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!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • 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.