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 caricaturist and illustrator, and he was 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 Nazi Party rose to power in Germany and fascism spread throughout Europe—was his illuminated Haggadah, a traditional Passover narrative. Szyk's Haggadah retold the ancient story as if it were unfolding in his own time, with the persecuted European Jews in the place of the ancient Hebrews and the ancient Egyptians represented as Nazis.1 When German forces invaded his native Poland in September 1939, Szyk began his own personal artistic crusade against fascism. He saw himself as a "soldier in art" who was fighting for the survival of democracy.
Szyk embraced his adopted country, and he saw diversity as one of the great strengths of American society. His first published volume of drawings in the US reflected the country's diversity and included portraits of Black people and Native Americans.
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 European territories dominated by Nazi Germany. After 1945, his illustrations on posters and pamphlets alerted the American public to the plight of Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) and the movement to establish a Jewish state.2
Szyk created the featured drawing3 during the last years of his life. This was a period when his attention had turned largely to contemporary American social themes, including the struggle against Jim Crow and racial segregation.4 Just like many of Szyk’s other works, this drawing's message is in its details. The torn and patched uniform belted around the Black soldier's emaciated body, the Purple Heart pinned to his right breast, and the rope that binds him and ties his hands behind his back all symbolize the injustice of his condition. Behind him are two men in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan who are presumably preparing a lynching.5 Two handwritten inscriptions—though they bear the editor's mark for "cut"—frame the image.6
The drawing captures the experiences of many Black veterans of World War II, who fought to defeat fascism and defend democracy only to face racist violence and discrimination back home. In 1946, a Black US army sergeant named Isaac Woodard was returning home from serving in World War II when he was beaten so badly by South Carolina police that he was knocked unconscious and permanently blinded. Outrage over this attack on a Black US veteran—while in his uniform—helped inspire President Harry S. Truman to end segregation in the US armed forces in 1948.7