Arthur Szyk: His Brush Was His Sword

"Roosevelt's soldier with a pen."

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During World War II, readers of Life, Time, Esquire, and other American magazines enjoyed the vivid anti-Nazi cartoons of Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), a Polish-born Jewish artist and illustrator. Szyk’s witty and dramatic style packed a fiery political punch. Szyk was a fierce advocate for justice.

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 freedom.

In 1934, Szyk created a series of thirty-eight paintings depicting the American Revolution that were exhibited at the Paris World?s 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.”

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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