The Art of Samuel Bak

Updated on January 14, 2019
harrynielsen profile image

In Europe, the 20th century was a time of great upheaval and destruction. Still, amidst the chaos, there exists many uplifting stories.

The Family

The Family is a 1974 painting by Samuel Bak, who now lives in the U.S.
The Family is a 1974 painting by Samuel Bak, who now lives in the U.S.

Who Is Samuel Bak?

Samuel Bak was born in 1933 in what is now Vilnius, Lithuania. In 1941, he along with his parents were forced to move into the Vilnius Ghetto after the Nazis took control of the town, which was at the time linked with Poland. Though sent to a forced labor camp, Samuel and his mother were able to survive the German Occupation by escaping confinement and hiding in a convent.

After the Second World War, Samuel Bak lived in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany. After relocating to Israel, Bak has developed into a successful visual artist. Today, Bak lives in the United States and his canvas paintings can be found in major art collections around the world.

The Hill of Crosses at Šiauliai

Though Slavic speaking, Lithuania today is predominantly Catholic
Though Slavic speaking, Lithuania today is predominantly Catholic | Source

A Brief Lithuanian History

The modern-day nation of Lithuanian nation has its roots in several, small Baltic tribes that lived near the south shore of the Baltic Sea. Over the years, the people have kept a Slavic-styled language, while maintaining their Catholic religion, despite attempts of Russification from Moscow. As a result Lithuania is today an independent nation with membership in the European Union. However, the twentieth century was not kind to the Baltic republic, for it has been brutally occupied by both Russia and Germany during this time period.

A Castle and a Cathedral

This 1800 painting by J. Peska shows a city skyline dominated by an old castle and cathedral
This 1800 painting by J. Peska shows a city skyline dominated by an old castle and cathedral

A Place Called Vilnius

Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, can trace its roots back to the medieval times of 1300, when the city began to grow. Over the years the city has been most often affiliated with Poland and Russia. During and after the Great War (WWI) the city changed hands many times till finally in 1922 the city was back under the thumb of the Poles.

This situation still existed, when Samuel Bak was born in 1933, but six years later, the Soviets rolled in from the East and took control of the city. The Soviets were strict, but because the people of the Baltic Country had agreed to allow Russian military bases, strife between the occupiers and local residents were minimal.

Events took a change for the worse in 1941, when the Germans drove out the Russians. Most notable, was the segregation and destruction of the Jewish community. Then in 1944, as the German war effort fell apart, the Russians returned, but with a new, hardened vengeance, especially for those in the Catholic Church. The Russian boot remained firmly in place until the death of Stalin in 1959.


Vilna is a sub-section of Vilnius that for many years functioned as the Jewish Quarter. During the first part of the twentieth century (before WWI), Vilna made up about half of Vilnius. Synagogues and schools were numerous, as they survived the First World War without major calamity.

WWII was a different story, especially after the Nazis arrived in 1941. The first two years of German occupation were relatively quiet, but in 1943, the destruction of the Jewish Quarter began. By the end of the war, the Jewish population had been decimated with only several hundred remaining in the city out of an original population that was somewhere around 75,000. Samuel Bak survived this dreadful period by hiding in a convent with his mother.

A Brief Visual Survey of the Artwork of Samuel Bak

Wrapping It All Up

There's no way around it, the artwork of Samuel Bak is powerful, compelling and uncompromising. Just by looking at what's available on the internet, it comes as no big surprise that his canvas paintings are represented in many art collections around the world, including Europe, the United States and Israel.

What I found so unique about Bak's imagery is how universal everything is. Missing are the Nazi symbols of era, but ever so present are the overwhelming tragic scenes that can only result from the aftermath of war and the fall of totalitarian regimes. Because of this timeless point of view, the paintings of Samuel Bak appear universal. They lack a time frame.

Trailer for an Upcoming Samuel Bak Movie

Samuel Bak on Samuel Bak

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Harry Nielsen


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