Lesson 1 of 2
Two 50-minute class periods

Interpreting the Works of Samuel Bak: Interruption

From the Unit:

Learning Objectives

Students will be encouraged to:

  • develop a methodology for examining and analyzing works of art.
  • examine how art can be used as a tool to understand historical moments.
  • explore the life of Samuel Bak, including his experiences during the Holocaust, and his work as an artist.
  • explore the particular challenges Samuel Bak faces in remembering and revisiting his own experiences in the Holocaust.
  • consider how our own identities are affected by facing the history of the Holocaust and the paintings of Samuel Bak.


This outline utilizes Samuel Bak's Interruptions 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 can be used to support the interpretive activities.


Teaching Strategies


Note to Teacher: Before beginning this activity, click below to see a complete version of Bak's Interruptions:

Discuss with students how art may provide a unique avenue into studying the Holocaust. In this particular activity, students will examine a painting by the artist Samuel Bak.

Personal Reflection:
Discuss with students that the painting they will examine was created by Samuel Bak after returning to the city of his birth and childhood after being away for over fifty years.

Ask students to remember a childhood toy. Ask students to write a journal entry describing that toy and the memories they associate with it. Have students share their journal entries in pairs and with their full groups.

Background Information on Samuel Bak and Interruption
Discuss Samuel Bak's experiences as a Holocaust survivor and an artist. To help put Samuel Bak in context, provide students with some brief biographical background by reading Professor Lawrence L. Langer 's biographic essay, About Samuel Bak. Note Bak's return to Vilna, Lithuania, the city of his birth, in 2001 after being away for over fifty years. Interruptions is one of the paintings Bak created after returning to Vilna.

Interpreting and Analyzing Interruption

  • Discuss with students the challenges involved with interpreting art. In particular, discuss some of the challenges of interpreting Bak's paintings. Professor Lawrence L. Langer, Professor of English Emeritus, Simmons College, reflects on the process and challenge of interpreting Samuel Bak's paintings in Interpreting a Painting
  • Help students interpret the painting by coaching them through the following steps. The teaching strategy Think, Pair, Share works particularly well with each step of the following format:

Observe: During the observation step, students should simply create lists of what they see within the painting; they should refrain from passing judgment on the imagery or its meaning.

Analyze specific parts of the painting: Have students begin to analyze specific parts of Interruptions. As students begin to analyze the painting, remind them of the general history of the Holocaust and of Sam Bak's particular experiences. Ask students to combine their impression of the specific item they are looking at with their knowledge of the Holocaust. How does their understanding of the history impact their analysis?

One way to do this is to have students generate a list of questions that they have about the painting and then attempt to answer them. Some examples of student generated questions:

  • Why is the lower part of the bear painted red?
  • What is the bear looking at?
  • Who is the owner of the bear?

Another way for students to begin this process is for them to isolate one item on their list of observations (i.e. they eyes of the bear or the stones the bear is on) and consider all the choices that Bak made in painting that item. Some general examples:

  • What color is the item? Why might Bak have painted it that color as opposed to other colors?
  • Where is the item located in the picture? Why might Bak have painted it there?
  • Why are certain items in the foreground while others are in the background?

The following questions may be used to supplement or jumpstart student analysis of Interruptions, but teachers and students are encouraged to add their own:

  • How might we interpret Bak's choice to paint the teddy bear blue?
  • What do we notice about the arms and legs of the teddy bear?
  • How might we interpret Bak's choices involving the facial expression and the eyes of the teddy bear?

Interpret the whole painting: Remind students that interpreting a painting is a complicated and constantly changing process. Professor Langer cautions that "We need not restrict ourselves to his [Bak's] conscious intentions, but we must also be cautious not to try to make a painting express anything we wish it to. The evidence for our reaction must lie within the painting itself." For additional information, refer back to Professor Langer's essay Interpreting a Painting.

Have students combine the many specific observations and descriptions they made in the prior section with their understanding of the Holocaust and Sam Bak's life .

Students write paragraphs (using specific historical references and references to the painting) supporting their main argument about the painting. The questions below may help students as they interpret Interruptions.

  • What ideas or feelings is Samuel Bak trying to convey about experiencing childhood during the Holocaust?
  • What ideas or feelings is Samuel Bak trying to convey? What is the artist suggesting about between life, death and creativity?
  • What ideas or feeling is Samuel Bak trying to suggest about the relationships between his memory and his childhood?

Additional Interpretations and Resources:

Remind students that interpreting a painting is a constantly changing process. The following resources are not included as absolute interpretations of Bak but rather are provided to help students and teachers increase their understanding of the Holocaust and of the art of Sam Bak. Considering how others interpret the painting may affirm or challenge our own interpretations. Reading the interpretations of other may push us in new directions of analysis, provoke us to ask new questions or seek new evidence to defend our opinions.


Have students read an excerpt from Samuel Bak's Painted in Words - A Memoir, The Children Aktion pp. 73 - 78 and write and discuss answers to the following questions:

  • How does Sam Bak's written description of one of his experiences during the Holocaust add to your interpretation of Interruption? To your understanding of childhood during the Holocaust?
  • What are the similarities and differences of confronting the Holocaust through art or through autobiography (or memoir or literature)?


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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