All roads lead to Ponary

Boston 2001-02

All roads lead to Ponary,
From Ponary not a one.
Father’s disappeared, and with him,
All our light is gone.

Sharyahu (Szmerke) Kaczerginski, Vilna, April 1943

A chilling, latent destiny brings together the words of Vilna’s Yiddish poet, Szmerke Kaczerginski, written at the height of the liquidation of Vilna Ghetto, with the personal fate of artist Samuel Bak. Their actual encounter took place on the eve of an exhibition of Vilna artists that opened on 28 March 1943 in the ghetto, in which artworks of the nine-year-old child Bak were displayed.

In May 2001, Bak returned to the soil of Vilna after fifty-six years during which his foot, there, did not tread. This visit engendered a large series of paintings of fresh color, mirroring his regained ability to portray the city as it had been in the happy days of his childhood, in total contrast to the smoldering Vilna-in-ruins that he had left in the summer of 1944. And yet, despite the heartwarming colors, the city’s streets are roamed by cups and saucers, representing the town’s Jews banished from their homes and led to their death. The dichotomy of longing for a place that was, and the pain of loss, characterize this group of paintings.

The return to Vilna was by necessity also a return to the killing pits of Ponary Forest on the city’s outskirts. Vilna’s seventy thousand Jews, including women and children, were murdered in cold blood by the Nazis and their Lithuanian henchmen. Samuel’s grandfathers, grandmothers and father succumbed to the horror, their remains consigned to this terrible mass grave. Bak cannot and will not accept, in Ponary, the inherent laws of nature that had been thoroughly violated on this spot. The trees, in flight above the killing pits, are as fanciful as the tombstones; neither the one nor the other is planted in the soil of reality, rather existing in the realm of the painting, the artist’s emotional space.