Freedom Illuminated: The Szyk Haggadah

By Robin Jacobson. 

the four sonsBrowsing through the Passover books in our library, I am struck by the holiday’s embrace of creativity. One haggadah after another urges us to reimagine the traditional Seder themes of liberation and freedom within the context of our own lives and times. The haggadot ask, “Who are the pharaohs that oppress our lives?” And they challenge us, “What does it mean today to invite ‘all who are hungry to come and eat?’”

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) is an inspiration to anyone seeking to reframe the ancient Passover narrative so that it speaks to contemporary times. The Szyk Haggadah (1940) is famous both for stunning artistry and for linking the Passover story with the events of its day. To read about Szyk’s art and life, try Arthur Szyk: Artist, Jew, Pole (Joseph Ansell), The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk (Steven Luckert), Freedom Illuminated: Understanding The Szyk Haggadah (Irvin Ungar), and Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk (Irvin Ungar). And take a look at the Arthur Szyk Society website (http://www.szyk.org). Here are some highlights.

Arthur Szyk

Born in Lodz, Poland, to a middle-class Jewish family, Arthur Szyk (pronounced “shik”) studied art both in Poland and in Paris. He was captivated by older art forms, particularly medieval illumination and Persian miniatures, and began experimenting with modern adaptations. After creating several illuminated books, Szyk turned to political issues, completing in 1928 an illustrated version of The Statute of Kalisz, a 13th century document that guaranteed fundamental rights to Polish Jews. At the London exhibition in 1933, visitors ruefully contrasted the persecution of Jews in Hitler’s Germany with the more enlightened treatment of Jews in medieval Poland.

In 1940, Szyk immigrated to the United States, where he was already a celebrated artist. In fact, the Roosevelt White House displayed Szyk’s set of miniature paintings, “George Washington and His Times.” But during World War II, Szyk turned his talent to producing political cartoons and caricatures that vilified the Nazis and their allies. He was one of the war’s foremost political artists, a self-described “soldier in art” whose powerful images appeared in leading newspapers, magazines, and exhibitions.

The Szyk Haggadah

In 1934, a year after Hitler came to power, Szyk began work on the Haggadah. To Szyk, Hitler was a modern-day Pharaoh, and the Nazis were the new Egyptians threatening the Jewish people. The luminous illustrations in the Haggadah included Egyptian characters wearing swastikas and Eastern European Jews in chains. The Haggadah’s portrayal of the Four Sons likewise reflected Szyk’s world view. The wise son is a bearded yeshiva student; the wicked son looks Germanic, with a feathered hat and Hitler-like mustache. Fearing Nazi reprisals, publishers in continental Europe refused to print the Haggadah, so Szyk published it in London in 1940. Even so, the publisher forced Szyk to paint over the swastikas.

Szyk dedicated the Haggadah to the reigning British monarch, King George VI, a shrewd choice. England was not only at the forefront of the fight against the Nazis, but also controlled Jewish immigration to Palestine. The dedication page shows weary Jews blocked by a British military ship from castle gates inscribed “Zion” – a plea to the British to allow more Jews to enter Palestine. Tragically, British policy did not change, despite profuse praise for the Haggadah. The Times Literary Supplement proclaimed it “worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has produced.”