Story Preservation Initiative®

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Posts from the ‘Personal histories’ category

Finding the Universal in the Specific  The Art and Life of Samuel Bak

A remarkable story of survival and of a life spent making art speaking of the unspeakable.

Samuel Bak was born on August 12, 1933 in Vilna, Poland.  A few years later the area was incorporated into the independent republic of Lithuania. He was eight when the Germans invaded in 1941 and established a ghetto for the Jewish population. At first he and his parents hid in a local monastery; when the Germans grew suspicious, they escaped to the ghetto. Bak began painting while still a child, and had his first exhibition (in the Vilna ghetto) in 1942 at the age of nine. From the ghetto the family was sent to a labor camp on the outskirts of the city. His mother escaped and took refuge with a distant relative who had converted to Christianity and was living undetected in Vilna.

The Family, oil on canvas, 1974

Then Bak’s father managed to save his son by dropping him in a sack out of a ground floor window of the warehouse where he was working; he was met by a maid and brought to the house where his mother was hiding. His father was shot by the Germans in July 1944, a few days before Soviet troops liberated the city. His four grandparents had earlier been executed at the killing site in the Vilna suburb called Ponary.

After the war, the young Bak continued painting at the Displaced Persons camp in Landsberg, Germany (1945-1948) and also studied painting in Munich. In 1948, he and his mother emigrated to Israel, where he studied for a year at the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. After fulfilling his military service, he spent three years (1956-59) at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He then moved to Rome (1959-66), returned to Israel (1966-74), and lived for a time (1974-77) in New York City. There followed further years in Israel and Paris, then a long stay (1984-93) in Switzerland. Since 1993 Bak has lived and worked outside Boston, in Weston, Massachusetts. In 2001 he published a detailed autobiography, Painted in Words: A Memoir (Indiana University Press).

Portrait with a Star, 1973, oil on canvas

Samuel Bak’s paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries and hang in public collections in England, the United States, Israel, Germany and Switzerland. Between Worlds: The Paintings and Drawings of Samuel Bak from 1946 to 2001 (Boston: Pucker Art Publications, 2002), a survey of more than a half-century of his work, summarizes the sources of his vision as follows:

Bak’s life has inevitably influenced his choice of images and themes. The particulars of Vilna and the Holocaust, of surviving and being a wandering Jew, are part of his individual biography; but all are also aspects of our shared human condition. Bak has always sought to find the universal in the specific. His ongoing dialogues with the long-dead members of his family, with his early teachers, with the great masters of all epochs, with contemporary culture, and with the Bible and the diverse host of Jewish traditions—all come from his desire to represent the universality of loss and the endurance of man’s hope for a tikkun.


This biography is taken from the Florida Holocaust Museum’s website, which can be found at:

AUDIO EMBEDDED.   Click on links below. 

Copyright Story Preservation Initiative.  All rights reserved.

Adam and Eve, What Goes Up Must Come Down, oil on canvas













To view the video The Art of Speaking About the Unspeakable, copy the following link to your browser.

Poet ⎥Writer ⎥Doug Anderson

Doug’s story has been integrated into high school classroom American History units via our Learning Lab project (see: link above to Learning Lab page) where his first-hand narrative about his Vietnam experience helps students gain a greater understanding of the war and its human toll.

a6a7dab4-ad1c-49aa-adaa-71d5aa7843fe-1024x682From the Poetry Foundation …  Poet Doug Anderson grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. He served as a combat medic in the Vietnam War, and after Vietnam attended the University of Arizona, where he studied acting. He started writing poetry after he moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, and worked with the poet Jack Gilbert.

Anderson has written about his experiences in the Vietnam War in both poetry and nonfiction. He is the author of the poetry collections The Moon Reflected Fire (1994), the winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Blues for Unemployed Secret Police (2000), and Horse Medicine (2015). In 2000 he published his memoir, Keep Your Head Down: Vietnam, the Sixties, and a Journey of Self-Discovery.

His awards include a grant from the Eric Mathieu King Fund of the Academy of American Poets, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize. Anderson has taught at the University of Connecticut, Eastern Connecticut State University, and the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Its Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

To listen to Doug’s recording, click on the links below. 

Copyright Story Preservation Initiative, 2012.  All rights reserved.

01 Doug Anderson_Intro to Recording

02 Doug Anderson_Day One as a Combat Medic

03 Doug Anderson_Realizing Something was ‘Not Quite Right’

04 Doug Anderson_Running Security Patrols

05 Doug Anderson_A Typical Day in Vietnam

06 Doug Anderson_The Homecoming

07 Doug Anderson_Self-Discovery Through Writing

Helping to Find “Peace and Freedom from Fear”

The Pakistani Educational Leadership Project at Plymouth State University

Nineteen Pakistani teachers are spending a month at Plymouth State University learning about innovations in American education and how to translate them for use in schools at home.

In Pakistan, the teachers are divided by geography, ethnicity, and professional hierarchies – not to mention 17 languages – making it unlikely they would ever meet or work together. But on this small college campus, they are colleagues and friends.

Authorized by the Fulbright-Hayes Act, funded through the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and hosted by Plymouth State University, it is very much a dual Pakistan-U.S. program.  It encompasses an ever-expanding community of practice – and spirit – that transcends boundaries, demonstrating the power of citizen diplomacy in  a very complex world.

During the Project’s one-month intensive Institute and Study Tour Pakistani educators will use New England and Washington, D.C., as diverse learning labs. In the process they explore dynamic initiatives and institutions from rural New Hampshire to urban Boston and points south. They also share their own powerful work with underprivileged students: the faces and future of Pakistan’s vibrant civil society.

There is also an American reciprocal program that brings together U.S. and Pakistani educators in Pakistan or an alternate geographic site.

According to Blakeman Allen, director of the program, “This is very much a real time, tightly connected Project, with alumni living and working in Pakistan’s most vulnerable and marginalized areas.”

At the end of last year’s institute, the delegation shared their hopes and dreams:  “peace and freedom from fear.”

Audio is currently in production. 

Words and images  Getting to know The Hale Street Gang

I arranged for my Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth (ILEAD) class to  view the Hale Street Gang exhibit at the AVA Gallery on January 17, 2012.

It’s a marvelous exhibition combining wonderfully written memoir entries, presented in the spoken voice, along with photographs that capture not only an image, but a spirit.   This photo, taken at the opening of the exhibition, is by Jack Rowell of Braintree, VT – the same fellow who captured image and spirit of the Hale Street Gang members.

Some background:

Meet the Hale Street Gang, twelve senior citizens who gather once a week to read aloud from their memoirs-in-progress. Their clubhouse is the Greater Randolph Senior Center, an elderly mansion in a neighborhood south of the railroad tracks. Together they weave a “collective memoir” of life in twentieth-century America, with the village of Randolph, Vermont as its nexus.

The exhibit shows the work—in photographs, written text, and recorded voices—of a dozen Randolph-area seniors who have been writing down their life stories.

The project originated in October 2008, when the Senior Center offered a six-week memoir writing class. Almost two years later, the twelve members of the Hale Street Gang continued to gather in the Senior Center “craft room” to read aloud what they have written during the week. Most of the writers are in their eighties (the eldest is 99). They write about everything: learning to fish, skate, drive, and kiss. Falling in love. Getting old. They write about their lives as teachers, nurses, farmers, soldiers, and social workers. They write about their memories of World Wars I and II, the “Roaring Twenties,” the Depression. The towns they grew up in, the games they played as children, the regrets they still live with after many decades. They wonder, on paper, how they are supposed to conduct their lives at the age of ninety-something. They are scouting the territory for the next generation.

The exhibition will be at the AVA Gallery, 11 Bank Street, Lebanon, NH through February 10, 2012.

Another type of personal history keeping: The Ethical Will

Traditional wills transfer worldly possessions, while ethical wills are designed to pass values and beliefs from one generation to the next and to focus life purpose.
These documents have gained in popularity in recent years and are often incorporated into memoirs and other personal histories,  but the truth is – they are ancient in origin.

There is no formula to writing an ethical will, although most are written in the first-person in letter form.

An ethical will is a statement of:

  • Personal and spiritual values
  • Hopes, blessings and concerns for future generations
  • Life lessons learned
  • The importance of love and forgiveness in one’s life

The Babe

It was an honor and a privilege to get to know Babe Sargent, if only for just a short while.

Click on the link below to hear Babe talk about his early years on Lake Sunapee.

Run time: 9:26.  This may take a few minutes to download.

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Babe Sargent, recorded in New London, NH, December 10, 2010

“The Babe” – remembering his father …

When World War II got started, after Pearl Harbor, he became a very patriotic person. He’d been involved with the Legion and was a World War I veteran. And he made a model of a battleship. I have pictures of that. Unfortunately, we don’t still have the boat, but it was a seventeen-foot-long hull, and he made the entire superstructure based on photographs of the battleships, to the point that the FBI, when they were looking at the boat, wanted to know where he got his information. He was an active police chief, so they would come out and talk to him at times. Well, in those days, Popular Science or Life magazine had all kinds of pictures of these ships, and he could sketch from those. And he made this beautiful model of this battleship that we could get into. We could even run it—it had a little Briggs and Stratton engine in it. And we could lift the smokestack off. I would get down inside and slide my feet forward, and then my head and my body would come back up into the bridge part of the battleship. So your head is inside this bridge, and you look out just as though you were a real pilot.

Click below to hear recording.
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