The Shmuel Bak Museum is now open for visitors, declares the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum’s website in all-caps, celebrating the city’s other great talent, a post modernist and surrealist painter who was a major influence on Israeli art when he lived there, from 1948 to 1993, when he moved to Massachusetts where he continues to live. The fact is the city of Vilna, a.k.a. Vilnius, is right to celebrate this rare and massive talent, who had his first gallery showing at age nine inside the Vilna ghetto, in 1941.
Bak and his mother sought refuge in a Benedictine convent, then returned to the Vilna ghetto, and were eventually deported to a forced labor camp. But they succeeded in finding shelter once again in the convent, where they remained in hiding until the end of the war. In 1948, Bak and his mother immigrated to Israel. In 1952, he studied art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, then continued his studies in Paris.
When he lived in Israel, Bak was deeply involved not only in the young country’s art but in its politics and history as well. He used to illustrate the editorials of peacenik and three-term Knesset Member Uri Avnery in his radical weekly magazine Ha’Olam Ha’Zeh. Bak also published a stunning book of charcoal drawings titled War Sketches, after the 1967 Six Day War.
In 2001, Bak returned to Vilnius for the first time and has since visited his hometown several times.
The Samuel Bak Museum which was opened this month is a new branch of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. Bak donated more than 60 of his paintings, and plans to send many more. At the opening of “his” museum, the artist said:
“I am at an age in which most of my future is behind my back. And I can happily smile because I was very lucky. My art is appreciated. It provides me with a decent living and allows me to create in full liberty. It has granted me prizes, awards, and honorary doctorates, wonderful notes of recognition of my achievements. But whenever it happened – I felt alone.
“Not so today. Today […] I have a keen feeling that a whole crowd surrounds me. My father, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and a huge crowd of faceless Jews of old, old Vilnius, a multitude of people, a third of the city’s population, whose lives came to a most tragic end. And all are proud of their boy; all are delighted with the exceptionality of this event. It is for their sake that I have donated to the Lithuanian state a large collection of my artistic output. It is to their memory that I dedicate the Bak Museum.”
The opening was attended, among others, by Markas Zingeris, Director of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, Culture Minister Liana Ruokytė-Jonsson, Vilnius’ Mayor Remigijus Šimašius, MP Emanuelis Zingeris, and US Ambassador to Lithuania Anne Hall.
Close to 200,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators in WW2. Today there are an estimated 3,000 Jews living in Lithuania.
Which is to say that many more Jews would have appreciated his art should Shmuel Bak had donated it to a Museum named after him in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.