Dicker-Brandeis, Redux / Badass Teachers, Past and Present


Last week, I wrote about Freidl Dicker-Brandeis as the first subject in a new series on great teachers in history.

But then I realized, Dicker-Brandeis wasn’t just “great.” She was a badass. Here’s why:

1. She helped hundreds of children cope with the soul-crushing conditions of living in a ghetto during the Holocaust, forced to live separately from their parents and facing down their own deaths.

2. Before being sent to Auschwitz, Dicker-Brandeis had the foresight to hide two suitcases full of her students’ art so they wouldn’t be destroyed by the Nazis. If she hadn’t done so, we would have lost 4,500 testaments to the power of art to create hope and humanity in the worst of circumstances.

3. To prepare for teaching in the Terezin ghetto, she brought largely art supplies with her, instead of personal belongings and other survival items.

4. She was an accomplished artist in her own right — a student of the Bauhaus movement who studied under famous figures like Paul Klee. Here are two of her paintings.

5. Some of her students went on to become respected artists themselves. Georg Eisler and Edith Kramer are two now-famous students she taught while still living in Prague.


I’m hereby renaming the series Badass Teachers in History. This is also a conscious choice to draw an alliance between history and the present — namely, efforts by groups like the Badass Teachers Association to fight education “reforms” that destroy individuality, creativity, and teacher morale in public schools.

And thanks to the Twitterers (Tweeters?) over at the Zinn Education Project, I have a whole bunch more Badass Teachers in History to write about.

Great Teachers in History: Freidl Dicker-Brandeis

Never heard of Freidl Dicker-Brandeis? Neither had I, until my first visit to Prague last month.


While visiting the city’s Jewish Museum, I learned about this woman’s amazing impact on the children in the Terezin ghetto (also known as Theresienstadt), located about 50 miles north of Prague.

Dicker-Brandeis was deported to Terezin in 1942. She organized daily art lessons for over 600 children during her two years there. Like many art teachers, she helped her students learn the basics of line, color, and shape, and encouraged them to express their feelings in their work.

But her classes were held in secret, and materials were severely limited. In preparation for teaching at Terezin, she had stuffed her allotted suitcase with mostly art supplies.

Along with her unshakeable belief in the necessity of art, what makes Dicker-Brandeis remarkable is the emotional support she provided to children experiencing unspeakable trauma.

These children had been torn from their homes and forcibly separated from their parents, who would be sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz to die.

Freidl herself was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, along with 60 of her students.

Helga Kinsky, one of her few surviving students, said of her teacher:

“[She] transported us to a different world…. She painted flowers in windows, a view out of a window. She had a totally different approach…. She didn’t make us draw Terezin.”

Eva Dorian, another student who survived, said, “I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation” (Quotes from Yad Vashem).

Before her deportation to Auschwitz in 1944, Freidl buried about 4,500 drawings in two suitcases. The drawings were discovered ten years later. Here are some of them.


terezin photo 3


For more on Dicker-Brandeis and her students:

I Never Saw Another Butterfly

Through a Narrow Window

And, I’d like to make Great Badass Teachers in History an ongoing feature, with your help.

Who else should be remembered for teaching “lessons in emancipated meditation”? Which educators deserve wider recognition by history?