Sparks in all Directions: Children's Visions from Terezin

Among my favorite books growing up were young-adult novels about Jewish children in Europe during World War II. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Upstairs Room—these were stories of kids who survived the Holocaust by emigrating or going into hiding. I was mesmerized by their courage and fear, their cramped living conditions, their understanding (and misunderstanding) of what was going on around them. But I do not recall ever reading a book from the point of a view of a child living in a concentration camp. Even Anne Frank’s diary ends before the author is forced to discover the depths of human depravity. (The diary was left behind in the “secret annex” of her father’s abandoned factory when the families who lived there were found out and taken to the camps.) So, what of the children in the camps? Where were their diaries, I wondered; what were their daily lives like? Were they killed right away with their mothers, in the cruel gas chambers, or were they sent to hard labor with their fathers? Were they angry, or sad, or very hungry? Did social cliques form, even at the worst of times, or did everyone band together? I was drawn to the incompleteness of their stories and though I asked my elders, what I came to understand was that there was the time before Hitler and the time after. There were unspeakable horrors and there were survivors, and all that mattered was that they had lived. Some things you didn't need to talk about. 

I never imagined that some of the children in the camps were making art. I never imagined that, as they waited to live or die, some children spent their days doing studies of movement, color, and texture, drawing still lifes, portraits, and landscapes, mentored by an extraordinary teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis—who is the subject of a new book by Linney Wix, an associate professor of art education at the University of New Mexico. Through a Narrow Window: Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and Her Terezín Students (published by UNM Press) is accompanied by an exhibit at the university’s art museum that runs through March 13. The book and exhibition feature works by Dicker-Brandeis from her student years at the Bauhaus, works she made as a mature artist, including the time she was imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp, and works made by her students in Terezín. Prior to being transported from Terezín to Auschwitz, Dicker-Brandeis had the presence of mind to fill two suitcases with the children’s artwork, which were rediscovered in the 1950s. The book also includes essays about Dicker-Brandeis’ life, work, and teaching methods; the Terezín ghetto; the teachers who influenced her; and a translation of a presentation about teaching art to children that she gave to other artists and teachers in Terezín. The focus on historical context, teaching art, and Dicker-Brandeis’ philosophy of aesthetic empathy elevates Through a Narrow Window from an exhibition catalog to an important contribution to creative education and provides a new avenue for understanding the horrors of the Third Reich. 

“How was it that children produced thousands of artworks at Terezín?” Wix asks in her essay, “The Art and Teaching of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.” “What led to a concentration camp culture so rich in visual art and in which both children and adults regularly performed in concerts, operas, and theater pieces as well?” She explains that Terezín was a “model” ghetto created in 1941, in the fortress town of Theresienstadt, 50 kilometers north of Prague. Unlike other ghettos, it wasn’t a fenced-off part of a larger city but a camp unto itself. The original Czech residents, who were not Jewish, were relocated, and the town was transformed into a ruse for the international audience—a place where arts and culture would “help stimulate a flourishing community life,” but “a facade behind which the Jewish ‘citizens’ were actually prisoners struggling to survive daily hardship and terror.” Approximately 155,000 Jewish men, women, and children were moved through Terezín between 1941 and 1945. More than half of them were from Bohemia and Moravia; at the time of her transport to the ghetto, Dicker-Brandeis lived with her husband, Pavel, in Hronov, a mountain town in eastern Bohemia, though she was born in Vienna. Thirty-five thousand people died in Terezín; only 3,800 of the 87,000 Terezín residents transported to death camps survived. “All these years later, the paradox of the camp still overwhelms,” writes Wix. “The arts, used by the Nazis to mask their atrocities to the outside world, were of intrinsic value to those on the inside.”

As a young woman, Dicker-Brandeis studied photography at the School of Experimental Graphics in Vienna, and when she was 18 she took a textile class taught by Franz Cizek at the School of Arts and Crafts, where she was exposed to his pedagogical approach that emphasized spontaneity and the importance of creative ideas. She moved on to study with Johannes Itten and in 1919 followed him to the fledgling Bauhaus school in Weimar, where she also studied with Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinksy, among others. She worked at ateliers in Berlin and Vienna from 1923 until 1934, when she left her first love, Franz Singer, and the world of commercial creation behind to concentrate on her personal fine-art practice. She had already begun teaching art to kindergarten children, classes that were often attended by teenagers and adults as well. Whether or not Dicker-Brandeis meant for her art classes in Terezín to be therapeutic, they were. Wix writes: “She used the classes to care for and provide witness to children as they worked to grasp and develop their own form and methods of expression.” What stood out to me about Dicker-Brandeis’ teaching methods is that they would have been therapeutic under any circumstances. She allowed children to find their own artistic path; she was concerned with their essential visions rather than teaching them to see a certain way. In her presentation about teaching children, Dicker-Brandeis said, “Do not ... direct the sparks of children’s inspirations. ... If we want to look at children’s drawings with enjoyment and see their usefulness, we must first silence our wishes and demands in regard to form as well as content and expectantly accept what they can offer.”

Along with 30 of her students, Dicker-Brandeis walked to the showers at Auschwitz on Oct. 9, 1944. She painted prolifically in her last months in Terezín before hiding the art in the suitcases and readying herself for her fate. Her final painting was a watercolor called “A Child’s Eyes”—a genderless child without outline that gazes at the viewer with an expression devoid of emotion. Did the children in Terezín know what was happening to them, what they were waiting for, as they engaged in rhythmic exercises to get them in touch with their bodies for a day of drawing?

“Sometimes she brought what we should paint ... flowers in a vase, wooden shoes, pictures by famous painters in a book or a postcard,” Helga Kinsky, one of Dicker-Brandeis’ surviving students, said in an interview with Wix. “It was very gray there, and we were hungry. We knew we were prisoners. We knew we did not have our freedom. We had good teachers who were keeping us occupied.”


Terezín: Voices From the Holocaust is a slim and deceptive volume; filled with bright pictures and large type, it presents itself at first as a book for children. But Ruth Thomson’s book is not what it seems. In terms that could be easily understood by an intelligent third-grader, it spares no truth for the sake of a child’s supposedly delicate sensibilities. Short, unemotional introductions to each section provide an overview of the history of Hitler and the Jews and the history of Terezín, and set up context for what follows: the authentic voices of the prisoners, in words they recorded in secret diaries that were found after the war, in memoirs by and interviews with survivors, and in artwork made in the camp.

Terezín, or Theresienstadt, was a fortified town not far from Prague that was turned into a way-station for Auschwitz and a “show camp” to prove to the outside world that Jews were being treated well by the Nazis. The camp was populated by a large number of artists, many of whom were forced to draw images of healthy, happy prisoners. They also made and hid secret, often gruesome drawings to record what was really happening. The degradations experienced by Jews at Terezín included having to pay for the privilege of showering, using fake money supposedly earned from their forced labor; growing plentiful fresh vegetables on the grounds that were then shipped away, ostensibly to Germany, while the inmates ate soup that looked like dishwater; and the “beautification” of 1944, when the Red Cross came to inspect the conditions. “It is ridiculous, but it seems that Terezín is to be changed into some sort of spa,” wrote Helga Weissová-Hoÿsková, a teenage prisoner. “Overnight signs had to be put on every corner house [and] arrows pointed: To the Park, To the Baths, etc. The school by the construction headquarters that had served as a hospital up to today was cleared out overnight and the patients put elsewhere while the whole building was repainted, scrubbed up… It really looks fine, like a real school; only the pupils and teachers are missing. That shortcoming is adjusted by a small note on the door: ‘Vacation.’” 

Many of the drawings in the book are by the artists Bedrich Fritta and Leo Hass, who, along with artists Ferdinand Bloch and Otto Ungar, were transported from Terezín to Auschwitz shortly after the Red Cross visit because the Nazis had heard about their secret drawings. Hass, the only one of the four to survive the war, was questioned by an SS captain, who showed him his study of Jews crawling on the ground in search of potato peels and said “‘How could you think up such a mockery of reality and draw it?’ I explained that it was not something I had invented, but what I happened to see on official duties and had immediately sketched, in the way a painter seeks an object to paint. Then came the question, ‘Do you really think there is hunger in the ghetto when the Red Cross did not find any at all?’”

Originally published in Pasatiempo on 03/04/2011