Join our email list

Arthur Szyk’s Style, Subjects, and Work Changed After Holocaust

Arthur Szyk believed artists could not escape to still lifes, abstractions, and experiments while Jewish life was involved in terrible tragedy.
Arthur Szyk's The Scribe/Wikimedia Commons
Arthur Szyk's The Scribe/Wikimedia Commons
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Note: We are bringing this article back in the wake of the news that artist Arthur Szyk’s works have been donated to a California Jewish art museum after a $10 million bequest

Pogroms mobilized Szyk

Szyk, was born in 1894 in Lodz, Poland (then part of Russia). It was on his return to Poland after studying art in Paris that he started to be drawn increasingly into Jewish themes and Jewish causes. The sufferings and pogroms experienced by the Jews of Poland at the end of World War One clearly moved him and helped mobilize him, consciously, to put his art in the service of the Jewish people.

For the rest of his life, until his death in 1951, he was always working for the people and for those causes and values he identified with the best of his heritage. He fought with his pen for freedom and equality among the world’s different races as a whole. He fought against fascism, for Zionism, for the right of the Jews to leave Europe before the war and their right to leave the displaced persons camps and to go to Palestine after the war.

He fought for American engagement in the war (he became a celebrated and much loved cartoonist and propagandist – in the best sense of the word) – and against British mandate policies that restricted immigration to Palestine. As such he is both a Jewish artist and a universal one.

In the course of his work as a consciously Jewish artist, he illustrated many of the greatest stories of the Bible. Among these was Megillat Esther which he illustrated twice, both in the classic manuscript style mentioned above. The first time was in 1925, when he produced a French version of the Megillah; the second time was in 1950, when he produced a Hebrew version.

Both versions were consciously produced out of a sense of Jewish suffering and out of a wish to react in some way to that suffering. They are both remarkable works, but the events of the 25 years that separated the two versions left their mark on his treatment of the subject in no uncertain terms.

It is this that we wish to examine here. In the 1925 book, we see Ahashverosh conferring with Haman. The king is on the left and Haman stands before him, in a deferential posture. They are dressed in gorgeous robes full of the color that marked so much of Szyk’s work when he was illustrating the classic Hebrew texts. Both men are imposing, and they wear the Assyrian beard associated with the period.

They look like leaders of the time and place as they have come down to us in some of the statuary of the time. Their images adorned many of the pages of the Haggadah, casting an imposing and dignified presence over the proceedings, even as the text undermined much of that dignity as the story unfolded.  

Earlier dignity, later diminution

One of the last pictures in the book shows Haman on the gallows viewed from a distance. In the foreground sits Ahashverosh on his throne, and next to him sits Esther with a serious-faced Mordechai standing on the left in the foreground.

Right up to the end, both Ahashverosh and Haman – even in this gallows picture – retain great dignity. Haman hangs, but he cuts a grave and imposing figure, even on the gallows. The picture is perhaps hopeful. There is a sense that in the aftermath of the danger, there is a possibility of rapprochement, between Jews and Persians.

The latter are a serious people, who have proved themselves capable of turning on the Jews, but that can be put behind both peoples. With determination, the two peoples can go forward to their mutual benefit. Jews, for all that they have gone through, can create for themselves, with the benevolence of the king, a better future in the land.

This was not a false hope for Szyk in these years. Just a year after publishing his first Megillah, a coup in Poland brought Jozef Klemens Pilsudski to power. Szyk supported Pilsudski, believing that there was a possibility of Jews and Poles continuing positively their long common history. It was now that he embarked on a large and ambitious project.

Over four years he worked on an illuminated manuscript, which he wrote and published in several languages, the text of which was the Jewish charter of Boleslav of Kalisz, the first Polish ruler to give the Jews a bill of rights.

Szyk illustrated the charter predominantly with scenes of Jewish-Polish cooperation over hundreds of years, showing how Jews had contributed to the development of Poland. Despite the terrible treatment of the Jews during the previous decade, Szyk believed they could go forward and continue productive roles in Poland under a benevolent ruler. As in ancient Persia, the people could go forward as long as death and its would-be perpetrators were swinging on the gallows in the background and a strong and benevolent ruler was in charge.

However, by the time he produced his second Megillah, in 1950, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, things had changed. In contrast to a 1925 picture, in which Haman swings on distant gallows, Esther and Mordechai are sitting in state. Ahashverosh is nowhere to be seen, and the symbols of state are present in and around the figure of Esther.

She holds the royal scepter and to the right of her head there is a tapestry that displays all the symbols of Jewish sovereignty. In Hebrew are written the words Queen Esther underneath a royal crown, and next to them there are two lions with crowns on their heads, the symbol of Jewish sovereignty. Mordechai has one hand vaguely gesturing in the direction of the gallows.

Create own land

The meaning here is inescapable. This is not a call for Jewish life among the nations among benevolent rulers. It is a call for the Jews to seize and create their own sovereignty. The non-Jews have no place in the sovereign Jewish future.

Pilsudski had long gone, his place taken by anti-Semites and fascists who brought Poland to the brink of Nazism before the Germans invaded. The Jews themselves, those Jews whom Szyk had hoped would be the participants in a new relationship with the inhabitants of Poland, were dead. The experiment had failed. Now was the time for a new experiment, one in Jewish rule.

The differences between the two versions of the Megillah were more pronounced than that however. Let us look at the depictions of Ahashverosh and Haman in the 1950 Megillah. We recall that in the earlier version they had been elegant and dignified figures, serious and imposing. In 1950 he portrayed Ahashverosh and Haman as fat, greasy, decadent and indolent.

In addition, a careful inspection of Haman’s clothing will reveal two sorts of swastikas, one on a badge on his hat and the other as part of the design of the fabric of his coat. Nothing could be further from the picture of the two men in 1925. If we examine two other portrayals of Haman in the 1950 work we see the same consistent pattern.

In one picture we see Haman leading Mordechai, and in the other we see Haman on the gallows, this time from close up with the artist, Szyk staring at him while he eats a hamantashen cookie. In both cases the Nazi symbolism is clear, replete with death’s head belt, as well as swastikas.

Both of these pictures show Jewish victory, but perhaps the clearest depiction of victory over the Hamanic foes is in the wonderful picture from 1948 of Mordechai (he is identified as such by the title that Szyk gave to his picture) reading the final words of the Megillah in the land of Israel surrounded by halutzim, working the land and with the weapons to defend their labor and their lives.

By the time the Jewish state was declared, Szyk’s interpretation of the Megillah was crystal clear. Haman and Hitler were part of a chain, a chain thousands of years long, of enemies of the Jewish people and the only way to break that chain, or at least to respond to it, was to see the enemies for what they were and to create a situation of sovereignty where those enemies could no longer hurt the Jews. It is interesting, and perhaps not surprising, that Szyk’s brand of Zionism was Jabotinsky’s Revisionism, which emphasized military strength above all else as the key to the Jewish future.

Thus for Szyk in 1950 – not necessarily in 1925 – it is clear: The ultimate victory will be that of the Jews, but only when they and the world learn the lessons of the Megillah and the Jews are enabled to have their own sovereign state in their own land.

Arthur Szyk was one of the more extraordinary Jewish artists to come out of the 20th century. Both in his life and in his art he reflected the world-changing events of the century, the century that transformed the Jewish people and ushered in the world we know today.

There once was a debate among critics as to what extent Szyk can be called an artist. The Times of London once said his art was “among the most beautiful ever produced by the hand of man.” Others saw him as a commercialist who cheapened art by using it in “lowbrow” ways. The reason is that he put his art in the service of different causes and, therefore, was seen by some as little more than a propagandist.

We will not enter here into the discussion, other than to say that for those who see it as legitimate and perhaps important that artists are engaged with the world in which they live, Szyk represents a classic example of that tendency. The artist engaged. As he himself said:

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 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.

Szyk said that in 1934, outraged at the rise of Nazism, but it was the motto that characterized him for the next 20 years. In technical terms, it might be more accurate to see Szyk, first and foremost as an illustrator. He took ideas or texts and created a visual representation of them. He was also a first-rate illuminator of texts in the manner of the classic medieval scribes who laboured endlessly to illustrate their manuscripts.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics