A tightly walled cube-shaped block of buildings seemingly made of child’s building blocks looms in the midst of a barren foreground of stony rubble and a background of hazy nondescript sky. No sign of life, human or vegetation, anywhere. Entirely in shades of muted yellow, orange, ochre and brown, coloring suggestive of a crematorium, the canvas reeks of desolation.The only window into the tomb-like image, seen from above, is a carved cut-out star of David through which can be glimpsed a more detailed view of the abandoned ghetto. Barely visible, a pale yellow cloth remnant of the star of David stitched to their clothes to identify Jews sits atop one of the rooftop slates.


At the age of nine Bak escaped the Vilna Ghetto with his mother. As with several of Bak’s paintings, many variations and studies on the theme exist. For example, "The Ghetto of Jewish History," also painted in 1976 (called "Star of David" by Yad Vashem organization), draws our attention as much to the more distinct yellow band as to the star cut-out of stone.  Paul Nagano, artist and curator of many early Bak exhibits at the Pucker Gallery in Boston, elaborated on what needs to be said of these bleak, post-holocaust memorials: "Words cannot- perhaps, should not- express the full poignancy of this tour de force of the artistic imagination. This 'invention' of Bak's, which reaches deep into the darkest wells of feeling by transforming a familiar symbol into an astonishing and original image, speaks wordlessly of a human event whose enormity has never found adequate expression in words" (

Interesting comparisons of "The Ghetto" and "The Ghetto of Jewish History"" might be made with Japanese American artist, Henry Sugimoto`s "Jerome Camp" and with Arnold Bocklin's "Island of the Dead" although both of these are somewhat relieved by undergrowth, cypress tress or a solitary boat with two passengers.

Set to a poignant piece of music, a brief slide show of details and symbols from Bak's works, as well as an interview with Bak and images and commentaries on several of his works provide an excellent introduction to this master contemporary artist (see The Jewish Heritage Online Magazine:


This picture was later used as a jacket for Yitzhak Arad's book on the struggle and destruction of Vilna's Jews.

Primary Source

Samuel Bak, Painted in Words: A Memoir (Indiana/Pucker), 2001, p. 372, insert.