Arts & Culture Painter Who Survived Holocaust Has Homecoming Exhibit in Vilnius

Lithuania is commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust by helping to fund an exhibit of paintings by Samuel Bak, a Lithuanian-born Holocaust survivor.

The show, housed in both the State Art Museum and the Gaon Jewish State Museum, features more than 100 of Bak’s works from 1942-2001.

Bak, 68, now lives in Boston.

Boston’s Pucker Gallery and the Jewish museum also backed the display.

A child prodigy raised in the Vilna Ghetto, Bak had his first exhibition at age 9, while the city was under Nazi occupation.

Two years later, his father and grandparents, like 94 percent of Lithuania’s approximately 250,000 Jews, were murdered in a Vilnius suburb. Bak and his mother escaped to Poland and — after the war — Germany.

The three-month exhibit, “Returning Home,” features recently discovered works from Bak’s Vilnius childhood that he believes were hidden by a Jewish underground movement.

Bak learned of the paintings’ existence only a few years ago, and saw them for the first time earlier this year.

The early works are displayed at the newly restored Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Vilnius.

The building, a prewar Yiddish theater left in ruins when the Communist regime fell in 1991, was unveiled Sept. 23 in front of Lithuania’s prime minster. Bak’s later works are in eight rooms in the State Art Museum.

“That fact that the authorities were willing to sponsor this is a sign that something is moving in the right direction, to deal with this horrendous past,” Bak said during on a recent visit to Vilnius.

After the war Bak lived in Paris, Rome, Israel and New York. His paintings — which carry an inescapable theme of destruction — have appeared at the National German Museum, New York City’s Jewish Museum and London’s Barbican Center.

In October Bak published his first book, “Painted in Words: A Memoir,” which documents his wartime horrors.

Before the war, Vilna — its Yiddish name — was the Yiddish cultural capital of the world. The city was dotted with Jewish theaters, libraries, schools and more than 100 synagogues.

Of Vilna’s 70,000 Jews, only 200 survived Nazi rule.

“If I had to choose the Metropolitan Museum in New York or an exhibition in Vilnius, I still think I would have chosen Vilnius because here I can show my paintings to my grandparents,” said Bak, who donated 37 of his works to the Gaon Jewish State Museum.

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