Uprooted from one homeland and in quest of another

Landsberg 1945-48

The year is 1945 when the boy, Samuel Bak, arrives at the Landsberg Displaced Persons camp to join its seven thousand other residents. He is almost thirteen, yet still held by his mother’s hand after the six entire years the two had clung to one another in hell on earth. Their lives, more than once, had wavered on the precipice between life and death, and against all odds in the daily chase, they attained the escape-route to life. With resourcefulness, courage and endless determination, the mother, Mitzia, had paved a path of survival for herself and her son, arriving at a destination that for several years was to be their first regular home in ages.

Mother and son joined the thousands of survivors at the DP camp who, similarly, had been through the-worst-of-all, like them were digesting the bitter fact that there was no home to which to return and no one for whom to go on waiting. While still on Lithuanian soil, the two had already grasped the horrific news, the inconceivable, the realization that their family had been murdered in the killing-pits of Ponary along with Vilna’s tens of thousands of Jews. With the pain of intolerable loss of home and all that it entailed – a world, a family, a nationality – they began the road back to the only place possible – life. However, the journey required a confrontation between memory and hope, between the dreadfulness of the past and the quest for new life.

This pendulum between memory and hope received chilling expression in the drawings of the child, Bak, who arrived at the Landsberg DP camp laden with a lifetime of experiences. Using brushes and paints, he evokes from within images entirely foreign to a child’s imagination. In the absurd world of the child survivor, he embarks unto life at the place where in the normative world it typically ends – first he encounters death and only thereafter does he revisit life, step by step.

The group of works he created at the Landsberg DP camp are surprising in their maturity, expressed not only in his artistic virtuosity, the confident placement of his water-colors, the bold ink lines, but – primarily – in his artistic treatment of unbearably difficult subjects. They are neither childish nor melodramatic. The motif of the mother recurs in many of the paintings of the period. The paintings bear clear expressionist marks, an exposé – not only by subject but by colors and brush strokes – of an agonized soul within. And, thus, in his self-portraits  the child stares unswervingly at us – a child who at the age of ten already said of himself: “It was the first time I fully understood that nothing was going to be the way it had been.”