Drawing on experience

The $15,000 Arthur Szyk Haggada gives a new life to the works of one of the first anti-Hitler cartoonists.

haggadah 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
haggadah 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There's a 1,000-year-old Haggada, there's an Internet Haggada, and now there is a new $15,000 Arthur Szyk Haggada. Szyk (pronounced Shick) was a Jew, a Pole, an American, and always an artist, whose brilliant paintings and cartoons could give new life to ancient traditions or eviscerate a Hitler or Mussolini. Now, almost 57 years after Szyk's death, antiquarian bookseller Irvin Ungar has come up with a new edition of the artist's 1940 Haggada, which, Ungar believes, gives new meaning to the term state-of-the-art, particularly in digital technology. To create the new Haggada, Ungar said he assembled an international team of top-flight craftsmen, including a digital photographer, writers, designer, bookbinder, printer, boxmaker and film director. To provide the exactly right paper, he tracked down a mill in Germany, which had been in the business since 1584. Szyk was born in Lodz in 1894 and started drawing portraits of guests in his parents' home at age four. After studying painting in Paris, and visiting Palestine in 1914, he was drafted into the czar's army in World War I but deserted. Later, he fought against the Soviets under the legendary Polish Marshal Josef Pilsudski. With the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, Szyk became one of the first anti-Hitler cartoonists, explaining that "the painter of books wants to reply to the wall painter." The Fuehrer allegedly put a price on the head of his nemesis. At the same time, he worked for two years on his Haggada and in 1937 took his 48 paintings to London, hoping to find a publisher who would do the work justice. However, Szyk had injected his anti-fascism into his art, such as putting a swastika armband on the Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and a Hitlerian moustache on the Wicked Son. In the prewar British appeasement days, every publisher turned him down until Szyk reluctantly deleted the Nazi symbols. When the Haggada came out in 1940 in an original edition of 250 copies, printed on calfskin vellum, it was one of the costliest publishing projects of the 20th century. Subsequent photo reproductions could not match the brilliance of the original. The same year, Szyk immigrated to the United States, and, as a self-described "soldier in art," his ferocious depictions of the Axis leaders soon graced the covers of Time, Colliers and newspapers across the country. Amazingly, his use of medieval techniques of manuscript illumination proved to be the right style for biting, contemporary satire. After the war, he applied his talents to supporting Israel's struggle for independence, in the process creating a new image of the muscular Jewish worker and soldier. Szyk, whose cartoons had attacked McCarthyism and racist prejudice against blacks, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee in early 1951 and within a few months he died at 57. In the subsequent decades, Szyk and his art were largely forgotten, until a renaissance during the past decade, including a spate of documentaries, biographies and one-man exhibits, brought him to the attention of a new generation. One of the early rediscoverers was Ungar, a Reform congregational rabbi in Forest Hills, New York, and then Burlingame, California, who had left the pulpit in 1987 to found Historicana, an antiquarian bookseller firm in the northern California city. Once introduced to Szyk's work, he was smitten and, as president of the Arthur Szyk Society, is now devoting his life to the master's legacy, he said. "No Jewish artist has been more devoted to liberty and social justice than Szyk," Ungar declared. "No artist has done more to translate Jewish values into art. His Haggada is the great book of freedom." The new Szyk Haggada is being printed in a one-time edition of 300 copies, divided into 215 copies of the deluxe edition at $8,500 per copy, and 85 copies of the premier edition at $15,000 each. Each copy, resting in a clamshell box, is accompanied by 248-page companion volume on Szyk's art and life, with essays by such scholars as museum director Tom Freudenheim and Israeli historian Shalom Sabar. Also included is a DVD of the documentary The Remaking of the Szyk Haggada.