Something to Say, Something to Ask: An Exercise in Humanism.Jun 23, 2023 01:05PM ● By Kim Carpenter
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
When Samuel Bak was 10 years old, his father, Jonas, roughly stuffed him into a burlap sack filled with sawdust and dropped him out of a second-story window. The act, from a contemporary viewpoint, seems appalling—but not for the reasons people consider today. When given the context, the action is understood as an attempt born of love, desperation, and tenacious hope. Days earlier, the Gestapo had murdered some 250 children. The date was March 27, 1944, and the place was HKP 562, or the Heeres-Kraftfahr-Park work compound, in Vilnius.
The mass murder became known as the infamous Children’s Aktion.
This was just one of the genocidal atrocities the Nazi regime perpetrated against the Jewish people. In a split-second decision, Bak’s mother, Mitzia, hid her son under a bed with two other children. A few minutes later, staccato gunshots rang out followed by the keening of grieving parents. Knowing the Nazis would return to search for remaining children, Jonas Bak quickly returned his son under the bed and arranged his wife’s escape. After a few days had passed and it seemed safe, he tied his son into the sack and lowered the boy out the window.
Samuel heard one word as he hit the soft ground below: “Run!”
A woman waved his mother’s checkered scarf in a pre-arranged signal and took him to a Benedictine cloister, where he reunited with his mother. They sheltered there until liberation. His father, who had remained behind in the camp, was rounded up with other workers and executed in the Ponary forest—just 10 days before Russian forces freed Vilnius from Nazi occupation. His four grandparents were also murdered.
The Bak family members were five of more than 70,000 Jews slaughtered at the mass gravesite. Only 10% of Lithuanian Jews survived the Holocaust; the Nazis massacred almost the entirety of the country’s Jewish population.
Samuel Bak turns 90 in August. He’s come a world away from the Vilnius work compound and that burlap sack. He’s far from the displaced persons camp in Germany where he and his mother began the arduous process of rebuilding their lives. He’s miles from Israel, where he served in the fledgling state’s new military.
Today, Samuel Bak is a world-renowned artist whose oeuvre bears witness to the Holocaust. He’s a writer, whose words work as testimony to the Nazis’ coordinated attempt to exterminate the Jewish people. And he’s the namesake for the Samuel Bak Museum: The Learning Center, which opened in February at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
This latest addition to UNO’s campus, which is free to the public, serves as a source for students, faculty, staff, and the community to gather around the subjects of art, Holocaust education, human rights, and genocide. The museum will hold more than 500 of Bak’s paintings in its permanent collection and also showcase other artists’ work on a rotating basis. The learning center will be home to the Goldstein Center for Human Rights, the Schwalb Center for Israel & Jewish Studies, the Fried Holocaust & Genocide Studies, and the office for Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion.
To understand how this ambitious project came to exist, it’s first necessary to examine the extraordinary life that inspired it.
Bak was born on August 12, 1933, in Vilnius, which was in Poland before the Nazi invasion made it part of Lithuania. He enjoyed, by his account, a very comfortable childhood. “I was born to a middle-class, Jewish family—not very religious—I would say quite comfortable,” he said from his home in Weston, Massachusetts, during his interview with Omaha Magazine.
When asked about being born the same year that Adolf Hitler rose to power and his experience as a child during the Holocaust, Bak paused.
Obviously, I did not have the vision of the immensity of the crime against humanity that was perpetrated. I looked at everything from a very personal point of view, how it affected me, but it was a kind of gradual transformation of my childhood…the grown-ups, were certainly already becoming aware that they were very, very concerned about what was happening beyond the border of their country.
Bak was soon concerned himself. By 1941, the Nazis forced the family from their home into the Vilnius Ghetto. “We were occupied by the Germans, and very quickly the terrible laws, the discriminatory laws against the Jews, appeared,” he recounted. “We were forbidden to use the radio, read the newspapers, to get out into street—we had an hour or two to go get something to eat. The regime was very frightening within a few weeks.”
Still, there was space for beauty among such brutality. From an early age, Bak had demonstrated artistic talent. Encouraged by his mother, an art school graduate, he quickly emerged as a child prodigy in painting.
“I cannot say that I was very enthusiastic to be a painter,” the artist confessed with a laugh. “I wanted to sell candy on the street or be a clown or maybe ride on the wonderful wagon of the firefighters—but the family decided that I was going to be a painter. And this was quite unusual for a Jewish family because if they had the means, the child should be either a doctor or a lawyer. In worst case, an accountant!”
While in the ghetto, other creatives recognized his remarkable talent and invited the 9-year-old to show his drawings publicly. The event, held in 1943, marked his first art exhibition.
Even with the shortage of art-making supplies, Bak continued to create within the confines of the ghetto, doing so against the stark omnipresence of unrelenting death and dying.
The artist describes what happened in Vilnius, which before World War II had over 55,000 Jews among a population of 200,000. “Of the Lithuanian Jews, only a small percentage survived,” he said. “When we returned, the people who were saved in the city, there were about 250. When I personally look back at that scene of my life or my many lives, something leaves me completely speechless. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Being among that tiny number is staggering for Bak, even all these decades later.
“These are incredible gifts of life, and I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to be part of something that had so very, very few chances to survive and mainly to survive in what I would say a relatively functional state,” he reflected. “I was able by means of my art in some way to survive what I have survived.”
That art demonstrates an astonishing, sophisticated mastery of genres, which include his interpretations of figurative, still life, Expressionism, Surrealism, abstract, landscape, and even digital art. Such a wide breadth of styles, no doubt, derives from a life spent in a state of perpetual migration during which Bak was constantly encountering, studying, and making art.
Immediately after the war, the artist continued creating work with supplies donated by a US serviceman’s wife to a displaced persons camp in Landsberg, Germany, where he and his mother were transferred in 1945. Although only in his early teens, he enrolled in painting lessons at the Blocherer School in Munich. Three years later, he immigrated with his mother to the new state of Israel, where he continued his education at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem and served in the Israeli army. In 1957, the painter moved to Paris to study at the École des Beaux Arts, and then two years later, he relocated to Rome, where his first exhibition of abstract paintings took place. In 1964, Bak exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the pinnacle of success for most working artists.
The ensuing decades continued to be just as peripatetic. Bak returned to Israel several times and lived and worked in New York, Paris, and Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1993, he settled in Massachusetts with his wife, Josée, and today, the couple makes their home just outside Boston. He has three daughters.
No matter where Bak spent his time, art has been the defining, enduring constant of his life, and he creates art daily, art that is richly metaphorical and highly symbolic. For example, pears, sometimes decaying from within, represent the human form, while chess pieces symbolize war pawns. “I paint every day,” he said. “I have a feeling that the day I do not paint is the day I do not live.” He estimates that over the decades, he’s produced over 10,000 pieces of art.
In reflecting on his prodigious career that began with the 1943 exhibition, the painter said, “I am grateful. I opened an exhibition a few days ago. This is now more than 80 after my first exhibition. Are there any other artists in the world…who could look back at 80 years since their first exhibition?”
For as much as Bak has used art to work through his own trauma, he remains keenly aware of the gifts he has been given—and the ones he also owes. “I always felt a very large part of my work shouldn’t belong to me nor to any private people, because I was given so much,” he explained. “Life was so generous with me, I felt that it was not even the generosity of my part, it was just giving back a certain something that I owed.”
This is how UNO became the recipient of more than 500 of the artist’s works and why it established the museum coupled with a learning center. When the university hosted the exhibition “Witness” in 2019, over 5,000 people visited the campus gallery. The paintings and their message deeply resonated with the public.
Then-UNO chancellor Jeffrey Gold initiated a discussion with Bak to donate paintings, which led to the artwork bequest. From there, further conversations took place, and in April 2021, the Board of Regents approved a proposal to establish an academic center in his name. That expanded to include a museum when Joanne Li became chancellor three months later. In February 2023, the Samuel Bak Museum: The Learning Center opened to the public in temporary space in Aksarben Village. For the second phase of development, UNO will build a standalone facility for intercultural dialogue and education.
“The conversation can be so broad here,” executive director Hillary Nather-Detisch stated. “For us it’s about having a dialogue. And of course, we want that dialogue to focus around human rights, the Holocaust, and genocide. But sometimes, it’s coming from a different perspective, and that’s okay.”
“This institute is exceptionally meaningful,” Li added. “It will educate students, engage the community, and ask important questions. When I talked with Sam, he said, ‘I paint because I have something to say, something to ask.’”
That something is abundantly clear in the inaugural exhibition. “In the Beginning: The Artist Samuel Bak” is on view through mid-July and features over 50 paintings that span work created in the displaced person’s camp in 1946 to the present.
"It’s not just about going and admiring art,” Li said. “We want the experience to be transformative. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the fifth grade or 65. You’re meant to be impacted.”
The impact is profound. For example, Bak painted “Under a Star,” an abstract work from 1963/64, on burlap. The surface references the ubiquitous wartime textile used for the rough, loosely woven clothing Jews wore in the camps and the material that contained their meager food rations. Jonas Bak also used it to smuggle his son, bent into the fetal position, to safety. It was the conduit for young Samuel’s escape and his rebirth beyond the Holocaust. Bursting from the burlap is a Star of David, the identification badge Nazis forced Jews to display on their clothes. It is battered, tattered, and torn—but still there. It exists; it failed to be extinguished.
The Star of David—alongside Samuel Bak and others like him—survived.
A more recent painting from 2008, which is part of Bak’s lauded “Icons of Loss” series, features a young boy with arms raised. Based on the famous photograph of a young Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, the work references childhood innocence lost to craven inhumanity.
“It spoke to me very much, the boy with the arms raised. No one knows if this boy survived or no,” reflected Bak on how he identified with the photo’s subject. “Many years later, there were two or three men who claimed they were that boy, but it doesn’t matter. That boy became a symbol, a highly recognizable symbol, the most known symbol of the Holocaust. And this boy looked very much like me.”
“Sam takes this image and says, ‘This is a symbol: that was me,’” Nather-Detisch explained. “‘That’s what I dressed like. This is what all little boys dressed like. I wore that hat.’ He really uses this as a symbol of all the children who were killed in the Holocaust.”
One of those children remains in Bak’s thoughts to this day:
When I saw this boy, I thought immediately of my very best friend, who was called, like me, Samuel, and who was hidden by his nanny, by his Christian nanny, and whom the SS discovered and shot. They left his bleeding body on the staircase of the house so that for 24 hours no one was allowed to touch this boy so that all the neighbors would learn what happens to somebody who saves a Jew or what happens to a Jew who is hiding in these premises.
Bak, however, quickly emphasizes that while he saw the worst of human behavior during the Holocaust, he also experienced the best, especially when he thinks of people like the stranger who waved his mother’s scarf or the Benedictine nuns who sheltered him and his mother.
“I was able to think about what the Holocaust meant to me and meant to the laboratory of the maximal behavior for humans, for the good and for the bad,” he said. “If I am alive, I owe my life to maybe 10 people—several of them are Lithuanian priests, a Catholic nun—people who risked their lives to save other people.”
Li expanded on this. “Sam says, ‘When people were dying in the gas chambers, other people were outside trying to save lives. The war brought out the best and the worst of people. The best of people kept me alive.’”
“Sam doesn’t want to forget the best of people,” Nather-Detisch added. “Some people can approach his work and say this is really hard and place the emphasis on the negative, but he wants it to be also a positive conversation.”
Alexandra Cardon, the Bak Museum curator, said that while viewing the works can be challenging, it is equally enriching. “It forces you to consider the world around you and how we are functioning today as a society,” she explained. “It’s work that demands that you take a position, that demands you become an active participant in the structure of your society.”
That participation involves lectures, talks, workshops, and more exhibitions. In mid-August “Flight and Hope,” which explores flight, journey, and forced migration, opens and runs into late December.
That theme is still fresh for Bak as he views the unfolding situation in Eastern Europe. “I look to the television screen of my home [at] the women and children of Ukraine, and I saw in them myself with my mother, and there were tears in my eyes,” he reflected. “I mean, what can I say? I never imagined that after all the horrors I have experienced that anything like that would happen again. And yet it happened.”
Bak is also aware of book banning happening in states like Florida, where in the spring the Education Department rejected the high school textbooks Modern Genocides and History of the Holocaust. This school year, the children’s book Chik Chak Shabbat about Jewish traditions was also removed from Duval County elementary school library shelves, while Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation was similarly pulled from an Indian River County high school. On May 15, legislation was passed that bars Florida’s state colleges and universities from spending state or federal funding on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, raising fears that emphasis on Jewish and Holocaust studies could be diminished. Two days later, the Ohio Senate passed a similar bill.
“I must say you can well imagine how I feel about it,” the artist said. “It’s frightening…it’s very frightening.”
This reflection echoes what Bak said about being forced into the Vilnius Ghetto all those decades ago.
The regime was very frightening within a few weeks.
Bak, however, still has hope for humans’ capacity for good and ardently believes that continued education is key to avoid repeating history. It’s why he’s so gratified about his museum and learning center at UNO.
It’s about the best of people.
“I must say, I realize it in my long life, that very extraordinary things happen when very good people meet, when interests converge,” he emphasized. “They do unbelievable things, and they attract other good people…it will be an exercise in humanism. I think that education in Omaha to the young people can, I hope, prevent such possibilities in our country.”
Cardon agrees and knows the power of Bak’s compelling art. “You can’t walk out of here and feel nothing,” she said. “And that’s why it’s such exciting work to look at because through active interpretation, you are becoming more engaged. It forces you to think.”