Love, hope and humor help artist survive Holocaust

As an artist and author, Joseph Bau of Tel Aviv is known for smiling in the face of tragedy.

Many of the Holocaust survivor's works, on display at the Marin Jewish Community Center through April 15, ignore the torturous conditions he endured in his life, instead focusing on humor and joy.

In fact, during an exhibition of his Holocaust paintings he once told his daughters, Hadasa and Clila, that what he most wanted out of the exhibit "was to hear the laughter" of those in attendance.

"Love, hope and humor," said Clila, "helped our father survive."

Today Bau lies in intensive care at an Israeli hospital, incapacitated and attached to a machine that is helping him breathe. For the past two months, he has been suffering from a bacterial infection that he contracted in the hospital, after being admitted for another ailment.

Still, despite his doctors' predictions that he may not recover, Bau stays focused on humor and joy.

"Today, the nurses, wow, they were just laughing by the way he was moving his eyes," said Clila in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv. "And when they started laughing and we started laughing, he was very happy because for the last two months we've been crying."

Bau was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1920. Because of his partial education in art before the war, the Nazis kept him alive to serve as a draftsman. Until his hospitalization two months ago, he continued to draw on the drafting table that he'd used while living in the ghetto there.

When he was interned in a concentration camp, he fell in love with another inmate, Rebecca, and the two were married in the camp despite a prohibition from the Nazis. (Their wedding, in which Bau sneaked into Rebecca's camp dressed as a woman, was featured in Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List.")

"When I asked him is he was sorry that he was in a camp," said Clila, "he said, 'No — How would I have met your mom?'"

Within the past few years, his daughters learned that during their parents' time in the camp, the two saved more than 400 Jews by forging false documents that got them released.

"When we asked him why they didn't do it for themselves and get out," said Clila, his response was, "Then who would have done it?'

"In everything bad they saw something good," she said.

While in the camp, Bau wrote and illustrated a miniature book barely larger than the palm of his hand. His daughter described the book as "beautiful and unbelievable — it doesn't even talk about where he was."

After the war the couple immigrated to Israel. Even though his family and his wife's family were all murdered, and Bau and his wife came to Israel penniless and without knowing a word of Hebrew, "they never complained," said Clila.

"Friends tell us, whenever they lost hope, they would come to him — they would come in very upset, and leave very happy.

"He always told us," she added, "never to be mad at the world."

Bau went on to establish himself as an artist, author and animator in Israel. He has worked as a graphic artist at the Brandwein Institute in Haifa, drawn the titles for several Israeli movies and wrote a number of books in Hebrew.

His current exhibition of 48 paintings, "From the Edge of Destruction: The Paintings of Joseph Bau," is on display in the Renbaum Gallery at the Marin JCC. The exhibit features eight Holocaust paintings along with several other characterizations of people, all of which are primarily humorous.

Some of the Holocaust-themed works, however, such as "Dividing the Bread," in which several camp detainees undergo their daily ritual of dividing a small loaf of bread to eat, use black humor.

In his artist's statement Bau explains: "I can paint the saddest characters and the funniest ones. I can cause people to cry and to laugh at the same time."

Oftentimes in the paintings of couples the woman is appears larger than the man, said Clila, reflecting his "feminist nature."

"At home he never let our mom wash the floor or do the dishes," she said, noting that her mother died during Passover five years ago. "He always let my mom sleep in instead. They were the most romantic couple.

"Every day our dad would tell a new joke, and we'd roll on the floor laughing, and we always thought our mom never remembered it because she'd always have him tell it again. Later we found out she remembered, it just filled her heart to hear him again."