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Untitled Drawing by Arthur Szyk

Szyk 1949
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of Rinjiro Sodei
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tags: group violence Jews in North America visual art

type: Poster

Artist Arthur Szyk earned an international reputation for his illustrations of Jewish and American themes during the 1930s and 1940s. Szyk (pronounced "Shick") was a skillful and prolific caricaturist and illustrator, as well as a passionate crusader for political causes. Throughout his career he created art focused on themes of human rights, religious tolerance, and racial equality.

Szyk’s major work during the 1930s, created as the Nazis seized power in Germany and fascism spread throughout Europe, was his illuminated Haggadah, in which he retold the Passover narrative as if the ancient story were unfolding in his own time, with the beleaguered European Jews as the ancient Hebrews and the Egyptians represented as Nazis.1 When Germany invaded his native Poland in September 1939, Szyk commenced his own personal war on fascism. Styling himself a "soldier in art" fighting for the survival of democracy, Szyk fled war-torn Poland to the United States to continue this crusade in 1940.

Szyk embraced the history of his adopted country. His first published volume of drawings there included portraits of African Americans and Native Americans, reflecting his appreciation for diversity as a great strength and promise of American society. 

By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, Szyk’s work had become a fixture of American popular culture. His wartime cartoons appeared regularly on the pages of major American newspapers and magazines. Szyk also became America’s leading artistic advocate for the rescue of Jews from Nazi Europe. After 1945, his illustrations on posters and pamphlets alerted the American public to the plight of the Jewish DPs and the movement to establish a Jewish state.

Szyk created the drawing featured here2 during the waning years of his life, a period when his attention had turned largely to contemporary American themes, including the African American struggle against Jim Crow3 and for civil rights. As is typical of Szyk’s work, the details carry the message: the torn and patched uniform belted around emaciated body, the Purple Heart pinned to the right breast, and the rope that binds the man’s chest and ties his hands behind his back all symbolize the injustice of his condition. Behind him stand men in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan, presumably preparing a lynching.4 Two handwritten inscriptions—though they bear the editor's mark for "cut"—frame the image.5 The composition nevertheless seems to communicate the experiences of many African American veterans of World War II, who fought to defeat fascism and defend democracy only to face brutality and discrimination at home.

The Haggadah comprises a narrative of the Jewish exodus from Egypt and in Jewish tradition is usually recited at the ceremonial Passover Seder dinner. For more on Passover, Seder, and Haggadahs during the Holocaust, see the collection Jewish Religious Life and the Holocaust.

Perhaps intended to bear the title, "Do Not Forgive Them, O Lord, For They Know What They Do," the pencil drawing was created in Szyk’s studio in New Canaan, CT. We do not know the specific purpose or publication for which the drawing was made. It was never published. 

"Jim Crow" refers to a system designed to create and sustain racial hierarchy in United States society following the Civil War. For more information, see the Jim Crow Museum website.

For more on lynching in the US during this period, see the items Abel Meeropol: "Bitter Fruit" and NAACP Anti-Lynching Flyer

The caption at the top of the page bears the initials "A.S." indicating that it was assigned to the drawing by Szyk himself. It quotes from the Bible Jesus's words from the cross (Luke 23:34). The source of the quotation at the bottom of the drawing is unknown. Whether Szyk himself or another editor indicated the "cuts" is unknown. The original drawing is held today in a private collection and is used here with permission.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of Rinjiro Sodei
Source Number 93879
Date Created
1948
Author / Creator
Arthur Szyk
Language(s)
English
Location
United States
Reference Location
Connecticut, USA
Document Type Poster
How to Cite Museum Materials