Arthur Szyk: A Jewish-American soldier in art

Szyk evokes hope for his people in a powerful fashion.

Szyk’s ‘Anti-Christ’ portrayal of Hitler as the embodiment of evil: his eyes reflect human skulls, his black hair the Latin words, ‘Vae Victis’ (woe to the vanquished) (photo credit: FINE ART PRINT)
Szyk’s ‘Anti-Christ’ portrayal of Hitler as the embodiment of evil: his eyes reflect human skulls, his black hair the Latin words, ‘Vae Victis’ (woe to the vanquished)
(photo credit: FINE ART PRINT)
AS A young boy in Atlanta, Georgia, in the late 1940s, I won a Hebrew school speed-reading contest. My prize was a copy of the book, “Pathways Through the Bible,” which featured illustrations by Arthur Szyk.
At the time, I had no idea who Szyk was, and the book gathered dust on a shelf.
In 1963-1964, when my wife, Rita, and I were students in Israel, I bought two versions of the “Szyk Haggadah.” The nicer one was bound in blue velvet and fit into a blue velvet box.
Rita and I used that Haggadah at the home of the late professor Gene Weiner in Haifa in 1964. Weiner gave us a short history lesson on the artist and emphasized that this was perhaps the most outstanding newly drawn Haggadah of the 20th century.
We were thrilled that we had bought two versions of that Haggadah since up until that point in our lives, we did not have doubles of anything.
Szyk’s drawings, particularly of the four sons, made me realize that contemporary Jewish history could be integrated into one of the most widely used books by Jewish people.
The German Junker, as the wicked son, made me see for the first time how wellbred Germans played a key role in laying the underpinnings of the Holocaust.
Our Szyk Haggadahs are since long gone, deposited in the massive Haggadah collection at the Pitts Library in the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
Two events brought me closer to Szyk. During regular searches through my parents’ basement, I found in my late father’s filing cabinet his Jewish War Veterans file. Each commander of the local Atlanta post kept the folder of his activities, and so it was with Louis Geffen. In it were JWV’s fundraising stamps drawn by Szyk.
In the same file were JWV magazines, which in 1948 featured Szyk images on their covers. My curiosity heightened, I began exploring the artist’s work. I purchased the Szyk megilla, which I have used every Purim for 35 years.
In 1998, when Rita and I were living in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I received a letter from Szyk expert and scholar Rabbi Irvin Ungar announcing an exhibition of Szyk’s drawings at the University of Scranton Library. He would speak on Szyk’s works at the opening. I signed on.
A large group of people turned out, including Jews, Christians and a few Muslims. For three weeks, visitors could see these powerful portrayals, which focused on many topics, including the establishment of the State Israel.
Fast forward to 2017: A significant exhibit of Szyk’s works opened on September 12 at the New York Historical Society, a distinguished venue for major exhibitions.
Ungar’s determination to promote Szyk’s works paid off and a book was even published to mark the event. In the preface to “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art,” Steven Heller writes, “This book is also a testament to the indefatigability of the man behind the scenes whose own willpower reintroduced Szyk’s vivid art to a new audience in a new world.”
Ungar “galvanized the Arthur Szyk Society, organized events, published a newsletter and books and gradually with grace and certainty, he educated many who knew nothing,” Heller writes.
Szyk’s “wandering in the wilderness of obscurity has come to an end,” he continues. “The opening of the Szyk exhibition at the New York Historical Society is a dream come true – as if Arthur Szyk had come home to the Promised Land, literally and figuratively.”
Ungar focuses on these two points in a fascinating manner. “Literally, in 1942 the artist lived less than 10 blocks away from the New York Historical Society on West 74th Street and Riverside Drive.” Figuratively, Ungar adds, the images “have the same vibrancy, urgency and power as they did 75 years ago.”
As we enter the world of Szyk, these thoughts are significant in understanding the artist. Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society, says, “Numerous threats filled the years around World War II: Nazism, the escalating plight of European Jewry, Fascism, Japanese militarism.
“The great twentieth-century activist in art [Szyk] confronted the turbulent, hatefilled period with forceful artistic depictions, caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito as the evil architects of their regimes’ destructive and inhumane policies.”
What is the power of these illustrations as hatred grows on a daily basis in our world? Why do Szyk’s works seem as poignant today as when they were first drawn?
One answer may be found in the caricatures of the deadly leaders of that period in the 30s and 40s, who exacted unimaginable brutality upon humanity, extinguishing lives on a daily basis.
In focusing on the Jews, Szyk captures their anguish as they are transformed into the tragic figures whose faces we can never forget. They are our ancestors, our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives and children. Jewish youth, with Stars of David sewn on their clothing, peer out at us longingly with fear on their faces, as they seemingly know the fate that awaits them.
The artist’s recurring symbol for the terror of Hitler is one we relate to easily because it is one we most fear: the hissing snake adorned with swastikas, both waiting to bite or to wind itself around those who are en route to destruction.
I cannot look at Szyk’s art with a sense of innocence because I have been raised by my parents, my teachers and the world not to forget those whose lives were brutally snuffed out. They were taken from their homes and burned, shot and gassed with no immediate recognition of their tragic fate.
Himself a part of that world, Szyk sought to awaken the “sleepers” with his images. He presents the strong, muscled builders whose living spirit was never lost because they continued to build even while others could not.
He catches the hatred in the faces of the leaders of death, relentless in their horror and destruction. Then there are his fellow Jews, bearing yellow stars, hungry and deeply saddened as they watch their families disappear to the killing fields and the gas chambers.
When the Szyk Haggadah appeared in the late 1930s, the anguish he felt while finishing it was practically erased because of the volume’s beauty.
When the Haggadah stepped forward into the world, The Times of London wrote, “The volume is worthy to be placed among the most beautiful books that the hand of man has ever produced.”
When Szyk completed the Haggadah between 1934 and 1936, the volume distressed the British leadership because of the Allies’ appeasement of Germany. The snakes had to lose their swastikas because they might have offended Hitler and his crowd.
UPON ARRIVING in the US in early 1940, Szyk began drawing his very powerful political art. Whenever the snake appeared, it was covered with swastikas. Szyk believed Hitler and the Nazis had to be defeated, and the hatred that had led to the murder of millions of Jews destroyed.
In addition to his biting portrayals of Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini, Szyk became an American patriot, which was powerfully expressed in his work. His drawings of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt infuse within me a pride in the nation where I was born.
Szyk evokes hope for his people in a powerful fashion.
The Jews fighting in the uniform of the Jewish Brigade is a thrilling sight after the many efforts by the British to grant our brethren the right to hold a gun and fight. Then there is Szyk’s drawing of the Declaration of Independence of Israel. Thousands, perhaps millions, have reproduced Szyk’s version of the document proclaiming the establishment of the State of Israel. After 2,000 years, the Jews regained their homeland. Through his powerfully drawn figures of Jews serving and fighting, Szyk underlines the revival of and return to the Promised Land.
This year, Ted Daube, a northern Californian philanthropist, provided the funding to the University of California at Berkeley for its acquisition of what is called the Taube Family Arthur Szyk Collection as part of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.
“The tipping point for Arthur Syzk has now arrived,” says Ungar. “A once famous Jewish artist whom the world had virtually forgotten is now positioned to become famous and appreciated worldwide once again.
“Now is also the time,” Ungar suggests, “to bring Arthur Szyk home to the Promised Land of Israel where there has never been a Szyk exhibition, nor any large-scale recognition of the activist artist who created more artwork than any other to help bring about the creation of the Jewish State. The exhibition in New York serves as an inspiration and celebration for the artist who wrote in his Haggadah, ‘I am but a Jew praying in art; if have succeeded in any measure; if I have gained the power of reception among the elite of the world, then I owe it all to the teachings, traditions and eternal vision of my people.’”
If you travel to New York or live there, be sure to go see the Szyk exhibition at the New York Historical Society (170 Central Park West), which is open until January 21, 2018.