Theresienstadt — the concentration camp due north of Prague, Czechoslovakia — came to be known as "the model ghetto," used to demonstrate to visiting Red Cross officials how well the Jews were being treated, and especially, how much freedom they had to express themselves creatively. All of this effort was meant to put to rest once and for all those rumors about death and dying. Theresienstadt would show the world that the Nazis were the most benevolent of captors — overseers, really — although it's striking that no one seemed moved to ask why the Jews were being incarcerated in the first place. If pressed, the Germans would say that these people were enemies of the state, and so for safety's sake had to be held captive. The Red Cross, and the rest of the world, seemed to accept the explanation without blinking an eye.
But Theresienstadt was a false front stretched over a terrible reality. The camp was really only a way station with the last stop being Auschwitz or some other point of death "in the east," as the euphemistic language of the period would have it. The facade was truly ingenious. Many people died there, but not after being gassed or burned. Hunger was the operative mode, and disease was rampant. But for a time, some who resided in Theresienstadt were given a chance to create — to paint or write or perform — before they were shipped to their final destinations. It was here, as many people know, that a child poet bemoaned the fact about never seeing another butterfly.
One of the near-mythic people who fostered creativity in her many young and often transient charges was Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who before the Nazi triumph, studied at the Weimar Bauhaus. A new book, Through a Narrow Window — written by Linney Wix and published by the University of New Mexico Press — not only features many samples of Dicker-Brandeis' distinctive and challenging artworks in various formats, along with drawings by her small charges, but the work also delves into Dicker-Brandeis' philosophy of teaching.
According to Wix, Friedl and her husband Pavel Brandeis, despite all their efforts to avoid capture, arrived in Terezin, as the Czech people called it, on Dec. 19, 1942. First assigned to be a professional artist, Dicker-Brandeis sought to be reassigned to teach art to children. During the 22 months she spent in this model ghetto, she painted while also teaching hundreds of children throughout the camp. Author Wix has studied Dicker-Brandeis' life perhaps more closely then anyone and she surmises that, in Terezin, "as both artist and teacher she was more intensely engaged and productive than she had ever been before."
Wix also explains that as an educator, Dicker-Brandeis "understood that helping children master art fundamentals would contribute to their confidence and make it easier for them to handle the day-to-day difficulties of camp life, which would in turn support them in accessing beauty through giving form to their personal experiences. Whether or not she intended her art classes to be therapeutic, they were." And Wix should know, since she tracked down some of Dicker-Brandeis' students who had survived and has included their memories of their masterful teacher.
Dicker-Brandeis was murdered in Auschwitz on Oct. 9, 1944. Through a Narrow Window stands as a tribute to all she stood for, a monument to someone who managed to communicate ideas about beauty and artistry to her young charges despite the wretched circumstances that surrounded them.