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Omaha Magazine

Omaha Magazine July/August 2023 - The Annual Arts & Culture Issue

Jun 23, 2023 01:07PM ● By Julius Fredrick
omaha magazine july august 2023 the annual arts and culture issue

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

I turned 30 this past May—a bittersweet occasion, wherein my madcap twenties were laid to rest and the possibilities of a somewhat wiser decade lay ahead. I was gifted a familiar tome at my birthday party, one I’d lost years before: The Collected Poems of W.B Yeats. Yeats’ poems, and his prose, had made a great impression on me during my studies at UNL. One passage in particular, from The Celtic Twilight (1893)—an unpolished yet ambitious collection of Yeat’s essays—has stuck with me:

“I have desired, like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world […] Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art, and she has built her dwelling far from the desperate field where men hang out their garments upon forked boughs to be banners of battle. O beloved daughter of Hope and Memory, be with me for a little.”

Indeed, it seems no matter how rich or barren the landscape of one’s circumstances, artistic expression finds fertile ground.

Take for example our cover subject, prolific painter and Holocaust survivor, Samuel Bak. It was in the Vilna Ghetto in modern-day Vilnius, Lithuania—with the help of Yiddish poets Avrom Sutzkever and Szmerke Kaczerginski—where he first exhibited his art. Sutzkever and Kaczerginski feared it might be the then 9-year-old Bak’s first, and last, opportunity to share his talent. However, Bak and his mother managed to evade capture; the only two members of his family to survive. The 89-year-old hasn’t put down his paintbrush since, with thousands of works to his name and numerous gallery exhibitions internationally—including a permanent hub at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s newly established Samuel Bak Museum.

Returning to Yeats, it was regrettable to learn that the young poet who once championed free expression and founded Dublin’s Abbey Theatre stared too long into “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” following the Easter Rebellion and the aftermath of the first World War—turning to fanatic mysticism and even flirting with Fascist ideology to reframe his shattered worldview prior to his death in 1939.

With that said, I’d like to turn a new page—one I discovered while editing our feature on Samuel Bak—to a stanza by one of the Yiddish poets he met in Vilna, a fellow survivor and friend of Bak’s who passed in 2010. From Avrom Sutzkever’s “Grains of Wheat” (Vilna Ghetto, 1943):

“Perhaps these words will endure,
And live to see the light loom — 
And in the destined hour 
Will unexpectedly bloom? 

And like the primeval grain 
That turned into a stalk — 
The words will nourish, 
The words will belong 
To the people, in its eternal walk.” 

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Omaha Magazine July/August 2023 - The Annual Arts & Culture Issue

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