Freedom illuminated

First published in London in 1940, The Haggadah (later, The Szyk Haggadah) was printed on vellum in an edition of 250 copies.

Lodz 1935: ‘The Bread of Affliction’ from The Szyk Haggadah (photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)
Lodz 1935: ‘The Bread of Affliction’ from The Szyk Haggadah
(photo credit: IRVIN UNGAR)
I first met Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) and discovered his Haggadah in 1975. In search of a gift for each member of my wedding party, I wandered into Bloch’s Judaica bookstore on Manhattan’s West Side and purchased several copies of the blue velvet-covered 1956 first Israeli edition of The Szyk Haggadah. Thus was kindled my intimate relationship with a dead and virtually forgotten once-famous artist and the spark to revive both his legacy and his almost equally forgotten Haggadah.
First published in London in 1940, The Haggadah (later, The Szyk Haggadah) was printed on vellum in an edition of 250 copies. At 500 dollars per copy upon publication, it was the most expensive new book in the world – this at a time when the Battle of Britain was raging in the skies over London. Almost lost in the smoke and devastation spread by the Wehrmacht’s advance across Europe was the acclaim accorded to Szyk’s masterpiece by The Times of London, which hailed it as “worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has produced.”
What The Times did not know at the time, and what Jews of the world today are still not aware of, is how fully and intimately bound up Szyk’s Haggadah was with delivering a warning to Europe’s Jews about the rising threat of Nazism and Hitler’s planned genocide against them and what they and the nations of the world should do about it.
My mission over more than two decades has been to reveal to new audiences the unparalleled beauty and power of Szyk’s illustrated narrative, and in doing so, to explicate what Cecil Roth, the renowned Oxford historian and editor of Szyk’s Haggadah, meant when he wrote: To call Arthur Szyk the greatest illuminator since the 16th century is no flattery. It is the simple truth which becomes manifest to any person who studies his work with the care which it deserves.
This article is the log of my journey with Szyk and his Haggadah, a journey deeply enriched by my close kinship with his daughter, Alexandra Szyk Bracie. Since the mid-1990s, she has blessed my devotion to her father’s memory and my work with his magnum opus. In her later years she would often say to me, “Irvin, my father’s soul is in you, he speaks through you.”
Lodz 1936: ‘The Family at the Seder’ from The Szyk Haggadah (IRVIN UNGAR)
Lodz 1936: ‘The Family at the Seder’ from The Szyk Haggadah (IRVIN UNGAR)
The “official” beginning of my journey with Szyk took place on June 3, 1994, in Jerusalem. As I stepped to the podium to deliver my first public talk about Szyk at the International Seminar on Jewish Art at the Hebrew University, it was as if some magical script had been written for me. For that day was, in fact, the 100th anniversary of the very day Arthur Szyk was born in 1894!
Immediately following my presentation, David Moss, a prominent Jerusalem artist, asked if I had ever seen the original watercolor and gouache paintings of Szyk’s Haggadah, and did I plan to produce a new edition which would showcase his art more brilliantly than any previous reproduction. I confessed that I had not seen Szyk’s original Haggadah manuscript illuminations but stored away David’s suggestion. What has remained with me was how fitting it was that my first serious conversation about engaging with the Haggadah art took place in Jerusalem on Szyk’s milestone birthday.
This seems even more remarkable to me when I consider the words of the psalmist who wrote, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem…” Indeed, these are the very first words on the illumination Szyk chose to introduce his Haggadah and the very last words on the illumination that concluded his masterwork!
I went on to both curate and consult on several museum exhibitions of Szyk’s original art. In preparation for two of the earliest of these exhibitions – “Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk” at the Spertus Museum, Chicago (1998) and “The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk” at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC (2002) – I was privileged to examine firsthand the original Haggadah art. To see all 48 illuminated manuscript leaves as Szyk had created them was, needless to say, breathtaking.
‘The Four Sons’ from The Syzk Haggadah (Lodz 1934) (IRVIN UNGAR)
‘The Four Sons’ from The Syzk Haggadah (Lodz 1934) (IRVIN UNGAR)
At that time, this stunning collection was privately owned by Dick and Lois Janger of Chicago. The Jangers had purchased the original Haggadah art at a New York Sotheby’s auction in 1982. This sale of the complete illuminated Szyk Haggadah manuscript was reported to have set a world record for “any Judaica work of art, for any Twentieth Century Judaica illuminated manuscript, and for any work by Arthur Szyk.” Would you like to guess the date of the sale? June 3 – Szyk’s birthday.
In 2004, in my capacity as an antiquarian bookseller, I initiated discussions with Janger about his plans for the Haggadah manuscript. Was he planning to give it to his children, I asked, or might he be interested in selling it? He answered by asking me what did I think it was worth and did I really believe I could sell it at that level. Recalling Moss’s suggestion of ten years earlier, we also began to explore the possibility of publishing a new edition of the Haggadah based upon the original artwork. After months of back and forth we signed a contract for me to serve as his exclusive agent. When my first two prospects declined to purchase the Haggadah at the asking price and our agreement term was about to expire, I went back to Janger and asked for an extension of our contract. It was then that I looked more carefully at the exact date of our initial agreement to sell the Haggadah and it was, sure enough, June 3.
Two years later I successfully brokered the sale of the complete Haggadah manuscript to Szyk lovers and collectors, Paul and Sheri Robbins of Palo Alto, California. Knowing Paul and Sheri as I did, I knew how excited they were about showing the Haggadah manuscript to their three grown children, but there were numerous delays in getting the family together at the same time. Finally, Paul let me know that his entire family had gathered on the past Shabbat to view the Haggadah for the first time.
“Paul, do you know what date that was?” I asked.
“No,” he responded. And again, I could hardly believe it myself when I informed him, “That was June 3!”
Since then, the Robbinses and my wife and I have celebrated Szyk’s birthday together each year on or around June 3.
We might say dayyeinu to my personal magical mystical tour were The Szyk Haggadah narrative to end here, but it continues. In 2008, with the cooperation of the Robbins family and the blessing of Szyk’s daughter, I produced a luxury limited edition of The Szyk Haggadah. With a new translation and commentary by Rabbi Byron Sherwin, a fresh design, fine imported materials, expert craftspeople throughout the United States, and the development of higher resolution ink-jet printing, I set out to create for the 21st century what Szyk and his publisher had accomplished in the 20th century.
Copies of this luxury edition – the Deluxe and Premier versions – now reside in some of the world’s finest museums and educational institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library & Museum, the Vatican Library, the British Library, the Library of Congress, the National Library of Israel, and many universities including Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, Oxford, and Cambridge.
To accompany the Haggadah, I published a companion volume titled Freedom Illuminated: Understanding The Szyk Haggadah, a fully illustrated and comprehensive survey of Szyk’s masterpiece with scholarly essays including Hebrew University Professor Shalom Sabar’s analysis of each work of art within the Haggadah. This book also draws attention to earlier Haggadah-related artwork that Szyk painted while living in Paris in the 1920s for his first, but unpublished, Haggadah, as well as artwork painted for the Haggadah in Poland and England during the 1930s but never included in the 1940 vellum edition – three unpublished dedication pages among them.
Arthur Szyk standing in front of his illuminated Declaration of Independence (top), his Proclamation of the Establishment of the State of Israel (bottom), and surrounded by Haggadah artwork; this photograph was taken on April 13, 1951 during the last exhibition in Szyk’s lifetime, at Sinai Temple, Mount Vernon, New York (IRVIN UNGAR)
Arthur Szyk standing in front of his illuminated Declaration of Independence (top), his Proclamation of the Establishment of the State of Israel (bottom), and surrounded by Haggadah artwork; this photograph was taken on April 13, 1951 during the last exhibition in Szyk’s lifetime, at Sinai Temple, Mount Vernon, New York (IRVIN UNGAR)
Working with Los Angeles filmmaker Jim Ruxin, I also produced a short 17-minute documentary film about the creation of the new limited edition titled “In Every Generation – Remaking The Szyk Haggadah.” It may be viewed on my website or on Youtube.
On one of my several visits to Israel in the 1990s, I met an elderly Tel Aviv resident named Joseph Horowitz, whose father, Herman Horowitz, headed a cooperative that supported Szyk’s work in Poland in the 1930s. In 1937, Herman and other financial backers established the Beaconsfield Press in London. Together with the Sun Engraving Company and the Sangorski and Sutcliffe bindery, the Beaconsfield Press set out to publish only one book – The Haggadah. After completing the original artwork in Poland between 1934 and 1936, Szyk relocated to London with his wife and daughter, art in hand, to supervise its printing. He was to remain there until mid-1940, when he immigrated to the United States.
In his small walk-up Tel Aviv apartment Joseph Horowitz told me the following story: When I was a young boy growing up in Lwów, I remember Arthur Szyk coming from Łódź to my father’s home one evening. While sleeping, I was awakened by men surrounding Szyk and talking in our living room. I came down the steps from my bedroom and saw before them on a table the original Haggadah manuscript leaves. I could see swastikas painted on the Egyptians and on snakes.”
For Szyk, it was clear that the Nazis were the “new Egyptian taskmasters” bent on the annihilation of his people – his prescient warning to European Jewry. The artist painted over all of the swastikas prior to publication, most likely due to pressure from his publishers to get The Haggadah printed without controversy. No swastikas can be seen on either the printed editions or the original artwork – no doubt a painful compromise made by Szyk.
I later told Horowitz’s story to the curatorial team at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as they were preparing their Szyk exhibition in 2002. Included among the numerous poignant and powerful World War II political caricatures and cartoons by this anti-Nazi artist were several original leaves of The Haggadah manuscript. One known as Avadim Hayinu, meaning “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” featured a blonde, blue-eyed Egyptian taskmaster forcing a Hebrew slave to paint an Egyptian god before him. In another vignette on this same illuminated leaf sits the god-like Pharaoh on a throne surrounded by his attendants, all wearing armbands.
The curatorial team examined this original work in the conservation lab of the museum using a microscope with special lighting designed to reveal art beneath layers of paint. Swastikas were indeed found on the chest of the Egyptian taskmaster and on the armbands of Pharaoh and his court.
A few years later, I came across a rare extant lithographic reproduction printed in 1935 of Szyk’s “Four Questions” illustration. Made prior to the artist’s revisions of his work for publication, this lithograph clearly shows swastikas on the back of the snake attacking the Israelites on their Exodus from Egypt. Horowitz was right on both counts – there were swastikas on snakes and Egyptians. Additionally, he reported that he even saw a swastika on the “Wicked Son” of “Szyk’s Four Sons” painting.
The cover of the reprinted Szyk Haggadah (IRVIN UNGAR)
The cover of the reprinted Szyk Haggadah (IRVIN UNGAR)
In 2011, I created a popular trade edition of The Szyk Haggadah for the Abrams Books publishing company, one of the largest distributors of art and illustrated books in the US. Based upon the 2008 limited edition, this new edition retained all of the Haggadah artwork and a commentary adapted from Rabbi Sherwin’s earlier work, but at a price designed for use at a Passover meal. Equipped with practical instructions on Seder usage and Passover customs, as well as transliterations of selected Hebrew passages, this Haggadah serves as an invitation to welcome Szyk into every Jewish home on Seder night.
Three years later, the first public exhibition of the complete 48 paintings of the Haggadah in over 40 years opened at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Curating this show and leading dozens of private and group tours through the exhibit was virtually a dream come true for me and my traveling companion, Arthur Szyk.
Next on my agenda is a revised and updated popular edition of Freedom Illuminated: Understanding The Szyk Haggadah, adapted from the 2008 limited edition. And more is planned! The table is set for a whole new generation to experience the “second coming” of Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah and its narrative. Don’t be surprised if it happens on June 3! Stay tuned for Part II of this story.
For further information or questions, contact: Irvin Ungar, or 650-343-9578. Burlingame, California