It's only natural for all of us to notice role models or heroes especially prominent in our chosen field. Artists are no different. Usually we look to those who were basically not too unlike ourselves and then ponder if we could ever measure up to them. But as a former art instructor of young children, it's not often I come upon heroic art teachers. I mean just how heroic can one be with a fistful of crayons and an armload of newsprint?
Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was born around the turn of the century. She grew up in Austria, studying art at the Viennese Royal Academy; and like many of her sex at the time, found her niche in teaching art to children. On December 16, 1942, Friedl and her husband were arrested by Nazis from their home in Prague. They were herded to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. As concentration camps go, Theresienstadt was the best of the worst. It was a sham showcase used by the Nazis to convince the rest of the world at the time, that the lot of the Jews in Europe wasn't as bad as some believed.
What Friedl Dicker-Brandeis found when she arrived at Theresienstadt were thousands like herself, just sitting around with nothing to do, waiting for the next horror to happen. Bored herself, and as art teachers are prone to do, she rounded up from various sources crayons, watercolors, and paper, then descended into the cellars where the children were kept. There she started preaching the salvation of color and creativity. She brought light to darkness. She allowed children a creative release from the fears, nightmares, and horrible memories within them and all about them. The pictures were not pretty. For the most part, her classes were held in secret, and those few Germans who did know cared only that the children were kept occupied and quiet. In most cases, her young artists did not survive with their work. Indeed, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was a victim of Auschwitz herself. But before she died, she buried in two suitcases, behind a wall at Theresienstadt, the hundreds drawings her children had made.
After the war, as the camp was being returned to civilian use, the suitcases were found by a worker. The artwork was taken to the Jewish Museum in Prague for preservation. Last year, another art hero entered into the picture, Moravian College Art Historian, Anne Dutlinger. In studying the children's drawings in Prague, she convinced the curators of the museum to let her bring ninety of them, now carefully framed under glass, back to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for an exhibit. The show opens February 10, 2000. Theresienstadt held more than 140,000 Jews. Over 35,000 died from malnutrition and disease. Another 88,000 went to Auschwitz. The odds were not good, but some of the artists from Theresienstadt will be standing by their work of more than fifty years ago at the Moravian College exhibit, paying tribute to the brave, resourceful, young art teacher who helped them survive their ordeal. They and their work will help the rest of us not to forget, and add yet another dimension to the Holocaust.