A soldier in art - The Megillat Esther of Arthur Szyk

“From the beginning to the end of his career, Szyk loved the heroes and heroines of biblical tales. Because he understood what it meant for the few, the proud, to stand up to the many," said Ungar.

QUEEN ESTHER, cloaked in splendor. Mordechai passes on the all-important information on the Jewish community as Haman hangs. (photo credit: ARTHUR SZYK)
QUEEN ESTHER, cloaked in splendor. Mordechai passes on the all-important information on the Jewish community as Haman hangs.
(photo credit: ARTHUR SZYK)
Visiting bookstores in Jerusalem was a favorite pastime of mine in 1976 when I was here on a sabbatical from my congregation, Beth Shalom of Wilmington, Delaware. It was our five-month stay in Israel in 1976-1977 that prompted us to think about aliyah. Realizing it was now or never, we did make aliyah in the summer of 1977, my wife, Rita, and I, and our three children, Avie, Elissa and Tuvia. The three all have their own professions and their own Israeli families.
Most of the books I bought back then are no longer in my hands. However, one book, The Book of Esther: Illustrated by Arthur Szyk, is the volume I have worn out to a certain extent in its Purim use.
The expert on Szyk is Rabbi Irvin Ungar, the CEO of California-based rare book firm and publisher Historicana, who has collected the original art of the noted illustrator for more than 20 years.
Ungar has created a wonderful new version of the famous Szyk Haggadah. He wrote me, however, that Szyk’s Megillat Esther remains a mystery. Maariv bought the rights to use the Purim art, and in 1974, a version was published with Szyk’s art and an English translation. That same year, Maariv also published a volume with the art and Hebrew explanations of the Purim story. Both are out of print and no one knows how many still exist. Hopefully, readers of this article will be in touch if they possess this powerful volume.
In fall 2017, a major exhibit of Szyk’s works was held at the prestigious New York Historical Society. Ungar wrote: “As I reflect back on the events of the past few years, the success of the Szyk exhibition in New York City and the thousands who visited it, make it evident that his works are essential for anyone who wants to understand how Szyk with his art led the battle against antisemitism and the Hitler-Nazi war with allies to destroy the Jewish people.”
In Hadassah Magazine a decade ago, Ungar put the megillah into perspective. “Renowned artist and political cartoonist Arthur Szyk illustrated the Book of Esther twice, once in the 1920s, and again in 1950, one year before he died.
“From the beginning to the end of his career, the Polish-born Szyk (b. Lodz, 1894) loved the heroes and heroines of biblical tales. Because he understood what it meant for the few, the proud, to stand up to the many, he ultimately dedicated his life to fighting as a self-described ‘soldier in art’ against the might of the modern-day Hamans and Holoferneses who threatened Jewish survival.”
While in the first Szyk-illustrated megillah in 1925, his emphasis is on Esther’s ability to participate in Persian culture, the illustrations in the second one make an important statement about the Holocaust.
“In the later work,” Ungar says, “Szyk painted swastikas on the wicked Haman, affirming the need to confront evil in every place and in every generation.” Reproduced with this article is the image where Haman hangs from the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. In the illustration, Szyk painted himself into the work observing the scene, with hamantashen in hand, while inscribing the Hebrew words “the people of Israel will be liberated from their persecutors.”
Szyk’s personal prayer to God as he begins his illumination of the megillah in the second edition is as follows:
“Lord of the universe, God of my forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to you and your greater glory, whose holy name is never once mentioned in this solemn book of the triumph of justice, I humbly dedicate this labor of my heart and hands in eternal gratitude that you, in your divine grace have created me a Jew,” signed Arthur Szyk.
In the pages reproduced here, you can be a witness to what the artist has created based on the megillah text. This will offer you another light on the famous individuals in the megillah itself, and you will think about them in a different fashion.
The elaborate grandeur of the powerful Ahasuerus on his throne is balanced by the characters in the court of Vashti. Their support gives her the strength to refuse to appear and dance in the king’s court. The images of Esther start with her and her relative Mordecai; then as the queen at her king’s side; then crouching over the king as she invites him and Haman to her banquet; and the climax of the megillah, with the splendor of Esther on the throne and Mordecai at her side.
I have always thought Haman was modeled on Nazis Hermann Goering or Joseph Goebbels. He looks like a bewildered Sancho Panza just waiting to meet his fate. Every time I use this megillah on Purim, I continue to hope that our enemies will disappear.
“The great 20th-century activist in art [Szyk] confronted the turbulent, hate-filled period of the 1930s and 1940s with forceful artistic depictions, caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito as the evil architects of their regimes’ destructive and inhumane policies,” wrote Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society.
In the megillah we witness the triumph of our people to be reborn after these hate-mongers and murderers have been destroyed.
With the reading of Megillat Esther this Purim, hopefully we will also feel the need for an exhibition of Szyk’s work here in Israel.
“Now is also the time,” Ungar has suggested strongly, “to bring Arthur Szyk home to the Promised Land of Israel where there has never been a Szyk exhibition, nor any recognition on a large scale for the artist who created more artwork than any activist-artist to help bring about the creation of the Jewish state.”