Israel's Walt Disney: The story and legacy of Joseph Bau

After Bau died in 2002, his daughters created the Joseph Bau House in Tel Aviv, one of the world’s smallest museums, but now it struggles to keep its doors open.

A doorway to his story: The Joseph Bau Museum, 9 Bertichevsky Street, Tel Aviv. (photo credit: JOSEPH BAU HOUSE MUSEUM)
A doorway to his story: The Joseph Bau Museum, 9 Bertichevsky Street, Tel Aviv.
 Joseph Bau was born in Krakow in 1920. By his teen years, he was a published cartoonist who, throughout his life, used his talents to save hundreds of Jewish lives and for the benefit of the Jewish state. He was a quintessential part of Israel’s early film and animation industry, becoming known as “the Israeli Walt Disney.” 
After Bau died in 2002, his daughters created the Joseph Bau House in Tel Aviv, one of the world’s smallest museums. Bau was a painter, filmmaker, writer, poet and “a very secret man” who survived the Holocaust by talent, luck and love, presenting his interpretation of the history of the Jewish people and the tekumah (the rise) of Israel through his art and writings. 
Bau authored 10 books, including his Holocaust memoir, Shnot Tarzach (The Murder Years), titled Dear God, Have You Ever Gone Hungry? in English. The book written in Hebrew, has been translated into English, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, Polish Spanish and soon, into Russian. It chronicles survival in the midst of death; it is a story of seeking life. 
I spoke with Hadasa Bau and Clila Bau Cohen, co-directors of the museum housed in their multi-talented father’s graphics studio. The two rooms overflow with paintings, photographs, books, and posters he created for mid-century Israeli movies. Bau designed several internationally recognized Hebrew fonts that characterized Israel’s early animations, movies, and commercials. 
There is a special focus on Bau’s studies of the Hebrew language. “Coming to Israel was his lifelong dream,” says Clila. “He saw Hebrew as an essential bond.” The space has been transformed into a place of memory and laughter, a gallery of art and invention.
 A poster for an exhibition of Joseph Bau’s “Graphic Works." (Photo credit: Joseph Bau House Museum) A poster for an exhibition of Joseph Bau’s “Graphic Works." (Photo credit: Joseph Bau House Museum)
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Bau was a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, now part of Jagiellonian University in Krakow. His knowledge of Gothic lettering became his initial ticket to survival, both in Ghetto Krakow and Plaszow Concentration Camp. “It was another one of the many miracles of his life,” says daughter Clila. “The Germans needed his skills.” 
From Ghetto Krakow, Bau was sent to the Plaszow Concentration Camp, built on the grounds of Krakow’s Jewish cemetery. It was completely obliterated by the Nazis as they retreated. Other than survivors’ testimony, Bau’s maps are the only tangible proof of its existence. The camp maps he created were the blueprint for the settings of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. 
Bau fell in love with Rebecca Tennenbaum in Plasazow. Despite their situation, they were determined to marry. Bau traded several days of his bread ration for a tiny silver spoon and several additional days’ rations to have it fashioned into two rings. On February 13, 1944, disguised as a woman, he snuck into Rebecca’s bunk. 
His mother pronounced the sheva brachot (seven blessings) of the Jewish wedding ceremony immortalized and embellished in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar award-winning film, Schindler’s List. Bau called it “complete nonsense” that the couple had a huppa (wedding canopy). “Who ever heard of sheets in a camp?” he said. 
Clila recalls about her mother, “She was a woman who had no fear. She had access to the office of the camp commandant, the brutal Amon Goeth, because she was his manicurist. She asked Goeth’s secretary, a Jew whose mother she had saved, to place her husband’s name on the list instead of hers. “I’m not afraid,” she said. “I will survive.” 
Bau’s name was then listed for transfer to Schindler’s factory; Rebecca was soon sent to Auschwitz. She never told her husband she had saved him until their 50th anniversary – and then, only when a journalist interviewed the couple prior to the release of Spielberg’s film. 
“My father was flabbergasted, shocked,” her daughter says. “And so were we.” Asked why she had not told her husband the story, Rebecca, always in character, said, “I didn’t want you to feel that you owed me, because I did it from love. You would have known, one day, when my diary will be found.” 
Clila Bau Cohen and Hadasa Bau wearing shirts with their father’s signature, a cipher of mystery. To their right, Rebecca and Joseph Bau share a dance. (Photo credit: Joseph Bau House Museum)Clila Bau Cohen and Hadasa Bau wearing shirts with their father’s signature, a cipher of mystery. To their right, Rebecca and Joseph Bau share a dance. (Photo credit: Joseph Bau House Museum)
The diary remained a secret until after her death.
OSKAR SCHINDLER considered cooperating with the Nazis as “good for business.” He made a deal with Goeth enabling him to establish a factory in Brunlitz, Czechoslovakia, staffed with a slave labor force of 800 Jews from the Plaszow camp, all expected to die from the difficult work or from starvation. They became Schinlerjuden – Schindler’s Jews – people for whom he considered himself responsible. He demanded an additional 400 workers, including children of those on his original list, and, partially through Bau’s ability to “create” needed documentation – ration cards, permits, etc. – managed to save the lives of every one. Schindler sabotaged his project by making defective or wrong caliber bullet cartridges. “Our father always said that, had the war not ended when it did, the Nazis would have discovered Schindler’s subterfuge and murdered everyone.” 
The friendship between Schindler and Bau remained strong until Schindler’s death in 1974. On one of his visits to Israel, Schindler told the then-five-year-old Clila.“I am your grandfather.” She did not understand, knowing all her grandparents had died. 
Schindler explained: “I saved your father’s life, therefore I am your grandfather.” 
In 1962, Schindler was designate a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. In his later years, he was largely supported by the Jewish community and Schindler List survivors. He is buried in the Catholic section of the Mount Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem.
Schindler’s List premiered in Israel in 1994. Clila and Hadasa say they were concerned about the traumatic effect viewing the film might have on their parents. Joseph and Rebecca Bau are among the survivors shown in the film’s closing scene, who one by one, place memorial stones on Schindler’s grave. 
“We didn’t want our parents to see the movie, but they believed it to be their duty to honor the Jewish martyrs,” Clila says. “We sat on either side of them, to hold them close. When it was over, we asked our father, ‘Was it so terrible?’ 
‘No’ he said. ‘It was 10 times worse. If Spielberg had shown the full horror of the reality, no one would have been unable to watch the movie.’” 
Finding Rebecca 
Like thousands who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, Joseph Bau returned to the once familiar Krakow. There he sought the aid of the reemerging Jewish community and asked for information about his family. He had witnessed his father’s murder; his hope was to find his mother, his wife, or his younger lder brother.
Rumors swirled about his wife. She had been sent to Auschwitz with Bau’s mother, Cila, who died shortly after liberation. Rebecca survived. She and several others, traveling by horse and wagon, suffered a tragic accident near Freudental, Czechoslovakia. Bau, still in his concentration camp uniform, was permitted to board a train. Exhausted, he fell asleep, missed his station. When he awoke he panicked, and jumped off. He did not catch the already departed train. The train Bau missed derailed and fell off a high bridge. All on board died. 
“Another miracle,” says Clila.
Waiting at the station, still in camp uniform, Bau was accused of being an escaped Nazi, arrested, and taken to police headquarters. He finally proved he was a survivor, not a Nazi and told of his search for Rebecca, a sympathetic policeman recalled hearing the story of a wagon carrying women survivors of Auschwitz that had over turned. In a farmer’s cart and by foot, Bau quickly made his way to the hospital. 
Years later, Rebecca wrote: “Lying in the ward, I heard that whistle – our whistle. I think I am in heaven – I hear my husband. But, no. Everyone said, ‘We hear it, too.’”
“How I desired this meeting,” Bau wrote. “I didn’t have the words to explain the miracle, the collection of memories of that happy day. I tried to look for the right expression to describe this meeting – the miracle of missing the train, the miracle of the Czech woman who accused me and forced me to the police; the miracle that he knew of the accident.”
The couple returned to Krakow, where they married again, this time with in a proper Jewish ceremony on February 14, Valentine’s Day – a day after their second Plaszow anniversary. Bau finished his university degree and became a political cartoonist for several Polish newspapers. 
Throughout, he was secretly working for Aliyah Bet – a post war immigration movement and provided “documents” required by the British Mandate. Rebecca opened a cosmetology clinic. Their first daughter, Hadasa, was born in Krakow. 
Bau achieved significant postwar fame, and the Polish government was unwilling to let him emigrate. The little family was carefully watched. One night, a neighbor hid them until the police surveillance ended. They escaped to Israel in 1950, initially living in ma’abarah Sha’ar Aliyah (Gateway for Immigration camp) near Haifa. They soon moved to Tel Aviv where he eventually established his art and graphics studio.
Bau began working in Tel Aviv at the Kiryah – City Hall – then the seat of Israel’s government. His office was next to the office of the prime pinister, David Ben-Gurion. 
The artist’s great humor hid the nature of the complex network of which he was the hub. “Many days,” recalls his younger daughter, “he complained that Ben-Gurion did not laugh at his jokes. Finally came the day when he could at last tell my mom, ‘Today, he laughed!’”
“Our father always wanted to make people happy,” says Hadasa. “There was plenty of merriment at home. ‘Learn to tell a story, to sing, to tell jokes,’ he told us. He taught me to write songs, always with humor, and taught Clila how to tell jokes. He always said, ‘If your mother and I were happy in the darkest of times, everyone can learn the meaning of happiness and love from us.’” 
Bau dreamed of making animated films, but in those years, there was little awareness of cartooning in Israel. He built Israel’s first animation studio and created the world’s smallest 35 millimeter movie theater. “We’re told it’s eligible for listing in the Guinness Book of Records,” Clila says. With a chuckle she adds, “All we need is to find $9,000 to pay the fee!”
Bau might have chosen an easier life in the United States, notes Hadasa. “His brother wanted him to come to New York to work as an animator, but my father opted to stay in Israel.” 
Writing in 1955, Bau had written that “life in Israel is very difficult; everyone needs to borrow money.” Still, remembers Clila, “he found a way to give gifts to everyone – often with boxes full of Israeli oranges.”
Joseph Bau died in Tel Aviv at the age of 81. In 2004, an exhibition honoring his works on the Hebrew language was mounted in the halls of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building. 
Shimon Peres, Reuven Rivlin, a contingent of members of Knesset and many others attended. “We were surprised by the presence of some many of Israel’s leaders and famous personalities,” his daughter recalls. “We wondered why ‘everyone’ was there. How did they know our father?”
“We want to say something,” announced a speaker. “Even his daughters don’t know: Joseph Bau was the prime graphic artist of the Mossad (Israel’s spy agency) – its chief forger.” 
“We were puzzled,” Hadasa says. “It took a few years to believe – until we had confirmation from a number of former spies.” 
The daughters have been told Bau was in continuous danger because “he knew all the secrets.” Based on knowledge shared after Bau’s death, Bau worked for the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal intelligence agency) for decades. 
He remained so deeply under cover in order to protect his family. Until after his death, his daughters did not know that Bau worked for the Mossad. We always thought of him as a quiet, simple man. “We’ve learned that his work included forging documents for spies,” says Clila. “including the paperwork Eli Cohen used to establish his position in Syria and the passports and papers needed for the team that captured Eichmann in Argentina.”
“He described himself as ‘just a draftsman,’” says Clila. “We now understand that the studio in Tel Aviv may have served as a cover for his essential work for the security of Israel. 
“Perhaps this was the reason that when a proposal was made to open a world class animation studio to be called Bau Geva, the plan was stopped. Greater fame would have brought greater attention. Instead, his expertise in animation was put to good use by the IDF and the Mossad. They are still not willing to show them to us.”
“He was never fearful and never limited,” says his daughter. “He had lived through so much, little could frighten him. My father was a bit of a Peter Pan – always full of laughter, able to find the positive in virtually every situation. Financial rewards were never his priority.”
The works of Joseph Bau have been exhibited throughout the world, including in America, Canada, Britain, Poland, Russia and China. In 2007, he was the first Israeli artist to have his works displayed in the halls of the United Nations. 
On January 12, 2021, an exhibition featuring his studies of the Hebrew language and his Holocaust paintings opened at the Museo do la Cuidad in Madrid where Bau’s work shares space with the papers of Albert Einstein. Both men are characterized by the museum director as “two of the most important Jewish thinkers in world history.” 
The B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem has officially recognized the extraordinary contributions of both Rebecca and Joseph Bau, citing them as “Jews who saved Jews.” Each has been awarded the “Jewish Rescuers Citation “acknowledging their “devotion, courage and heroism” to help save Jewish lives. 
“He was asked why he didn’t make ‘papers’ for himself and escape,” recalls Hadasa. “‘If I left,’ he answered, ‘who would save the others?’”
Joseph Bau was a man of small physical stature, yet his robust presence filled a room (including my living room, during a mid-1990s visit to Manhattan). With a full head of Ben-Gurion-esque white hair, a proverbial twinkle in his eye, and a humorous comment always on the ready, Bau lived a life that could have been scripted by Ian Fleming. Only after his death have some of the secrets of his life and work revealed. There is, his daughters believe, more to come. 
Maintaining a small museum is always a challenge, especially difficult during the pandemic. 
“When there are no visitors, there is no income, yet expenses continue.” say Hadasa and Clila Bau. A 2020 head-start drive raised 100,000 shekels – about $30,000 – which covered only a few months of operating expenses. The museum, desperately short of funds, is facing possible closure, and is in dire need of financial support.
The Bau sisters hope to keep the memory of their parents’ amazing life, preserving their father’s invaluable work for future generations. 
Prior to the pandemic, dozens of groups – schools, IDF recruits, senior citizens, tourists and Israeli and foreign visitors – came to the studio museum to enjoy a program of theatrical enactments and a very personalized lecture based on Bau’s experiences. 
“Dad said we should turn the studio into a theater. Today it is both a museum and a stage. We tell the story of our parents extraordinary, wonderful life, explaining the meaning of our father’s paintings, drawings and illustrations of the Hebrew language,” his two daughters say. “He was an inspiration. That is the legacy we carry forward.” 
To ensure continuity of this Israeli treasure, Joseph Bau House is actively seeking donors. Designated contributions made through P.E.F. Israel Endowment Fund are fully tax deductible. The museum also offers “named sponsorships for special projects.” 
Please visit its website, ■