Holocaust survivor David Friedman’s OU exhibition depicts heroic resilience

Image Provided

"Prisoners carrying bricks at Auschwitz" a March, 1964 charcoal drawing by David Friedman, is part of an exhibition titled "Testimony: The Life and Work of David Friedman" now on display at OU's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

Jewish artist David Friedman (1893-1980) survived the Holocaust and lived to see German Nazis defeated after his liberation from Auschwitz.

Friedman's saga includes being a military artist for the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI, dashing young newspaper illustrator in the 1920s and husband and father in the next decade. He lost his first wife Mathilde and daughter Mirjam Helene, two brothers, a sister and their families in the brutal diaspora and was deported to Poland's Lodz Ghetto.

Some of Friedman's art from the early days and especially after his immigration to the USA survives. Some of these extraordinary images are in the exhibition titled "Testimony: The Life and and Work of David Friedman" now on display at the University of Oklahoma's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art now through May 26.

Friedman married another Auschwitz survivor, Hildegard Taussig after the war. Their daughter Miriam was born in Israel. For purely economic reasons the family immigrated to New York in 1954. At age 61, and not an English speaker, Friedman rose to the challenge of working to make a living for his family. He landed a job with the General Outdoor Advertising firm first in Chicago and then in St. Louis, Missouri. One of their important clients was the Anheuser-Busch brewing company. Photos from the day show Friedman with the massive billboards he painted which were undeniably artistic creations of gorgeous gals and suave guys enjoying Budweiser beer.

Friedman was able to retire from commercial art in 1962. Soon thereafter he began creating a second series of Holocaust-inspired drawings. The first had been while still in Europe from 1945 to 1948. Throughout Friedman's life he drew and painted the people and landscapes around him. But it was his 1964 series of drawings titled "Because They Were Jews!" that brought true personal satisfaction beyond just making pretty pictures. Friedman was aware that his fellow Americans in the Ku Klux Klan hated Jews and that anti-Semitism is a centuries old affliction. He wanted his works depicting the Holocaust to be a testimony against hatred in the human race.

He created all the work in the Testimony exhibition but the credit for it being on display belongs primarily to his daughter, Miriam Friedman Morris, on whom he doted.

"My father wrote a diary for me that launched a journey through his life and art," Morris said. "Most inspiring and extraordinary, was my father's resilience to begin again, to create a new family and reproduce his haunting memories of the Holocaust to show them to the world."

Morris has worked diligently for decades tracking down Friedman's work across the globe. Some art was stolen by the Nazis, some was destroyed during displacements and some still exists in public and private collections. Morris leafed page by page through dozens of newspaper archives from when Friedman was selling hundreds of drawings depicting famous musicians, athletes and chess masters to German language newspapers.

"It was fun seeing all these different aspects of what he did and putting his story together," she said. "I can just see him all dressed up in the 1920s and carrying his sketchbook."

Morris was sending out photocopies and mailing letters before the internet was available. During a 2004 conference at Poland's University of Lodz, she learned that her father had contributed to one of the most important documents of Holocaust literature in "The Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941 to 1944." He made an etching of the Ghetto's significant pedestrian bridge that symbolized the daily struggles to exist.

Morris' attention to detail, seemingly inexhaustible stamina and unbridled enthusiasm for preserving her father's art and contributing to the knowledge about him is nothing short of miraculous.

"People are drawn into my father's works because of the emotional and personal expression," she said. "Kudos to Mark White at the university for choosing all these drawings of the Holocaust where they'll be seen in a university museum setting. It will raise awareness about that and what's happening today. I'm very proud of my father's legacy. I think he contributed a great deal to the art world and Holocaust history."