The recurring theme of skeletons characterizes the work of Aba Bayefsky. From top to bottom: Belsen Concentration Camp—The Pit; All Quiet on the Western Front; Remembering The Holocaust.
Many war artists had a bitter time recording the images of war, but few more so than Aba Bayefsky. “I believe that art and politics—by politics I mean human interaction—go hand in hand. I’m a people painter. I’m not out on a mission, but I would like to think that what I have done will leave a record of what transpired. I am very sensitive to anti-Semitism, and would have thought that after those camps it would disappear…to me it is central to what I think and what I do.”
Bayefsky was born in Toronto on April 7, 1923. He was the second son of a Russian-born father and a Scottish-born mother. During his teen years he attended after-school classes at the Children’s Art Centre of the Art Gallery of Ontario. While there, he was encouraged by such artists as Arthur Lismer, Erma Sutcliffe, Dorothy Medhurst and A.Y. Jackson. “The centre was an experimental school…and was a key part of my art education,” he recalls.
Bayefsky enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942 and after winning a competition in 1944 he was given the rank of flying officer and appointed an official Canadian war artist.
He was attached to 39 Reconnaissance Wing of 2nd Tactical Air Force in early 1945. In May he was moved forward to an airbase in northern Germany.
“A few miles away was Bergen-Belsen concentration camp,” he recalls. “When I heard what was there I went immediately and it has clearly affected my thinking.”
On his first visit to the camp, he sketched a newly dug pit filled with the bodies of inmates. He returned in a week to sketch another pit and a starving German Jewish boy. The boy died the next day. On his third visit he sketched a slave worker.
Consumed with the inhumanity he witnessed, Bayefsky created symbolic oil paintings over a period of nearly 40 years. His dramatic color and recurring skeleton theme remain potent and rage against the atrocities of anti-Semitism.
Fifty-four pieces of his work form an exhibit under the title Reflections on the Holocaust: The Art of Aba Bayefsky. The exhibit will run at the Canadian War Museum until September.
The 75-year-old Toronto artist has moved on. Legend and folklore are now the subjects of his large canvases.
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