ART & LIFE: the story of Samuel Bak


When art historian Dr Ute Ben Yosef was asked by the local Jewish newspaper to interview the artist Samuel Bak then exhibiting in Zurich where she was living with her husband, Rabbi Dr Israel Ben Yosef, little did she think that many years later she would be approached by gallery director Bernie Pucker of Boston to write Bak’s biography.

Art & Life: the Story of Samuel Bak, which was launched at the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre in August, is a beautiful book – beautifully written, beautifully illustrated and beautifully presented.  

Simply and accessibly written, Ben Yosef outlines the story of this child prodigy whose first exhibition was held in the Vilna Ghetto when he was nine, from where he was smuggled out in a sack on his father’s back. Then followed years of flight, of hiding, of fear and of loss, including that of his father and grandparents, his teddy bear, his pillow and his education.

After some years in a German DP camp, Bak and his mother managed to reach the newly independent State of Israel, where, for the first time, he went to school, followed by the army, and attained success as an artist.

Forced by the Eichmann Trial to confront his suppressed memories, Bak abandoned his popular abstract paintings and started to focus on his Holocaust experiences, subjects the art world wanted to ignore, but using symbols instead of people.

Writing with great insight and sensitivity, Ben Yosef describes Bak’s life, marriages and moves, and explains the meaning of the images and symbols in his art in a setting she describes as a “landscape of indifference”.

Bandaged teddy bears representing the murdered children, chess pieces representing the tenuous insecurity of the Jewish pawns whose lives depended on chance, flightless birds and angels, broken china representing the destroyed lives. Bak’s trees are cut away from the ground, unwilling to be rooted in the blood-soaked Ponary forests. There are crematoria chimneys, broken Tablets of the Law, with bullet holes through the Sixth Commandment – Thou shalt not kill. There are representations of the yellow star Bak was forced to wear, crumbling shtetl ruins, distorted Magenei David, shabbat candles and shtetl houses on boats of stone unable to sail in the sea of indifference.

His paintings are both mysterious and beautiful, made intelligible by Ben Yosef’s explanations and description of his life. Reading the Bak book and examining the paintings, one gets an insight into the tormented mind of a survivor unable to leave behind his nightmarish childhood of insecurity, yet able to use his creative talent to  turn them into images of beauty that can carry meaning to the beholder who still lives in a world indifferent to the sufferings of others.  

In a book as readable as a novel, Ben Yosef has provided us with a key to understanding the life and work of one of the 21st century’s greatest artists.

Limited copies of Ute’s book, Art & Life: The Story of Samuel Bak, are available at the CTHGC for R1500 each. For more information, contact or call 021 462 5553.

• Published in the November 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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