In my travels to seek lesser known facts and places, I came across a story that moved me so deeply that it was difficult to put out of my mind.
Hidden in a small street in Tel Aviv is the Joseph Bau House. None of my friends knew about it, yet Bau was a unique individual who survived the worst of times and managed to bring a beacon of light to others through his optimism, talent and wit.
Born in 1920 in Krakow, Poland, Bau showed great artistic promise and was accepted at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, where his studies included graphics and Gothic lettering.
His studies were interrupted when he was forced into the Krakow Ghetto.
The Nazis, learning of his talents, coerced him to draw all their signage and maps.
But Bau was blessed with the ability to bring joy to others. Jews would crowd into his small room to hear him play the mandolin and read his poetry. He lit up their lives, providing a brief respite from the desolation of Ghetto life. Whilst there, he began forging documents for the Jewish underground. Thanks to him, many Jews managed to escape to safety.
In 1943 he was transferred to Plaszow death camp near Krakow. By day he worked for the Nazis, but in secret he continued to forge documents to help Jewish prisoners.
When asked why he had never tried to escape, he replied, “If I had left, who would have remained to help them?” He said he never regretted being taken to the camp, for it was there that he fell in love with Rebecca Tannenbaum, who became his wife.
Their romance reads like a movie script. Dressed as a woman, he risked death by smuggling himself into the women’s camp. His mother, also an inmate, performed a “marriage” ceremony.
This featured in the Spielberg film Schindler’s List.
That same night two men were caught and shot for entering the women’s camp. Joseph survived by lying across a bunk covered in rags.
Women lay across him pretending to be asleep and he was not discovered.
He had to leap over an electric fence to return to the men’s section in time for roll call. Miraculously he survived.
His father and brother, not so fortunate, were murdered in the camp. In 1944, thanks to Rebecca’s contacts, Bau was placed on “Schindler’s List” instead of her and transferred to a factory in Czechoslovakia, where he remained until the end of the war.
Rebecca was sent to Auschwitz but survived by talking her way out of going to the gas chambers on three occasions.
He relates, “Two weeks after we arrived, Oskar Schindler called me and handed me my personal possession which he had recovered from the camp. Amongst them was a diary and poems written during 1943-44. I was a total stranger, yet Schindler saved this diary and presented it to me.
What kind of man would do this?” Rebecca and Joseph immigrated to Israel in 1950. He opened a studio in Tel Aviv where he created graphics, being the first person in Israel to work on cartoon films. He later made short films and commercials for TV and became known as the Israeli Walt Disney. He drew the titles for many Israeli movies.
In the Joseph Bau House you can see his movie screen, projection room and dark room. He built everything from scratch using anything available – a sewing machine engine and ex-ray equipment parts. His desk which, serendipitously, he recovered from the ghetto after the war, has pride of place in the museum.
Unbeknown to his family he worked for many years for the Mossad, forging documents for notable spies including Eli Cohen, who became the chief adviser to the Syrian defense minister.
His daughters Tslila and Hadasa keep his memory alive through traveling exhibitions and performances in Israel and abroad. The walls of Bau House are covered with Joseph’s artwork and the 12 books he wrote and illustrated, including Dear God, Have You Ever Gone Hungry? The latter has been translated into English, Polish, Spanish and Chinese. A second Chinese edition is being prepared.
Joseph’s works demonstrate the creativity, humor and optimism of an extraordinary talent.
Today there is a grave risk that this remarkable archive may close. This must not be allowed to happen.
It is a dramatic testimony to a man who saved hundreds of Jewish lives, was the “Father of Animation” in Israel and a great writer, humorist and artist. His contribution to the culture of the country and his work for the Mossad were of inestimable value.
Ruth Corman, who lives in London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer. Her next book, Unexpected Israel, should be published later this year. The address of Joseph Bau House is 9 Berdichevsky Street, Tel Aviv.
If you would like to know more and think you might be able to help, please contact Ruth@cormanarts.com.