As a teenager, Aba Bayefsky studied at the Children’s Art Centre of the Art Gallery of Ontario. He continued to study art during high school, after which, in 1942, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. After winning a competition in 1944, Bayefsky was appointed as an official Canadian war artist. In May 1945 he was moved to an airbase in northern Germany where “a few miles away was Bergen-Belsen concentration camp,” he recalled. “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. The inhumanity he witnessed was reflected in his work throughout his life.
Bayefsky was fascinated with his Jewish heritage. He made thousands of sketches and paintings of Kensington Market, the colorful downtown Toronto neighborhood that was once predominantly Jewish, and he often used Biblical and Talmudic themes in his work. The Canadian government gave a copy of Bayefsky’s “Tales from the Talmud” portfolio to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin when he visited Canada. Bayefsky also created works based on Canadian native peoples’ legends and mythology. His lifelong exploration of the human figure led to a large series of works depicting tattooed people.
Bayefsky taught at the Ontario College of Art for more than thirty years. He served as president of the Canadian Group of Painters. In 1958, he was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In 1979 he was appointed to the Order of Canada.
Bayefsky had more than 42 solo exhibitions during his lifetime and his work can be found in major public and private collections across Canada and internationally, including the Canadian War Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. In 1989 he had a major retrospective at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.