The Ghosts of Samuel Bak

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
October 27, 2009

Between January 1942 and March 1943, the Vilna Ghetto experienced a period of relative calm. The smaller, second Ghetto had been liquidated the previous October, while the main Ghetto had been reduced to less than 20,000 people, half of its original size. In the summer the deportations and killings would resume, leading to the Ghetto’s complete liquidation in September 1943. But for a brief period lasting a little over a year, the remainder of Vilna’s Jewish community took advantage of the temporary respite to live as best they could. Despite extreme privation, they organized cultural events such as plays, concerts, and poetry readings, as well an exhibition of the work of the Ghetto’s sculptors and painters. One of these artists was the nine-year-old prodigy Samuel Bak, whose work became an important part of the makeshift show.

Today, 67 years after that fateful exhibition, Bak is known mainly for his Holocaust paintings, though his work includes a much broader array of subjects, including a series devoted to the game of chess. Bak’s recent works, however, are as explicitly about the Holocaust as any he has ever painted. Their subject is the boy who appears in the infamous photograph taken for Jürgen Stroop, the SS commandant charged with liquidating the Warsaw Ghetto. Frozen with his hands in the air as an SS officer nonchalantly levels his gun at him, the boy has become one of the most iconic images to emerge from the Holocaust. Though Bak has been painting him since the mid-1990s, the boy has become a special focus of Bak’s work in the past several years, leading to an exhibition in 2008 at The Pucker Gallery in Boston, as well as a recently published book, Icon of Loss, that contains reproductions of Bak’s paintings as well as an expository essay by Danna Nolan Fewell and Gary A. Phillips.

Despite the obvious reference to the Warsaw Ghetto Boy, the figure in Bak’s paintings is not simply the boy from the photograph. He is, in the broadest sense, any of the approximately 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust, including Bak’s own childhood friend, Samek Epstein. Just as importantly, he is Bak himself. “With his arms lifted in an attitude of resigned and bewildered surrender and his depleted gaze focused on my eyes, he has never stopped questioning me,” Bak writes in Between Worlds, a collection of his work from 1946 to 2001. “In the Vilna Ghetto, I was his age and I looked – as did thousands of other children destined for the same fate – exactly like him. Same cap, same outgrown coat, same short pants. I always considered this picture a kind of portrait of myself in those times.”

Born to a secular Jewish family in 1933, Bak was an only child whose precocious talent was nurtured from a young age by a loving circle of parents, grandparents, and teachers. When Germany invaded Lithuania in June 1941, his childhood cocoon was abruptly destroyed. His family found temporary refuge in Vilna’s Benedictine convent, but they were soon forced to flee the building when the Nazis requisitioned it and sent the nuns to forced labor camps. In the Ghetto, two of Vilna’s acclaimed Yiddish poets, Avrom Sutzkever and Schmerke Kaczerginski, took a special interest in Bak, and arranged for his instruction by older painters. In his 2001 memoir, Painted in Words, Bak recalls being taken to one of these proposed mentors. Unfortunately, the meeting never occurred. A week earlier, the artist had been taken away to the infamous Lukiszki prison, a stop on the way to Ponary Forest, where 100,000 people would be murdered and buried in mass graves. In the artist’s room, his last, unfinished work remained.

“It was the drawing of a boy sitting at a table,” Bak writes.

He looked at the viewer with the old aunt’s eyes. His hand was trying to touch a crumb of bread or perhaps a little stone that had been deposited near a white cup. The cup was on a saucer. Emerging behind the cup’s rim was the erect handle of a teaspoon. The boy wore an oversized cap. It ballooned over his head, as if it would have liked to fly away, possibly taking him along. Its visor cast a shadow that accentuated the white of his eyes. Their sad expression was perplexed and inquisitive. His little coat, a turmoil of black shapes, looked worn and crumpled… Only the perfectly immaculate white cup comfortably centered on its saucer and the erect handle of the spoon radiated something of a serene assurance, as if they were the ghostly signs of an impossible dream. With all my being I tried to absorb this mesmerizing image.

As Bak has acknowledged, the boy in the painting would become yet another layer of meaning in his paintings of the Warsaw Ghetto Boy. Despite the formative effect of the picture, however, it wasn’t until much later that it would start showing up in Bak’s own work. After the liquidation of the Ghetto in 1943, Bak’s father managed to save his wife and son by having them transferred to the nearby HKP Slave Labor Camp, where he worked as a dental technician. In March 1944, when the SS carried out a children’s aktion, deporting the camp’s children and sending them to their deaths, Bak’s father again managed to save his wife and son by smuggling them out of the camp and back to Vilna. After a fraught time with Bak’s great aunt Jenina, a Catholic convert whose Jewish roots had gone unnoticed by the Nazis, Bak and his mother once again found hiding in the Benedictine convent, which was then being used as a Nazi repository for the looted archives of conquered territories. They hid there for the last few months of the war, practically entombed in piles of ancient books and documents. Though Bak and his mother survived, his father was killed in the days just prior to the Russian re-occupation of Vilna.

After living precariously for a time in the bombed out, communist occupied city, Bak and his mother made their way to Lodz and then to the American-run Landsberg am Lech displaced persons camp in West Germany, before finally heading to the newly founded state of Israel. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces and attending the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Bak left Israel for Paris where he attended the École des Beaux Arts, before moving to Rome. During his time in France and Italy, Bak embraced the abstract and semi-abstract styles then in vogue, and achieved a modicum of success in Europe, Israel, and the United States. By the time he was thirty, however, he realized that the abstract style he had mastered was not sufficient to deal with the enormous weight of his experience. “My dealer was contented and the critics praised me, but I sensed that I was moving toward a dead end,” he writes. “I had a feeling that instead of unfolding my story, the abstract paintings were suppressing it.”

The style that Bak subsequently developed has been characterized as a resurrection of pre-war surrealism, due to its Dali-esque use of detailed textures and radiant colors to create fantastic scenes of depth and complexity. Indeed, part of both artists’ power lies in their deployment of lifelike objects in intricately constructed, extremely non-lifelike situations to create dislocating, surrealistic effects. Despite such similarities, however, the comparison is not quite accurate. Whereas the surrealists attempted to depict the contents of their own subconscious minds, Bak is interested in creating metaphorical scenes to represent his conscious experience.

The otherworldly realm of forests, meadows and streams that dominate Bak’s paintings is far removed from the horrors of war-torn Vilna, but many of his images come from his early childhood. Objects such as teddy bears and toy boats appear as symbols of lost innocence, while the cup, saucer, and spoon that Bak describes in the work of his murdered would-be mentor show up as images of disrupted domesticity. His 2001 painting “To the Gate,” for example, takes the tranquil teacup and multiplies it into a manic profusion, spilling down the narrow streets of a mediaeval looking town. While these images constitute an effective pictorial language that is both personal and easily comprehended, the Warsaw Ghetto boy, with its many layers of meaning, provides a unique challenge. How does one take such an iconic image – one that has been repeatedly used and misused for a range of competing agendas, including, astoundingly, Holocaust denial – and refashion it in a personal and moving manner? The solution to this problem lies at the heart of Bak’s method.

Courtesy of the Pucker Gallery

Samuel Bak, Warsaw Boy

Most artworks that deal with the Holocaust, whether in painting, literature, film, or any other medium, eschew fantastical representations in favor of a grim realism, and for good reason. Compared with the experience itself, non-realist works are more likely to trivialize the Holocaust than to convey its horror. But Bak’s paintings do not deal with the Holocaust, exactly, and certainly not with the abysmal suffering of the ghettos and camps. Rather, they deal with the memory of the Holocaust, and with the struggle of a survivor to come to terms with his own experience. As such, they are elegiac, rather than horrifying in tone. Many of the images appear as if they were monuments from a long distant past, as in “Ancient Memory” (2008), and convey the tragic reduction of the pressing fact to the haze of memory, the hard immediacy of life to the frozen and removed image. Yet Bak’s scenes are also pierced by the cold shiver of a more disturbing reality – an ominous smokestack in the background, or an empty pair of shoes. In this sense they perform the opposite function as well – taking the still, dead image, and giving it a voice with which it makes its demands on the viewer.

Elie Wiesel, in his 1960 novella Dawn, describes a parade of ghosts that pass before a young Holocaust survivor fighting against the British in Palestine. “Some of them were familiar, but I could not pin a label upon them,” the narrator says. “They were names without faces or faces without names… friends and brothers and comrades, some of them out of my childhood, others that I had seen live and suffer, hope and curse at Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Alongside my father there was a boy who looked strangely like myself as I had been before the concentration camps, before the war, before everything.” Like this scene, filled with the dead who will not depart the mind of the survivor, Bak’s paintings are filled with visions that won’t go away. The picture of the Warsaw Ghetto Boy that echoes throughout Bak’s recent work is incarnated not only as flesh, but is also implanted in wood, stone and brick. The image breathes throughout each painting, assuming a kaleidoscopic range of solidities and fluidities, corporealities and incorporealities. The boy can be as permanent as a stone, or as impermanent as a mark. In “Walled In” (2008), he appears stamped into a brick wall as though flung, cartoon-like onto its surface. His image remains impressed there, except for one hand of wood that still hangs by a nail, the stigmata echoed in an empty hole where its pair had been. Like the Jewish crucifixions in the works of Marc Chagall, the child with raised arms is an iteration of a Jewish Christ on the Cross, yet another of his many meanings. In “Open Door” (2007) we see the boy from behind, about to enter though a wooden door that is falling off its hinges from a stone doorway. On the door is a triangle of yellow fabric, and from inside the structure comes an ominous red glow. Over the doorway is a stone statue of the same boy, silently bearing witness to his own fate.

Despite having a devoted following that includes writers such as Cynthia Ozick and Amos Oz, it would be a mistake to say that Bak is universally admired. His seemingly surrealist style can often seem overripe and even sentimental. Against the celebrity-driven tendencies of the art market his paintings do not shock the viewer, nor, for the benefit of high art mandarins, do they simply confound. Yet Bak’s paintings are viscerally moving, and not only because of the inherent pathos of their immediate subject. Rarely has there been an artist who has been able to capture the feeling of loss so powerfully, an emotion that should perhaps be more current after a century of cataclysmic violence. While the horrors of war and genocide have been graphically depicted in countless ways, the incredible destruction of personal, familial and communal worlds has suffered a quieter fate. Perhaps bereavement is a more private experience than outrage, but it is equally universal, and it lingers longer. The figures in Bak’s work remind us not just of what was done, but also of what was lost. Rather than merely confront the viewer they have a tendency to haunt him, long after they have ceased to be seen

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by