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The Human Touch


ARHUR SZYK, the Polist Jewish artist and illuminatol whose work was recently exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, under the auspices of the Federation of Polish Jews in America, and is now on display in Washington, as the Library of Congress, is himselve in New York and will remain approximately another two months. Within two weeks his traveling exhibition goes on view in Radio City, in the French House. The Polish government is the sponsor of the exhibition.

I went up to see Mr. Szyk and found a man who was as much a Jew and a Pole as an artist. He seems somehow to have integrated his loyalty to his race, his loyalty to his art. He is not a pure artist, in the sense that he is not concerned with using his art to work out abstractions and experment, but in order to serve his people. Within the limits of his knowledge of English I found him almost eloquent in exposition of his theme, and where that knowledge was insufficient Yiddish came at a gallop to the rescue.

Mr. Szyk will forgive me, I trust, for saying that he is not a very prepossessing-looking person. He is short, plump, somewhat bald, but not yet forty. In fact, he looks somewhat like myself, except that he hasn’t grown a mustache. But in his ardent specch he becomes impressive. But here was a Jewish artist ardent for Poland and in my surprise, after our interview had proceeded for several minutes, I Said: “My dear Mr. Szyk, you sound just like a Polish propagandist.”

He looked at me as if to say:

“Well, what’s wrong about being a Polish propagandist if you believe in Poland?” and then he interpreted that look in words:

“Surely I’m a Polish propagandist. Because Poland is our last refuge in Europe.”

As a matter of fact his series of manuscript illuminations, “The Statutes of Kalisz,” is in effect an artist’s proclamation of loyalty to his nation for its Justice to his people. For the “Statutes” of minority rights to the Jews of Poland Statutes are the Magna Charta, the Emancipation Proclamation and the deed to independence of the Polish Jew. It made inpossible, even six hundred years before Mendal Beilis, the accusation of ritual murder, and bestowed legal prtection to the Jew in other ways.

Now, says Mr. Szyk, in the light of Hitler, the Statutes have a new meaning. Up to recent times, the American Jew has thought of Poland what the German wished him to think, not what the facts warranted. Surely Polish Jewry is in great distress, but the Jews suffer no more than the non-Jews; the poverty and the distress are common to all Poles, not special to Jews. WIth Latvia, Rumania, Hungary, Austria and Germany embittered against Jewry, Poland is like an isle of refuge, almost the last one left in Europe. Mr. Szyk presented as evidence of Polish friendship to Jewry the forming of a Pro-Palestine Committee in Poland recently. A short time ago in London, the representatives of the Polish government presented to Dr. Nahum Sokolow, head of the World Zionist Organization, laesimile set of the Statutes##oKalisz, for presentation to the Hebrew University. And Mr. Szyk told me also about the old Polish traditoin of tolerance to Jews, a tradition dating back to the time when Spain and Portugal heaped up the faggots for the fires of the Inquisition.

I may have looked surprised at the ardent defense of Pland by a Jew. I can confess now that I felt puzzled, whether I looked it or not, for I had come up to speak to an artist, one whose art seemed to he a form of escape from the troubles of the world, and here we were regaled with a defense of Poland as friend of Jews. Mr. Szyk may have remarked my puzelement, for he said:

“We have our Hitlers, we have our anti-Semites too. But the government – the government of Pilsudski – is ready to defend the news. While this government stands we’ll have tolerance.”Pilsudski appears to have admitted a life-long debt to the Jews, for in his autobiography, in recalling the days of his revolutionary agitation, in the early part of the century, it was in the homes of Jews, Pilsudski tells us, that he found refuge when the police and soldiers of the Czar’s government were out Polish government goes down,” declared Mr. Szyk, “we go down. Our future is bound up in the future of Poland.”

He also answered for me, without being asked, another question; resolved a contradiction: how an artist who works on the miniature scale, in manuscript illumination, an art which was cultivated and came to flower in the monasteries of the Middle Ages-how such a one can be so deeply concerend in the life of his own time and be as much advocate as artist. He put it something like this:

“An artist, and especially a Jewish artist, cannot be neutral in these times. He cannot escape to still lifes, abstractions and experiments. Art that is purely cerebral is dead. Our life is invilvedin a terrible tragedy and I am resolved to serve my people with all my art, with all my talent, with all my knowledge. Now the art of illumination is the art of the book, the art of the fanatic, the art of the man who believes, the art of great love. The monks in themonasteries who illuminated a page in a holy book put inot their art all their love and devotion for Jesus Christ. In the same way I put into my illumination all my love for my people and for my country.”

He believes that it is an error for Jewish artists to devote themsevles to depicting Jewish misery exclusively. The Jewish artist who feels he has a debt to his people should pay it in part by giving the Jew some courage, some optimism, some hope, give him some yuntif, some holiday. Let the Jewish artist tell his people that this misery is only for the moment, that there is a future. “Don’t believe, you Americans, that we in Europe are dying. We are ready for a struggle and the biggest fortress of Jewry is in Poland.”

He is now at work on an Haggudah, the Seder service. Of the seventy pages, thrity-five will be picture and as many Hebrew text, all illuminated. Every Egyptiam will be depicted with a swastika and the book will be dedicated to the persecuted Jews of Germany.

“The German Jews may forget,” says Mr. Szyk, “but we will not. We are always Polish Jwish they called themselves onlyGermans.”

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