ARTHUR SZYK'S WAR-ERA ARTWORK: TEARS OF RAGE

Rabbi Shmuel Jablon

Originally published in the Arthur Szyk Society Newsletter, November, 1999

His pictures rise off of the page, as if the figures in them- living and dead- exist before our very eyes. His artwork, intended to arouse action more than anger, symbolized the valiant effort of far too few American Jews to save their brothers and sisters from the Holocaust. And when that battle was completed, though surely not won, he turned his pen to the struggle for a Jewish Homeland.

 

Arthur Szyk was more than just an artist. He was a soldier with a pen, a Jewish patriot who hoped that his pen might stir others to wield the sword in the Jewish People's defense.

It is well known that there were two responses among World War Two-era American Jews to the horrors of the Holocaust.

The first response was of the "establishment" assimilationist-minded Jews. They sought to do whatever they could do that was both within the law and American public opinion to sway the American and Allied governments to aid their brethren in Europe.

The second response was from those who sought to do anything possible- without regard for law or public opinion- to save Europe's doomed Jews. Following the traditional dictate that the commandment to save lives supercedes all but the three cardinal prohibitions (idolatry, murder of innocents and sexual crimes), these Jews protested publicly, smuggled food to occupied lands and forged visas. This group was led by the Orthodox Jews who formed the Vaad Hatzalah (See Amos Bunim's A Fire In His Soul and Aaron Rakeffet's The Silver Era for two outstanding descriptions of this vital organization.) and the "Revisionist Zionists" who formed such groups as the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation. Sometimes there was an interesting cooperation between these two groups of people whose views sometimes (though not always) diverged. Yet, whether organizing petition drives, "The Emergency Committee to Save the Jews of Europe" or massive demonstrations, the commandment to save lives outweighed deeply felt disagreements.

Weighing heavily as an active participant in the battle to help the Jewish People was the internationally known artist Arthur Szyk.

As has been well documented, Szyk was perhaps the greatest "minaturist" of his time. He drew in the old Persian style, giving tremendous detail and color to his subjects. He illuminated the Book of Esther and the Passover Hagaddah (which one art critic suggested was the most beautiful book every produced). Yet, following the Nazis' conquering of much of Europe, all of his talents were put to use in the attempt not only to fight fascism- but also to save the Jews. This double goal is crucial for modern historians to understand.

The first goal, fighting fascism, was- of course- the single minded goal of all those who loved freedom. Prior to Pearl Harbor, Szyk used his talents to illustrate such works as The New Order. His cartoons dramatized the plight of the victims of Nazism, and were indeed intended to evoke rage. Following Pearl Harbor and the American entrance to the Second World War, images of American pride became part of his artistic repertoire. The colorful images found on the front of Collier's magazines portrayed the evil of the Axis powers and the glory of the American soldiers fighting the noble cause.

Sadly, however, the goal of actively saving the persecuted Jews of Europe was not a universally held goal. The silence of the Allied Powers, including the United States, has been well documented. The sad truth of American complicity with the Holocaust can be found in such books as David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews and Deborah Lipstadt's Beyond Belief. Even many in the Jewish community (as noted above) sought not to "rock the boat" by actively agitating to help their brothers and sisters. Seeking "special treatment" for those who were being murdered might be viewed as disloyalty for diverting the war effort.

Yet, Szyk was an active participant in the efforts to publicize the atrocities and convince American authorities to open the gates of immigration and to intervene to halt the slaughter. Szyk served as Vice Chairman of the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. In his autobiography, A Child of the Century, Ben Hecht (a prominent writer who led efforts to draw attention to the plight of Europe's Jews) wrote, "He [Szyk] drew program covers for all the pagents I invented. He drew posters and pictures for throwaways at rallies, for invitations to shake-down dinners…"

Szyk's haunting pictures appeared on poster stamps (designed for both fund raisers and awareness-building) and in the programs for the "We Will Never Die" and "Show of Shows" productions orchestrated by Hecht. And when the "mainstream" Jewish organizations of Chicago dared criticize the Emergency Committee, it was Szyk- along with Hecht, who responded with venom.

"The fight which is being conducted in Chicago against the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe is most damaging to the interests of the Jews of Europe who at a time of greatest tragedy did not receive any consideration from most of the gentleman and organizations who now rush to print unjustified denunciations of a Committee all of whose efforts are conducted for the saving of the Jews of Europe. The Emergency Committee is non-sectarian, and it is high time that people stopped to abuse and slander the sincerity and intentions of leading Americans, who conscientiously and with admirable devotion are working for this cause…It is sinful, to say the least, on the part of Jews in this country to deal frivolously and irresponsibly in these grave matters involving other peoples lives. It is this attitude which brought messages of "We Hate You" from the Warsaw Ghetto and drove Samuel Ziegelbaum to suicide. As a Jew from Poland, I urge you, most solemnly, having been spared by the grace of G-d the plight of my brethren in Poland, that you at least stop wrecking the only serious and large scale effort for the salvation of our people."

Indeed, Szyk's sarcasm was as apparent in the written word as with his art. In his role as Vice President of the Hebrew Committee of National Liberation (Peter Bergson's Irgun-related group) he wrote:

"There are anti-Semites who perk up at the 'noise' Jews are making about their plight and their rights. I beg their pardon for the lack of manners on the part of Jews refusing to die quietly. I hail the fight of these Jews for our honor with all the means at their command. Let others show how well-behaved they would prove in the same situation." (from The Answer, August, 1944)

Yet, this artist who would before the War drew images of Washington and Lincoln- and after the War drew Bar Kochba (leader of the failed Jewish revolt against Rome)- wrote with even greater venom against those Jews of America who refused to join his fight.

"In the present crisis the American of Jewish descent has proven himself neither intelligent nor courageous…Your rich and assimilated American of Jewish descent, in his passive attitude toward the whole question of anti-semitism here and extermination abroad, acts like anything but a native American. In the eyes of the world, an American is a straight speaking, straight shooting, fearless individual. You would expect that our assimilated brethren therefore would speak fearlessly and with great indignation against the evils being committed against a helpless minority…You would think that our Americans of Jewish descent would now press Congress with all the great influence they really possess to make this country's position clear with reference to the shocking things that are going on in Europe. …But your American of Jewish descent does not act as an American. He has proven himself a coward. He is a chameleon, so anxious to assume the protective coloring of Americanism that he has bailed to notice there is no yellow in the red, white and blue." (from The Answer)

It is little surprise that Szyk, who had been a friend of Jabotinsky, contributed his time and talents after the War to the Irgun (in the form of the reconstituted Hebrew Committee of National Liberation and the American League for a Free Palestine). He contributed his artwork in the form of poster stamps portraying the Wise Son of the Hagaddah in a battle helmet, in post cards portraying the Jewish settlers as David fighting the British Goliath, and in the images for programs designed to use the "Show of Shows" as an Irgun fund raising vehicle. Szyk wrote in The Answer (February, 1946) of his prayers for the Committee "which aspires to place [the Jewish] people on an equal footing with the rest of the world and at least to redeem our soul."

In a sense, Szyk and his comrades lost the battle to save the Jewish People of Europe. But they were American Jewish heroes who won the battle for Jewish Pride and contributed, at least in some measure, to the establishment of the Jewish State in the Land of Israel. Thus, they served as role models for those who wished to combine American patriotism with Jewish nationalism, Judaism with Zionism, and G-d given talent with a desire to help humanity.

Rabbi Shmuel Jablon is the Associate Headmaster of the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, California.

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