A picture speaks a thousand words…

I keep returning to using the work of artists when teaching about the Holocaust. I find that encouraging students to interpret the symbolism used by artists is an effective way of getting them to use the knowledge they have acquired and demonstrate their understanding of the impact of the Holocaust. In addition to this, drawings and paintings by survivors, liberators and other artists are incredibly accessible to students of all abilities.

I was first blown away by the work of Samuel Bak when I visited Lithuania with the Imperial War Museum Fellowship in 2007. Bak was born into a secular Jewish family in Vilnius in 1933. He was considered to be something of an artistic prodigy and held his first exhibition in the Vilna Ghetto in 1942, aged jut nine. He managed to survive the war with his mother by hiding first in a monastery and later with a relative who had converted to Christianity. Much of his art is in the surrealist style and is perhaps more challenging for the average Year 9 student, but could definitely be used with gifted and talented students either in the History or the Art classroom. It is also something that a GCSE or A Level Art or Art History student would find inspirational.

“Alone’ by Samuel Bak
Here the Jewish star is an island surrounded by a menacing sea.
University of Minnesota, Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies

The work of Bak inspired me to look into ways to incorporate art into my teaching in the History classroom. After a visit to Yad Vashem I bought, amongst other things,  a book entitled “Through Our Eyes: Children Experience the Holocaust” by Itzhak B. Tatelbaum. I had used this book already as it has many short pieces of testimony by children which had been very useful in previous lessons. The book also contained some drawings by the artist Paul Fux (document available here) which I have used to teach about the process of arriving at Auschwitz (you can download a worksheet to accompany the Paul Fux pictures here). By presenting artists’ work alongside short testimony, students have the opportunity to think more deeply about the issues raised in the sources.

Coming soon:  using the art and testimony of Roman Halter in the classroom

Additional reading on Samuel Bak:



This entry was posted in In the classroom, Resources and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A picture speaks a thousand words…

  1. Fascinating post. Teaching children and teenagers about the Holocaust can be very challenging. Focusing on art and artists of the Holocaust are a great way to help the students connect with the victims and open their minds to understanding the difficulties that people went through.

    • Caroline Slifkin says:

      Zoe I too remember the impact of standing in the cemetery at Vilnius while we discussed the symbolism and narrative of Bak’s painting of that very spot. I find students can get so much knowledge from working through just one of his paintings. I was lucky enough to hear him speak about his more recent art work at a Yad Vashem conference- he was the pnly speaker to get a standing ovation and he is such an inspirational man. Here is a website with some of his more recent work:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s