Samuel Bak’s relationship with Vilnius was a complex one, as complex as can only be experienced by a person who has lived through both paradise and hell here.
Born in Polish Vilnius in 1933 into the family of Jonas Bakas, a Jewish dental technician, and his wife Mita, the lone child Samek was spoilt by his parents and grandparents. ‘My mother convinced me that I was special, that I lived in paradise, and that I absolutely deserved it,’ Bak writes in his memoir Painted in Words. ‘My parents wanted to give me the best they could.’
That world soon began to change. After being ruled by the Poles, Vilnius was taken back by independent Lithuania, and was soon taken over by the Soviets, who nationalised his grandparents’ property. Little Samek was eight when Vilnius was occupied by the Nazis. His paradise was gradually beginning to turn into hell.
Both grandfathers were killed straight away that summer in 1941. His grandmothers Rachel and Shifra, who from a young age had been good friends, ‘joined’ their husbands at Paneriai in the autumn a few months later.
Samuel Bak’s family managed to avoid the ghetto for a while: protected by a nun called Sister Mary, they hid for several months in a Benedictine convent. After the convent was closed down, the only place where Jews could survive was the ghetto. The Baks took refuge on Ligoninės Street.
It was in the ghetto that the child’s talent for drawing emerged. Adults encouraged him in every way they could. Samek’s drawings made up most of the works in an exhibition that was held in the ghetto theatre, and won a prize. ‘In this way, another star, Samuel Bak, appeared in the ghetto,’ wrote the famous poet Abraham Suzkever.
‘The problem with talented children is that over time their talent evaporates, and only the child remains,’ Samuel’s mother used to say, in order to stop him getting too big-headed. But his talent did not evaporate, and the experience of the little boy from the ghetto features constantly in the paintings by the adult artist.
For a long time, Samuel Bak did not dare return to his home town, but finally after visiting once, he started coming here again. The Samuel Bak Museum is located in the Tolerance Centre of the Vilnius Gaon State Jewish Museum, where almost forty paintings donated by the artist are on display.
The loss of his beloved grandparents and his father, the deaths of his kindergarten friends in ‘children’s actions’, the loss of his home, and the transformation of his carefree childhood city into a prison marked with the Star of David simply shine out in the paintings by the mature and world-famous painter Samuel Bak.
Translated and published by www.welovelithuania.com