She would have them start out by doing gesture drawings and warming up before some of the more formal work began in the studio. It was an idea right out of the Bauhaus School, where she herself had studied. This art teacher did both drawing and color assignments as well as graphic and plastic exercises.
“She believed in mixing colors
and drawing from nature”
“She taught exercises in composition
“She spoke of positive and negative forms
and the rhythm of geometric shapes
and the musical keyboard of color”[i]
Friedl Dicker was born on 30 July 1898 in Vienna, Austria. During her youth, she and several friends studied with the artist Johann Itten at his private school in Vienna. She later followed Itten to Weimar, Germany, where she studied at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923. Along with Itten, she also studied with Lyonel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer and Paul Klee. She was especially influenced by the drawing and introductory courses that had been developed by Itten.
After leaving the Bauhaus, she established workshops and ateliers in both Berlin and Vienna, focusing on architecture, interior design, textiles and bookbinding. She also became an art educator, guiding kindergarten teachers in Vienna in the education of children.
Dicker continued with both her own work and teaching for several years, and even produced a series of political posters in support of the Austrian Communist Party. During the February Uprising in 1934 she was arrested and interrogated regarding her communist activities. After her release, she moved to Prague, continued her creative activities, and met and married Pavel Brandeis on 30 April 1936. There she continued her own studio work as well as teaching art to Jewish children who were no longer allowed to attend the public schools.
On 17 December 1942, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was deported to the Terezin concentration camp just north of Prague. From a third-story window she continued to paint scenes of the courtyard below, and she continued to teach children in her art classes in the camp. She brought the lessons that she had learned at the Bauhaus directly to her new young charges at Terezin.
On 6 October 1944, Dicker-Brandeis and her students were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau where they were executed on 9 October 1944.
Just before her classes were closed, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis collected 4,387 drawings completed by her students. She packed them all in two suitcases and hid them in one of the children’s dormitories in the Ghetto in Prague. Since their rediscovery, these works have been featured at both the National Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Jewish Museum in Prague, where they are now preserved in the permanent collection.
Several years ago we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. It was there that I first saw the drawings of the children who had been incarcerated in the concentration camps in Europe. I immediately purchased the catalog titled “I Never Saw Another Butterfly”[ii] and have kept its memory close. Later I read a new collection of Edward Hirsch’s work titled Lay Back the Darkness that contained a section titled “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-1944.”
I wrote to him regarding this sequence of poems. As it turned out, we had both seen some of this work in person, although in two very different locations: he had seen them at the Museum in Terezin, and I had seen them in Washington, DC. When I asked him about this, this was his response: “I didn’t see that particular exhibition in Washington, but I’m sure it includes the same work that I saw a couple of times at the museum in Terezin. I first discovered some of the poems and drawings in a little book called ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly.’ That was later amplified into the exhibition.”[iii]
After reading Hirsch’s book, many of the images from the drawings came flooding back into my mind, so I have paired a selection of Edward Hirsch’s lines with some of the children’s drawings here. I also asked my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Helmick, an expert on Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, for her thoughts on this important art educator. This is a summary of what she wrote back to me:
“The empathetic experience of artmaking was Friedl Dicker Brandeis’ gift to the young artists in the Nazi concentration camp. While many artists in the Nazi internment camp recorded the awful circumstances in which they were imprisoned, Dicker Brandeis provided aesthetic experiences for the children in her charge….By teaching them to observe and experience their visual world…she enabled them to live imaginatively in horrific conditions. The artifacts left behind were not just products of art making but windows into the soul of the makers that gave proof of meaning making and authentic engagement, just as Dicker Brandeis believed.”[iv]
“A pasted collage on an office form
of a sunny evening in Terezin”[v]
“This is a guard with a stick
This is a stick with a heart
This is a heart with a horseshoe
This is a girl flinging the horseshoe at a guard”[vi]
“An unsigned still life with a jelly jar
filled with meadow flowers”[vii]
“Somewhere out there in the trees
far away from the barracks
childhood is still waiting for me”[viii]
“Not even the teacher
who had studied at the Bauhaus
could draw the face of God”[ix]
[i] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 55.
[ii] Volavkova, Hana, ed., Haim Potok, Vaclav Havel; I Never Saw Another Butterfly; Schocken Books; New York, Neew York; 1993.
[iii] Hirsch, Edward; (From an e-mail correspondence with this writer); 26 July 2017 at 9:49AM.
[iv] Helmick, Linda, PhD; Assistant Professor of Art Education, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri; (From an e-mail correspondence with this author); 24 March 2020, 10:57 am.
[v] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.
[vi] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 51.
[vii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 46.
[viii] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 49.
[ix] Hirsch, Edward; Lay Back the Darkness; Alfred A. Knopf; New York, New York; 2003; p. 53.