The Arty Semite

The Astounding Samuel Bak

By Ezra Glinter

  • Print
  • Share Share

In a recent piece for Newsweek titled “Life Isn’t Beautiful,” Cynthia Ozick took aim at “fraudulent” Holocaust art, which, in her estimation, includes films such as Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” and especially Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” which Ozick called “a defamation, a canard.”

But not all Holocaust art is a lie, she wrote. On Ozick’s list of truthful artists are such writers as Paul Celan, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, as well as a lesser-known painter, Samuel Bak, whom Ozick praises for his “astounding visionary surrealism.”

A survivor of the Vilna Ghetto and a Nazi labor camp, Bak has been painting colorful, hallucinatory paintings since the 1960s, when he broke with the prevailing, non-figurative art trends of the day. While much of his work has addressed the Holocaust in a symbolic way, many of his most recent paintings, which depict the famous ‘Warsaw Ghetto Boy,’ come closer to a more literal approach.

I first saw Bak’s work a few years ago at an exhibit at Yad Vashem and was, indeed, astounded. Now, a new article on Bak by artist Elizabeth Pols in Pakn Treger, the English-language magazine of the Yiddish Book Center, presents a welcome overview of Bak’s life and work, as well as valuable insights into his paintings.

In addition to talking with Bak about his art, Pols also asked him about his relationship with the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, who passed away in January. During the Holocaust Sutzkever took the nine-year-old Bak under his wing, encouraging the young painter’s budding creativity even under inhumanly harsh circumstances. After the war, when both Bak and Sutzkever were living in Tel Aviv, their friendship continued. “The painter Samuel Bak is baked into my heart. – Iz mir der moler Shmuel Bak azoy ayngebakn in hartsn,” Sutzkever later wrote.

“That Sutzkever, 96 should have died only days before Pakn Treger met with Bak in his Massachusetts studio made for a bittersweet segue into our conversation,” Pols relates. “The painter remembered that Sutzkever ‘once gave me as a gift…a manuscript of all the poems that he wrote under the German occupation in the Ghetto…He had such a beautiful handwriting.’”

Though now 77, Bak continues to paint at a rapid pace, telling Pols that he has “three or four” series of paintings on the go in his studio. No doubt he will continue to astound.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Samuel Bak, Avrom Sutzkever, Cynthia Ozick, Holocaust Art

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love.
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.