Artful 'Testimony': Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art celebrating the work of Holocaust survivor David Friedman
More than 15 years after he was liberated from Auschwitz at the end of World War II, Jewish artist David Friedman faced a new horror.
“My father was disturbed by the fact that people were forgetting the Holocaust,” recalled Miriam Friedman Morris, the late artist’s daughter. “He never forgot the paintings of the concentration camp and the ghetto. They remained buried in him, and as soon as he retired in 1962, they called … and he went back to his work."
On view through May 26 at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art in Norman, the exhibit “Testimony: The Life and Work of David Friedman” is a survey of his artistic output. But the harrowing focal point is the series “Because They Were Jews!,” a visual diary of his time in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland and at the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“It really does depict a firsthand account of his suffering: In the ghetto, it was largely starvation under a very kind of totalitarian system. In Auschwitz, obviously, it was a question of life and death every day,” said Mark White, the Wylodean and Bill Saxon Director of the University of Oklahoma art museum.
“We are now 70 years away from the horrors of the German experiment, but it is, I think, useful to remember.”
Friedman (sometimes spelled with two ns) was born in Mährisch Ostrau, Austria (now Ostrava, Czech Republic), but moved to Berlin in 1911, where he studied under German impressionist Lovis Corinth. With the rise of Nazism, he and his family escaped to Prague in 1938, where he continued to paint and sold artwork until 1941, when the family was deported to Lodz Ghetto.
In 1944, Friedman was separated from his wife and daughter, never seeing them again, and was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He survived and married fellow survivor Hildegard Taussig.
- Related to this story
- Video: Artful 'Testimony'
“It wasn’t easy. He returned to Prague after liberation, and the Stalinist Communists set themselves into Czechoslovakia. ... He didn’t want to live under tyranny, so he fled to Israel in 1948,” said their daughter. “He persisted. He had to start over again in Israel at a time when it was in a poor economical situation. ... But soon his ambitions stretched to America.”
The family moved to the United States in 1954, she said.
“At the age of 61, he started a new career without speaking English,” she said. “He found honor in this new career, painting billboards of the likes of Budweiser, so instead of painting Nazis, he was painting the Clydesdales. ... We ended up in St. Louis, Missouri, where he became the head painter in that branch. So, it was quite an accomplishment in 15 months in America.”
After he retired, Friedman converted his haunting Holocaust memories into art.
Morris will give a lecture Thursday night on the “Testimony” of her father, who died in 1980.
“The focus is on the Holocaust art, but we added some works from his prewar time that were discovered. My father did not have them in his lifetime. His artwork was Nazi looted in Berlin and also later in Prague, and he lost his complete life’s collection,” she said. “After the war, he really had to survive and start all over again, and this shows the resilience of his art. ... He didn’t know about it in his lifetime, that any of his works would surface. It’s exciting for me to have the opportunity to show, even though there are only a few pieces, something from his early history.”
“A Night of Testimony” also will feature Lorne Richstone, an OU associate professor of music, leading an ensemble that will perform excerpts by notable Jewish composers whose careers were lost to the Holocaust, including James Simon (1880–1944), James Rothstein (1871–1941) and Robert Dauber (1922-1941).
'Testimony: The Life and Work of David Friedman'
When: Through May 26.
Where: Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 555 Elm Ave., Norman.
“A Night of Testimony”: 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the museum.