On September 1, 1939 Adolph Hitler's forces swept into Poland, plunging Europe into war and establishing a reign of terror for Jews throughout the continent.
Two years later, the Nazis established the Vilna ghetto, forcing Jews to live within its boundaries under horrific conditions and the daily threat of death. One of those forced to confinement in the ghetto was eight-year-old Samuel Bak, who, at nine, would have his artwork shown at an exhibition in Vilna.
As the Nazis continued their campaign to rid Europe of its Jewish population, Bak and his mother were hidden in a convent. They survived the Holocaust. Bak's father and four grandparents did not. The experience left an indelible mark on Bak and his artwork.
Houstonians can see his work on display in a new exhibit opening Friday, July 1 at the Holocaust Museum Houston in the museum's Samuel Bak Gallery and Learning Center. HMH holds the largest collection of Bak's work — more than 140 pieces — and the exhibit features the debut of 40 newly rotated artworks.
The images demonstrate Bak's keen ability to showcase contradictions in human life. Stardom is a play on the phrases “glass half full” or “glass half empty.” The cracked porcelain cup in the foreground of the painting is marked with a broken Jewish star. A smoke stack is placed inside. The Jewish star memorializes Bak’s father.
Saving the Face, meanwhile, features a decaying bust adorned with the scales of justice. The scales obstruct the bust's eyes, potentially alluding to people being blind to atrocities. Figures in the painting work to fix the scales, representing individuals fighting for justice — clearly, an image that is still relevant today.
General admission to the museum is $22 and includes access to the Bak exhibit. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit hmh.org.