Eyes turned toward hope
Artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis died in Auschwitz 59 years ago, but in the last two decades, she’s been very good to Regina Miller. At age 13, Miller received from her mom, a Holocaust survivor, a book of artwork by children who took classes from Dicker-Brandeis at the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The book, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” emboldened Miller to pursue dancing.
“Being 13 years old,” she recalls, “I related to the children from Terezin who were 12 and 13 years old, who wrote the poetry and created the art as a way of expressing how they felt about their experiences. And I felt that a way that I could express myself at that time was through my dance, as a way to honor their memories and also my family’s history.”
Three years later, while studying with Alvin Ailey, Miller choreographed a piece inspired by Dicker-Brandeis’ concentration camp experiences. The dance earned her a scholarship to North Carolina School of the Arts.
And just four years ago in Vienna, Miller met the man she would marry while raising funds for a Dicker-Brandeis exhibition.
“When my mother gave me that book,” Miller says, “she told me, ‘We’re not a wealthy family, so I can’t give you a lot of money on your bat mitzvah, but I can give you something I hope will stay with you for the rest of your life. You’re going to learn to be somebody who takes risks.’ ”
Miller apparently learned her lesson well. During the last eight years, she’s taken more then a few risks in an effort to introduce Dicker-Brandeis’ lifework to the larger public. The result, “Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin,” runs through Dec. 30 at the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In the exhibition, Dicker-Brandeis emerges as a protean artist -- impulsive, vivacious, sometimes quarrelsome and endlessly self-critical -- who churned out an astonishing variety of work.
Designer and teacher
Born Friederike Dicker in 1898 and raised in Vienna by her widowed father, she studied at the Bauhaus School in Weimar, Germany, in the early ‘20s, then opened a design studio, first in Berlin and later in Vienna. The exhibition’s sampling from this period encompasses blueprints for a Montessori kindergarten, “Merchant of Venice” costume sketches, toys, a pullout bed that doubles as a table, tapestries, book covers, jewelry, lamps and still-sleek stackable chairs. Photos of the apartment buildings she designed, which still stand in Vienna, are displayed just a few feet from agitprop posters for the Communist Party, which Dicker-Brandeis joined in 1931 to oppose Europe’s growing fascist movement.
By 1936, the budding artist had married Pavel Brandeis, an accountant. She considered his profession “silly” and persuaded him to take up carpentry. Unable to have children, Dicker-Brandeis also began teaching art to her young neighbors.
From there, her pictures tell the story. The 1934 painting “Interrogation” represents the six harrowing months she spent in prison after she was caught forging passports to help friends escape from Germany. Then there’s the deceptively tranquil landscape Dicker-Brandeis quickly painted in December 1942, after she was told to report to Terezin.
Miller says: “Friedl went to her friend Josef, who had a store, and told him, ‘I’ve gotten my transport papers from Hitler. He’s invited me for a rendezvous. Do you have anything warm?’ Josef said, ‘Here, I have this coat.’ She said, ‘I’ll be back in an hour.’ Friedl came back with this painting. He said, ‘Such a beautiful picture for a coat!’ and Friedl said, ‘It took me an hour to paint this picture -- it takes a lot longer to sew a coat.’ ”
Dicker-Brandeis was allowed to bring one suitcase to Terezin, a “model” camp near Prague where Nazis shot propaganda films to “prove” to the International Committee of the Red Cross that Jews were treated properly. In fact, about 33,000 captives died of cold and starvation at Terezin; more than 87,000 were eventually transported to Nazi death camps.
“All of her ‘essential items’ were art supplies,” says Miller, who unearthed the artist’s packing list during her research. “Friedl took paper and crayons and watercolors and her favorite art books because she knew she was going to be teaching the children in the camp.”
Despite the dire circumstances, Dicker-Brandeis immediately took charge on her arrival, beginning with a makeover of the children’s dreary barracks.
“As soon as she got to Terezin, Friedl redesigned everything so the space would be better for teaching, for living conditions,” says Miller, standing next to a blow-up of the hastily sketched floor plan. “One of the children, Marta, wrote: ‘There were 30 girls in a very small room with triple bunk beds. Friedl dyed sheets the color of red and wine and made us a little cozy corner.”
The exhibition culminates with an array of artwork created by Terezin’s youngest inmates, much of it drawn on discarded hospital documents or rough-grained packaging.
“Friedl didn’t just say, ‘Draw pictures.’ She’d ask the children to remember a fond memory,” says Miller, pointing to a cheerful drawing on the wall. “This little girl drew her mother and father, fashionably dressed, with her friends playing soccer. This is the home she remembers from a happier time.”
As is evident in the dozens of self-portraits, Dicker-Brandeis encouraged her students to maintain a sense of identity through creative expression.
“Friedl had the children do these self-portraits so they would hold on to who they were and not just be a number,” Miller says. “She made sure the students always signed and dated the art, and she graded them for form and color and composition to make it clear that these classes mattered. The children needed that structure when everything else was so unstructured.”
The legacy lives
Miller became a self-taught expert on Dicker-Brandeis after she’d given up her dance career and returned to college with plans to become an art teacher. One of her professors recommended a book by art therapist Edith Kramer, who, it turned out, had been a student of Dicker-Brandeis’ at Terezin. Intrigued by the connection, Miller met Kramer, whose memories rekindled a fascination with the Dicker-Brandeis legacy.
Miller moved to Los Angeles in 1995 to develop a children’s TV program, and after the project fell through, she approached the Museum of Tolerance with proposals for putting together a Dicker-Brandeis project. Staffers told her about Elena Makarova, a Czech social worker who had been independently researching the artist’s life and work in Europe. Miller tracked down Makarova in Israel, and a week later, the two met at the Prague airport. After an inauspicious start, when they were robbed by gypsies, the two women, without any official backing, embarked on a two-month odyssey through Central Europe, visiting Dicker-Brandeis’ haunts and tracking down collectors and former students.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was impressed with their findings.
“The Holocaust stirs a tremendous amount of creative response, but to have art that is not about but is of the Holocaust made Regina’s idea a natural for us,” Cooper says. “With Friedl, you’ve got this Bauhaus figure with literally no boundaries, totally wide open, who’s brought into this ultimate vise, and she chose not to get out of it.”
In 1999, funded by the Museum of Tolerance and other institutions, Miller and Makarova assembled pieces from 30 private and public collections and mounted their first showing of “Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin” in Vienna.
Exhibitions followed in Germany, Japan, France and Sweden. After the Los Angeles run, the exhibition will travel to New York. Miller says that each time the show opens in a new city, now elderly students of Dicker-Brandeis show up.
One of those survivors, Ela Weissberger, was 11 when Dicker-Brandeis arrived at Terezin.
“Friedl was a short, petite, tough lady, very neat and so practical,” says Weissberger. “When she found a little wool, we would embroider our papers with wool. If somebody got a package, Friedl would cut the wrapping paper into small pieces and each of us would get a piece to draw on.”
Weissberger, now 72 and living in upstate New York, says: “This I can remember well. We lived in Room 28. Friedl would take us to the window and say: ‘Kids, now, look out the window and you will see those beautiful mountains and the sun coming up. And there is hope behind those mountains. And you will survive, and this will be our place, behind those mountains.’ That sticks in your mind.”
‘Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin’
Where: Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Saturdays
Ends: Dec. 30
Contact: (310) 553-8403 or www.museumoftolerance.com