Friedl Dicker-Brandeis: Extraordinary Artist and Devoted Teacher

Frederika Dicker-Brandeis, better known by her nickname Friedl, was an artist and teacher who saved many of her students’ drawings and poems. Born in Austria, she studied at the prestigious Weimar Bauhaus art school and was a student of famous artists such as Paul Klee. She also taught at the Bauhaus, and later worked as an artist and textile designer in various cities including Berlin and Prague. A letter she wrote to a friend in 1940 gives us insight into her philosophy of creativity and teaching. She wrote that when she was a young art student her desire was to protect her future students from unpleasant experiences and uncertainty but that as an adult her view changed. By 1940 she expressed the view that it was most important to inspire creativity in others, to help them develop that creativity, and to encourage them to always pursue that creativity no matter what obstacles they might face.

In December 1942, at the age of 42, Friedl and her husband Pavel Brandeis were transported to Terezin. Despite the terrible conditions in the ghetto, Friedl held fast to her determination to inspire creativity in others. She arranged art classes for children, and was strongly convinced that through art the children could express and better understand their emotions and better cope with their experience of living in the ghetto. As described by Chaim Potok in the introduction to I Never Saw Another Butterfly, Friedl used many techniques in her classes such as breathing exercises, the study of texture and color, and an emphasis on close observation of the environment. She would sometimes tell stories and have the children draw objects that she mentioned twice. After each class, she would instruct one student to collect the drawings and store them in her room, a tiny closet-sized space in one of the camp barracks which she decorated by draping blue sheets on the walls and hanging paintings of flowers.

Just what kind of person was Friedl Dicker-Brandeis? What was her personality like, and how did she relate to others? Various sources agree that she was highly intelligent, energetic, charismatic and talented in a number of arenas, including teaching and many art forms. She was very knowledgeable and insightful about children’s intellectual and psychological development and believed that art could be used as a form of therapy before art therapy was an established field. She also was kind-hearted and related incredibly well to children, and those who survived the camp stated that she made a profound impact on their lives, that her classes allowed them to experience a taste of freedom and to find solace through imagination and the pursuit of creativity. Friedl was also described as incredibly generous and self-giving, and never accepted any form of compensation for her classes or lectures. I was especially moved to learn that she rarely painted or drew while in Terezin because materials were scarce and she saved them for the children.

In 1944, as the transports increased, Friedl hid the children’s drawings in suitcases, which she entrusted to one of her art students. Her husband was placed on one of the last transports to Auschwitz in October 1944, and Friedl volunteered to be included in the transport. Tragically Friedl died in Auschwitz, but her husband survived the camp.

But the suitcases Friedl hid away survived, thanks to a young Terezin artist, a girl named Raja Englanderova.

Further Reading
New York Times:
Jewish Women’s Archive:
Elena Makarova: Friedl, Dicker-Brandeis, Vienna 1898- Auschwitz 19 (Paperback), Publisher: Tallfellow Press; 1st ed edition (December 31, 1999)

6 thoughts on “Friedl Dicker-Brandeis: Extraordinary Artist and Devoted Teacher

  1. Another moving post. You are doing so much good keeping these creative lights alive.

  2. Very powerful ideas here–what is the best strategy for working with children living in trauma? So interesting to read that Friedl’s philosophy changed throughout her life, first from shielding young people from pain, and then to using art to help them cope and express. Thank you for sharing more about Friedl’s life and work!

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I too was intrigued to learn how Friedl’s ideas on art and teaching evolved during her lifetime. It seems to me that her devotion to her students and use of art as a means of helping her students cope was very effective, based on the accounts of her students who survived Terezin.

  3. I appreciate your blog’s humble task – to take victims and turn them back into individuals. The saying goes “A single death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” Your focus on Friedl and Bertha and Judy, and, as I expect from you, many more men, women, boys, and girls to come, serves to remind us that each one of them was a person, not a number.

    It reminds me of Isaiah 56:5: “I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.” Keep sharing the names, keep sharing the stories.

    1. I really appreciate your thoughtful comment. I will indeed continue to share the names and stories of people who were imprisoned in Terezin. May their stories never be forgotten.

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