A Holocaust Survivor’s Daughter Sets Out to Recover –
and Identify – Her Father’s Art
More than four decades after her father’s death, a Rockland County woman is continuing to perpetuate his legacy by locating, retrieving and restoring hundreds of pieces of his original artwork stolen by the Nazi regime.
An accomplished artist who sketched battle scenes and portraits for the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, David Friedmann was trained by contemporary masters. He was well known for his ability as a quick sketch artist, using paper and pencil to draw detailed likenesses of athletes, politicians, opera singers, actors and other notables, including physicist Albert Einstein. That talent laid the groundwork for Friedmann’s career as a freelance press artist in 1924, with his sketches appearing in Berlin newspapers and other publications, and his paintings shown at galleries throughout Germany and Czechoslovakia in the years that followed.
But as the winds of what would ultimately devolve into the Holocaust blew through Europe in the early 1930s, Friedmann’s ability to work came to an abrupt halt, and he left Berlin in 1938 with his wife Mathilde and his young daughter Mirjam Helene. After living in Prague for three years, the family was sent to Poland’s Lodz ghetto until its final liquidation in 1944. Both Mathilde and Mirjam Helene were murdered by the Nazis, but Friedmann survived Auschwitz’s Gleiwitz I subcamp by creating artwork for his captors, who were impressed with his abilities after seeing a mural he painted of a nearby river on a barracks wall using only improvised supplies.
After being liberated in January 1945 by the Red Army, the 51-year-old Friedmann discovered that the hundreds of works he had left behind in Berlin and in Prague were all gone, looted by the Nazis, who stole some 600,000 Jewish-owned pieces of art during the Holocaust. Haunted by his wartime experiences, Friedmann felt personally responsible to show the world the brutality that Jews endured during the Holocaust in the hopes that it would prevent similar atrocities in the future. He used his talents to create heart-wrenching images of the barbarism that he had witnessed, from the early days of World War II through liberation and beyond. Titled Because They Were Jews!, that series eventually became the first collection of art accepted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Friedmann remarried in 1948, but when life under Communist rule in Czechoslovakia became unbearable, he and his new wife decided to emigrate to Israel. Knowing that the government had placed an export prohibition on his works, Friedmann bribed a high-ranking Czech official to get the necessary government stamps to take his art out of the country. Still, it was understood that his possessions would be searched meticulously when he crossed the border, so Friedmann gave all of his artwork to his father-in-law, who was able to transport them without suspicion when he emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Israel. Friedmann and his wife Hildegard settled in the United States and, like any other child of Holocaust survivors, their daughter Miriam’s childhood was tinged with shadows of a world long gone. Her childhood memories include looking through an album of black and white photographs of portraits that her father had done in Europe that had somehow survived the war. She also recalled her father’s joy when a reparations check for his looted artwork $4,350 came from the West German government in 1961, a significant amount of money at that time.
“It wasn’t the money,” explained Miriam Friedman Morris. “It was the official recognition that his work actually meant something.”
Friedman Morris, who was named for her half-sister who died during the Holocaust, made a deathbed promise to her father that she would show his artwork to the world. After her mother’s death several years later, she transcribed the German-language diary that her father started keeping on the day she was born which detailed his life story during the war and beyond. The descriptions of where her father’s art had been displayed guided Friedman Morris in her quest, giving her the ability to retrace his footsteps in the hopes of recovering at least some of his lost artwork.
In Berlin, Friedman Morris found newspaper archives that contained hundreds of published portraits drawn by her father before the war broke out, inspiring her to continue her search. A 2003 visit to Prague’s Jewish Museum yielded not only Nazi-era catalog cards listing multiple pieces of stolen David Friedmann art and when each one was looted, but also nine of his works. Over the years, other pieces have been discovered – 36 postcard-sized Friedmann portraits were found at Beit Terezin, although the Israeli museum has no donor documentation, and a single Friedmann portrait drawn in Gleiwitz was found in the collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. A 1941 painting of a young girl was discovered when Friedmann Morris was speaking in 2009 on a panel about her efforts to find her father’s artwork. A fellow panelist recognized the subject in one of Friedmann’s portraits as a friend from Theresienstadt and not only was the woman still alive, but she had the original painting in her Buffalo home. Friedman Morris has also identified other subjects of her father’s portraits over the years with the help of Holocaust survivors, institutes and victim databases. She continues displaying the portraits to a wider audience and writing about them, realizing that she is in a race against time as the number of living Holocaust survivors grows increasingly smaller each year.
Friedman Morris has recovered some of her father’s pieces in places as close as New York and as far away as Denmark, China and Australia, and she has shared his artwork with the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, where several of his drawings are on permanent display. A documentary currently in product titled Dear Miriam – The Art and Survival of David Friedmann tells the artist’s story through the prism of his diary, detailing his personal and artistic journey through the darkest of times and beyond. Friedman Morris is passionate about her work to ensure that her father’s name is not forgotten, even if his promising career was cut short by World War II.
“My father believed that he survived the war to educate people about the Holocaust through his art,” explained Friedman Morris. “While he was a talented artist whose drawings and paintings were widely acclaimed, my father believed his greatest contribution was his eyewitness testament dedicated to the six million Jews who were killed by the Nazis. I want the world to see his artwork in the hopes of preventing such barbarism from ever happening again.”