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.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Naomi Zevel­off

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.


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