A most unusual Haggadah on display in Berkeley

Illustration by Arthur Syzk

During World War II the man who drew the most piercing caricatures of Adolf Hitler was himself a Jew who had escaped from Nazi-dominated Europe.

Arthur Szyk, who was born in Poland in 1894 and who moved to the United States in 1941, drew international attention for his drawings that lampooned the Axis powers. His work was exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, appeared in popular magazines like Time, Collier’s and Esquire, and was reproduced on posters and postcards.

But some of Szyk ‘s work also had a religious tone, and this will be the subject of a talk by Irvin Ungar at Afikomen on Claremont Avenue on April 14th at 5:30 pm. In the 1930s, Szyk made 48 drawings to illustrate a Haggadah, the book Jews use during the Passover service. While the book recounted the Jews’ escape from Egypt and 40 years of wandering, Szyk also included a modern, political touch.

Illustration from Arthur Szyk Haggadah

In one illustration, he depicted “the wicked son” (one of the four sons used as a parable in the service) as a German man with a Hitler-like mustache. Szyk reportedly had some swastikas hidden in the illustrations as well, but his British publisher made him remove them.


The Four Sons from Arthur Szyk's Haggadah

“A Polish Jew keenly aware of current events, Szyk fused his two passions — art and history — into a visual commentary on the dangerous parallel between the Passover narrative of oppression in ancient Egypt and the alarming developments unfolding in Nazi Germany in the 1930s,” Ungar wrote on a website about the book. “The artist adopted illuminated miniature painting — an antique and nearly forgotten technique — to comment on the politics of his day. The end result is so spectacular that the words of an early reviewer still ring true: “The Szyk Haggadah is worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has produced.””

Irvin Ungar is the world’s leading collector of Szyk’s art and has spent decades promoting the artist’s work. He curated a recent exhibit of Szyk’s miniatures at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, and has helped put together shows at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Library of Congress.

Ungar’s company, Historicana, recently published a reproduction of Szyk’s Haggadah. He engaged top photographers and artisans for the project and used a new printing method to capture the intensity and brightness of the original illustrations. Ungar contracted with a German paper manufacturer to create special paper as well. Top scholars contributed commentary.

One indication of the beauty and richness of the illustrations is the price: Ungar is selling the “Deluxe Edition” of the book for $8,800. The “Premiere Edition,” with a full-leather cover, sells for $18,800.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.