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New Szyk Haggadah going for $15,000

A panel from the new version of painter and cartoonist Arthur Szyk's 1940 Haggadah.  (Historicana)

A panel from the new version of painter and cartoonist Arthur Szyk’s 1940 Haggadah. (Historicana)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) – The latest work by Arthur Szyk is going for $15,000 – it’s a Haggadah.

Irvin Ungar, an antiquarian bookseller and Szyk devotee, is publishing a new edition of Szyk’s 1940 Haggadah that he calls state of the art nearly 57 years after the painter and cartoonist’s death.

“No Jewish artist has been more devoted to liberty and social justice than Szyk,” said Ungar, the president of the Arthur Szyk Society. “No artist has done more to translate Jewish values into art. His Haggadah is the great book of freedom.”

Szyk (pronounced Shick) was a Polish Jew whose works could give new life to ancient traditions or eviscerate a Hitler or Mussolini.

Three hundred copies of the new Szyk Haggadah are being printed – 215 of the deluxe edition at $8,500 each and 85 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 Tom Freudenheim, the deputy director and chief operating officer of the Jewish Museum Berlin and a former president of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and Israeli historian Shalom Sabar. Also included is a DVD of the documentary “The Remaking of the Szyk Haggadah.”

Ungar, a former Reform congregational rabbi in Forest Hills, N.Y., who now lives in northern California, said he assembled an international team of top craftsmen, including a digital photographer, designer, bookbinder, printer, boxmaker and film director, as well as writers.

For the paper he tracked down a mill in Germany in business since 1584.

Szyk and his art were largely forgotten after his death in 1951 at the age of 57. But a renaissance in the past decade spawned by a spate of documentaries, biographies and one-man exhibits has brought him to the attention of a new generation.

Among the early rediscoverers was Ungar, who had left the pulpit in 1987 to found Historicana, an antiquarian bookseller firm in Burlingame.

Szyk was born in Lodz in 1894 and started drawing portraits of guests in his parents’ home at age 4.

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 Marshall 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.” Hitler allegedly put a price on Szyk’s head.

At the same time, Szyk for two years was working on his Haggadah. In 1937 he took his 48 paintings to London hoping to find a publisher who would do the work justice.

Szyk had injected his anti-fascism into his art. For instance, he put a swastika armband on the Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave and a Hitler moustache on the Wicked Son.

In the prewar British appeasement days, every publisher he approached rejected him. Szyk reluctantly deleted the Nazi symbols.

The Haggadah 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.

That 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 and Colliers magazines, as well as newspapers across the country.

His use of medieval techniques of manuscript illumination proved to be the right style for biting, contemporary satire.

After World War II, Szyk 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. Within a few months he died.

 

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