Remembering Terezin Artist and Hero Bedrich Fritta (born September 19, 1906)
Today is the birthday of Bedřich Fritta, who we remember as one of the great artists and heroes of the Holocaust, an artist who chronicled the daily life, and the horrors and absurdities of the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto with a keen eye and a sure hand. His images could be ironic and he was master of biting satire; but he also evoked profound pathos. Even in caricature, he expressed empathy for his suffering subjects.
Fritta was born in Weigsdorf (Višňová), Northern Bohemia, in 1906 and trained as an artist in Paris around 1930, before moving to Prague where he worked as a draughtsman, graphic designer, and cartoonist. On December 4, 1941, he was deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto in the second "construction commando," of engineers, craftsmen, and physicians. He was part of the Ghetto elite, supervising the drawing studio in the technical department of the Jewish self-administration. As part of the administration, he and his family were mostly safe from deportation to Auschwitz, and Fritta survived the camp for several years.
Imprisoned artists worked in the studio where they produced construction plans and illustrations for reports sent to the SS commandant's office. On the side they side special private work for German soldiers in return for favors. While these illustrations served Nazi propaganda, many of the same artists created hundreds of personal and documentary works that showed a different side of Ghetto life - the horrors of overcrowding, starvation, executions and deportations. Fritta was a leader of this group. The works of these men and women were expressive and political and consciously acts of documentation, memory and resistance.
For many years after the Holocaust the work of these artists was seen mostly as documentation and used in historical and commemorative contexts, especially as scholars and others came to recognize the myriad ways other than armed revolt in which Jews and other prisoners resisted their captors. The publication of Gerald Greene's book The Artists of Terezin in 1988 made the work of the Terezin artists more widely known, and also emphasized the artistry (under life-threatening conditions) for Fritta and his colleagues and fellow prisoners Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, Karel Flieshmann, Malvina Schalkova and others.
An exhibition last year of Fritta's drawings at the Jewish Museum Berlin also stressed Fritta's artistic achievement, showing him to be among the very best artists in the tradition of George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Käthe Kollwitz who combined expressionism with political and social meaning.
The exhibition website provides images of many of Fritta's surviving works.
The drawings of Terezin artists were often smuggled out in the hope that they would reach the outside world to reveal the truth about life in the camp. Some of these drawings made it to the Red Cross in Switzerland and were shown to Nazi officials in a naive attempt for accountability. The result was severe reprisal against the artists. In the summer of 1944 Fritta and colleagues Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, and Ferdinand Bloch were convicted of "atrocity propaganda." The artists were sent to the Small Fortress with their families and were imprisoned and tortured in the Gestapo jail. Fritta's wife Johanna died there, and Fritta and Haas were soon deported to Auschwitz where Fritta died in November 1944.
Leo Haas survived and adopted Fritta's son Tomáš, who is widely remembered as the subject of an endearing illustrated birthday book, emphasizing optimism, made by his father.