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Obituaries

Joseph Bau, 81; Israeli Artist, Animator, Holocaust Survivor

June 13, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joseph Bau, a renowned Israeli artist and Holocaust survivor whose secret marriage in a concentration camp in Poland was immortalized in "Schindler's List" and whose own wartime efforts enabled more than 400 fellow Jews to escape, has died. He was 81.

Bau, who was among the 1,100 Jews saved by Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler, died May 24 in a Tel Aviv hospital, where he had undergone treatment for pneumonia.

After immigrating to Israel in 1950, Bau became known in the media as the Israeli Walt Disney for introducing animation to his new country.

He produced animated shorts for movie theaters and television, produced animated public service announcements and created the opening and closing titles and credits for virtually every Israeli movie made from the 1950s through the '70s.

In his later years, Bau received acclaim for his oil paintings, which have been exhibited in galleries and Jewish community centers across the United States and Canada, bearing witness to the tragedies of the Holocaust and the perseverance of hope in human nature.

Bau also wrote a well-received wartime memoir, "Dear God, Have You Ever Gone Hungry?" The book, which is illustrated with his dramatic pen and ink drawings, was published in Hebrew in 1982 and in English, by Arcade Publishing, in 1998.

Despite the horrors, Bau viewed his wartime experiences as a series of miracles, one of which was meeting his wife, Rebecca, in Plaszow, a concentration camp on the outskirts of Krakow.

Bau didn't discover until decades later that his beloved, who was sent to Auschwitz when Plaszow closed, had arranged to have his name added to Schindler's list.

The son of middle-class, secular Jewish parents, Bau was born in Krakow in 1920.

He displayed artistic talent at an early age and entered Krakow University as an art major in 1938.

His art studies came to an abrupt halt the next year, when German troops invaded Poland and later herded Krakow's Jews into a walled ghetto.

While at the university, Bau had learned Gothic lettering, and his ability landed him a job producing maps and signs for the Nazis, first in the ghetto and then in Plaszow, where many of the prisoners worked in the nearby factory run by Schindler.

Bau's job enabled him to forge documents and identity papers that allowed more than 400 Jews to escape the ghetto and the camp.

Years later, when asked why he hadn't forged documents for himself, Bau replied: "Then who would have done it for the other Jews?"

"He had a mission to save people," his daughter, Clila Bau-Cohen, said by telephone from her home near Tel Aviv.

"We would say, 'Tell us, aren't you sad you had to go through this hell for five years?' He said, 'If I did escape, how would I have met Mom?'

"That's how our parents raised us: In everything bad, there's always something good coming out of it."

When Bau met 19-year-old Rebecca Tannenbaum, she was serving as manicurist for Amon Goeth, the sadistic camp commandant who routinely tortured the prisoners and shot them for sport.

He kept a gun at Rebecca's elbow, warning that he would shoot her if she so much as nicked or scratched him.

For Jews in the camp, courtship could be just as lethal.

Knowing that couples who were caught merely holding hands would be executed, Bau and Tannenbaum shared their first kiss at night behind the latrine.

And even though any man who was caught in the women's camp after the gate closed would be shot instantly, Bau went ahead with their clandestine wedding.

He traded four loaves of bread for a silver spoon and paid four more loaves to the jeweler in the camp watchmakers' shop to turn the silver into two wedding rings.

Then, on the night of Feb. 13, 1944, Bau exchanged his striped cap for the white kerchief that women used to cover their shaved heads and sneaked into his mother's hut in the women's camp.

There, as he and his bride stood next to his mother's bunk, she performed the unofficial wedding ceremony.

Bau later scoffed at Steven Spielberg's cinematic version of the wedding, in which friends build a makeshift ceremonial wedding tent out of a bedsheet held up by two brooms.

"That's complete nonsense," Bau told a reporter. "Whoever heard of sheets in a camp--we slept on rags."

After the ceremony, the newlyweds went to Rebecca's hut, where they climbed up to her pallet on the third tier and waited for the lights to go out. They never did: The Germans had begun searching the women's quarters for concealed men.

It was too late for Bau to escape, so his bride and two of her bunk mates covered him with the rags they usually used as pillows and he lay hidden beneath their heads while they pretended to be asleep.

They knew the guards' search had ended when they heard the screams of two young men who had been discovered and were beaten to death.

Only a miracle, Bau wrote in his memoir, had saved him from being discovered.

But he knew he wasn't safe yet after hearing the blare of a siren calling all the men in the camp to the mustering grounds.

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