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'The Family', oil on canvas painting by Samuel Bak, 1974, private collection

Samuel "Sammy" Bak is a surrealist painter and a Holocaust survivor.

Contents

A Child's Life

Born on August 12, 1933 in Vilna, which is now Vilnius, Lithuania, Bak was recognized from an early age as possessing extraordinary artistic talent. He describes his family as "secular, but proud of their Jewish identity." Immediately following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Vilna and the whole East of Poland was attacked by The USSR. After one month though, the Soviets retreated, giving the city to the Republic of Lithuania. An estimated 30,000 Jews found refuge in the city. As Vilna came under German occupation in on June 24, 1941, Bak and his family had to move into the Vilna Ghetto. At the age of nine, he had his first exhibition inside the ghetto, even as massive executions and murders perpetrated by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators took place almost every day. Bak and his mother escaped the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto by seeking refuge in a Benedictine convent. They were helped by a catholic nun named Maria Mikulska, and spent most of their time there in an attic.

By the end of the war, Samuel and his mother were the only members of his extensive family to survive. His father, Jonas, was shot by the Germans in July 1944, only a few days before Samuel's own liberation. As Bak described the situation, "when in 1944 the Soviets liberated us, we were two among two hundred of Vilna's survivors--from a community that had counted 70 or 80 thousand." Bak and his mother as pre-war Polish citizens were allowed to leave Soviet occupied Vilna and travel to central Poland, at first settling briefly in Lodz. They soon left Poland for good and traveled into the American occupied zone of Germany. From 1945 to 1948, he and his mother lived in Displaced Persons camps in Germany. He spent most of this period at the Landsberg am Lech DP camp in Germany. It was there he painted a self-portrait shortly before repudiating his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Bak also studied painting in Munich during this period, and painted "A Mother and Son," 1947, which evokes some of his dark memories of the Holocaust and escape from Soviet occupied Poland.

In 1948, he and his mother were allowed to emigrate to Israel, and four years later he studied art at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, in Jerusalem. Bak spent most of his time in Israel studying and living in a modest flat in Tel Aviv and did not paint very much during that period. [1]

Artistic career

After serving from 1953 to 1956 in the Israel Defense Forces Samuel Bak lived from 1956 to 1959 in Paris where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1956, he received the first prize of the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation. He then lived in the following places:

  • Rome: 1959-1966
  • Israel: 1966-1974
  • New York: 1974-1977
  • Israel: 1977-1980
  • France: 1980-1984
  • Switzerland: 1984-1993
  • Weston, Massachusetts: 1993-present
  • Received the Herkomer Cultural Prize, Landsberg, Germany
  • Returns to Vilna: 2002, 2003, 2004[2]

Style & influences

While Bak's work is complex and difficult to characterize, a few themes stand out:

  • In Childhood Memories, 1975, the pear, possibly the fruit of knowledge, evokes the loss of paradise and discovery of war. Pear trees are also ubiquitous in many of the areas of Europe where he grew up, especially Vilna.
  • The possibility of repair, the repair of a broken world, the tikkun haolam, is an important meaning contained in many of his still life works.
  • Bak's childhood frustration with the story of Genesis, and his admiration for the genius of Michelangelo, blend in his post-Holocaust visiting of this theme.
  • Another artist whose influence is readily seen in his works, such as Angel of the Travelers, 1987, is Albrecht Dürer.
  • Still lifes—in times in which life is never still, never sufficiently protected, nor granted to everyone—attracted him as metaphors full of symbolic implications.
  • Chess as a theme of life has always fascinated Bak. In the DP camps and in Israel, he often played chess with his stepfather Markusha. Underground II, 1997, portrays chess pieces in a sunken, subterranean evocation of the Vilna ghetto.
  • A solitary boy can also be seen in his works. The boy represents his murdered childhood friend, Samek Epstein, and the memory of himself as a child during the Shoah.

At present time

In 1993, he moved to Weston, Massachusetts, United States, and published Painted in Words: A Memoir, ISBN 0-253-34048-9, in 2001. Now 74, Bak has spent his life dealing with the artistic expression of the destruction and dehumanization which make up his childhood memories. He speaks about what are deemed to be the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust, though he has hesitated to limit the boundaries of his art to the post-Holocaust genre. He created a visual language to remind the world of its most desperate moments. Many of Samuel Bak's works are on permanent display at Pucker Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts and there was a special exhibition of his recent works in October and November 2006.

Selected collections

External links

References

  1. ^ Samuel Bak, Painted in Words: A Memoir,(Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2002), ISBN 0-253-34048-9.
  2. ^ Samuel Bak, Eva Atlan, Peter Junk, Samuel Bak: Life Thereafter, (Osnabruck, Germany: Felix-Nussbaum-Haus, 2006), ISBN 3-926235-26-8, p. 84.
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