Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was an extraordinary woman. Born in Vienna in 1898 she worked alongside Klee and Kandinsky at the Bauhaus (read about the Bauhaus here and here), was an extremely gifted artist, painting, designing furniture and designing stage sets for Brecht. But her greatest achievements came in the most adverse of conditions when as a teacher in the Terezin concentration camp, she inspired scores of children to produce deeply moving art which remains as a record to these talented lives cut short. Also during this time she managed to develop early theories about art therapy.
Born Friederike Dicker, tragedy struck her early in life. Her mother died before little Friedl reached her fourth birthday. She was looked after by her father who worked as a shop assistant in a stationery store. We are told that she spent her early years preferring to draw and paint rather than play with dolls, and that her father encouraged this interest. Surrounded by the cultural maelstrom that was Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century, Friedl entered the Vienna School of Experimental Graphic Design in 1914 . Studying photography with master photographer Johannes Beckmann, she secured a diploma but did not continue with this discipline, instead moving on to the School of Arts and Crafts paying her way by working as a prop woman, designing costumes and fulfilling the occasional small role on stage.
Her father remarried, but the marriage was beset by constant arguments and Friedl left home at the age of 16 to escape the bickering. In 1915 she was accepted at the School of Applied Arts on painter Franz Cizek's course. Cizek called for reform in arts education and for free development and spontaneity in art. His approach was to have a lasting influence on her. Her friends explain that the young Friedl was defiant, cutting her hair short, skipping classes to attend concerts and sneaking into performances to listen for free.
By 1916, she was ready for something new and discovered the Swiss painter, mystic and Zoroastrian, Johannes Itten. Itten believed that life and art were inseparable and that artistic endeavour was the transference of feelings and impulses to drawing and painting. During her time studying with Itten, she developed a large circle of friends and continued to develop wide artistic interests. With flatmate Anny Wottitz she learned bookbinding and undertook commissions to support herself. She was passionate about music and enjoyed Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In 1918 she went so far as to join Schoenberg's composition course where she met composer Viktor Ullmann. Quite taken with her, Ullmann composed a piece in her name as did composer Stefan Wolpe who later referred to her as his first great (but alas unrequited) love. Instead she became attached to architectural student Franz Singer and together with him in 1919 she applied to the Bauhaus.
At the Bauhaus she learned to use the printing presses and metalworking machines and also acquired weaving skills, continuing to book bind and to draw and paint. When Paul Klee came to teach at the Bauhaus in 1921, she became fascinated with the way he worked and studied with him almost every day. Itten was also working at the Bauhaus by this time and asked Friedl to illustrate a chapter in Bruno Adler's almanac - "Utopia - documents of reality". But her real love was theatre and together with Franz Singer was invited by producer Berthold Viertel to take part in productions of some of his plays. Shortly afterwards they began to work with Brecht - designing sets, posters and other items for the theatre. During this time, Singer met and fell in love with singer Emmy Heim, marrying her soon afterwards. Friedl buried herself in work, amazingly continuing to collaborate with Singer, continuing to amuse and entertain the other students, some of whom she was now teaching. However, she wrote to her friend Anny Wottitz "I often have the feeling that I am a swimmer being carried away by a horrible flood...For a moment I raise my head above water...and I manage to cry out to the other swimmers. It is good that I am not making any plans, not even for a minute in advance".
By 1923 the internal rivalries that began to rage within the Bauhaus were becoming more public. Friedl and Singer decided to leave and go it alone, establishing the "Workshops of visual art" in Berlin with colleagues Naum Slutzki and Franz Skala. The workshops made toys, games and jewellery and also took commissions to produce textiles, bookbinding and graphics. For the next two years they had tremendous success, designing sets for plays by Ibsen, Shakespeare and Robert Musil. Although Singer remained married and fathered a child, his relationship with Firedl continued. In 1925 she returned to Vienna and he followed her, to establish the Atelier Singer-Dicker, a successful architectural firm that also designed furniture including in 1930 for the Montessori kindergarten in Vienna. Sadly the kindergarten was destroyed after the right wing revolt of 1934, whilst other important buildings from the atelier were lost in the war.
During her time back in Vienna she began to teach an art course to kindergarten teachers, developing her great love of working with and for children. Her childlessness was a source of great sadness to her. She became pregnant by Singer several times but he refused to bring up a child with her and pressured her into an abortion each time. She treated his son, Bibi with great affection but when he died unexpectedly, her relationship with Singer became even more strained.
Friedl became steadily more interested in politics, leaning towards the communist doctrine and following the right wing coup of 1934 she was temporarily imprisoned and interrogated. Singer came to her aid in court, she was released and left the country for Prague. Her early years in Prague were happier. She began teaching the children of other Jewish refugees, including badly traumatised children who began to recover through Friedl's teaching of tone, texture, collage and rhythmic exercises. Her former student from Vienna, Edith Kramer, worked with her and described her as "a centre of inspiration to them", saying that "the children blossomed before our eyes".
She also worked with psychoanalyst Annie Reich addressing issues she had carried from her childhood, and changed her approach to painting moving from the "simple shapes and colours" method she had used at the Bauhaus to painting portraits, landscapes and still lives. At the same time she organised exhibitions of the work of her young students explaining that the pictures also gave a glimpse of the children's' psychological state and influencing the development of art therapy.
Whilst in Prague she looked up relatives of her mother's - the Brandeis family. Adela Brandeis was her mother's sister and her youngest son Pavel still lived at home. Friedl developed a close relationship with him and they married on April 29th 1936. Soon a child was expected but it was not to be and Friedl miscarried.
She continued to bury herself in her art, her work with children and her political activities, considering briefly the possibility of going to Spain to fight against the fascist forces in the Civil War. But dark clouds were gathering closer to home - Germany had banned the works of many Jewish (and other) artists and the Czech Sudetenland had been annexed in 1938. November 9th 1938 saw Jews, their property and synagogues destroyed throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland in what became known as Kristallnacht. Many Jews left Europe, including Singer who went to London and Anny Wottitz and her husband who went to Eretz Israel, both of whom encouraged Friedl to join them, Wottitz even securing her a visa. Friedl refused, preferring to stay in Prague with her husband, Pavel, who was unable to secure a visa for any country.
In the summer of 1938, the couple moved to Hronov in the Czech countryside. Friedl wrote "It is peaceful here...I would not believe even in my final hour that something evil was taking place..." During this period they secured work at the Spiegler textile factory, Pavel keeping the books and Friedl designing textiles. In 1939 Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and the Brandeis's lost their jobs. Again, Friedl turned to her art in order to cope, moving away completely from her former style to a much more representational approach, saying "I no longer want to work allegorically, but instead want to express the world as it is, neither modern nor outdated. Although I love Picasso and Kandinsky as passionately as before, I cannot use their means of expression". She began to produce more portraits, landscapes and views.
As the anti-Jewish laws became increasingly restrictive, the couple were forced to move several times into smaller and smaller accommodation, were required to wear the yellow star and to give up their beloved dog. Public transport was forbidden to them and food strictly rationed. Despite this, they continued to hope and in September 1942 Pavel wrote "Despite the discomforts...we still have courage and hope". Several local people came to their aid, bringing them additional food, letting Friedl have goods without charge or supplying her with reading material. She remained a voracious reader but was struck another blow when she was diagnosed with avitaminosis of the retina and at times was unable to read or write.
In the spring of 1942, the Brandeis family began to be deported, Pavel's brother Bedrich and his wife Josefa first passing through Terezin on their way to Izbica where Josefa died, three months before her husband died in Majdanek. Pavel's mother Adela was sent to Terezin and then Treblinka where she was gassed on arrival. During this period Friedl no longer painted, devastated by the constant deportations and the deaths of relatives. In late autumn 1942, Friedl herself was called to deportation. Her friend Hilde Kothny arrived from Hamburg to help her prepare and recalled Friedl's insistence on taking art materials to work with the children at the camp. Kothny recalled saying goodbye to Friedl at the assembly point for deportees and setting off for the train thinking "I will never see her again".
The local police provided the "escort" to the station and the Brandeis's were relieved of most of their money and valuables along the way. The arrived in Terezin on December 17th 1942, Friedl given the number 548 and Pavel 549 from a group of 650 deportees. Only 52 of the 650 were to survive the war.
Terezin was a fortress town to the north-west of Prague, cleared of its 6,000 residents by the Germans who were to make way for 65,000 deported Jews. Throughout the time of its existence, 140,000 Jews passed through this camp, 88,000 of which were sent to be murdered mainly at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A further 33,340 died of hunger, disease and the appalling living conditions in Terezin. Most of the prisoners came from western Europe, many were highly educated and were allowed to sustain some kind of cultural life used by the Germans for propaganda purposes, including in the making of a film used as part of a cover-up exercise when the Red Cross visited in 1944.
Pavel was assigned work as a carpenter and Friedl was sent to the technical department with other artists, but after considerable effort she managed to get transferred to the children's home for girls where she began to encourage and lead artistic activities. This was a feat in itself since education was forbidden to Jews and children over the age of 14 had to work in the ghetto. To circumvent this, all educational work was presented and described as "cultural leisure activity".
Friedl quickly established herself amongst the children and became much loved. One of her Terezin students, Helga Kinsky, remembered that "Friedl would talk about how to begin drawing, how to look at things, how to think spatially. How to dream about something, how to do something, how to realise our fantasies". Still able to receive packages from one of Pavel's relatives, Friedl used whatever she could to create artists' materials and also established a range of tasks for the children to carry out so that the maximum number could participate.
The children she worked with included a traumatised group who had seen their fathers shot dead and the children in the isolation hospital to whom she took pencils and paper, changed their sheets and helped with their care, unafraid of infection. Interestingly, Friedly chose not to depict any of this misery in her own works produced at Terezin, preferring to paint landscapes, flowers, people, street scenes and to make sketches for theatre productions.
Many of the children's works have survived and are signed and dated. Friedl graded each work according to strength, intensity, dimensions, form, character, composition and colour. In July 1943 she organised an exhibition of their work in the basement of the children's home. During this time she began to consider her experiences of working with children and planned to write a study of "Art therapy for children" once the war was over. She even managed to deliver a lecture on children's art whilst at Terezin, explaining that its meaning and purpose was "the greatest possible freedom for the child".
It was in 1943 that Friedl received news that her stepmother, Charlotte Dicker had died in the camp - she had been unaware that she was also being held there. Shortly afterwards she discovered that her father had also been in Terezin, but had died much earlier. This terrible blow was softened slightly by the arrival of her niece, Eva Brandeis, deported to Terezin in May 1944 and cared for by Friedl and Pavel.
In 1944, rumours began to reach the camp that the war would soon be over and hopes for liberation increased. However Pavel was summoned to join a transport on September 28th as one of 5,000 men who were to work on "...the construction site of a new camp". Friedl appealed to be able to join him but was rejected. Having refused to leave Czechoslovakia without him a few years earlier, she refused to remain without him now and insisted that she be placed on the next transport. Her friends tried unsuccessfully to dissuade her and so fellow prisoner Willy Gloag helped her to pack and hide the children's drawings in an empty attic space, whilst she distributed her books and reproductions amongst her students.
On the morning of October 6th 1944, she was one of 1,550 people transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Marie and Sonja Vitivcova, two of her best students were also on the transport together with a further 34 of her young artists. In 1997, Maria wrote "1,550 people were leaving to find their husbands and fathers in a new labour camp near Dresden - or so they were informed by the Nazis. In the transport were mothers and nursing infants. This was a good sign. They would not start killing infants!"
The transport went directly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, not Dresden and arrived on Sunday October 8th. Maria goes on to write "The transport arrived at Auschwitz at moon, when the gas chambers had already processed their daily quota. We had to wait until morning". The infamous Doctor Mengele selected 190 young women from the first and second cars of the train and no-one from the following cars. Maria was separated from her mother and sister and the next day, October 9th, the remaining women and children were gassed at Birkenau. Amongst them, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.
Pavel survived the camps, remarried, living until 1971. Willy Gloag also survived and brought the children's drawings to the Jewish Community Centre in Prague. A review of the first exhibition of the drawings included reference to the works as "diamonds in the crown of world culture", only the diamonds that had produced them were (for the most part) no longer alive to receive the praise. Many of the drawings are displayed at the Pinkas synagogue in Prague. A book was published to accompany the exhibition - I never saw another butterfly - edited by Yana Yolavkova.
Whilst at Terezin in 1943, Friedl had written "the drawing classes are not meant to make artists out of all the children. They are to free and broaden such sources of energy as creativity and independence, to awaken the imagination, to strengthen the children's powers of observation and appreciation of reality". She clearly achieved this, and the children's works (as well as her own) are a lasting legacy of proof. Today art therapy is a widely used and almost mainstream technique for helping overcome psychological problems as well as for general well-being. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis pioneered this work in the most impossible circumstances.
Perhaps her achievements are best summed up by former pupil Edna Amit who said "A person can be defined through their influences on others. Sometimes I had the same sort of feeling you get with a doctor. Friedl herself was the medicine. To this day, the mystery of her sense of freedom remains incomprehensible to me. It flowed from her to us like an electric current...you wanted so much to get close to her..."