By Daniel Horowitz - Television has been referred to as a “vast wasteland”. But for 84-year-old Torontonian and Holocaust survivor Gerda Frieberg, television recently served as a portal into her past.
It was 5 a.m. when Gerda, a past chair of Canadian Jewish Congress Ontario Region, a member of United Jewish Appeal’s Atarah Division and, in 1985, the founding chair of UJA’s Holocaust Education Centre, unable to sleep, turned on the set to help pass the time from dark to light.
It was then, sitting on the couch, that she began flipping from channel to channel when, suddenly, she saw a face - a face that took her back more than 60 years.
It was the face of renowned artist Samuel Bak, now 76, a man who Gerda had first met during her time in a Displaced Persons Camp in the German town of Landsberg from 1945 to 1949.
She still remembered Samuel as the fresh-faced young boy of 12 or 13 who accompanied his mother on her regular visits to Gerda - the camp’s consummate seamstress - who made many of her clothes.
With every visit to Gerda, Samuel’s mom expressed how she yearned for him to be able to showcase his remarkable gift as a painter. She worried that he might never have the opportunity to fully tap into his talents as the times were uncertain, to say the least.
“She was always talking about her son,” remembers Gerda. “She would tell me how talented he was and how she was determined to get Samuel into an art school in Munich. Nothing was more important; she just knew he would become a great artist given the opportunity. I often wondered over the years what ever happened to her son.”
Now, thanks to the show on Bravo early that morning which highlighted Samuel Bak and many of his paintings depicting the Holocaust, Gerda’s questions were finally answered.
But it was one painting in particular that caught Gerda’s attention.
One of the last paintings shown was, as Samuel explained to the host, from that same Landsberg DP Camp where Gerda first met little Samuel.
“This is when I first realized that the artist on this television show could be the son of my old customer,” recalls Gerda. “That prompted me to wait for the credits to roll where I found the artist’s name and the gallery that represented him.”
For the past 40 years, many of Bak’s works have been on display at the Pucker Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts.
“Would you by any chance be the young boy I met in Landsberg?” Gerda wrote in a letter to Samuel after seeing the show. “If so, then your mother’s dream came through; she must have been so proud of you, as any mother would be. I would very much like to hear from you…”
This summer, soon after sending the letter, Gerda was on a plane to Massachusetts to reconnect with the successful artist.
“I had always thought about Samuel, and wanted to reconnect with him after all these years,” says Gerda. “But, until that television show, I couldn’t remember his last name. Every time I saw a painting depicting the Holocaust, I thought it might be his. I was never sure, but always curious. Now, I finally knew for sure.”
Gerda, so impressed with her friend’s work, is in the midst of trying to bring Bak’s exhibit to Toronto.
“You don’t see artists today with this kind of vision and insight,” she says. “I can’t get over it; it’s just unbelievable. My focus is on the children; educating them about the Holocaust and what children their age endured during the Shoah.”
And what did Samuel think of seeing his mother’s former seamstress after more than six decades?
“Gerda has the most exceptional energy; her incredible spirit and energy are jaw-dropping,” says Bak. “Very few people could have gone through what she did and then go on to live the extraordinary life she did. She is truly an exceptional lady.”
“Samuel could have been one amongst the millions to perish in the Holocaust, but, instead, look what he became; look what he has contributed,” marvels Gerda. “He became an important, famous painter, relaying the essential stories of the Holocaust through his paintings and what could be more important than that?”