Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Friedl Dicker Day

Today would have been Friedl Dicker’s 110th birthday. It would also have been my 14th wedding anniversary.

We didn’t discover the coincidence of dates until long after Friedl had become our household saint (a Jewish saint being somewhere between a cause for controversy and a contradiction in terms, and thus peculiarly appropriate to our union). As I remember it, she came into our lives by a fluke in 1994 or 1995, when we were both studying art history at SUNY-Buffalo. James was writing a paper on women weavers at the Bauhaus, and one night, procrastinating on whatever paper I was supposed to be writing, I started leafing through his books. Her name caught my eye.

“Friedl Dicker?” I said, displaying all the maturity for which I am even now renowned. “You should definitely write your paper on Friedl Dicker.”

James, being similarly dignified, let out a snort and grabbed the book from my hands. “Let’s just see what happened to Friedl,” he said, flipping to the short artist biographies in the back. “Hmmm…established a design studio in Berlin…moved to Vienna…forced to close her studio there in 1934…moved to Prague…married Pavel Brandeis…moved to Czechoslovakia…deported to Terezín in 1942, where she gave art lessons to the children in the camp…transported to Auschwitz…died in Auschwitz in 1944.”

“Oh, no. Poor Friedl,” I said.

Somehow, from that moment on, she became a part of us in both comic name and rich, complex, tragically truncated life. Even now, hearing her name reminds me of the best parts of the life we had together--the robust and resilient humor that transcended whatever circumstances we found ourselves in. That quality, I am glad to say, survived our transition from spouses to friends.

Friedl’s work and her story have become more widely known in recent years, largely a result of the efforts of Israeli art teacher and scholar Elena Makarova. A selection of the 5,000 children’s drawings Friedl hid at Terezín shortly before her transport to Auschwitz were published as I Never Saw Another Butterfly in 1964, and a children’s book about her work with the children in the camp, Fireflies in the Dark, was published in 2001. That same year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance organized a traveling exhibition of her and her students’ work; a biography by Makarova (Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, Vienna 1898-Auschwitz 1944) was published in connection with it.

In 2004, the Jewish Museum organized a celebratory exhibition of her art and correspondence. Might I suggest you visit the exhibition site in honor of Friedl Dicker day? My favorite piece reproduced there is the Atlier Singer-Dicker “Phantasius” toy kit design.

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