Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) was an extraordinarily meticulous craftsman, a biting political activist, an unapologetic propagandist, a skilled cartoonist, a painstaking caricaturist, and a successful commercial artist and book illustrator.
A “soldier with a paintbrush,” he is perhaps best known for (a) 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; and (b) for his beautiful and dramatic artistic work in support of the new State of Israel.
Szyk’s sui generis 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 their 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.
Szyk was born into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family in Łódź, 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 with 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 Ukraine and witnessed pogroms and the devastation of centuries-old Jewish communities, and he later became a close friend of Jabotinsky (he illustrated Jabotinsky’s novel, Samson the Nazirite) and an ardent supporter of the Revisionist Zionists.
Szyk maintained a lifelong love for Poland, the land of his birth; for America, his adopted country of freedom and democracy; and for Israel, the land of his people – and he was honored by all three countries. His American art, which included a portrait of George Washington and an incredibly complex illuminated “Declaration of Independence,” reflected his deep belief in America as a beacon of good in the world.
Szyk declared himself “a Jew praying in art,” and his profound dedication to Zionism and Israel underscores much of his work, including his highly-decorated Declaration of Independence for the State of Israel (1948), designs for Israel’s first stamps; and labels, advertisements, and other fundraising efforts on behalf of Israel and needy Jews around the world.
However, his humanitarianism extended to virtually anyone in need, as he raised money for the Chinese, the Czechs, displaced Poles, and the soldiers of the Commonwealth of Australia and New Zealand, among others. Later, after World War II, he became one of the first artists to criticize black segregation in the American armed forces, and he used his art to draw attention to governmental and societal racism against blacks and Native Americans.
As a result, he was investigated and questioned by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee about his membership in human rights organizations and his alleged Communist associations.
Szyk’s fusion of politics and art perhaps attained its zenith with his controversial illuminated Haggadah (executed 1932-36, published 1940), broadly acclaimed as among the most beautiful books ever produced. Seeking to draw worldwide attention to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, he brilliantly meshed the ancient exodus story with virulent caricatures of the Nazis, including Egyptian taskmasters wearing swastika armbands and Pharaoh’s snakes rendered as Goebbels and Goering.
However, European publishers refused to publish it, fearing German retribution. It did not see the light of day for many years until Beaconsfield Press, a newly formed British publisher, agreed to publish it – but only on condition that Szyk remove essentially all its anti-Nazi content. Sadly, in the final product, the only remaining anti-Nazi illustration is a depiction of the “Wicked Son” wearing distinctive German clothing and sporting an unambiguous Hitler-style mustache (see exhibit).
After the Nazis conquered Poland in September 1939, Szyk, then in London, commenced a series of 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, Goering 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. He became the editorial cartoonist for the New York Post and went on to become celebrated for his anti-Nazi drawings, which were ubiquitous in Life, Time, Esquire, and other American magazines, and he designed classic military badges and “Buy War Bonds” billboards that proliferated throughout the U.S.
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.”
Szyk’s dedication to the Allied war effort extended with particularity to his concern for the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe and, infuriated by the refusal of the Allied leaders to take seriously Nazi atrocities, he became a leading member of the “Bergson Group.”
Szyk’s “bread and butter” work, however, was as a book illustrator. For example, several generations of young Americans grew up on his version of Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which one writer beautifully described as notable for its “detailed embroidery, angelic expressions, salamander arabesques, costumed demons, humanoid roses, monstrous toads, Egyptian outfits, sinuous poses, sly peasants, grave princesses, Oriental potentates, and grasping troll trees.”
Exhibited here is a truly remarkable rarity, an original copy of Anderson’s Fairy Tales that Szyk inscribed “To Peter Bergson, with all my love.” Though Szyk’s close relationship with Bergson is well known, this unique item demonstrates the depth of his affection for his friend unlike anything else that I have ever seen.
Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson (1915-2001) – as a nephew of first Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, he changed his name to protect his rabbinic family from embarrassment – was a founder of the Irgun. After organizing illegal immigration in Poland, he accompanied Jabotinsky to America (1940), where he led a group of Irgun activists under the Bergson pseudonym.
The Bergson Group originally limited its activities to fundraising for the Irgun and promoting various propaganda campaigns but in late 1942, Bergson – who proudly characterized himself a “nuisance diplomat” – became deeply involved in raising awareness about the fate of Europe’s Jews. He issued pamphlets and placed full-page advertisements in leading newspapers, which represented the first time that a Jewish organization placed ads of Jewish interest in secular publications.
All the illustrations for these publications were done by Szyk, whose central role in the Bergson group may have been best summarized by Ben Hecht, a renowned playwright, two-time Academy Award winner, and Bergson activist, who characterized Szyk as “our one-man art department.”
At a time when FDR was doing all he could to sweep the Jewish refugee crisis under the rug, the Bergson Group produced “We Will Never Die,” a huge and historic pageant written by Hecht (first performed on March 9, 1943 in Madison Square Garden) which memorialized the two million European Jews that had been murdered up to that point. A stunning artistic and propagandistic success, the pageant played an important role in raising the consciousness of the American public about the Holocaust.
In 1943, Bergson established the Emergency Committee for the Rescue of European Jewry, which included leading American writers, public figures, and politicians who lobbied FDR and Congress to take immediate action to save what was left of Europe’s Jewry and to open up American borders to greater Jewish immigration.
Bergson’s singular efforts led to the creation of the War Refugee Board in 1944, which helped save an estimated 200,000 Jewish lives. He also established the Hebrew Committee for National Liberation and the American League for a Free Palestine, which lobbied the government in support of the creation of the State of Israel.
One of Bergson’s most important activities was his organizing some 400 Orthodox rabbis in an October 6, 1943 “Rabbi’s March and Protest” in Washington. Considered by many authorities to be the first instance of mass political lobbying, it drew substantial media attention, notwithstanding the public opposition – indeed, obstruction – by most non-Orthodox Jewish groups.
The opposition was led by the traitor Stephen Wise – FDR’s “useful idiot,” whom the president used as leverage to suppress his Jewish critics – and the president refused to meet with the rabbinical delegation after Wise publicly dismissed it as a fringe group of extremist rabbis “who didn’t represent anyone.”
Bergson represented a strong challenge to the timid and fainthearted Jewish establishment in the United States by often bypassing it and its failed conservative approaches in favor of appealing directly not only to Jews but also to the American public.
He employed “radical” methods, including aggressive lobbying of the government which, his critics argued, accomplished nothing except increase anti-Semitism. As a result, he was vociferously and publicly opposed throughout his life by American Jewish and Zionist organizations, some of whom even went so far as to urge the IRS to investigate him (it did, but found no irregularities) and to encourage the American government to deport him.
On the eve of Passover 1945, the Bergson Group issued a historic pamphlet that re-imagined the traditional narrative of “the Four Sons” in the image of contemporary Zionism. Illustrated by Szyk, the pamphlet depicts the Four Sons as reflections of the various positions of American Jews on the battle for a Jewish state.
The Wicked Son, who represents the wealthy and assimilated Jew opposed to Zionism, asks: “What is this nonsense about a Jewish nation and an independent homeland? When all this fuss blows over, let them return to the countries from whence they came…”
Modeling the question-and-answer methodology of the Haggadah, the pamphlet answers: “…because he elects to hold himself aloof from a physical concern about his brother’s plight, he has disqualified himself from a voice in the life-and-death affairs of a foreign and persecuted people.”
In the Bergson-Szyk version, the Simple Son – who is renamed the “Indifferent Son” and whom Szyk portrays as a hatted businessman chomping on a cigar – asks “Why don’t we leave well enough alone? “Aren’t we doing OK here?” He is concerned that paying undue attention to the Jews of the Holocaust might engender American anti-Semitism.
The pamphlet provides the answer: “Freedom and safety for your less fortunate kin in the death valley of Europe will create a sound moral foundation for a world order of peace and security,” which would include “banishing anti-Semitism.”
Szyk’s rendition of the “Son Who Does Not Know How To Ask” – who is renamed as the “Uninformed Son” and who is depicted as a stereotypical Jewish workingman – announces that he cannot relate to Jewish complaints about British Mandate in Eretz Yisrael because, after all, Jews have the right to live, work, and worship as they please.
The Bergson answer is that Eretz Yisrael is anything but free, given British enactment of explicitly anti-Jewish laws, including bans on aliyah and land purchases and curfew and travel restrictions on Jewish residents.
Finally, Szyk depicts the Wise Son as a Jewish-American soldier, who asks how he may help his fellow Jews in Holocaust Europe and in Eretz Yisrael. The answer is an appeal to him to join in the effort to establish Jewish statehood.