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Friedl Dicker-Brandeis: The Alchemist of Theresienstadt

By Neal Von Flue

“Aesthetics is just another, thinner skin protecting against Chaos.”

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in a letter to Hilde Kothny, 1940

In the fall of 1941, many Jewish people in Nazi-occupied areas of Europe were told to pay any outstanding bills and report to an assembly camp, where they would turn over their house keys, be given an “evacuation number,” and wait to be moved east. They were told that they could bring no more than 50 kilos on the train with them. All of their other belongings would be picked up and used “for the war effort.” And sometimes they were forced to buy their own rail tickets for the trip.

50 Kilos is about 110 pounds. What would you take? Outside of necessities like clothes, jackets, shoes, hygiene items, medicine and spare food, many people took valuables; family heirlooms, picture albums. Children’s toys, maybe treasured books. Things or ideas that they couldn’t bear to live without.

All of this was difficult to resist because, by the time of deportation, they had already been oppressed, pushed into ghettos, and robbed of their livelihoods. They were told that it all was for their safety. And they were told that on the other side of this next train trip, things might be easier. Or at least they wouldn’t be any worse.

So when Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was told to pack her 50 kilos, she rolled up a few dresses, stuffed them in the bottom of a suitcase, and filled the rest of her allotment with what she thought would help the most. Art Supplies.

Friedl Dicker was born in Austria in 1898. She lost her mother when she was 4 years old and that loss, as you would expect, would prove defining. As she grew up she gravitated towards the arts. She took classes at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, supporting herself by working in the theatre; designing costumes, props, writing plays, and even making marionettes that she would use in street shows. As was becoming common for artists of this time, there was nothing that escaped her interest- she was as fascinated with design and production methods as she was with fine art.

In her drawing class at the School of Arts and Crafts, her instructor Franz Cizek would start the day by proclaiming with excitement “Today show me your soul!” Cizek was a leading reformer of 20th century art education. And so it was here that she would learn one of her most valuable lessons, and likely gain some perspective on the hurt she carried from the loss of her mother. Cizek’s own focus was on revolutionizing the way we teach art to children, and he showed Dicker that there is a deep connection between our emotional world and the things that we can make. These were the early days of psychology and the idea that art could be an avenue to analysis or healing- or maybe just a way to begin to make sense of a maddening world- was new, and something Friedl would never forget.

By 1919 she had followed another influential mentor Johannes Itten to the Bauhaus, where she studied with one of her heroes Paul Klee, and others. She took on bookbinding, textile design, metal work, weaving, furniture design and anything else they would allow. Bauhaus director Walter Gropius would later write about “the multifaceted nature of her gifts and her unbelievable energy” and make an observation that might have foreshadowed her legacy:

“already in her first year she began to teach the beginners.”

She distinguished herself as a valued member of the Bauhaus, working with her partner Franz Singer. They opened a studio, Werkstatten Bildender Kunst (Workshop of Fine Arts) and then eventually created the Atelier Singer/Dicker in Vienna, a full design studio where they were commissioned to make objects for theatre, furniture, interior design as well as fine art.

One of their finest creations was an experimental Montessori kindergarten. They designed the space and each element in it with a blend of emotion, function and learning.

With stackable chairs and moveable tables, the central space could be converted at any time into a classroom, a play space, a kitchen and cafeteria, or a nap room. Every piece of furniture was designed so that two children could convert or move them. In Dicker and Singer’s vision, students took some ownership in their own learning.

They also designed toys for the school that were in keeping with Montessori principles, including a game called Phantasius. It consisted of a set of simple wood shapes that could be combined and recombined to make up to 12 animals; or anything else that the children could imagine.

The school would later be destroyed by the Nazis. All that survives are photos and the drawings, which highlight the ingenuity and elegant ideas of its designers.

“Interrogation I” by Friedl Dicker -1935

The Atelier Singer/Dicker was a successful business, but their personal relationship would be conflicted and rocky. Franz Singer married an entertainer named Emmy Heim in 1921, yet maintained a romantic relationship with Friedl. Singer got both of them pregnant, but was only interested in having children with Heim. He would talk Friedl Dicker into having several abortions during their relationship, yet they remained working partners and lovers, as Friedl’s own chances at motherhood evaporated completely over time.

Friedl Dicker also became politicized. She had observed the Russian Revolution of 1917 and became an outspoken supporter of communism. She joined the party, designing posters and typesetting for Communist flyers through the ‘20s, and participated in activities which eventually got her arrested. Franz Singer was able to negotiate her release and after that, she left their business in his care and fled to Prague, Czechoslovakia.

She married a cousin there, Pavel Brandeis, hyphenating her name. She began teaching art to refugee children who had also emigrated east, which helped to solidify her ideas about children’s ability to create expressive art with emotions. Although her communist activities were forced underground, she remained defiant.

All of this led to an increase in her personal work, which flourished as she tried to work through her feelings, including two pieces to process the memories of her interrogation in Vienna. But there was nowhere in Prague for her work, and while sympathetic friends set up a small show for her in England, Friedl and Pavel eked out a living, moving to smaller and smaller towns in order to try and evade the oppression of the strict anti-jewish laws being enacted daily. She gained a visa to Palestine and friends begged her to go before it was too late, but she refused to leave her husband behind.

In the autumn of 1942, Pavel and Friedl received their deportation letters. In December of that year, she boarded a train with two suitcases full of art supplies to Terezin, an outskirt fortress town in Czechoslovakia which the Nazis were preparing as a ghetto and camp.

“Interrogation II” by Friedl Dicker -1935

Terezin, or “Theresienstadt” as the Germans renamed it, would become a very unique place in Hitler’s terrifying “final solution to the Jewish problem”

Named for Maria Theresa of Austria, Terezin was constructed in the 18th century as one of the stations in a fort system that was never completed. Gavrilo Princip was imprisoned (and died) there for his part in murdering Archduke Ferdinand. To the Nazis this newly claimed outpost city with it’s heavily protected small fortress (or “Kleine Festung”) connected to a larger walled city space, was what they needed to control a people in every way.

They had a prison, concentration camp and ghetto all under one watchful eye, and they took advantage of this by utilizing Theresienstadt in two ways: They sent the jews who were most likely to create problems- the intellectuals and artists- there in order to keep them separate from the masses that could be riled up. And they envisioned Theresienstadt as a crown jewel of their propaganda machine.

Leading jewish figures were sent there and the Nazis attempted to sell Theresienstadt to the world as a “Model Ghetto,” a place where Jews could be isolated, yet still thrive. And in some ways this was true. The camp had an extensive library, and they were allowed to study art and music. Yet at the same time they were overcrowded, wrought with disease and cut off from the outside world. They were encouraged by the Nazis to make art and culture, but only up to a point. If someone tried to smuggle a dissenting artwork out to Switzerland, or create a new piece of theatre that was too thinly-veiled as commentary, they would be punished. Going too far meant being sent to the Kliene Festung across the river, where the SS would have their way with you and your family. Prisoners were encouraged to put on plays, but last-minute cast changes could happen at any time because the actor was sent to Auschwitz.

Creating an isolated economy by printing concentration camp money was another way for Nazis to control the environment. Newly arrived prisoners were made to exchange all real-world valuables they had left for camp money. This camp money was useless anywhere but inside of its particular camp, which effectively neutered any smuggling or bribing that prisoners might attempt. They could also inflate the value to incentivize labor if needed. Many camps had their own currency, but Theresienstadt was unique in that their money was well designed and printed on good paper- and kept in its own bank in the ghetto.

Later in the war, the Red Cross was allowed to visit the camp in an attempt to alleviate accusations of inhumane conditions. The Nazis made prisoners fix and repaint rooms and plant flowers outside. They built fake storefronts and removed barrack beds in order to make things look more spacious. They walked the Red Cross on a very specific route, forcing only the happiest and fattest people into view with strict orders to answer any Nazi questions happily, but to ignore the visitors. And worst of all, they packed a train full of people and sent them to die in Auschwitz, just so it would look like there was more room.

The ruse worked, and the Nazis were so impressed with their trumped-up camp that they forced one of the inmates who was a filmmaker before the war into directing a propaganda movie showcasing their benevolent treatment. What’s left of the shockingly dissonant film shows jewish children laughing and playing together. There are shots of men and women working and then enjoying a soccer game out in the main square. In a unbelievably grim scene, they show the soccer team showering together; likely in order to address the world’s growing suspicion that jews weren’t being fed properly in the camps. They filmed the library, dinners and music concerts. Lots of happy people with pale stars sewn onto their shirts and sweaters. As soon as the editing was done, they sent the filmmaker to Auschwitz. Thankfully things would get dire before they could put the film out, and most of it was destroyed at the end of the war.

So for all of these reasons- during the four years it was open- Theresienstadt must have been a frenetic and uniquely miserable place. The camp was home to some of the brightest contemporary intellectuals, artists, composers and writers. Therefore, it might be considered the best place in all of Europe to pursue an education, but also a place to cower from death, coming at any time. They were starved prisoners overcrowded in barracks, yet they had a fire department and a cultural council. As disease ran through the well system, their captors gave them the supplies necessary to improve the water supply and make use of flushing toilets. Of the 40,000 camps which the nazis created during their regime, Theresienstadt must have stood out as one of the most difficult to make sense of. A passive-aggressive tightrope walk. An open hand and crushing fist all at once.

So when Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and her husband arrived there, she must have seen more work than she thought she could handle.

But maybe there was a part of her which also felt that her life; her losses, her studies, her ideas on teaching and creative expression, and her own art had brought her- just like the train she had taken- in a straight line to this point. And thankfully she took very little time to get started.

“Train passing through the countryside” by Petr Holzbauer 1932-1944

She put her art supplies to use and taught classes to children. The odds were overwhelming. 150,000 people were sent to Theresienstadt. 15,000 of them were children. And Dicker-Brandeis taught every day despite the conditions with a smile- as if she was at home- giving them exercises of free line, shading, color charts and more. But also asking the children each day to show their soul. If they felt it, they should draw what they see, or how they feel. If they didn’t, she would have drawing exercises and warm-ups to get them going. Or she would set a vase of flowers on a window sill and urge them to focus on that alone as a means of escape. And they did. Sometimes they would draw the camps or memories of their time before deportation. And sometimes they would draw anything but.

“Exercise in color theory” by Hana Lustigova 1931-1944
“Airing mattresses in the garden” by Irena Karplusová 1930-1944
“Calligraphic exercise” by Petr Ginz 1928-1944
“Flowers” by Ruth Ščerbak 1934-1944
“Sketches of objects and Hand relaxation exercise” by Hana Erika Karplusová 1930-1944

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was in a concentration camp, creating and solidifying therapeutic strategies for Art Therapy, a field of study that hadn’t been created yet.

And as misery wandered freely, she remained a solid presence for the children. In another example of the bewildering dissonance of the Theresienstadt camp, she gave a lecture in the ghetto on the power of teaching art to children. In it she said that her purpose was not only to develop talent, but 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.

“Underwater fantasy” by Ruth Gutmannova 1930–1944
“Dream” by Helena Mändlová 1930–1944

One of Friedl’s students who survived Theresienstadt later wrote:

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… Terezin had many world-famous specialists in every field and most of them were glad to give lessons or seminars for bread (And I was glad to give my bread for this better nourishment!). I learned philosophy, economics, Rorschach testing, etc. But I think Friedl was the only one who taught without ever asking for anything in return. She just gave of herself.

“Kite flying Memories of home” by Zuzana Lieselotta Winterová 1933-1944

Another student, Ella Weisberger, later recollected part of the class routine which gives us an example of Friedl’s understanding that design can foster security and positive emotions amidst an oppressive environment. Each day students were required to write their names and camp numbers on their work and one student was selected to roll up the drawings and deliver them to Friedl’s modest room:

Everyone was always excited to do this. Her room was full of the most beautiful paintings of flowers on the wall. She had covered the wall with a blue sheet and over this, her paintings. This little room became a wonderland, something that made us feel we have the greatest teacher.

Friedl put her interior design knowledge to use when she could. Her and Pavel worked to redesign and decorate the crowded children’s barracks when they could find the material.

“Still life” Eva Riessová 1931 – survived

According to records, 15,000 children were sent to Theresienstadt, Less than 150 survived to see the end of the war. That’s less than 1%.

Pavel Brandeis was forcibly loaded on a train to Auschwitz in Autumn of 1944.

Desperate to reunite with her husband, Friedl volunteered to be put on the train leaving the following day. That night she pulled down the two suitcases she had arrived with and packed them with over 4,500 signed drawings by the children of Theresienstadt.

The raw material she had brought to the camp three years before had been put under small fingers and subjected to the boiling of hearts which had been shown matronly compassion in a terrifying world.

All that base material she brought to camp had been transformed into something priceless.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the alchemist, gave the suitcases to a camp leader who hid them in an attic. The next morning, she boarded the train empty-handed.

When Pavel had reached Auschwitz, he was sent immediately to work. And he would survive the war. But when Friedl arrived, she was sent to the gas chamber along with 60 of her students.

Very little of Friedl’s own artwork survives. She never had the opportunity to keep her pieces while moving through Europe to keep out of harm’s way. And when she was younger she was said to be temperamental; likely angry at a world careening towards oppression- a world that could rob a 4 year old girl of her mother- so she unfortunately destroyed a lot of her early work. She made each of her students sign every piece, but she often didn’t sign her own work, or she gave them away. And when she was deported to Theresienstadt she left the rest of her work in the farmhouse which they were renting- and was later destroyed.

So, while we don’t have a lot of artwork, we have a staggering amount of work. There is the children’s art which she saved, and which became invaluable documents for making sense of the fates of thousands of children lost in the Holocaust. And we have her developments in Art Therapy.

In the camp, she was a mother to children in a way that she never received as a child, and that she could never offer in her own family. Maybe she found some small compensation in that.

Part archivist, part mother, and all teacher; she provided the keys to emotional expression for children who would never see adulthood. Against the faceless onslaught and senseless horrors of our world, she recorded their voices in her suitcases, and she solidified a form of therapy and understanding that has brought healing to generations for wars to come.

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