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.