Mendel Mann (1916-1975) was raised in a Polish shtetl (Jewish community), studied painting in Warsaw and became a writer. He fought in the Red Army against the Nazis during the Second World War. After 1945 he settled in Lodz, but was forced to flee following the Kielce Pogrom, in which Poles murdered holocaust survivors. He settled in Israel in 1948. Mann established an international reputation as a novelist with the publication of his war trilogy, At the Gates of Moscow, On the Vistula and The Fall of Berlin, in 1956-1960. He emigrated to Paris in the 1960s and became friendly with Chagall, who, having grown up in a similar cultural and religious environment, shared Mann's interest in bearing witness to the traditions, lore and sufferings of the vanishing Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. In 1967-1969 Chagall illustrated Mann's collection of stories on this theme, Le Chêne Noir.
Chagall has depicted Mann in the present work holding a book, which signifies his role as a story-teller and keeper of memories. He bows reverently in testimony to the travails and the sad fate of a shtetl in Eastern Europe. The houses in flames at upper right recall the history of pogroms and the Holocaust; the flying figures, normally a romantic expression in Chagall's work, are here instead emblematic of the departing spirits of the inhabitants of this lost world.