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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Art and depravity

Theresienstadt painting by Ela Weissberger
“I remember thinking in school how I would grow up and would protect my students from unpleasant impressions, from uncertainty, from scrappy learning,” Friedl Dicker-Brandeis wrote in 1940. “Today only one thing seems important — to rouse the desire towards creative work, to make it a habit, and to teach how to overcome difficulties that are insignificant in comparison with the goal to which you are striving.”

At the time Dicker-Brandeis wrote those words, she was in exile in the Czech countryside, in the grip of an inexorable journey that would lead to her death. A Bauhaus-trained artist and a Jew, she lived in a world that had no room for either. A frustrated mother who would never carry a child to term, her artistic legacy today comes mainly through the children she taught.

Theresienstadt painting by unknown child artist
Born in Vienna in 1898, Freidl Dicker studied textile design, printmaking, bookbinding, and typography at the Weimer Bauhaus. After leaving the Bauhaus, she began a successful partnership with Franz Singer in Vienna. She fled Austria after the civil unrest of 1934 brought the Vaterl√§ndische Front into power. In Czechoslovakia, she began teaching the children of other refugees, devising art therapy techniques along the way.  She met and married her cousin, Pavel Brandeis, in 1936.

In 1942, Dicker-Brandeis was incarcerated at Theresienstadt, a “model ghetto” (concentration camp) that supplied slave labor for mica mines and other Czech industry. There she spent the last two years of her life continuing to teach art to children. She treated their instruction not as a way to distract them but as a serious educational pursuit, providing rigorous instruction in drawing and theory.

Theresienstadt drawing by Ela Weissberger
“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,” recalled Ella Weisberger in an interview with the New York Times.

Dicker-Brandeis had declined papers to go to Palestine before her incarceration because Pavel Brandeis could not go with her. In September, 1944, Pavel was transported to Auschwitz. Dicker-Brandeis volunteered for the next transport to join him.

Theresienstadt painting by Helga Weiss
Before she was taken away, she gave Raja Engl√§nderova two suitcases containing 4,500 drawings and paintings. These survived the war; 550 of the 660 young artists did not. Neither did Dicker-Brandeis, who died at Birkenau on October 9, 1944.

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