Fireflies in the Dark tells the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist and a teacher who worked with children using art. When Hitler came to power and set up a dictatorship, he began to implement many policies to rid Germany of its Jewish population. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Friedl lived in Prague at this time. Concerned for her well being, given the Nazi policies towards Jews, friends had arranged for Friedl to emigrate to Palestine, the new Jewish state, but she refused to leave her friends. Eventually, Friedl, like most of the Jews in Czechoslovakia, was sent to a concentration camp in 1942. Friedl, her husband Pavel Brandeis were sent to a camp called Terezin or better known as Theresiendstadt.
When Friedl was packing to leave for Terezin she took many art supplies including paint, brushes and paper. Her motivation for doing so were the children that she knew would be in the camp. Friedl felt that art would be able to help many of the children in the camp. Friedl and her husband along with all the Jewish population of her town and many others had to lug their suitcases almost two miles into Terezin which was once a Czech army fortress. All of the town's non Jewish inhabitants were ordered to leave and it was turned into a camp.
At the camp the Nazi guards took away anything of value that the Jewish people had brought with them but Friedl's art supplies were left untouched. Families were separated so Friedl lived in a separate barrack from Pavel. She was sent to live with the children in a "home" called L410 which was for girls. Conditions in L410 were terrible as it was cramped and cold. Friedl managed to create a small area away from the packed barrack that allowed children some space.
In the camp, Friedl and other adults taught the children in secret as they were not allowed to attend school but only to study music and crafts. Friedl's effort in this was to give art lessons to any child who wished to learn. It was through art that Friedl helped the children to express what they were feeling, to escape the horrific situation they had been placed into and to retain some dignity during a time when hope was lost. People including the children did not receive enough food, had to cope with bedbugs and lice, and were often sick. In addition was the ever present fear of being named to the transports which meant being sent east to a death camp.
In 1943 Friedl and the other tutors at Terezin had the children put on a production of a Czech fairy tale called Fireflies. With Friedl's help they created the costumes for the musical. On October 6, 1944, Friedl along with thirty of her students was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau were she was murdered.
At the end of the war when Terezin was liberated by the Russians, two suitcases containing five thousand children's drawings were found in the attic of L410. The suitcases were brought to Prague by Willi Groag who had been the head tutor at L410. Nothing was done about them until ten years after their discovery when they were finally exhibited. Today these drawings are now catalogued and preserved. Both the Jewish Museum in Prague and Beit Theresienstadt in Israel retain the drawings.
Fireflies in the Dark captures the essence of Friedl's work with the children of Terezin as well as their experience in the concentration camp, with the many reproductions of their artwork. For example, A Train Travelling Through a Night Landscape by Alice Guttamanova who died in September, 1943 effectively portrays "a train hurtling the night, carrying the prisoners into the unknown." with its dark bold lines amid a full moon. Other paintings such as Flowers and Butterflies by Margit Koretzova display beautiful colours that suggest an escape to a happier more peaceful realm.
The author, Susan Goldman Rubin was able to meet some of the survivors of Terezin including Eva Stichova-Beldova, Helga Weissova-Hoskova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Doris Grozdanovicova. She also had access to the unpublished diaries written by some of the prisoners. All of this plus the help of numerous others contributed to a book which passes on the story of the children of Terezin to a new generation of young people.
Fireflies in the Dark by Susan Goldman Rubin
New York: Holiday House 2000