The Battle Over Joseph Bau’s Art
When the artist Joseph Bau died in 2002, some of his most important works wound up at Yad Vashem. Now, for the 100th anniversary of his birth, his daughters want them back.
In the Płaszów concentration camp, Joseph Bau used paper from cigarettes discarded by Nazis to make a deck of playing cards. But instead of kings, queens and jesters, the young artist illustrated the cards with scenes of normal life before the Nazi invasion: a wedding, a family outing, a doctor’s visit.
When fellow prisoners in Płaszów appeared to be contemplating suicide — jumping onto the electric fence was one common method — Bau would sidle up to them with his deck of cards in hand like an optimistic tarot reader and divine a better future.
Why do you want to commit suicide? he would ask, pulling out a card. Look: you’ll get married, you’ll have children, you’ll be a doctor.
Bau’s daughters believe that their father saved hundreds of people in the Holocaust. As a graphic designer in the Krakow ghetto, he forged documents and stamps for the underground. He recalled his participation in Akiva, a Zionist youth group active in the Nazi resistance in his 1990 memoir “Dear God, Have You Ever Gone Hungry?” (The English translation was published in 1996).
Later, Bau falsified papers that allowed Oskar Schindler to obtain rations for the thousand plus workers he sheltered in his factory in Brünnlitz in the Czech Republic. But Bau’s most effective tool at helping others may have been his humor.
“He saved people with laughter,” said his eldest daughter, Hadassah Bau.
Bau’s unlikely optimism is the theme of the Joseph Bau House, a three-room museum in the artist’s former studio in Tel Aviv that his daughters, Hadassah Bau and Clila Bau-Cohen, have maintained since his death in 2002.