New Samuel Bak Museum and Academic Learning Center set to open at UNO campus


Sara Meadows

The Samuel Bak Academic Learning Center and Museum will be a collaborative organization that will highlight human rights, genocide, the Holocaust and other themes. Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The future Samuel Bak Museum and Academic Learning Center will feature art and social justice, education, visual testimonies and memories regarding the Holocaust.

The opening date of the museum is still being determined. In total, 512 works of art by Samuel Bak have been donated to the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The museum and academic learning center will be a vibrant hub for inquiry. Guests will engage in meaningful discussions about the Holocaust—the museum will explore the abundance of the human experience and will invite students of all ages to actively learn through engagement, artworks and exhibitions.

The focus will be directed toward forming a connection between the art of Samuel Bak and students. Direct experiential opportunities will also be offered to not only students, but faculty members of UNO as well, by participating in integral aspects of museum and archiving practices.

Recent studies have shown the positive outcome of Holocaust education. One study revealed that students who study the Holocaust are more empathetic, tolerant and engaged. Those who learn about the Holocaust and its impact can recognize the dangers of discrimination and the importance of being an upstander.

Mark Celinscak is the Principal Investigator of the UNO big idea that helped establish the Samuel Bak Museum and Academic Learning Center on campus. He is also the Executive Director of Sam and Frances Fried Holocaust and Genocide Academy, which will be a part of Samuel Bak Academic Learning center.

“Helping bring the art of Samuel Bak to the UNO community has been a dream come true,” says Celinscak.

When Celinscak arrived at UNO in 2016, he reached out to Bernie Pucker, whose gallery has represented Bak since 1969, to explore ways of bringing the art of Samuel Bak to the UNO campus. In 2019, the Fried Academy initiated an exhibition titled WITNESS: The Art of Samuel Bak. They partnered with UNO’s Natan and Hannah Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies to bring 70 original Bak Pieces to campus.

Why does our community, and so many others around the world, connect so strongly to the art of Samuel Bak?

“His work speaks about brokenness. Whether it is economic devastation, illness, displacement or other forms of loss, a wide range of communities can relate,” says Celinscak.

Samuel Bak was born in 1933 in Vilna, Poland, at an important moment in modern history. From 1940 to 1944, Vilna was under Soviet and then German occupation. Bak’s artistic talent was first recognized during an exhibition of his work in the Ghetto of Vilna when he was only nine years old.

While Bak and his mother survived, his father and four grandparents all perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Since 1959, Bak has had numerous exhibitions in major museums, galleries and universities throughout Europe, Israel and the United States. In 1993, he settled in Massachusetts and became an American citizen. He has also been the subject of two documentary films and was the recipient of the 2002 German Herkomer Cultural Prize.

“There is an opportunity,” says Celinscak, “for the Samuel Bak Museum to become a cultural and intellectual focal point not only for UNO, but for the city of Omaha, the state of Nebraska and the entire Midwest region.”