Interpreting the Works of Samuel Bak

European History
Music, Art, and Culture


This series uses Samuel Bak's art in order to help students understand the emotional journeys experienced by Holocaust survivors. Professor Lawrence L. Langer, Professor of English Emeritus, Simmons College has contributed several essays to this outline based upon his extensive research into the life and work of Samuel Bak. Readings from Holocaust and Human Behavior are used to support the interpretive activities.


Samuel Bak was born on August 2, 1933 in Vilna (or Vilnius), Poland. A few years later the area was incorporated into the independent republic of Lithuania. He was eight when the Germans invaded in 1941 and established a ghetto for the Jewish population. At first he and his parents hid in a local monastery; when the Germans grew suspicious, they escaped to the ghetto. Bak began painting while still a child, and prompted by the well-known Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever held his first exhibition (in the Vilna ghetto) in 1942 at the age of nine. From the ghetto the family was sent to a labor camp on the outskirts of the city. His mother escaped and took refuge with a distant relative who had converted to Christianity and was living undetected in Vilna. Then Bak's father managed to save his son by dropping him in a sack out of a ground floor window of the warehouse where he was working; he was met by a maid and brought to the house where his mother was hiding. His father was shot by the Germans in July 1944, a few days before Soviet troops liberated the city. His four grandparents had earlier been executed at the killing site outside Vilna called Ponary.

After the war, the young Bak continued painting at the Displaced Person camp in Landsberg, Germany (1945 - 1948), where he also studied painting in Munich. In 1948, he and his mother emigrated to Israel, where he studied for a year at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. After fulfilling his military service, he spent three years (1956 - 1959) at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He then moved to Rome (1959 - 1966), returned to Israel (1966 - 1974), and lived for a time (1974 - 1977) in New York City. There followed years in Israel and Paris, then a long stay (1984 - 1993) in Switzerland. Since 1993 Bak has lived and worked outside Boston, in Weston, Massachusetts.

Samuel Bak's paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries and hang in public collections in England, the United States, Israel, Germany and Switzerland. Many recent works may be viewed at the Pucker Gallery in Boston.


Lesson 1 of 2

Interpreting the Works of Samuel Bak: Interruption

Students analyze a painting by Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak and reflect on how art can be used to remember and revisit experiences.

Lesson 2 of 2

Interpreting the Works of Samuel Bak: Self-Portrait

Students analyze a self-portrait by Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak and reflect on how art can be used as a tool to understanding historical moments.

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