There is no need to engage in hyperbole or florid epithets when sketching a profile of Bau, who died in 2002 at the age of 81. In fact, he was fortunate to make it past his mid-20s, surviving several ghettos, a concentration camp and all manner of other horrific tests of his mettle along the way.
Some of that is today commemorated, nay, celebrated, at Joseph Bau House Museum, an independent boutique museum in downtown Tel Aviv that tells the extraordinary life story of an extraordinary person. The repository – which is run by Bau’s daughters Hadassah and Clilah Bau – has somehow managed to survive over the years on a shoestring budget, but is now running out of funds and may be forced to close down. The Baus have instigated a Headstart drive (headstart.co.il/project/60369) that is aiming to raise NIS 100,000 to keep the museum afloat, and to continue to enlighten the public about their father’s incredible journey on terra firma.
Bau was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1920 and died in Tel Aviv in 2002. Between those two temporal goalposts, he managed to wriggle his way out of numerous life-threatening situations, and even found love en route.
I first encountered Bau’s name, and learned of some of his amazing achievements, 20 years ago when I met his daughters at his studio on Berdichevsky Street off Rothschild Boulevard. It felt like stepping into an Aladdin’s cave. The cozily proportioned premises were stuffed to the rafters with specimens of Bau’s wide-ranging graphic work, including posters he crafted for early Israeli movies, such as the iconic 1964 dark comedy about aliyah and absorption Sallah Shabati, starring Haim Topol. There were also examples of his animation work, paintings, caricatures, graphics, copies of the nine books he has put out over the years, and evidence of his immersive research into the Hebrew language.
For Bau the latter was a labor of love, which helped him bond with the country and culture he had dreamed about almost all his life.
“Reaching Israel was the fulfillment of an ambition he had since the age of 13,” says Clilah. “He talks about that in his book Shnot Tarzach.” Typically, the title of the book is a play on words. By slightly altering the punctuation you get tirzach, which translates as “you shall murder,” while as an abbreviation, the four letters in Hebrew spell out the year 5698, which equates to 1938-39 in the Gregorian calendar and possibly references the outbreak of World War Two. The tome contains Bau’s recollections of the Holocaust and his life in Israel, and is liberally seasoned with comical word play, and dark and sometimes raucous humor. It has been translated into seven languages, including English, Arabic and Chinese.
I met Bau in his apartment after visiting the studio with his daughters. He was a slight, gentle-looking, well-groomed character, with a full head of snow-white hair, but he had lost his power of speech following the death of his wife, Rivka (née Tennenbaum), three years earlier. Rivka was the love of his life who, in fact, saved his life by giving him her place at Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow, which employed hundreds of Jews, and saved around 1,200. Happily, Rivka subsequently survived Auschwitz and was reunited with her husband in Krakow, where they lived until they made aliyah in 1950.
They met in Plaszów concentration camp near Krakow. It was love at first sight and, incredibly, the couple contrived to get married there, after Bau snuck into the women’s quarters, with the other female inmates standing guard. The nuptials were immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar Award-winning epic Schindler’s List, which Joseph and Rivka went to see, notwithstanding their daughters’ remonstrations.
“WE DIDN’T want our parents to see the movie, but they said it was their duty, toward all those who were murdered,” Hadassah recalls. “We were very concerned and sat on either side of them [in the cinema]. During the movie, when they showed something terrible, we asked dad, ‘Was it like that?’ and he replied, ‘It was 10 times worse!’ Dad also said that the movie was a work of genius, and that if Spielberg had shown all the horrors, no one would have gone to see it.”
One of the more remarkable aspects of Bau’s unimaginable life odyssey is the fact that he not only got by in Hebrew, he mastered it to such an extent that he was able to sculpt it, and mine its nuances and vagaries to a level achieved by few born into the language. That comes across succinctly in, for example, his 1987 book, Brit Mila, again a play of words that can reference the Jewish circumcision ceremony for male babies or translate as Covenant of a Word.
As a trained graphic artist who studied German Gothic lettering before the Holocaust – a skill that also helped him to survive by providing that service to German officers in Krakow Ghetto and later at Plaszów – he was also, naturally, drawn to its aesthetics. He also used his graphic skills to save the lives of many Jews by forging papers for them. Those heroic efforts were recently recognized by the B’nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem when it posthumously awarded Bau its Jewish Rescuers Citation.
He created a number of Hebrew fonts that found their way into the country’s earliest animation works and commercials. As he was there at the very inception of the field in the young State of Israel, he had to start from scratch. That included crafting the lighting, cameras and other requisite equipment out of old X-ray apparatus and refitting all kinds of machinery to get the job done.
Although Hadassah and Clilah say their parents were not coy about their Holocaust experiences, Bau kept one aspect of his work to himself. It was only several years after his death that the Bau daughters learned of their father’s espionage work for the Mossad.
“His work included forging papers for spies,” says Clilah. “That included documents for [Israeli spy in Syria] Eli Cohen and the whole team that went [to Argentina] to capture [Adolf] Eichmann.
”Bau might have had an easier life in the States, but opted to stay here.
“Our father’s dream was to make animated films, but there was no awareness of cartoons in Israel then, so he worked in graphics and creating fonts for movies,” Hadassah explains. “His brother wanted him to come to New York to work as an animator, but he didn’t want to leave Israel, which was everything to him.”
His expertise in that field was also put to good use by the Israeli security forces.
“We discovered he made classified animated films for the IDF and Mossad, but they are not willing to show us the movies.
”Our chat is interspersed by lots of laughing, and the daughters say there was plenty of merriment at home.
“He taught me to write songs, all with humor, and he taught Clilah to tell jokes,” Hadassah notes with yet another peal of laughter.
Now the Baus just want to keep the memory of their parents’ amazing life, and their father’s invaluable work, alive. Prior to the pandemic, tours of the studio included theatrical enactments of some of Bau’s experiences.
“Dad said we should turn the studio into a theater. Today it is a museum/theater where we perform and tell the story of the place and the wonderful life story of our parents, illustrated by his paintings and drawings of the Hebrew language.
”The idea is also to convey some much-needed positive vibes, particularly in these trying times.
“Our father always wanted to make people happy,” says Clilah. “He always said, ‘If we were happy in the darkest of times, everyone can learn the meaning of happiness and love from us.’ That’s what we do.”