The Ghetto

Matthew Whiman

What is it about the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a remarkable vestige of New York City’s Jewish past, that makes me think of Samuel Bak’s painting The Ghetto (1975–76)? It’s not the Moorish Revival facade, which looms over more modest structures near the Manhattan Bridge. It’s not the floors, worn with grooves from the feet of swaying worshippers—traces of the building’s improbable history, which wends back to 1887, when the Lower East Side had one of the largest concentrations of Jews on the planet, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe. It’s not the exquisite sanctuary: its faux marble walls, rich oak pews, jewel-toned windows, or glass lampshades resembling tulips—all beautiful, all as pristine as they were a century ago, thanks to a meticulous decades-long restoration following years of neglect. It’s not the beis medrash. It’s not the tchotchkes for sale in the visitor center.

I’m standing on the sanctuary’s balcony with my back to the chandelier, the ark and bimah illuminated below. Surveying the grandeur, my eyes linger over a ramshackle patch of plaster and lath. During the restoration, this strip of wall was left untouched on purpose. It’s a glimpse into the state of the holy place before the painstaking reconstruction, highlighting a dark period when immigration quotas, assimilation, and exodus from the neighborhood depleted the congregation, bleeding it of resources for the shul’s upkeep. I stare at the strips of gray wood. I search beyond them and see decay, something lost. It’s what I see when I look at The Ghetto.

A dense constellation of buildings sits in a desert. Its brittle surfaces overlap. Cracks expand and narrow into darkness. Windows are boarded, sealed with bricks. There are no doors anywhere. Off the center of this havoc a hole opens shaped like the Star of David. If the mass were a torso, this is where you would find the heart. Inside, more buildings collapse over one another, writhing almost, fighting their way to the surface as if gasping for air. The surrounding barrens recede toward the horizon, but a menacing cloud—of dust, or smoke—makes it impossible to tell where the ground ends and sky begins.

A cluster of dilapidated, windowless, stone buildings with a hole in the roof in the shape of the Star of David.
Samuel Bak, The Ghetto, 1975–76. Oil on linen. Gift of Samuel and Josée Bak, in honor of Suzanne and Bernard Pucker in acknowledgment of the joys of friendship and a journey shared, and painted in memory of the artist’s four grandparents who in 1940 were killed in the woods of Ponary. Reproduced with Permission.

Which ghetto is this? It could be the Vilna Ghetto, in Lithuania, where in 1941 the artist Samuel Bak, only a child, found himself confined, along with his parents and tens of thousands of other Jews from the city of Vilna, or Vilnius. More than 50,000 perished there. Of his extended family, Bak and his mother survived.

His talent was evident early on. The Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, who fought in the partisan resistance and rescued Jewish cultural artifacts with the Paper Brigade, met young Bak in the ghetto, saw how gifted he was, and helped exhibit his art. But Bak was more than just a prodigy: even under such hostile conditions he had an irrepressible need to create. Besides food and water, he desperately sought paper and pencils. He drew on whatever he could find. Recalling this yearning, Sutzkever once wrote, “this boy harbored something much stronger than those who set out to exterminate our people.”1

A young child with neatly combed hair sits in overalls and smiles beside a young man with tousled hair, round glasses, and a neat mustache.
Samuel Bak (right) with Avrom Sutzkever, 1944. Image courtesy of Pucker Gallery.

The work in MFA Boston’s collection isn’t Bak’s only portrayal of the ghetto; he returned to it again and again. It’s as if he were trying to reassemble the pieces. But you can still see the fissures, the rubble, the ruin. These impressions show different arrangements of the same devastation. In striving to recover what was lost, Bak emphasizes the enormity of that loss.

A cluster of dilapidated, windowless, stone buildings with a hole in the roof in the shape of the Star of David.
Samuel Bak, study for The Ghetto (Around the Ghetto), 1976. Crayon and pastel on paper. Image courtesy of Pucker Gallery.
A cluster of dilapidated, windowless, stone buildings with a hole in the roof in the shape of the Star of David.
Samuel Bak, Ghetto, 1995. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of Pucker Gallery.

The artist has said his work imparts “a sense of the world that was shattered, of a world that was broken, of a world that exists again through an enormous effort to put everything together, when it is absolutely impossible to put it together because broken things can never become whole again. But,” he continued, “we still can make something that looks as if it was whole and live with it.”

On Eldridge Street, almost everywhere I turn, the synagogue appears whole again. But none of it mesmerizes me like the exposed wall. It’s a reminder that, for all its splendor, this too is broken, and it’ll stay that way no matter how much work goes into reviving it. Just as Bak says of his paintings, “there is always something of that moment of destruction there.”

Sutzkever, Bak’s mentor from the Vilna Ghetto, begins one of his best-known poems by asking, “Who will last, what will last?” His answers are haunting:

The ocean’s raveled foam...
A cloud snagged by a tree...
the star that falls in a tear...
In the jug, a drop of wine...2

Where are the people? With each image, the absence of life becomes more apparent.

In an orange landscape, a large shattered teapot sits in ruin.
Samuel Bak, Elegy for Yiddish II, 1995. Oil on linen. Image courtesy of Pucker Gallery.

Bak has painted scenes of objects left behind ghostly enough to rival Sutzkever’s, but in The Ghetto he depicts less of an eerie void than one you cannot ignore. His monument is a mausoleum. It’s all that remains; beyond it there’s nothing. At the Eldridge Street Synagogue, too, amid the gorgeous proof of resilience, I can’t help but notice what hasn’t survived. Nowadays its congregation gathers in the basement. There aren’t enough Jews to fill the sanctuary.

In the final lines of his poem Sutzkever writes “God will last. // Isn’t that enough for you?” Indirectly or not, The Ghetto, it seems to me, is Bak’s response to his friend: take what lasts and rebuild all you want—it’s not enough. Of course it’s not, but it has to be. Without it what else is there?


1 Translated from the Yiddish by Justin D. Cammy in From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg: Memoir and Testimony (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021).

2 Translated from the Yiddish by Richard J. Fein in The Full Pomegranate: Poems of Avrom Sutzkever (Excelsior Editions, an imprint of the State University of New York Press, 2019).


Matthew Whiman is an editor at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.