Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Comic books and cartoon strips are not limited to costumed superheroes and pictures for children. On the contrary, contemporary cartoons may be seen as an art form and as an important platform for editorial opinion, political commentary and biting satire. As an example of the power of cartoons, one need hardly look further than the 2015 murder by Islamic terrorists of six staff members of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical publication, in response to the publication of cartoons they deemed offensive.

There can hardly be a subject that might, at first blush, be considered more unsuitable for cartoons than the Holocaust. Yet they played a more crucial role in provoking anti-Nazi sentiment, generating support for the victims of the Shoah, and engendering publicity regarding the Holocaust, than hundreds of essays, articles, and newspaper reports ever could.


I have several original Holocaust cartoons in my collection, and I present here four of my favorites, along with their fascinating backstories.

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Dr. Seuss: the first Holocaust cartoon?

Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka “Dr. Seuss” (1904-1991), is best known as an American children’s author and cartoonist who wrote and illustrated more than 60 books, which include some of the most popular children’s books of all time, selling over 600 million copies.

Less known is the fact that he was a champion of the rights of American Jews. He personally experienced antisemitism when, in his college days, he was refused entry into certain circles because of a misperception that he was Jewish: “I had black hair and a long nose, and it took a year and a half before the word got out that I wasn’t (Jewish).” In fact, Dr. Seuss/Geisel was a practicing Lutheran who often spoke out in support of equal opportunity for Jews. As just one notable example, though he supported the establishment by the University of California of a local campus in his beloved La Jolla, where he maintained his mountaintop home, he sternly warned civic and church audiences that they could never develop a great university until they ceased discriminating against Jews, specifically with respect to home ownership.

Many of Geisel’s whimsical children’s books contain serious World War II and Holocaust themes. For example, Yertle the Turtle is a cautionary tale against fascism and dictators (Geisel later stated that Yertle was meant to serve as a metaphor for Hitler – “Originally, Yertle had a moustache, but I took it off”). In The Sneetches, his powerful critique of antisemitism, members of a group sport stars on their stomachs as a sign of their supremacy and to maintain their oppressive social domination over others; Geisel’s specific use of stars was inspired by the Yellow Magen David that the Nazis required Jews to wear on their clothing to be immediately identifiable as Jews.

Even the Cat in the Hat’s famous red-and-white-striped hat has a political predecessor in the top hat that Uncle Sam wore in Geisel’s wartime cartoons. Most people are unaware that Geisel was a highly influential political cartoonist during World War II and that some of the characters from his beloved children’s books, reflecting the distinctive artistic style that we all have come to recognize as “Seussian,” made their initial appearances in the 400 political cartoons he drew from 1941 to 1943 for PM, a left-wing New York daily. His drawings, which savage Hitler, Japan, Mussolini and isolationist American leaders, whom he characterized as “American enemies of democracy,” urge readers to give full support to the war effort, put up with shortages, and buy U.S. savings bonds. The cadence, rhyme and penchant for silly words for which he is now famous were all evident even in his first cartoons for PM.

Geisel’s wartime cartoons denounced American discrimination against Jews and called attention to the early stages of the Holocaust. Displayed here is the original famous July 20, 1942, cartoon through which he became one of the first cartoonists, if not the very first, to publicly suggest the Holocaust and the fate of Jews under Hitler. He depicts a forest filled with corpses hanging from the trees with a sign reading “Jew” pinned to each body. With the day’s lynching completed, Hitler, with an extra rope draped over his arm, and Vichy French leader Pierre Laval, are shown singing happily: “Only [G-d] can make a tree, to furnish sport for you and me.” (The line “Only [G-d] can make a tree” is from Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem, Trees.)

Geisel published this cartoon in response to the infamous Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup (code-named “Operation Spring Breeze”), a Nazi operation in which the Vichy French Government played a key collaborationist role in the internment and extermination of Europe’s Jews. The raid began on July 16, 1942, when the French police arrested and confined 13,152 Jews in the insufferable summer heat, including 4,051 children and 5,802 women, virtually without food, water or sanitary facilities, at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a bicycle velodrome and stadium. After five days, the survivors were deported to Auschwitz.

Laval gave the order to round up children under age 16, which was enthusiastically carried out by the Vichy authorities. In classic Nazi “Big Lie” fashion, he characterized the children’s round-up as a “humanitarian” measure to facilitate keeping families together but, in fact, the parents had already been deported, and surviving documents show that Laval’s principal concern was to dispose of Jewish children. On July 16, 1995, French President Jacques Chirac – after more than half a century of fierce French resistance to the idea – apologized for the complicit role played by French policemen and civil servants in the raid. The Vel’ d’Hiv round-ups became engraved in French national memory as a symbol of national guilt and of France’s responsibility for the Holocaust of French Jews.

Geisel undertook a specific campaign against Father Coughlin, a notorious Catholic priest who preached a continuous stream of antisemitic rhetoric on his national radio show and monthly magazine; through his cartoons, Geisel played an important part in quashing Coughlin’s hate speech and in muting the priest’s effect on the American public. He also had the courage to frequently take on Charles A. Lindbergh, the American hero popular for the first trans-Atlantic flight, whom he vilified and lampooned for his anti-interventionist and antisemitic ideas. In December 1944, he visited Europe to premiere one of his educational films before military brass and took the opportunity to visit concentration camps at Strudhof and Shirmek and, in a diary that he kept of the trip, he wrote that he found “enough horrors to condemn the Nazi system forever (atrocities).”

Space limitations only permit me to present my favorite Dr. Seuss Holocaust cartoon, but his many drawings remain among the most striking and memorable of the genre.

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Michael Califano’s The Ignominy of the Twentieth Century (1934).

Michael Califano (1889-1979) was an artist who became internationally renowned as “a poet with a paintbrush.” Born in Naples, Italy, he served as court painter for Vittorio Emanuele III, the king of Italy, and later became a prominent American portraitist.

After graduating the Fine Arts Academy of Naples, Califano was sent to the front during World War I and commissioned by Emanuele to paint the king’s beloved war scenes. He became deaf while performing that work, possibly because of a childhood hearing problem exacerbated by the constant bombardment. Upon returning to Rome, he became a painter in the king’s court and gave lessons to Queen Elena, but he wanted to seek his fortune as an artist in the United States. Deaf and not knowing a word of English, he set out for America in 1922, instructing his wife and three children to follow later.

He almost didn’t make it. He was detained at Ellis Island because the annual quota for Italian immigrants had been exceeded, and he also faced the threat of imminent deportation because of his deafness. To prove to skeptical immigration authorities that he was indeed an artist capable of supporting himself through his work, he rendered an image of New York Harbor, which delighted them. He then found a scrap of wood, asked a young Dutch girl sitting nearby to pose for him, and quickly produced a portrait that not only captivated the imagination of immigration officials but was also later published on the front page of a local newspaper, which ran an accompanying account of the artist’s detention on Ellis Island. The portrait, which was also displayed at the City Club, was soon brought to the attention of Secretary of Labor James J. Davis, who promptly ordered Califano’s release and approved his status as a new immigrant.

Califano established a studio in New York City, where he specialized in portraits and also came to be broadly recognized as a gifted landscape artist. He later established a branch studio in Washington, D.C., where he painted many of America’s celebrities and dignitaries, including FDR, Wendell Wilkie and Lindbergh. His famous portrait of Rudolph Valentino in a toreador outfit sold for nearly $12,000, almost $200,000 in today’s dollars.

Califano became a great friend of the Jews, whose assistance and cooperation he credited with much of his success as an artist in America. Outraged by Hitler’s tormenting of the Jews in Germany, he created The Ignominy of the Twentieth Century (1934), a life-sized mural depicting Hitler trying to terrorize Albert Einstein, and he used the painting as a model for postcards that he sold to raise funds for Jewish refugees from Germany. As the artist explained:

Jews are my best friends here. They took care of my art and paid real money for it. I painted this picture as an expression of my feeling and sympathy for the Jewish people. Hitler must go to hell!

Feeling compelled to do more to show his friendship for the Jews in a more concrete form, Califano decided to print, at his own expense, a million color postcards reproducing The Ignominy of the Twentieth Century and to sell them nationally for the benefit of Jewish refugees from the Nazis. He commenced discussions with the American Jewish Congress for it to take charge of the sales, and the first batch of cards was produced in May 1934. He ended up printing some five million cards, which he sold at six for 25 cents.

The very rare and original card displayed here portrays a despondent Einstein facing a fist-clenched Fuhrer, who stands next to a brown-shirted stormtrooper. An arm holding a sword dripping with blood is seen behind them, and the inscription on the back of the card reads “Neither hatred nor persecution can stay the progress of science and civilization.”

Among the people deeply touched by the work was Einstein himself, who wrote to Califano expressing his admiration for the artist’s courage and humanitarianism in standing up for Jews. He also later visited Califano after “German Bund” goons in New York, so disturbed by this anti-Nazi depiction, beat the artist almost to death.

As Califano told the story, he was at work in his Manhattan studio at 40 West 53rd Street on May 16, 1935, preparing for a major show that was to open the next day, when three men entered the studio and asked to purchase a reproduction of Ignominy. As he turned to pull some of the postcards from the cabinet where he stored them, he was overcome as they dragged him across the room, tied him to a steam pipe, put the muzzle of a handgun into his mouth and, after a time, beat him unconscious. Before fleeing, they slashed 30 of his most prized paintings, most of them dealing with Jewish subjects and including Glory – Flag Day, an homage to America, his beloved adopted country. He was found the next afternoon by Soloman Shapiro, his financial backer, who reported to the West 47th Street precinct police that he found the artist unconscious and lashed to the pipe.

By the time Detective William Holzher arrived, Califano had been untied by Shapiro, and the police quickly dismissed the artist’s account of what had happened. The detective reported that he found no marks on Califano’s head, where he had ostensibly been beaten; Flower Hospital released him the next day, having found no serious injuries; and three house painters working outside at the time of the attack reported that they had not seen anyone enter the building. The police noted wryly that the media had been called before the police; that the victim, who alleged that he had been subject to a sustained attack, could not describe any of the attackers; and that Califano had moved to the building only one day earlier, his address was not listed, and he could not explain how the Nazi thugs could have found the address. The police concluded that there was no evidence that the crime had been committed by Nazis or by Nazi sympathizers.

However, in reaching that tenuous conclusion, the authorities all but closed their eyes to critical arguments presented by Califano and his son, Victor. First, and most significantly: though Ignominy, which was viciously slashed to shreds, was clearly the main target of the attackers, the assailants apparently exercised great care in their vandalism because the figure of Hitler was left entirely untouched.

Second, Califano had been scheduled to present Ignominy and his other paintings of Jewish interest at the World Jewish Congress in New York only a few weeks later, on May 27, 1935, and it is inconceivable that he would undermine, let alone utterly destroy, the hard work he had invested in preparation for the exhibit.

Third, when the Nazis set out to maim or kill, they often shadowed their putative victims, became familiar with their comings and goings, and carefully planned their attack. Fourth, any suggestion that Califano faked his injuries and destroyed his own work was not only inconsistent with the very essence of the man but, more significantly, was laughable given that his $25,000 insurance policy did not cover vandalism. In fact, many of the ruined paintings had been loaned to him by collectors who had purchased them and, because his insurance did not cover the loss, he was left with debts that took much of his life to repay. But repay them he did.

Finally, the arc of Califano’s subsequent life left little doubt that he had been the victim of a terrible crime, made worse by the fact that it was never prosecuted and that the perpetrators were never caught. Above and beyond his financial ruin, his mental damages were greater: he was so distraught that he destroyed almost everything he painted, and the gifted artist, whose heart bled red for the Jewish people, spent the rest of his life as a virtual recluse until his death in December 1979 at age 90.

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Arthur Szyk program incorporating his famous Holocaust “We Will Never Die” drawing.

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) was an extraordinarily meticulous craftsman, a biting political activist and unapologetic propagandist, a skilled cartoonist and painstaking caricaturist, and a successful commercial artist and book illustrator. A “soldier with a paintbrush,” he is perhaps best known for his political caricatures during World War II when, as America’s most prominent anti-fascist artist, he savaged Nazi leaders and the leading personalities of the Axis powers.

Szyk’s work is notable for its rejection of contemporary avant garde artistic styles in favor of medieval painting, particularly as expressed in illuminated Renaissance manuscripts. Noted for its refined draftsmanship and decorative calligraphy, his illustrations and caricature work are celebrated for their rich diversity of brilliant and wondrous color, which exhibit the luminosity of medieval Gothic stained-glass windows; for their meticulous attention to the most minute detail; for their beautifully decorative Hebrew lettering; and for their keen fidelity to Jewish tradition and legend.


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Szyk was born into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family in Lodz, in Russian-occupied Poland. Though he and his family were “cultural Jews” who never observed or practiced in the Orthodox tradition, he was steeped in Jewish values; he manifested a lifelong interest in depicting biblical personalities and Torah scenes; and his art was marked by an urgent, heartfelt, and unabashed Jewishness rare for Jewish artists at the time.

In early 1914, he visited Eretz Yisrael for the first time with a group of other Polish-Jewish artists and, observing Jewish settlers working the land, became enamored of the dream of a future Jewish state and became a life-long Zionist. His devotion to Jews and Jewish causes was further amplified in the aftermath of World War I when he traveled to the Ukraine and witnessed the pogroms and the devastation of centuries-old Jewish communities; he later became a close friend of Jabotinsky (he illustrated Jabotinsky’s novel, Samson the Nazirite) and an ardent supporter of the Revisionist Zionists.

Declaring himself “a Jew praying in art,” his profound dedication to Zionism and Israel underscored much of his work, including the highly decorated Declaration of Independence for the State of Israel (1948), designs for Israel’s first stamps and product labels, advertisements, and other fundraising efforts on behalf of Israel and needy Jews around the world.

After the Nazis conquered Poland in September 1939, Szyk, then in London, commenced a series of cartoons and illustrations in support of the anti-Nazi war propaganda campaign. Ironically, after suppressing the artist’s anti-Nazi work in fear of provoking Hitler, the British government, now impressed by his work, sent him to the United States hoping that he could sway isolationist American public opinion and, ultimately, FDR – Szyk called himself “Roosevelt’s soldier with a pen” – to join the European struggle against the Third Reich.

Szyk gathered his iconic anti-Fascist caricatures – which, for example, included depictions of Goebbels as a skunk, Göring as an obese Cossack, and the Japanese as vampire bats and sinister simians – into a 1941 anthology called The New Order, the first anti-Nazi book of its kind. By 1943, he had become America’s leading artistic advocate for Jewish rescue from the Shoah. Eleanor Roosevelt famously remarked, “This is a personal war of Szyk against Hitler… and I do not think that Mr. Szyk will lose this war!” As he later explained, “An artist, and especially a Jewish artist, cannot be neutral in these times… Our life is involved in a terrible tragedy, and I am resolved to serve my people with all my art, with all my talent, with all my knowledge.”

Among Szyk’s most renowned Holocaust works are his “We Will Never Die” and “They Shall Not Die” drawings. Exhibited here is the cover of the official program designed by Szyk for the Mass Memorial Dedication to the Two Million Jewish Dead of Europe at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. on April 12, 1943. The sell-out crowd included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, seven Supreme Court justices, two Cabinet members, more than two hundred members of Congress, and diplomatic representatives of countries then under German occupation.

In late November 1942, American newspapers reported that the Nazis and their collaborators had already killed two million European Jews as part of their mass murder campaign. Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht decided to write a dramatic pageant to further raise awareness of the plight of European Jews, which he called We Will Never Die. Working with Peter Bergson, they found enthusiastic partners to support their effort, including Broadway director Moss Hart, producer Billy Rose, and refugee composer Kurt Weill, with film and stage stars performing the major roles with a new cast in each city, and Szyk, who served as the artist for the entire operation.

We Will Never Die premiered at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, March 9, 1943, to a sold-out crowd of 20,000 and commenced an enormously successful and effective nationwide tour viewed by over 100,000 people. The pageant went a long way toward raising awareness of the Nazi murder of European Jews and to public pressure for a dedicated American response to Nazi atrocities. Once again, space limitations permit me to exhibit but one of my favorites among Szyk’s many Holocaust drawings.

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“Wiley” Miller’s Holocaust cartoon.

David Wiley Miller (1951- ), aka “Wiley,” is an American cartoonist whose work is characterized by wry wit and trenchant social satire. He is best known for his comic strip Non Sequitur (Latin for “it does not logically follow”), which he launched in 1991 and is syndicated to 700 newspapers. Political and satirical, but sometimes comedic and absurdist, it remains the only cartoon feature to win the National Cartoonists Society Divisional Awards in both the comic strip and comic panel categories.

Exhibited here is one of the most stunning cartoons about the Holocaust that I have ever seen, a June 11, 2006, drawing in which Wiley departs from his usual biting satire and sarcasm to create a soul-searing cartoon for the ages. The first panel depicts an old man sitting on a park bench and having a heart-to-heart conversation with a young girl:

Girl: I gotta tell ya, mister… that’s an awfully boring tattoo on your arm. It’s just a bunch of numbers.
Man: Well, I was about your age when I got it, and kept it as a reminder.
Girl: Oh, a reminder of happier days?
Man: No… of a time when the world was mad.
Imagine yourself in a land where your countrymen followed the voice of political extremists who didn’t like your religion.
Imagine having everything taken from you, your entire family sent to a concentration camp as slave laborers, then systematically murdered. In this place, they even take your name and replace it with a number tattooed on your arm.
It was called the Holocaust, when millions of people perished just because of their faith.
[Panel shows the young girl in tears]
Girl: So you kept it to remind yourself about the dangers of political extremism?
Man: No, my dear, to remind you.

Wiley brilliantly and powerfully reminds us that every year, there are fewer Shoah survivors left to tell their stories. It is incumbent upon all of us not only to remember them but to pass the memory on to our children and grandchildren.


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].