by Bennett Muraskin
ALTHOUGH ARTHUR SZYK (1894-1951) is best known today for his Illuminated Hagaddah (1940), still widely used at Passover seders, he was in many ways a political artist, a self-described “soldier in art,” who used his talents to attack fascism, call for the rescue to European Jewry from Nazi-occupied Europe, promote the American war effort and make the case for a Jewish state in Israel. At the same time, he was a commercial artist and book illustrator whose illustrations appeared on the cover of major magazines such as Life, Time, Look, Fortune, Esquire and Colliers, not to mention the covers of the Manhattan and Brooklyn telephone directories. He also illustrated Hans Christian Anderson tales, to the delight of children everywhere.
Szyk was born in Lodz, an industrial city in Poland, then part of the tsarist empire, into a wealthy family. As a teenager, he studied art in Paris and Krakow. He was drafted into the tsarist Army in World War I and saw combat against the German army in 1914, but may have deserted, only to turn up as a soldier for independent Poland fighting against the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1921. During that struggle, he became the artistic director of the army’s propaganda department in Lodz. He then immediately returned to Paris with his wife Julia and remained there until 1934, before returning to Lodz for the last time.
In 1922, he traveled to Morocco to paint a portrait of the pasha of Marrakesh. By then he had developed into a successful artist who was honored by both the government of France and Poland. Among his best-known paintings are those that memorialize the Statute of Kalisz, a charter issued ion 1264 by King Boleslaw the Pious that guaranteed Jews peace and security in Poland, and those that portray Jews in a variety of roles making vital contributions to the fabric of Polish society and its long struggle for independence.
Rising antisemitism drove Szyk from Poland to London in 1937. In 1940, he came to the U.S. via Canada, to win North American support for Great Britain and Poland’s struggle against Nazi Germany, but decided to remain and make the U.S. his and his family’s permanent home. Szyk lost his mother and other relatives in the Holocaust.
HIS STRONG anti-fascist principles were reflected in his art from the time of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. In a pencil drawing, he depicted Hitler dressed as a pharaoh. This was but one of his many searing caricatures of the Nazi dictator, Mussolini and Hirohito. A collection of these works, The New Order, appeared in 1941.
The Polish Pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair featured many of Szyk’s paintings depicting the contributions of Polish Americans and the connections between the two countries. The exhibit lasted longer than independent Poland, which was invaded and dismembered by Germany and the Soviet Union after the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939. Yet as the war drew to a close, Szyk came to support Soviet domination of the land of his birth.
During World War II, Szyk’s art was in keeping with the patriotic spirit of the Popular Front that aligned the left and the Roosevelt administration. His paintings glorifying George Washington and the American Revolution, exhibited at the Library of Congress in 1934, were displayed once again. His illustration of FDR’s famous Four Freedoms Speech was so popular that they were reproduced as postage stamps. His most impressive painting from this era, Arsenal for Democracy (at right), depicted American workers producing weapons, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. It appeared on the cover of Colliers.
Szyk replaced Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Suess) as the political cartoonist for the leftwing newspaper PM when Geisel joined the army. This gave full rein to Szyk’s anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-war sentiments. Commissioned by the War Department, he created an illustration, Fool the Axis—Use Prophylaxis, urging American soldiers to avoid venereal disease (below). Posters of his drawings supporting the war effort were distributed by the thousands, leading Eleanor Roosevelt called him a “one man army.” He also created a portrait of the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet, Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor.
After the war, Szyk’s political cartoons exposed lynchings, advocated for civil rights, denounced anti-communist hysteria, and supported Henry Wallace’s bid for the presidency in 1948. All of this landed him in hot water with the House Un-American Activities Committee, but before he was called to testify, he died of a heart attack in 1951. The prominent Conservative Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
Szyk’s art always had a strong Jewish component and many of his paintings include religious imagery. Although a secular-minded Jew, he had great respect for Jewish tradition. In addition to his famous Hagaddah, he did illustrations for many books of the Bible and paintings based the rivalry between of Saul and David and the warrior Bar Kokhba. His triptych of Jews suffering in tsarist Russia, medieval Spain and Roman Palestine explored the theme of Jewish martyrdom. Anti-Nazism and Jewish pride are evident in his 1945 painting, Samson in the Ghetto, his tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (detail below).
His six months in Palestine in 1914 inspired a lifetime of Zionist fervor. A friend of right-wing Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, he illustrated his novel Samson the Nazarite. During the war, he supported the campaign launched by maverick Zionist Peter Bergson and writer Ben Hecht to pressure the Roosevelt administration to take decisive action to rescue European Jews. In 1943, he illustrated Hecht’s poem, “Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe,” juxtaposing images of murdered Jews to an indifferent American soldier, representing the U.S. government. His art on appeared in ads in the New York Times placed by the Bergson’s and Hecht’s Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe.
After the war, in 1946, Szyk produced Pilgrims, a painting that pairs the Mayflower bringing Europeans fleeing persecution to America’s shores with a passenger ship of Jewish refugees seeking entrance to Palestine. He commemorated the establishment of Israel in 1948 by creating an illuminated version of the Hebrew text of its Declaration of Independence.
IN READING Naomi Prager Kadar’s Raising Secular Jews: Yiddish School and Their Periodicals for American Children 1917-1950, a book that I reviewed for Jewish Currents, I learned that in the 1944, Szyk became the illustrator for Kinder Zhurnal, the children’s magazine of the Sholem Aleichem Folk Institute, an organization dedicated to secular Yiddishkayt. As Kadar wrote, Szyk’s cover art “portrays three children enjoying the bounty of a childhood in American…One cannot look at the childlike surroundings of these American children…without recalling…the plight of their European cousins at the same juncture of history. It is the allusive quality of Szyk’s illustrations that endow it with painful poignancy in spite of its ostensibly cheerful subject.”
Szyk’s popularity as an artist faded in after his death, with the exception of his Haggadah, but this may change. There have recently been exhibits of his art at the Magnes museum, housed in University of California in Berkeley, and the New York Historical Society, with a book of his wartime illustrations, Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art, edited by curator Irwin Ungar as a companion volume. Positive reviews have appeared in The Jewish Review of Books, the Forward, Tablet and elsewhere. The consensus is that his vibrant and richly detailed artistic creations paintings are timeless.
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books. He last appeared here with “Jewish Heretics and Heretical Jews.”