(1894 - 1951)
War II, readers of Life, Time, Esquire,
and other American magazines enjoyed the vivid anti-Nazi
cartoons of Arthur Szyk, a Polish-born Jewish artist
and illustrator. Szyk's witty and dramatic style packed
a fiery political punch. Szyk was a fierce advocate
One of his wartime cartoons was so liberal that it proved too hot for
any publisher to handle. Veering away from his usual Axis targets, Szyk
depicted two GIs, one white and one black, escorting German prisoners.
The white soldier asks his comrade, "And what would you do with
Hitler?" The black soldier replies: "I would have made him
a Negro and dropped him somewhere in the US!" Not one American
magazine or newspaper printed it.
A soldier in the Polish army during World War I, Szyk fell prisoner
to the Germans but received lenient treatment because his captors admired
his artistic talents. After the war, Szyk traveled to Ukraine, where
he witnessed pogroms that devastated Jewish communities. Deeply moved,
Szyk returned throughout his career to Jewish themes and struggles for
In 1934, Szyk created a series of 38 paintings depicting the American
Revolution that were exhibited at the Paris Worlds Fair. They
caught the eye of visiting Polish officials, who purchased and presented
them as a gift to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Szyk's most famous work was his illuminated
Haggadah (1939), found to this day on Seder tables
throughout the world Although hailed by the Times
of London as "among the most beautiful books
that the hand of man has produced," intimidated
European publishers refused to print it, fearing that
his graphic allusions to the Nazis might provoke German
wrath. Finally, Szyk found an English publisher who
agreed to publish the work if Szyk whittled down the
anti-Nazi content to only two depictions of Hitler as the "wicked son."
When the Nazis overran Poland in September 1939, Szyk was in London. He immediately
began contributing illustrations to the war propaganda
campaign. A colleague described Szyk's political art
as "powerful as a bomb, clear in conception, definite
and deadly in its execution." The British authorities
dispatched Szyk to the United States in 1940, hoping
his work would sway American public opinion to join
the struggle against Hitler.
Living in Connecticut, Szyk became
the editorial cartoonist for the New York Post and contributed a steady stream of anti-Nazi cartoons
and illustrations to major magazines. He also designed
military badges and "Buy War Bonds" billboards.
Szyk thought of himself as "Roosevelt's soldier
with a pen." He wrote, "I consider myself
as being on duty in my cartoons." While he would
have preferred to continue doing illuminated manuscripts
and other forms of art, he observed, "We are not
entitled to do the things we like today." Eleanor
Roosevelt once remarked, "This is a personal war
of Szyk against Hitler, and I do not think that Mr.
Szyk will lose this war!"
Szyk's devotion to the Allied war effort was matched by his growing
concern for Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe. In 1941, Szyk joined
forces with the Bergson Group, a band of Jewish activists who lobbied
the Roosevelt Administration to rescue endangered Jews. After the war,
the Bergsonites rallied American public support for the Jewish underground's
revolt against the British in Palestine. Szyk's dramatic illustrations
were featured in the full-page advertisements in American newspapers.
Ben Hecht, who wrote the text for many of the Bergson group's newspapers
ads, called Szyk "our one-man art department."
Arthur Szyk . . . worked for eight years without a pause. Nobody paid
him anything and nobody thought of thanking him...Szyk's art lent a
nobility to the Irgun cause. His Hebrews under fire, under torture,
exterminated in lime pits and bonfires . . . remained a people to be
loved and admired. Their faces fleeing from massacre now, were tense
and still beautiful. There was never slovenly despair or hysterical
agony in Szyk's dying Jews, but only courage and beauty. If there was
ever an artist who believed that an hour of valor was better than a
lifetime of furtiveness and cringe, it was Szyk.
Szyk died in 1951 at the age of 57. His life was indeed that "hour
of valor" to which Ben Hecht alluded, an artist whose brush was
truly his sword.
Jewish Historical Society