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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Friedl Dicker Brandeis’

What’s New with Prague’s Old-New Synagogue, And Old Jewish Cemetery?

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

House of Life: The Old Jewish

Cemetery in Prague

A film by Allan Miller and Mark Podwal

First Run Features, 52 minutes, $24.95


Built by Angels: The Story of the

Old-New Synagogue

By Mark Podwal

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 48 pages, $16



When on April 5th, First Lady Michelle Obama visited Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod, a senior White House advisor, she expressed particular interest in the synagogue’s collection of drawings by children from the concentration camp of Terezín, which they created under the tutelage of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944). When the group viewed the Old Jewish Cemetery, they were following in the footsteps of former President Bill Clinton, and the more than half a million tourists who come each year, according to a recent article by Mark Podwal in The Jerusalem Post.


Podwal should know, having visited Prague 15 times – often to spend the High Holidays and Passover at the Old-New Synagogue where he has his own seat with a Hebrew-and-English plaque bearing his name. Podwal has designed a poster celebrating 100 years of the Jewish Museum in Prague, and his Hamsa bookmarks and pins were sold in the Metropolitan Museum’s store in conjunction with its exhibit “Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437″ (2005-2006). More recently, he is also the author and illustrator of a new book on the synagogue, and co-producer with Allan Miller of a new documentary on Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, which aired on PBS earlier this month.



Allan Miller (right) and Mark Podwal



If the documentary must be summed up in one sentence, it would be Professor Vladimír Sadek’s statement early on in the film, that Rabbi Judah Loew – the Maharal – was “traditional, ancient, and modern.” Indeed, the city that “House of Life” captures is one of juxtaposed opposites: cars, buses, and McDonalds logos, with tourist shops selling Golem dolls and candles, alternating with camera shots of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, with stones half-blank for Holocaust victims.


“House of Life” is no travel agency pitch for Prague, though it is jam-packed with fascinating historical facts and beautiful landscape shots. The first time a Star of David was officially used as an emblem for the Jewish community was on the tombstone of Rabbi David Gans (1541-1613), the author of the “Tzemach David.” On the stone, a goose symbolizes the surname, while the star, allegedly the shape of King David’s shield, reflects the historian and astronomer’s first name.


Other decorations on tombstones include: hands arranged a la [Star Trek's] Spock (for a Cohen), a pitcher and washbasin (Levi), scissors (tailor), grapes (fertility), and various animals like lions (for those named Judah) and deer (for someone named Hirsch). There are even human figures (including nudes) on the tombstones, which may surprise some readers. But the film also has a journalistic touch when it interviews people who complain about being forced to pay to visit the cemetery. Some of the most beautiful pieces of art in the film are a series of paintings detailing the activities of the burial society, from preparing the body to the rabbi’s eulogy to washing the hands after leaving the cemetery.


The story also addresses the magic surrounding the Maharal, and in so doing overlaps with “Built by Angels.” Both the film and the book tell of white doves miraculously flapping their wings to extinguish fires that threatened the Altneuschul, the Old-New Synagogue. Both also tell of the synagogue’s stones, which were on loan from the Temple and which were to be returned for the next Temple, and of ghosts filling the synagogue after hours to pray when all the people had left. 



Interior of the Altneuschul



Podwal explains early on in the book that the Altneuschul, which has “as many stories as stones,” was said to have been constructed by angels, but was later forgotten. A thousand years later, the Jews came to Prague and found a beautiful city with many churches, but no place for them to pray. An angel, posing as a beggar, showed them a hill, and when they dug upon the hill, they uncovered the synagogue – “Although old, it mysteriously looked new.” As the beggar-angel prepared to leave, he told the people that the stones derived from the Temple, and they must not be moved at all, lest the entire structure fall.


The synagogue evoked the Temple in other ways too. On the High Holidays, when congregants were so tightly packed in that “no one could force a finger between them,” the stones expanded so there was room for everyone to bow down. This recalls a similar statement about the Temple in Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:5, in which the Temple was said to, have “opened up” on certain holidays (for the “regalim,” or “feet,” when all Jews living in or near Jerusalem flocked to the Temple) so that every person had enough room to bow on the ground.


Podwal’s book – which includes a wide range of Jewish and mystical symbols in its drawings, including angel’s wings, Torah pointers (yads), Hebrew letters, and Kabbalistic motifs – details others sorts of miracles that graced the synagogue. Congregants had to bang on the doors in the morning to let the ghosts know it was time to leave, and a piece of matzoh (the Afikomen, in fact) hung in the building all year. With Passover immediately behind us, a year-round matzoh might not sound particularly appetizing or miraculous, but this piece had special powers to protect the Jewish community.



Praying on the High Holidays. Image from “Built by Angels”



In many ways, the book makes a good companion guide to the film. The gouache paintings of “Built by Angels” are so bold and playful that they seem to suggest a dream sequence. They are realistic, and yet they also contain abstract elements. In that sense they resemble the most prominent element of “House of Life”: the tombstones in the cemetery. Through rain and snow, light and shadows, the stones seem to be both living things and inanimate objects that only point to people who once lived.



Old Jewish Cemetery. Still photo from “House of Life”



I have never been to Prague so I cannot vouch for the authenticity of its representation in the book and in the documentary. But I am fairly certain that if I ever get the chance, I will be well prepared for both the surfaces of the landmarks I encounter, as well as the mystical and magical aspects that lurk beneath.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

Art As Optimism And Therapy – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis At The Jewish Museum

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2004

Innovator, Activist, Healer: The Art of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis
September 10, 2004-January 16, 2005
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
Phone: 212.423.3200

Oftentimes, one will find it far more useful to engage a piece of art in terms of what issues it raises and what questions it asks, rather than what ideological statements it offers or answers it proposes. This technique proves particularly constructive, and perhaps even imperative, when analyzing a difficult piece or body of work that largely resists its viewers’ attempts to oversimplify it and to cheapen it. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis’ work resides in this realm of inquisitive art, rather than resolute work that promotes a definitive ideological position.

Dicker’s work at once attends to the boundary between art therapy and fine art and to the notion of art from and about trauma. It engages the question of the role of children’s art and optimistic perspectives in relation to “high” art and to the Bauhaus’ pragmatic aesthetic in design, primarily theater design, architecture and interior design. Ultimately, we will find that Dicker resolutely barricades herself against a regular critical vocabulary with which to contextualize her work, and precisely because she not only emerged prolific in so many different realms but also managed to find a cohesive tie that binds between them, she defines her own new arena with its unique language of analysis and criticism.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944) studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, where she studied with notable artists Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer, amongst others. This column referred to the Bauhaus previously in the context of Anni and Josef Albers, so suffice it to say by means of impressionistic summary that the Bauhaus was an avant-garde, German school that shunned superficial frills that it felt tended to hijack aesthetics, instead attaching utmost significance to the practical – the bare essentials. The Bauhaus found meaning in the entire gamut of aesthetic experience, from textiles to furniture, costume and interior design to sculpture to glasswork, areas hardly granted entrance to the canon previously.

Dicker was born in Vienna and then moved to Prague, the Czech countryside and finally the Terezín ghetto and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where she was murdered on October 9, 1944. Dicker’s work, though created amidst a difficult life (“difficult” understates, to be sure), shines from within. The exhibition catalog, sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, quotes Zdena Turkova, who notes a comment she made to Dicker on one of her paintings: “I do not know why anymore, but I had told Friedl once that people from the area compared the Ostas mountain with a coffin. And she was such a sensitive person – the picture turned dark. Pavel [Pavel Brandeis, Friedl's husband] asked Friedl: ‘Why is it so black?’”

This example diverges from Dicker’s usual habits of coloration; her flowers, figures, designs and landscapes feature a palette that is at once robust, bright and pure. This optimism and beauty, to Dicker, was inherently intertwined with children. “The best allies against ‘ready-made production,’ against clichéd aesthetic conceptions, against becoming paralyzed in the stagnating adult world are artists and children,” she wrote in 1943. In her “Children’s Drawings,” a scholarly sort of work that she presented at an education “conference” in Terezín that attended to art therapy and art education, Dicker wrote, “The drawing classes are not meant to make artists out of all the children. Their task is to free and broaden such sources of energy as creativity and independence, to awaken the imagination, to strengthen the children’s powers of observation and appreciation of reality.”

Echoing Picasso’s “Once I painted like Rembrandt, but it has taken me a lifetime to draw like children,” Dicker launched a Deweyesque educational model by which she taught the children of Terezín to observe correctly, without compromising her students’ creativity. Recycling some of the Bauhaus “design problems” and studies and mixing in some of her own, she managed to simultaneously cultivate some very talented artists and also to provide art therapy for children, many of whom had seen their parents murdered before their very eyes. By stressing observation and the values embedded even within some of the most elementary work, she was able to further her educational goals and her supportive, curative ones as well. In a way, her students – nay her children – healed her as well, and helped preserve her sanity in a hell that would ultimately engulf her.

Though Dicker’s work preserved a fresh optimism – and she hardly drew her devastating surroundings in the way many of her Terezín peers felt they ought to be recorded and preserved – some works, try as they might, failed to find a warm note. In “Interrogation 1,” which refers to Dicker’s imprisonment in 1934 when she was caught hiding illegal documents (she was quite politically active), the artist sits in the foreground, with her back to the viewer, scared, ashamed and traumatized perhaps, as a man sits above her scowling angrily. Beside him, a typewriter and a pair of just barely human hands record the interrogation. The painting contains a largely black color scheme, and with the exception of a dash of red in the top leftmost corner, all the colors are muddied, secondary and tertiary tones. The background employs thickly applied paint that expressionistically delineates forms. Dicker’s ears are red, to reference the bright light shined on her. “I felt my ears were burning,” she later wrote.

“Lady in a Car” is a self-portrait in a style loosely reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” and it shows the artist sadly looking out the window of a car as it travels down a road with a red roofed house on the side. The structure of the painting suggests paralysis in the cropped foreground (the figure literally lacks legs with which to move), and the figure is quite removed from the landscape. The large black shadow that all but dominates the left side of the painting lends the piece an ominous feel. Clearly, something evil is afoot.

Because the temptation is so strong to dismiss Dicker’s art as kitsch, as more engaged in healing and in “bettering” the world than in making important aesthetic statements, it is vital to remember that her work violates so many boundaries, and that each work actually stands up to close analysis, like “Interrogation 1″ and “Lady in a Car.” Where other artists we have explored in this column, such as Art Spiegelman and Joe Kubert, see value in recording trauma and in preserving memories, Dicker found it more useful for her purposes to preserve a flowery optimism within Terezín and to supply her children with an optimistic vision that served as a beacon to higher truths.

Like artist Georgia O’Keeffe, whose artistic repertoire featured almost exclusively flowers and skulls, Dicker forged a vocabulary of beauty, a smokescreen of joy and naïve childish perspective, from which evil rarely manages to rear its ugly head. Dicker’s art heals, literally, in its stubborn refusal to grant horror a venue of expression. In this sense, she offers a new type of Holocaust art, very heavy on the art side and somewhat adamant on the Holocaust side. Dicker honestly felt that art provided an underpinning – a universal aesthetic language that everyone could speak if he or she only learnt the alphabet – that could keep its literate clients safe and happy. Unfortunately, it ultimately could not protect her.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com

For more information on the Simon Wiesenthal Center (LA), please see http://www.wiesenthal.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/art-as-optimism-and-therapy-friedl-dicker-brandeis-at-the-jewish-museum/2004/12/22/

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