24 February 2020
A late personal discovery
of the work of Arthur Szyk,
artist of the Holocaust
I illustrated a blog posting this morning with De Profundis a deeply moving illustration by the Jewish and Polish-American artist Arthur Szyk. De Profundis (1943) is Szyk’s haunting Holocaust tour de force.
It was created spontaneously in the midst of war, as reports surfaced of the atrocities of the Holocaust but while an Allied victory was still uncertain, and was distributed widely in the US in an effort to combat anti-Semitism in the US.
Like so many other Jewish artists, Szyk drew on Bible and Christian iconography to create his Holocaust imagery. In 1943, he made use of several different allusions to Biblical passages and the figure of Jesus for De Profundis, a work that dramatised the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and raised the issue of the painful legacy of Christian antisemitism.
In this work, Szyk draws on Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.’
With its gripping picture of dead and dying Jews, this is a cry for divine, or perhaps allied, intervention to end their tragic suffering during World War II.
The Biblical passage ‘Cain, where is Abel thy brother?’ (Genesis 4: 9), is God’s question to the murderous son of Adam. From late antiquity or even earlier, through the Middle Ages and after, Christian writers and artists frequently compared Cain to the Jews, as a people rejected and cursed by God, and they compared the killing of Abel to the crucifixion of Jesus.
However, in De Profundis, Szyk turns this analogy upside down, pointing the finger at the non-Jewish world. He included Jesus and the symbolic Wandering Jew among the mass of the dead and dying in De Profundis. The artist seems to be reinterpreting how those who see this should view the two, investing them with new meaning.
Since the late 19th century, Jewish artists had depicted both Jesus and the Wandering Jew in far different ways than had Christian iconographers or rabbinic authorities. Painters such as Maurycy Gottlieb and Marc Chagall reclaimed Jesus for Jews, seeing him not as the Messiah but as a representative of his people who maintained Mosaic traditions.
Szyk’s Jesus in De Profundis, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments, is in this tradition. Yet Szyk also wanted the viewer that Jesus was a Jew and the Nazis would have murdered him just like the two Jews he holds. He wears the crown of thorns and bears the marks of the cross on his hands, the traditional symbols of his torture and death.
In De Profundis, Szyk produced an image designed to sear the eyes and scour the soul. The personal passion and professional purpose driving De Profundis are extraordinary. It is a damning statement, yet it is endowed with grace and beauty worthy of the dead.
However, I was introduced to the work of Arthur Szyk by accident last month. While I was walking around Whitechapel and the East End in search of synagogues and Jewish landmarks immediately before Holocaust Memorial Day, I could easily have missed the fading but ornate symbolism that decorates an upper floor at No 88 Whitechapel High Street.
No 88 was once the offices of the Jewish Daily Post, the first Jewish daily newspaper in England. A striking addition in the building from the Post’s brief time at No 88 is the decorative metal relief by Arthur Szyk.
The Jewish Daily Post published Szyk’s earliest anti-Hitler cartoons in February and March 1935. Two of his metal reliefs survive at No 88: one over the main door and one inside above the entrance to the lift. The metal relief above the main door was once painted in gold and depicts a Magen David or Star of David supported by two Lions of Judah wielding sabres. Two medallions on the lions are decorated with menorot or seven-branched candelabra. The lions’ clawed feet rest on a thin turned base that is fixed to the wall.
I did not get inside the building, but I understand the relief by Szyk above the entrance to the lift on the first floor depicts traditional Jewish symbolism often found on Torah Arks: two Lions of Judah holding the Luhot or Tablets of the Law, inscribed with the first Hebrew letters of each of the Ten Commandments.
Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) was a Polish-Jewish artist who worked primarily as a book illustrator and political artist throughout his career. He became a renowned artist and book illustrator in the inter-war period of the 1920s and 1930s, when his works were exhibited and published in Poland, France, Britain and the US.
Szyk was born on 16 June 1894 into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family in Łódź, a part of Poland then under Russian rule, and always saw himself as both a Pole and a Jew. He studied drawing and painting at the Académie Julian in Paris.
Szyk’s political drawings first appeared in Poland at the start of World War I. After World War I, his Shulamith and King Solomon (1925) expressed a newfound confidence and maturity. Two further works, The Queen of Sheba before Solomon (1927) and Suzanne et les Deux Vieillards (1927), mark the culmination of this phase.
Beginning in 1929, Szyk paid tribute to the American ideals of democracy and freedom in a series of 38 watercolour miniatures, Washington and His Times. They were first exhibited in Paris in 1931, and then in London, New York, Cincinnati and Washington, and the series was published by Max Jaffé of Vienna in 1932 to mark the bicentennial of Washington’s birth. The Polish government bought the series and presented it to President Franklin D Roosevelt as a gift of the Polish people.
Meanwhile, back in Europe, Szyk devoted himself to producing illustrations challenging the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism. He moved to London in 1937, and there he created his illuminated Haggadah, a landmark in the history of illustrated books. His retelling of Jewish liberation from Pharaoh’s repression was read as a depiction of the plight of European Jews in the 1930s.
His satirical illustrations appeared regularly in popular magazines and journals as covers, inside illustrations, and advertisements, making fools of Nazi leaders and their Fascist followers at home and abroad, depicting them in grotesque caricatures.
After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, Szyk was much sought to produce drawings and satires in support of the Allied war effort. He left London for Canada with his family in 1940, and from there moved to New York.
In the US, he developed exhibitions of war drawings, cartoons, and caricatures for galleries in New York, Washington, and San Francisco, and his illustrations were published in leading newspapers and magazines, including The New York Post, The Chicago Sun, The American Mercury, Collier’s, Esquire, PM and Time.
A chilling caricature on the cover of Time of Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto, architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was shocking in its day.
Franklin D Roosevelt, in his State of the Union address in 1941, set out his ‘Four Freedoms’: Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear and Freedom of Speech. This inspired Szyk’s The Four Freedoms Prayer, in which the freedoms from want, from fear and of speech are offered like gifts of the Magi to Madonna and Child representing the freedom of religion.
Ben Hecht’s collaboration with Szyk in Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe (1943) came just months after reports of the Holocaust first surfaced in the US. Hecht was a screenwriter and committed Zionist who was strongly critical of Christians at the time of the Holocaust and who blamed the US State Department for ignoring the crisis.
This illuminated and controversial Ballad concluded: ‘By Christmas you can make Your Peace on Earth without the Jews.’ When paired with Szyk’s De Profundis, it represents a last-ditch effort to stir up empathy and action on behalf of Europe’s doomed Jews.
Szyk’s mother Eugenia was murdered by the Germans ‘somewhere in the Ghettos of Poland.’ The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 gave Szyk an opportunity to commemorate Jews as heroes rather than victims in The Repulsed Attack – Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto. Two years later, he produced his pen and ink sketch Samson in the Ghetto (1945).
After World War II, he became a US citizen in 1948, and his priorities became the welfare of Jewish Holocaust survivors, the emerging Israeli state, and human rights, civil liberties and tolerance in the US.
At the height of lynchings in the Deep South in 1949, a cartoon depicted a black man bound and on his knees, watched over by hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan. The caption above his head reads, ‘Do not forgive them oh Lord for they do know what they do!’ A second caption declares, ‘Each Negro lynching is a national disaster, is a stab in the back to our government in its desperate struggle for Democracy.’
Szyk came under suspicion as a Communist fellow traveller, and his name appears repeatedly in reports compiled and issued by the Committee on Un-American Activities. His fellow cartoonist Herbert Block (‘Herblock’) labelled the work of the committee ‘McCarthyism.’
One report named him as a member of ‘subversive’ and allegedly ‘Communist front’ groups such as the Win-the-Peace Conference, the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born, the American Slav Congress, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, the Peoples Radio Foundation and the Committee for Free Political Advocacy. Other lists included Leonard Bernstein, Albert Einstein, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, Linus Pauling, Paul Robeson, Isaac Stern, Max Weber and Frank Lloyd Wright.
His late masterpiece, Thomas Jefferson’s Oath (1951), challenged the House Committee investigations, with Szyk emphasising Jefferson’s words: ‘I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.’
Szyk died in New Canaan, Connecticut, on 13 September 1951. In the decades after his death, he received little attention from museums and galleries, and his life and work were largely overlooked apart from a small number of collectors, curators and scholars in the field of Judaica. Yet, generations of Jewish families at Passover were reading from his popular illuminated edition of The Haggadah.
Recently, Szyk’s De Profundis (1943) was paired with Marc Chagall’s pre-war lament, White Crucifixion (1938), to spark a discussion within Christian scholarly circles about Holocaust responsibility.
Szyk was identified as the artist who made the medallions at No 88 Whitechapel High Street by Charles O’Brien in Pevsner City Guides: London East in 2005. In recent years, he has become increasingly known, with exhibits of his work in the US, Poland and Germany.
A brief reference to this work in Jewish London by Rachel Kolsky and Roslyn Rawson (2018), bought in Bevis Marks Synagogue, opened my eyes to Szyk’s work last month. I intend changing my Facebook banner to his De Profundis for the duration of Lent.