Holocaust Survival Tale: Samuel

  • Posted 11.01.17
  • NOVA

During WWII, Nazis forced Samuel Bak and his family out of their home in Vilna, Lithuania.

Running Time: 08:20


Holocaust Survival Tale: Samuel

Published November 1, 2017

Onscreen: How They Survived the Holocaust: Samuel Bak’s Story

During WWII, the Nazis forced Samuel Bak and his family out of their home in Vilnius, Lithuania, known to the European Jews as Vilna. They were taken to one of two Jewish ghettos set up in the city.

Today he is a world-renowned artist.

Samuel Bak: I felt that I had a story to tell, and I wanted to touch other people. And I wanted to tell them something, and I could not say it directly, because people are kind of reluctantly accepting graphic images. I wanted to tell them something, what did I want to tell them? I want to tell them that there once was a world and the world was destroyed, and I wanted to speak also about the survivors, and I wanted to say that the survivors are people who try to rebuild something that is similar to the reality that existed once, but cannot be totally reconstructed.

Onscreen: Before the War

Samuel: I remember a life that my parents tried to create for me, a kind of artificial paradise. Which later I understood was kind of maybe fabricated for me because these were the mid-thirties and Poland was already on the verge of being invaded by a mounting Germany.

Then one day we are walking in the street from the kindergarten with my mother a big kind of very bullyish boy came over to me, slapped me in my face, spit in my face and called me Jude, which means kike. And then the next day my mother took me out from this Polish speaking kindergarten and put me into a Yiddish speaking kindergarten.

Onscreen: Living in the Ghetto

Samuel: One day the Lithuanian police came and said you just take with you what you can carry and go out into the street. It was a rainy day and we went down to the courtyard.

And we were brought down and my mother, although she prepared a little suitcase, already hearing that one may be at the certain moment obliged to leave. She told me, take a pillow. She gave me a big, a big pillow to carry. This is where you are going to put your head to sleep. And we walked in the street. We were not allowed, the Jews were not allowed any more to walk on the sidewalk. And we arrived to the ghetto.

It was quite normal that people tried to escape when they came back from their work and the terrible reality. They tried to escape from it by burying themselves in stories. Obviously there was no television or such things that… the entertainment were the books.

In the Ghetto there was a theatre and in the theatre they created a space for an exhibition of paintings, of the painters who survived in the ghetto. And I had an exhibition of my drawings when I was nine years old.

When I walked with my father and my mother to this opening of the exhibition where I exhibited for the first time. It was kind of strange because I don’t think that it had been at age nine I knew what an exhibition means. And all that. But, we had to go through that courtyard packed with people that looked like kind of dirty rags. Dirty rags, it—there was masses of stuff and there was crying of babies and some of them were immobile, and some of them were moving. I remember there was a woman next to the door there that was trying to give her breast to a baby. And so these were hundreds and hundreds of people that two or three days later would be taken away to Ponary and shot.

Onscreen: Ponar is a forest outside of Vilna where the Nazis killed tens of thousands of Jews.

Samuel: To me what remains is this terrible image, this kind of enormous difficulty to connect all these things. I’m walking through these people, they are like me. And I’m walking there, and I have my drawings put on a wall. And people come to look at them. And how do all these things work together, work together?

It was clear that the people that were chosen to be transported to Ponar were the ones who were less useful for the Germans.

Onscreen: The Escape

Samuel: I was very, very lucky that my father who then became a welder was in, was among this group of Jews that were brought to the Heereskraftfahrpark camp in Subačiaus.

Onscreen: Young Samuel Bak was taken with his father to HKP, a forced labor camp outside of Vilnius.

The next morning there was this yelling that came from the Germans in the courtyard and we were in these buildings that had three or four floors of the little cells with a kind of not very large staircase.

My father hid me under a blanket and put me into a little closet where I was like that. When my father took me out of this thing, he put me in our room, rolled into the mattress of his bunk.

So, I was alone and in order to prove to everyone that this room was empty the door was left a little open. So I knew that I’m under the bunk, covered by blankets, I should not move. My vision was just the wall there.

Then at a certain point my father came and put me into a sack, he came with a sack and said get into it and put me on his shoulder. And then he went out from that room with me in the sack and joined a line of men that were working bringing sacks from the place they where cutting trees into little blocks of wood to the gate to that room.

My last memory of my father is the feeling to be on his shoulder, a kind of a physical feeling of his presence. I don’t even know if the voice of somebody shouting “run, run, run” when they liberated me from the sack. I don’t even if it was his voice of somebody else's voice.

My father was executed there with the last of the Jews that were in the camp. He was gunned down but there were about, many people who managed somehow to escape.

Onscreen: Samuel Bak explains how his work as an artist today reflects his past.

Samuel: It’s a symbolism of something that existed once and it was reconstructed because people will always try to repair. Somehow it is out of the bits and pieces of the horrors of the past that we can reconstruct the sense of our being here. Not only that, we can also learn how to prevent such horrors as much as it is possible to happen again.

I found out that because of the style of my painting, because it looked like paintings painted a few centuries ago and so on, allow themselves to be touched by it.

I’m not only painting paintings, which I enjoy very much doing, but I’m also touching some people with what I’m doing and so this is important to me.



Digital Producer
Ana Aceves
Director of Photography
Ezra Wolfinger
Geoff Pennington
Daniel Lyons
Ezra Wolfinger
Rob Kirwan


21st Century Studios
National Archives
National Center for Jewish Film
Pucker Gallery, Boston
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Yad Vashem


Original Music
­Ed Grenga

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