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International Reflective Writing


Ben Shahn (Lithuanian/American)

Ben Shahn was born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1898. His family emigrated to America in 1904 and after he completed his schooling, Shahn became a lithographer's apprentice. Shahn continued his studies at night school and eventually attended New York University and the National Academy of Design (1917-21).

In the 1920s Shahn became a Social Realist and his work was often inspired by news reports. Text and lettering formed an integral part of his designs. Shahn held strong socialist views and his art often referred to cases of social injustice. A good example of this concerns the drawings about the proposed execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. He also played an important role in the campaign against the imprisonment of the trade union leader, Tom Mooney.


Samuel Bak

Born on August 12, 1933 in Vilna, which is now Vilnius, Lithuania, Bak was recognized from an early age as possessing extraordinary artistic talent. He describes his family as "secular, but proud of their Jewish identity." Immediately following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Vilna and the whole East of Poland was attacked by the USSR. After one month though, the Soviets retreated, giving the city to the Republic of Lithuania. An estimated 30,000 Jews found refuge in the city.

As Vilna came under German occupation in on June 24, 1941, Bak and his family had to move into the Vilna Ghetto. At the age of nine, he had his first exhibition inside the ghetto, even as massive executions and murders perpetrated by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators took place almost every day. Bak and his mother escaped the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto by seeking refuge in a Benedictine convent. They were helped by a Catholic nun named Maria Mikulska, and spent most of their time there in an attic.

By the end of the war, Samuel and his mother were the only members of his extensive family to survive. His father, Jonas, was shot by the Germans in July 1944, only a few days before Samuel's own liberation. As Bak described the situation, "when in 1944 the Soviets liberated us, we were two among two hundred of Vilna's survivors--from a community that had counted 70 or 80 thousand." Bak and his mother as pre-war Polish citizens were allowed to leave Soviet-occupied Vilna and travel to central Poland, at first settling briefly in Łódź. They soon left Poland for good and traveled into the American occupied zone of Germany. From 1945 to 1948, he and his mother lived in Displaced Persons camps in Germany. He spent most of this period at the Landsberg am Lech DP camp in Germany. It was there he painted a self-portrait shortly before repudiating his Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Bak also studied painting in Munich during this period, and painted "A Mother and Son", 1947, which evokes some of his dark memories of the Holocaust and escape from Soviet-occupied Poland.

In 1948, he and his mother were allowed to emigrate to Israel, and four years later he studied art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Bak spent most of his time in Israel studying and living in a modest flat in Tel Aviv and did not paint very much during that period.

Source: Wikipedia:

The Family

The Family is a painting that I have dedicated to the memory of the perished members of my family. An explanation of this work would be beyond the limit of my present time, so let me go on with the outline of my biography.

During most of my last four decades, I have been indeed a wandering Jew. I have lived and worked in Tel Aviv, Paris, Rome, and Lausanne, and I presently reside in the US, in Boston. I have become a man who is at home everywhere and nowhere, an artist whose real roots are in the ground of his art. As I said earlier, and it may sound trite, I know that what I have been painting comes from a compulsive need to give meaning to the miraculous fact of my survival. It tries to appease a sad sense of bewilderment. It comes from the fear that in a world of unparalleled upheavals, things are never what they seem. My work reveals a reality observed through the eyes of a child who had suddenly aged. Some might call it elaboration of Trauma; I hope that my art is more than that.

The Ghetto

In Ghetto neither eye nor imagination has any way of escape. The horizon has disappeared from this landscape without vistas; all signs of nature have vanished, too. Holocaust history does not proclaim its message; we must evacuate what we can from the ruins. Sheets of slate have moved aside as if from a tomb, to reveal a star-shaped scar leading into an obscure tunnel lined with the facades of crumbling structures—the former ghetto. Like forlorn Dantes without benefit of Virgil, we are forced to pursue the fate of European Jewry into the threatening depths below the inert stone surface, following a narrow corridor between lifeless brick walls. But our obligation is clear: memory and commemoration allow no other route. Even the pale yellow cloth from Stars of David once worn on victims' breasts points toward the ominous entry-way, as if all energy in the painting were focused on this journey into the heart of holocaust darkness.

And what awaits us at the end? Tiny glimmers of reddish light, like the eyes of demons, or the openings of twin crematorium ovens, beckon from the abyss, an unholy glow that evokes for us the fate of a people. We have the choice of moving the slabs of stone back in place and burying them forever, or accepting the strenuous duty of mining the evidence of their demise and keeping it steady in consciousness for our own and future generations.

Self Portrait

The content of this painting violates our surmise of what such a title usually intends. The boy who grew up in pre-war Vilna with an intact family is not the same as the one who survived the catastrophe remembering a murdered father and ruined community. The Holocaust has shattered the notion of a unified self. Indeed, the center of the picture is dominated not by the face of the living boy, but by the replica of the dead one, taken from the most famous photograph to emerge from the disaster. It reveals a frightened child, hands raised, being led from what might have been his hiding place in the Warsaw ghetto. His is a "counter-portrait," though the two likenesses are really inseparable, since the fate of the boy who was Bak is intimately linked to the to the doom of the victim whose image is imprinted on a crude assemblage of panels and canvas. On the left are some wooden cutouts of the posture that will be reproduced, the bullet-holes in the palms changing on the portrait into the stigmata of a crucified Christ. One of the muted themes of the entire series is the question of Christian responsibility for the destruction of European Jewry. The boy has only to straighten his arms to assume a cruciform position. At his elbow joint are two pieces of wood in the form of a tilted cross, though their X-shape also suggests the mystery of iniquity and — as a Roman numeral 10 — the defilement of the ten commandments.

Among other challenges, these paintings invite us to read their signs as complex visual images of strands of atrocity that will be rewoven into a tapestry of art. The rhythms of creation must somehow absorb the jagged heritage of loss. Like the ghost of Hamlet's father, the figure of the dead with raised arms imposes a blessing-curse on the seated child: "Remember me!" Whatever he achieves in the future, the living boy will be haunted by the memory of all the lost childhoods, including his own. The implement in his hand, presumably the shaft of a paintbrush, is a harbinger of his vocation, though Freudian commentators might also want to see in this detail a bond between creative and sexual energy....

The boy himself gazes at us like a post-Holocaust Mona Lisa, though his somber mouth betrays no hint of a smile. Instead both eyes and lips bid us to consider the violent past that has etched itself onto his inner vision. As this bitter seed sprouts and blooms, what role will it play in the later creation of the Landscapes of Jewish Experience?

The viewer is also invited to reflect on a sturdy pair of empty shoes, all that remains of a vast population of Jews whose bodies have been turned to ash. Who will wear them now, and how will he or she carry on the tradition of Jewish memory once transmitted by their former occupants? This question is deepened by the small stones in the foreground, holding down blank sheets of paper, reminding us of how the Holocaust has disrupted familiar Jewish customs for remembering the dead. Are these empty pages part of a Torah scroll at the boy's feet, and with what text will they be re-inscribed? Belching smokestacks in the distance. as well as hints of a community in flames, summon us to a vista of crimes whose impact will be portrayed in the subsequent paintings of the series.

From: Bak, Samuel, Landscapes of Jewish Experience; essay and commentary by Lawrence Langer. Copyright 1997 by Pucker Gallery in association with Brandeis University Press.


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