University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
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CHGS

Samuel Bak

A survivor of Vilna Ghetto,Bak is a surrealist painter who uses Biblical imagery. Bak had his first exhibition in the Vilna Ghetto when he was a child. These works have survived and are in museums in New York and in Israel. Memorial is the signature piece of Witness and Legacy. This work suggests the broken commandments, the name of God appears as the first commandment, but the others are effaced. The "6" refers to the 6 million Jews as well as the 6th Commandment: "Thou shall not commit murder." This work also dwells on the future of Jewish life, barely held together in the form of a Jewish star by iron, the elements of the yellow star, and concentration camp garb. On the bottom right is a thorny bush, evoking the idea of Crucifixion of Jesus. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim has asked the difficult question: "Where would Jesus of Nazareth have been in 1943?" He answers: "If he was who he said he was, he would have been deported to Auschwitz, killed and cremated--hence denying the possibility of bodily resurrection and thus the coming of Christianity."

Artist Statement

Shortly after the occupation of Vilna by the Wehrmacht, both of my grandfathers were taken to the Ponari forest and there they were shot, together with other Jews. On the following Yom Kippur holiday, both of my grandmothers were also taken to this forest. My father was shot by the Nazis a few days before the liberation of Vilna. I don't know how, of all people, my mother and I were selected by fate to survive the liquidation of the ghettos and the labor camps and the various hiding places in which we kept ourselves concealed during the German occupation. I feel the necessity to remember and take it upon myself to bear witness to the things that happened in those times, so that human beings today and those of tomorrow, if it were only possible, are spared a similar destiny on earth. So I have chosen the way of creating images of a seeming reality, imbuing them with a multitude of layers, from clear and unknown symbols to the most private and intimate feelings of a world that has its own apparent logic. I hope that the complexity of these paintings might go beyond my private story and beyond the vicissitudes that mark the Jewish people and their fate.

- Samuel Bak. The Past Continues, Pucker Gallery, 1988

Artworks: Witness and Legacy

Memorial

Samuel Bak
Memorial, 1986 Oil on linen
39 1/4 x 31 7/8

Memorialis the signature piece of the show. This work suggests the broken commandments. The name of God appears as the first commandment, but the others are effaced. The "6" refers to the 6 million Jews as well as the 6th Commandment: "Thou shall not commit murder." This work also dwells on the future of Jewish life, barely held together in the form of a Jewish star by iron, the elements of the yellow star, and concentration camp garb. On the bottom right is a thorny bush, evoking the idea of Crucifixion of Jesus.

Group with the Blue AngleGroup with the Blue Angle. detail

Samuel Bak
Group with the Blue Angel,1973 Oil on linen
52 1/2 x 39 1/4

Left: Group with the Blue Angel, like many of his works, is in the style of the Belgian painter, Rene Magritte. It suggests the impotence of God and the angel, whose wings are rusted, and humanity as well. None of the figures are complete and function, except perhaps the corporate figure.

Right: (Detail) Group with the Blue Angel,is like many of his works, in the style of the Belgian painter, Rene Magritte. It suggests the impotence of God and the angel, whose wings are rusted, and humanity as well. None of the figures are complete and function, except perhaps the corporate figure

Triptych

Samuel Bak
Triptych (Untitled)),1978 Oil on Linen
63 x 144

Triptych (Untitled) is read from right to left, as in Hebrew. The first part dwells on Jewish life after the Holocaust, with the reality and memory of the chimneys of Auschwitz, and absence of people. The middle section shows the Ten Commandments, with all the "thou shalt nots..." effaced. Only in Hebrew is seen "Anochi Adonai," ("I am the Lord thy God, who brought you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom" See Exodus). The left section asks if mankind can build a new covenant.

TriptychTriptychTriptych
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Details of Triptych (Untitled).
Lo Tirzakh

Samuel Bak
Lo Tirzakh. Oil on Canvas. 1996.

"Lo Tirzakh" is the 6th Commandment in Hebrew, "Thou shalt not murder"

Samuel Bak: More works on CHGS site.

Page Updated 2012.