world doesn’t seem to have been an escape, but a means to express, understand, and overcome present horrors with vivid remembrances… all while stirring future hopes. Brilliant. Beautiful.
Mrs. Brandeis took great care to hide the children’s art before she was deported to Auschwitz on October 6, 1944. She later died in Birkenau.
Some may think her artistic endeavors were wasted. Some may view the children’s work and wonder if any of it really matters in the scope of ‘real’ art. But in the scope of humanity, Mrs. Brandeis’ instruction encouraged the children to keep remembering, living, hoping, even if only for a few hours a week as their minds spilled a fraction of that life onto paper.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,
but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Philippians 2:3 ESV
She upheld their dignity in those days they were imprisoned. And she preserved their dignity as she packed away each piece for had in turn churned life and hope in her. The world needed these to remember, and she knew it.
So it is with us- as we journey the epic endeavors of life… including the pangs of grief. We know souls who so seamlessly call out hope and happiness in the bleakest moments. When they rally, people around them rise above disheartening circumstances and join a contagion -if only by a breath- of inspiration and ride on. We know people who journey alongside us when we are fun… and when we are frozen… with fears… in grief. They’re patient and tender. And they risk upsetting us by calling us back to life again. Sometimes, it takes some remembering, some savoring, some hoping… ‘holding somebody up.’
Who rallied around you in your darkest night, deepest loss?
Because I was one of the closest people to Jamie, I felt the honor and obligation to “hold somebody up.” I took over as a big sister to Michael and Holly. Jamie loved them both, so I’d try to love them and look out for them more. (being an only child, myself, I now know I had no idea what it means to be a sibling, but I gave it the ol’ heave-hoe.) Sending Mother’s Day & Father’s Day greetings to Jamie’s parents as well as my own. Even his best friend and I became fairly close through periodic letters and phone calls. But, mainly, I thought “I need to be strong enough (or at least ok) for them.” Overall, I think these were genuine and proper responses for a time…
However, because I was one of the closest people to Jamie… suddenly, I needed people … to hold me up… like never before in my life. And I’m not the greatest at being needy and horrible at expressing anything when I feel utterly weak, abandoned, alone.
Yet, so many people acted in beautifully simple ways to comfort us along the way. I am deeply grateful for every little thing everyone did to lighten our load as we learned to grieve and live again. Whether we remember every detail or not, I’m fully aware that your efforts and especially prayers held us up for a very long, long time.
More to come… Living Hope.
Heidi L. Paulec
(1) Volavkova, Hana. ed. Potok, Chaim. …I never saw another butterfly…: Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944. Expanded Second Ed. Schocken Books. New York. 1993. pp.xix
(2) Ibid. pp.xvii
(3) Ibid pp.xx