Arthur Szyk's Depiction of the "New Jew": Art as a Weapon in the Campaign for an American Response to the Holocaust
Arthur Szyk believed that art could make a difference in the world. Throughout his career he created works that spoke to contemporary social and political issues--and none were more significant and powerful than the illustrations he used to help alter the modern image of Jewry and raise American public consciousness about the Nazis' slaughter of European Jewry.
While still in his teens, Szyk contributed editorial cartoons to a number of newspapers and magazines in his hometown of Lodz, Poland, commenting on local, as well as national and international, social and political issues. Later, in the late 1920s, he created an extensive illuminated manuscript of the Statute of Kalisz, a thirteenth century bill of rights for the Jews of Poland. Although Szyk lived for significant periods of time outside Poland, he nevertheless placed his art at the service of the Polish government. During the 1930s he travelled throughout Poland presenting his work as a symbol of Polish-Jewish cooperation. Later he travelled to England, Switzerland, and the United States as an artistic ambassador of the Polish government, his works specifically being used to emphasize a liberal, inclusive approach of that government in contrast to rising antisemitism in Germany.
Szyk spoke of his cartoons as "weapons of war," 1 was frequently referred to as a "one man army," 2 and no less a figure than Eleanor Roosevelt told the country in her newspaper column, "My Day," that Szyk was fighting the Axis "as truly as any of us who cannot actually be on the fighting front." 3
Szyk began this artistic crusade in September 1939, when his native Poland was invaded by the forces of the Third Reich. His biting satires immediately appeared in many publications in England, where he was [End Page 123] living at the time. Through Szyk's eyes British readers saw the Poles defending their country against Nazi aggression, and they saw the Jewish victims of the Nazi terror. In the spring of 1940 he was asked by the British Government and the Polish Government-in-Exile to travel to North America with an exhibition of his work. The politicians felt that Szyk's work would be an excellent vehicle for portraying the political struggle and would help rally popular support in Canada and the United States for the war effort.
Settling in the U.S. in late 1940, Szyk was one of the first artists to show the American public the face of the European war. From the period prior to U.S. entry into the war until its very end nearly five years later, his satires, war drawings and paintings appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers and were seen in dozens of exhibitions throughout the United States. He came to be regarded by many Americans as the country's foremost wartime political cartoonist. Szyk was truly "on duty" in the fight for freedom.
The vast majority of Szyk's wartime drawings and paintings lampooned the Axis leaders and glorified the Allied soldiers and their efforts. However, from the time of his earliest antiwar drawings, Szyk also depicted his people, the Jews. While these images usually portrayed the Jews as victims, he also created paintings and drawings that showed Jews fighting back and defending themselves from attack. Rejecting the traditional Jewish image of passivity, Szyk believed that the Jewish people must act on their own behalf rather than rely on the good intentions of others. He longed for something of a reinvention of the Jewish personality. "We Jews must introduce an element of risk into anti-Semitism," he once asserted. "You can interpret the word risk as you please." 4
Two of the works that promoted activism, the miniature gouache painting Tel Hai and the ink drawing Tears of Rage, were widely printed and reprinted throughout the Holocaust years and after. Their use by varied organizations and publications and in numerous and varied contexts, especially those addressed to the American Jewish community, points to the role Szyk's images played during this period.
Szyk found a ready ally in his drive to rally the Jewish people, and to change the public image of Jewry, in several related political action groups with which he affiliated soon after settling in New York--the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews (established 1941), the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of [End Page 124] Europe (established 1943), and the American League for a Free Palestine (established 1944), all of which had been created by a maverick Jewish activist from Palestine, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook).
Szyk's work for these organizations played a significant role in his wartime activity despite the relatively small proportion of works created for them. Although he contributed paintings and drawings to other Jewish organizations and publications, his work for the Bergson committees must stand as an important element in his overall anti-Nazi campaign. Moreover, the importance of this activity to the artist far exceeded the number of works created for the groups. He felt that they were part of a direct action to save his European brethren. Here he was not only contributing to a worthy cause; he was also behaving as he thought all Jews should, fighting the best way he could on behalf of his people.
The Bergson group created one of the earliest public relations campaigns aimed at political action and persuasion. Using full-page advertisements in major newspapers throughout the U.S. as well as their own magazine, The Answer, and other means of outreach, Bergson and his compatriots kept the issue of rescue of Europe's Jews before the American public. Purposely created as nonsectarian organizations to tap into the broadest possible constituencies and to ensure that the issues they promoted were not viewed only as Jewish concerns, they garnered support from throughout the American public, enlisting in their cause prominent members of Congress as well as military men, distinguished representatives of other professions, and celebrities. Their slogan, "Action, Not Pity," eloquently summarized their stance on the issues.
Szyk not only served as an officer or a board member of each of these organizations, but he also served as their one-man art department. In his memoirs the noted journalist and playwright Ben Hecht, who was the Bergson group's most prolific and eloquent propagandist, wrote of Szyk:
He appeared among us one day like a bonanza on the doorstep. Thereafter, he illustrated all the ads I wrote. He drew program covers for all the pageants I invented. He drew posters and pictures for throwaways at rallies, for invitations to shake-down dinners. He worked for eight years without pause. Nobody paid him anything and nobody thought of thanking him. Nor was he an unknown artist using a cause to add luster to his name. It was already one of the most illustrious names in international art. 5 [End Page 125]
Moreover, at every possible moment, in public speeches, interviews and published writings, Szyk passionately promoted their goals: rescue and freedom for all Jews who could be saved from Hitler's destruction.
One of the most important of the small group of Szyk's art works employed by the Bergson group was actually created in 1936, several years before the war. The painting portrays Joseph Trumpeldor's armed defense against an Arab attack on the Jewish settlement of Tel Hai in northern Palestine in 1920. Although the event had occurred more than 15 years earlier, it held great symbolic meaning during the 1930s. Trumpeldor was a popular role model and hero to the Zionist movement as a symbol of the concept that resistance, rather than passive acceptance of fate, was the only proper response to enemies of the Jewish people. 6 In his painting, Szyk depicts both men and women, the young Palestinian pioneer as well as the observant Jew in traditional garb, participating in the fight. It was Szyk's way of reminding the viewer that it is everyone's responsibility to take part in the fight for Jewish survival.
At the bottom of the painting, set within a plaque flanked by lions of Judah and topped with an elaborate crown similar to those used on the Torah scrolls, is "Tel Hai" and a quotation (in Hebrew) from Hillel: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?" The phrase epitomizes Trumpeldor's entire career dedicated to fighting for his people. More importantly, it also provides an ancient Jewish role model for that type of commitment. While this painting seems to have been the first time Szyk employed the Hillel text with one of his paintings or drawings, it held such importance to him that he returned to it throughout the years to follow.
The painting served Szyk well after he moved to the United States and it played a major role in his wartime artistic activities, specifically within the Jewish community. It was reproduced a number of times in magazines and newspapers. Although its original subject was not directly linked to the Holocaust, it was used to rouse American public opinion against the destruction of European Jewry. And it became a valuable and timely icon for many American Jews, providing a model for present and future action.
The first American publication of this image was on the cover of The American Hebrew in May 1941, only six months after Szyk's arrival in the country. At this time, more than six months prior to U.S. entry into the war, it must have been an unusual image for American Jewish [End Page 126] viewers, who were more accustomed to thinking of themselves and their European brethren as scholars or businessmen. Yet its publication in 1941 may also be viewed as a prescient call to action, one that Szyk and his colleagues believed was already necessary even if the American Jewish community was unaware. The title accompanying the painting when it appeared in The American Hebrew, May I Perish with the Enemy, despite its Biblical origin, was a militant departure from the norm for an American Jewish community that was deeply apprehensive over accusations that it was interested in dragging America into war against Hitler. Inside the magazine, in an article entitled "Arthur Szyk Comes to Town," Szyk spoke about how his art (particularly his recently published Passover Haggadah, which had originally included anti-Hitler imagery and which was still a visual metaphor for this view) was a "challenge [to Jews] to unite and resist those who would destroy them." The article pointed to the Trumpeldor painting on the cover as "another example of Szyk's feeling for Jewish unity." 7
The American Hebrew used the painting a second time in the fall of 1942, to accompany an extensive article about Szyk and his role in the contemporary conflict. In this instance the title was noted correctly as The Defense of Tel Hai, but the caption made no other mention of its real subject and instead went on to say that Szyk's "anti-Nazi cartoons are familiar to newspaper and magazine readers." 8 Given that no other images were included with the article, one must read this painting as a visual amplification of the text in which Szyk talks about using art as a "weapon to help win the war" 9 as well as a reminder that Jews had already demonstrated the ability to act in their own defense.
The Bergson group twice used the image of Trumpeldor defending Tel Hai in its magazine The Answer, once in July 1943, at the height of the Holocaust, and a second time in February 1946, after the war had ended. In both cases it appeared under the name May I Perish With The Enemy, clearly continuing Szyk's call for an activist response to the Holocaust.
For the 1943 cover the magazine's editors cropped the image, removing the decorative plaque with the words "Tel Hai" as well as the Hillel inscription, thus making the painting purely an image of Jews fighting in battle. The caption called those depicted in the painting "Descendants of Bar Kochba," a reference to ancient Jewish freedom fighters in a rebellion against the Roman Empire. It declared that the [End Page 127] [Begin Page 129] fighters had "vindicated once more the honor of their people." Text further explaining the painting appeared in the table of contents of the magazine. It reinforced Szyk's message:
The Artist expressed in this striking drawing the indomitable spirit of the Hebrew soul. In the Warsaw ghetto this spirit inspired Jewish heroes to desperate fight with the Nazis, and thus vindicated the honor of a people and the death of the martyrs.
It conveys the idea that during the most fateful and decisive epochs of their history the Jew was forced to rely upon himself for succor and victory.
There is a maxim, in old Jewish scripts, for this self-reliance. "If I am not for myself then who will be for me?"
The words "May I perish with the enemy" were uttered by Samson, judge and warrior of the ancient Hebrew people. Chained and blind, he brought death to his torturers while destroying himself. 10
While not advocating Jewish suicide, Szyk and the magazine's publishers believed that a death fighting for one's freedom was an honorable death, clearly preferable to surrender and passive acceptance.
After the Holocaust, when the Bergson committees shifted their attention to the fight to establish a Jewish homeland, the painting was reproduced in the February 1946 issue of The Answer. 11 The cover bore the words "For Survival and Freedom" superimposed over Szyk's drawing for the seal of the American League for a Free Palestine, and Szyk's image of the fighting Trumpeldor appeared on the inside front cover. Once again, it was shown without its title or motto. This time, a block containing the following text replaced these elements:
In the name of the Hebrew nation, fighting for survival and freedom, this report is dedicated in everlasting gratitude to the men and women of goodwill in America who almost alone answered the cry of a foreign people ravaged by foes and forgotten by friends. 12
Bergson's Jewish Army committee, to which Szyk had given publication rights, circulated the painting in 1942, and it appeared in a number of Jewish periodicals that summer and fall, including the monthly Menorah Journal, the weekly (Brooklyn) Jewish Examiner, and the monthly Jewish Spectator. In all three cases it was called The Modern Maccabees, linking Trumpeldor's efforts to a much earlier (second century BCE) Jewish fight for independence and religious freedom. The [End Page 129] Examiner noted that Szyk said his painting "symbolize[d] physical resistance of Jewish people in modern times," 13 implying that such behavior, necessary for Jewish survival in Palestine, was also needed in response to the persecution of Jews in Europe.
When it was reprinted in the January 1944 issue of the monthly Jewish Forum, the painting bore a more up-to-date title Self Defense in Warsaw, an evident attempt to link the previous year's Warsaw Ghetto uprising to Trumpeldor's earlier battle. The published title was inaccurate but not unprecedented, since just six months earlier, as noted above, The Answer had linked the image to the ghetto uprising in the explanatory text for its cover image of the painting. It is also possible that the magazine's editors used the image simply because it showed Jews engaged in combat, very few photos or illustrations of which would have been commonly available in those days.
A second line of text beneath the image in The Jewish Forum suggested additional interpretations. In bold type it reads "Back the Attack by Buying an EXTRA WAR BOND in the Fourth Bond Drive." 14 Although it is not clear if the intention was to say that buying United States bonds would strengthen Jewish self-defense efforts or that the idea was solely to back the general U. S. war effort, a message of participation and action was directed to the Jewish readers of the magazine.
If Trumpeldor represented a figure from the past fighting for life and liberty, the young Jewish soldier Szyk drew in Tears of Rage symbolized what he believed was needed in the present and the future. Unlike the Tel Hai painting, this drawing was created specifically for wartime use. It became the visual hallmark of Bergson's political action organizations, especially the Committee for a Jewish Army, and was used extensively in their public presentations and activities.
Tears of Rage shows an angry Jewish soldier, mouth opened in a shout or battle cry, holding aloft a machine gun in his right hand while with his other arm cradling a dead or dying patriarch clutching a Torah scroll. The aged man wears an armband from the death camps and has a Nazi sword protruding from his back. Below him are depicted the remaining members of a Jewish family: a grandmother, a young couple, and their dead child. Poignantly, both the oldest and youngest people have succumbed to the Nazi horrors. Szyk has suggestively marked the machine gun with the small legend "Made in U.S.A.," in effect saying that it was incumbent on America to support the self-defense efforts of the Jews. In addition, he put the word "stateless" on the soldier's shoulder to emphasize the national homelessness of the Jews. [End Page 130] [Begin Page 132]
The drawing was created in December 1942. Its first appearance before the public seems to have been in the Jewish Army committee's double full-page advertisement in the New York Times on 7 December 1942. 15 The illustration occupied almost one-third of a page, accompanying a "Proclamation on the Moral Rights of the Stateless and Palestinian Jews." The companion page was filled with several hundred signatories from all walks of American life, from politics and the military to science and the arts. The proclamation stressed that the Jews wanted no more than other free peoples, especially the Americans who were reading this text while sitting in their homes and offices: to be able to fight for their freedom and then to live in peace in their own land. The publication date was probably timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the war. Yet there was another, equally important reason for the timing of its publication. It served as a call to arms at exactly the time that the American public was first becoming aware of the organized, mass destruction of European Jews.
Szyk included a handwritten text, in gothic calligraphy, alongside the image. It reads:
To those of my people
who fight for the right
to die with their boots on:
my pride, my love, my devotion.
Below the image appears another line of text: "We shall no longer witness with pity alone." It is a public warning to those who believed they could kill Jews with impunity. The drawing was the perfect visual manifestation of the text it accompanied. It was plain to everyone that Szyk's sympathies were with those Jews who chose to fight back against the Nazis and anyone else who tried to thwart Jewish survival. The Bergson group reprinted this drawing in later advertisements, ensuring that the image of the avenging Jewish soldier would begin to enter the conscience of the American public.
The Committee for a Jewish Army also used this image as a program cover for a pageant held at Madison Square Garden in March 1943. 16 Entitled We Will Never Die, the program cover announces that it is "A Mass Memorial Dedicated to the Two Million Jewish Dead of Europe." [End Page 132] The production brought together Hecht, Kurt Weill, Billy Rose, Moss Hart and such stellar actors as Paul Muni, Sylvia Sidney and Edward G. Robinson to dramatize and publicize the tragedy unfolding in Europe. The pageant played to an audience of 40,000 people in New York as well as full houses in Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. 17 While the production itself served as a memorial and dramatization of the fate of European Jewry, Szyk's drawing became a very public symbol of the activist response to the Holocaust that the Bergsonites advocated.
Bergson's The Answer turned to Tears of Rage as the major illustration for an article on Szyk in July 1943. The image's caption states that the drawing is "One of the best-known of Szyk's drawings in [America]." Entitled "Arthur Szyk, Champion of His People," the article, replete with direct quotations from the artist, is primarily an indictment of mainstream Jewish Americans in their reaction to the European Holocaust:
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 American 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. 18
This powerful image was also published on the cover of the January 1944 issue of The Jewish Forum. Tears of Rage was a perfect image for this issue, which was dedicated to "the Jewish boy in uniform." 19 It combines a soldier responding to the horrors of the war with a direct focus on the Jewish victims and a suggestion for a Jewish response.
These two powerful images, Tel Hai and Tears of Rage, were adopted by these various organizations and publications as icons--of what a Jew should be, and of what was necessary for Jewish survival in the modern world. This was Szyk's and his compatriots' vision of the "new Jew," one who would take his people's destiny into his own hands. Ben Hecht summarized this view in his memoirs, linking Szyk's work to that of the [End Page 133] Irgun Zvai Leumi underground fighters battling for independence from the British in Palestine:
If there was ever an artist who believed that an hour of valor was better than a lifetime of furtiveness and cringe, it was Szyk. Just as the Irgun produced the first fighting Jew since Bar Kochba, Szyk put him on paper for the first time. 20
While the vast majority of Szyk's thousands of wartime creations were published only once or twice and then retired to the files or viewed again only in exhibitions, Tel Hai and Tears of Rage were so powerful and important to Szyk, his colleagues, supporters and viewers that they were utilized many times. They spoke powerfully to the American public of the "new Jew," ready to fight back, and of the moral imperative of a vigorous American response to the Jewish tragedy in Europe.
Joseph Ansell has recently completed a book manuscript on the artistic and political themes in Arthur Szyk's work. He has taught and served as an administrator at the University of Maryland, College Park, Otterbein College, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and has been serving as a consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for a forthcoming (opening March 2002) Szyk exhibition.
1. U.S.O. Press Release, August 21, 1942. Szyk Family Archive. A copy is held by the author.
2. Morris Schreiber, "One Man Army, " The American Hebrew (11 September 1942): 10.
3. Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Day," New York World Telegram 8 January 1943, 25.
4. Nathan George Horwitt, "Arthur Szyk, Champion of His People," The Answer (5 July 1943): 11-12.
5. Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century (New York, 1954), 566.
6. Jabotinsky, leader of the Revisionist Zionist groups, even named his youth group, Betar, in honor of this fighting hero.
7. Martin Burden, "Arthur Szyk Comes to Town," The American Hebrew (16 May 1941): 7.
8. Schreiber, "One Man Army," 10.
9. Schreiber, "One Man Army," 10.
10. The Answer (July 5, 1943): 3.
11. The American League for a Free Palestine reissued this special report as a separate publication, For Survival and Freedom, without the magazine's masthead.
12. For Survival and Freedom
13. Jewish Examiner (11September 1942): 1.
14. The Jewish Forum (January 1944): 21.
15. The New York Times, 7 December 1942, 14-5. It also appeared in papers throughout the U.S.
16. The Committee for a Jewish Army and the other Bergson organizations were so intertwined and overlapped in activity and time period that the February 1946 issue of The Answer states that the pageant was part of "the campaign of the Emergency Committee," rather than the correct sponsoring group.
17. Sarah E. Peck, "The Campaign for an American Response to the Nazi Holocaust, 1943-1945," Journal of Contemporary History 31, 2 (April 1980): 373.
18. Horwitt, "Champion," 12.
19. The Jewish Forum (January 1944), cover.
20. Hecht, Child, 567.