Art Therapy and "I Never Saw Another Butterfly"

This post was written by a student in Utah Valley University's dramaturgy program. A dramaturg is the member of the creative and technical team for a production who researches the history and context of a performance, ensuring accuracy and clarity for all.

Last month, UVU staged a brilliant production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly. If you were able to see it, you may have noticed some very prominent themes. Themes such as “hope”, “surviving through art”, and “coping through art”. All of these themes tie into a singular form of therapy known as Art Therapy, which was used in Terezin by real-life instructor Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (who is the inspiration for the character Irena Synkoa in the play).

Art Therapy is a form of therapy and involves creative techniques such as drawing, coloring, sculpting, writing, etc. to help people express themselves and also to examine the psychological and emotional undertones in their art. A therapist can then examine a person’s art and “decode” the nonverbal messages, symbols, or metaphors found in the art and better understand the artists feeling and behavior.

 Art Therapy is often used for children, adolescents, or those with mental or social anxieties as it is an easier form of therapy for these groups to understand. Art Therapy helps to explore emotions, improve self-esteem, relieve stress, and improve symptoms of anxiety or depression. It is also used as a form of coping, often used for those with physical disabilities or illness or those placed in situations where more common therapy methods wouldn’t be useful or even available. Art Therapy can work individually or with group settings, such as hospitals, wellness centers, correctional institutions, or senior centers. This is why Art Therapy was used in Terezin.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was an artist and a teacher who was deported to Terezin on December 17th, 1942, given only a suitcase with 50 kilos (110 pounds) worth of belongings in it to bring with her. She chose to bring with a few necessary items of clothing, but the rest of her weight quote was filled with art supplies. Her purpose was to both have artistic materials for her own use but also to ensure that she would have the supplies on hand necessary to teach art to the hundreds of traumatized children she anticipated meeting in Terezin. As an adult, she was able to recognize what Terezin was before arriving and prepared accordingly as best as she could. Realizing that the children desperately needed direction and purpose after being ripped from their homes and realizing the that art could be a therapeutic tool to help children deal with their feelings of loss and fear, Friedl set about enthusiastically teaching the children.

Art Therapy was a perfect fit for Terezin due to the nature of the camp. “Learning was prohibited” as Raja says in the play, but art and games were not. The children were paired into houses with other children, many of whom were complete strangers to each other, and Friedl saw this as an opportunity to get the children working together. Using her limited art supplies, she had her students explore various mediums of art such as collage and watercolor painting.  But her lessons were not simply designed to teach technique, they were the means with which she taught her students how to draw from their feelings and emotions. Through this method, Friedl was able to truly understand the children’s inner feelings and better help them cope with the awful conditions of Terezin.

Friedl wanted to help the creative spirit of children come to life in conditions that tried to push down the children to their lowest points. Her purpose was not to train children as artists, she wanted the spirit of the children to survive long past Terezin. For Friedl, art represented freedom. Freedom to get away from the world of Terezin and a freedom to escape the misery and horror that constantly surrounded them, if only for a little bit. The children loved her teachings for providing them emotional outputs in a place that provided them little else. One surviving student, Eva Dorian recalled “I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation.” 

On October 6th, 1944, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis were sent on a transport to Auschwitz. Before she left, Friedl collected the drawings and artwork of her students and packed over 5,000 of them into 2 suitcases which she hid, to be found after the war. Friedl made sure the children signed their art with their names and age, so they would survive in their art. The suitcases were discovered after the war ended and they live on today in various museum of Terezin and serve as the basis for the story of I Never Saw Another Butterfly’s Raja Englanderova.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis was one of the first practitioners of art therapy, giving her students the gift of expression, artistic freedom and beauty to help give them meaning to their young lives. Art Therapy has many of its roots in these teachings from Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and has evolved in use over the many decades since World War II. Friedl Dicker-Bradeis’ influence continues to inspire us today, as it once did for her students of Terezin.