It’s difficult to walk away from Arthur Szyk’s work and not understand his message: Jews should not be portrayed only as victims.
As you walk into the new exhibit of Szyk’s art at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here, the first image is an enormous back-lit illustration that shows Jewish figures as victors and resisters.
That description could work for many of Szyk’s illustrations of Jews — and not just that first picture of Moses, Aaron and the military figure Hur taken from a Haggadah featuring his illustrations — because the artist set out to redefine how people looked at Jews.
For Szyk, “Jewish history is not just persecution, it’s heroism,” explains Steven Luckert, the exhibit’s head curator.
The exhibit, “The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk,” is the first large-scale art exhibit the museum says it has ever held. It will run through Oct. 14.
The exhibit’s title shows how hard it is to separate the political from the creative in Szyk’s life, as it takes the viewer through three distinct periods of Szyk’s work — from Jewish-themed illustrations to political cartooning to drawings on behalf of the Jewish state.
In the 1930s, when he saw anti-Semitism increase in his native Poland, Szyk was working mainly as a book illustrator.
As he worked on the Haggadah, his anti-Nazi message became more pronounced and Szyk even considered portraying the Egyptians as Nazis. Ultimately he did not, but in the Haggadah he drew Jews going to Palestine in a symbolic plea to keep Palestine’s borders open so that Jews could escape Hitler.
“An artist, especially a Jewish artist, cannot be neutral in these times,” he said in 1934. “Our life is involved in a terrible tragedy and I am resolved to serve my people with all my art, with all my talent, with all my knowledge.”
In 1940, he emigrated to the United States.
Wanting to use his artwork to win support for the Allies, Szyk turned to political cartooning and caricature. He even offered his services to turn out propaganda for the Polish government-in-exile.
Szyk looked for a broader audience and his anti-Nazi cartoons landed in magazines such as Look and Collier’s. The New York Post hired Szyk as well.
The exhibit features 145 original pieces, many showcasing Szyk’s efforts to produce anti-Hitler art.
In one of his most famous images of Hitler, “Anti-Christ,” Szyk placed skulls in Hitler’s eyes, showed the Angel of Death holding the slogan of Germany and Jews being marched into slavery.
In another cartoon, Szyk showed Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner, unleashing music from his piano propped up by a bomb and German leaders marching and displaying their brutality.
As Szyk became more of a political activist, he began advocating for the creation of a Jewish army and state. He supported militant Zionists such as Vladimir Jabotinsky and coupled the promotion of Israel with the need to help European Jews flee their fate.
The campaign, called “Action Not Pity,” urged American Jews to save the millions who were being killed.
In a full-page ad in the New York Times on Feb. 8, 1943, Szyk’s “Tears of Rage” illustration — which depicts Jews dying — accompanied the call for action from organizations that wanted to rebuild Palestine as a nation for the Jews.
Indeed, Szyk resurrected some of his best-known illustrations and transformed their message into art advocating for a Jewish state.
In an ad for the American League for a Free Palestine, he drew a modern version of the “Four Sons” from the Haggadah, depicting the wise son as a U.S. citizen who wants to help the Jews and the wicked and simple sons as ignorant of the Jews’ plight.
Szyk never moved to Israel, but he lived long enough to see its creation. He illustrated the Israeli Declaration of Independence and included Moses, Aaron and Hur as the watchdogs of the nation’s security.
In some of his work, Szyk placed himself in the images, perhaps to show his awareness that much of his art interprets Jewish history.
This exhibit demonstrates that Szyk’s work is now part of Jewish history as well.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.